11:00am PT by Paige Phelan
How to Bake a Perfect Christmas Episode
'Tis the season when crushes search for perfect presents, relatives get drunk on eggnog and that couple finally kisses under the mistletoe at a work party — all while families gather 'round the warm glow of the TV to watch all the Christmas antics unfold.
From Seinfeld's "Festivus" to Friends' "Holiday Armadillo," few sitcom episodes are as beloved by fans as a series' holiday installations. In a time of cynical TV and antiheroes, there's an earnestness and warmth to holiday episodes that can melt the coldest heart of any Grinch.
So how do you make sure you're giving a gift and not a lump of coal? The Hollywood Reporter asked executive producers behind some of today's funniest comedies — Steve Molaro (CBS' The Big Bang Theory), Dan Goor (Fox's Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and Kenya Barris (ABC's Black-ish) — to share their best tips on delivering the holiday cheer (and funny, obviously).
Step One: Know You've Got This
With network TV's production schedules, anticipation for the holidays comes long before all of the traditional signs of the season — 24-hour Christmas radio stations, Starbucks' red cups and Boy Scouts selling Christmas trees in parking lots. In fact, when most people are still on beaches enjoying their summers, these episodes are already in the cards as focal points for the show's fall season.
"In the writer's room, there's a bunch of cards that say [episode] 201, 202, 203, 204, all the way out to 223, so anytime you can put a card above one of those numbers that says something like Christmas or Thanksgiving, even though that's not actually a story, you feel like 'Ah, well, we got those,' " Goor says of the planning process. "I wish there were holidays every week of the year."
Step Two: Find a Holiday Idea You're Excited About
For his first Christmas offering, "Black Santa/White Christmas," Barris was tasked with putting his show's unique spin on the holidays with what they call "the Black-ish tinge."
Looking for an episode to be truly about something, Barris and his writers (as many do) eventually found inspiration in their own lives. "We had talked a little bit about growing up in sort of the same neighborhoods and how there's always a little competition between blacks and Latinos and how we can extend that to something as strange as a competition for playing Santa at an office."
Brooklyn Nine-Nine's holiday episode started out as two parallel ideas: a generic holiday idea and the return of Craig Robinson's Pontiac Bandit. Eventually, the writers simply combined the two. "It was like, 'Oh, what if that's Jake's (Andy Samberg) Christmas present, and then Jake can be undercover as a Santa Claus,' " Goor said of catching the elusive and famed criminal. "Jake's greatest Christmas gift of all time comes true."
Step Three: Bring Everyone Together — Even If Everything Doesn't Go As Planned
"I always feel like Parks and Rec had fantastic Christmas and holiday episodes because Mike [Schur] is such a firm believer in making it a time window in which the team comes together," Goor says of the Brooklyn Nine-Nine co-creator and Parks and Recreation showrunner.
That spirit of togetherness guided Brooklyn's first-season episode, as Goor and the writers knew that they wanted to end with the entire squad surrounding Charles Boyle's elevated, gunshot-inflicted butt in a hospital room.
However, even the purest holiday intentions can be derailed by good storytelling, Goor admits, leading to episodes where Christmas plays in the background. Nevertheless, he says, "Our Christmas episode still ends in a bar with the entire squad toasting the holidays."
Step Four: Add in the Warm and Fuzzies
"In general, you do try to tip the balance toward having at least one nice, warm moment where everyone is a family together at the end," says Goor, who lists Cheers' "Thanksgiving Orphans" and The Office's "The Christmas Party," among his holiday favorites.
It is in these moments of togetherness — gathering in a bar, exchanging presents or singing an autotuned version of "Carol of the Bells," as seen in this year's Black-ish episode — that comedies truly encompass the feel-good holiday spirit of the season.
"I think in these episodes, we might be able to get away with a little bit more heart than usual under the umbrella of 'holiday magic,' " Big Bang Theory's Molaro acknowledges.
Step Five: Don't Get Too Stressed By Expectations
With a history of unforgettable and momentous Christmas episodes speckling the pantheon of great television of the past few decades (not to mention the reduced prominence of network comedy, where these episodes are almost exclusively featured), the pressure must be on, right?
"I think it's less of a pressure and more of a trying to deliver on an expectation," Goor says. "I think it would be naive to say that fans don't expect a certain kind of feeling with a Christmas [episode]."
Goor said the pressure to create holiday episodes really comes with the fear of repeating themselves as the show suddenly jumps from creating the holidays ("What is Christmas for the Nine-Nine?") to trying to reinvent them and make each year's special.
Molaro agrees that it becomes increasingly difficult to try and top their previous work, especially when Big Bang Theory's first ever Christmas episode stands as one of the show's most beloved.
"The [Leonard Nimoy] DNA napkin is such a hugely iconic moment in the show," Molaro says of the fan-favorite episode, "It's hard to think about topping it."
Step Six: Always Bring It Back to Family
When all else fails, holiday episodes are about family — both fictional and real, producers said.
Barris, when recalling his holiday favorite episodes of all time, spoke in awe about how his kids still look forward to the same Charles Schultz Peanuts special he loved as a kid.
"It's so funny now seeing my kids look at those same shows and remember that Christmas tree and how they'd wipe their hands over it, and all of the sudden it's great," he said with a laugh. "I tell my kids when they get dirty I wish I could do that with them."
Added Goor of the benefits of bringing the holidays to TV: "It's my daughter's favorite episode of the year. I always end up being able to bring her assorted ornaments and knickknacks from the set weirdly in, like, September."
Of course, sharing the show with the entire family does merit some special considerations. As Molaro tells it, "I'm always mindful about moments relating to the existence of Santa because my kids watch the show," he said before quickly adding: "We all know he exists."