“A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!”
Sunday at 10 p.m.
Comedy Central

Courtesy of Comedy Central

3 out of 5 stars

A Christmas special from Stephen Colbert — America’s favorite faux-ultra-conservative “newsman” — was long overdue. Literally.

Colbert had planned to do a special last year, but his book release, semi-serious bid for the presidency (sponsored, of course, by Doritos) and the writers’ strike kept it at bay. The delay clearly left him feeling antsy — “A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!” premieres this Sunday, over a month before Christmas. It’s a romp that will probably pass by without consequence. The show leaves something to be desired, but Colbert’s tireless energy helps fuse together its disparate parts.

Comprised of an odd combination of parody and patronage to the usual Christmas special shtick, the episode finds Colbert trapped in his cabin in the wilderness, afraid to leave due to an angry bear trolling outside. But thankfully, the bear doesn’t prevent special guests — Toby Keith, Willie Nelson, John Legend, Feist, Elvis Costello and Colbert’s comedic other-half, Jon Stewart — from dropping by and singing songs.

Besides simply providing an excuse for Colbert to sing along with some big names (all of whom appeared on “The Colbert Report” in recent weeks and apparently taped their segments at the same time), the special also has the decidedly irreverent twinge that drives everything Colbert does. The songs are supposed to satirize holiday-themed debates like the alleged war on Christmas, its ongoing territorial skirmishes with Hanukkah and the prayer/patience dichotomy that’s probably bothered everyone at some point.

Much of the lampooning hits the mark. Especially effective are Feist’s hilarious recorded message as an angel on God’s prayer line and Stewart’s attempt to sell Colbert on a different holiday. (Stewart sings: “Can I interest you in Hanukkah, maybe something in a festival of lights?” Colbert responds: “I’m trying to see me as a Jew, I’m trying even harder / But I believe in Jesus Christ, so it’s a real non-starter.”)

Several of the show’s send-ups, however, labor somewhere between sophomoric and badly miscalculated. John Legend’s innuendo-laced ode to nutmeg (from which the cleanest line is: “I’m going to cover you with my nutmeg”) may be funny but serves only as a senseless distraction. Funnier, but equally out of place, is Willie Nelson’s solemn yet disturbing portrayal of a fourth wise man in the nativity scene, singing a hymn for his “wonder weed.”

While some songs come across as crass or underdeveloped, there’s one that goes far beyond that. There is nothing even remotely ironic about a gun-toting Toby Keith lashing out in song at “the enemies of Christmas” (“Separate Church and State, that’s what some liberal said / I say it’s time we separated him from his head”). Sentiment like that is just not funny from a person who probably believes every word of it; you don’t even need the ample imagery of fire-bombed houses and nuclear explosions to be disturbed.

The special has little substance and only a few well-executed segments, but Colbert’s off-the-wall enthusiasm and showmanship keeps it all entertaining. He has proven himself as perhaps the foremost among the many figures wryly chronicling the socio-political absurdity unique to our time, and this ho-hum special will do nothing to tarnish his standing.

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