Stephen Colbert the thesp-comic loves TV Christmas specials. Never missed 'em when he was a kid: Andy Williams, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," etc.
TV's Stephen Colbert is a reverent Christian and, of course, proud foot soldier in the war on Christmas, fighting the scourge of "happy holidays" and "season's greetings" in public schools, department stores, city halls and wherever else the PC police may patrol.
Put the two sides of Colbert together, throw in seven original songs, a few pounds of fake snow, six notable guest stars and -- shazam! -- you've got a very funny Christmas spesh. "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!" bows Sunday at 10 p.m. on Comedy Central.
"We tried to make it strangely sincere, but also sincerely strange," Colbert says.
"The Colbert Report's" frontman is always raving about "how there's a war on Christmas and we've got to do something about it. So how would he fight the war on Christmas? He'd have a Christmas special," Colbert explains.
Colbert had no interest in ripping into Christmas itself or even all of the materialistic nonsense that it brings. He wanted to poke fun at the conventions of Christmas TV specials and some of the cliches of the holiday season (there's a running gag about mistletoe, natch). But more than anything else -- he just wanted to sing.
"I like to sing. I sing with my guests whenever I can on the show," Colbert says.
To unleash his inner Bing Crosby, Colbert lined up Elvis Costello, Feist, Toby Keith John Legend, Willie Nelson and Jon Stewart to perform with him on the show. It didn't take any arm-twisting to get Stewart on board this musical train.
"He's dying to croon. I told him I was doing a Christmas special and he said 'I'd love to.'"
Colbert first got the notion to do a Christmas spesh last year. He recruited the guests and enlisted his longtime writing pal David Javerbaum, exec producer of "The Daily Show," to pen the lyrics for the songs.
"We wrote together for years (on 'Daily Show') and we wanted to do something together again," Colbert says. "I knew he wrote music so when I decided to do the special, we said 'Let's do it together.'"
But then Colbert got a he got a little over-extended, between plotting his short-lived presidential bid and promoting his book "I Am America (And So Can You!)."
So the spesh was postponed a year, but to Colbert's delight, none of the talent dropped out. Songwriter Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne (and a tunesmith on the recent Rialto adaptation of "Cry Baby") was brought in to collaborate with Javerbaum on the songs.
Writing the script was a treat for Colbert and his scribes, many of whom come out of the Second City school and enjoyed writing longer narrative scenes than those that are typically presented on "Colbert Report," Colbert notes.
"A Colbert Christmas" was shot in mid-August and early September on the same stage where "The Colbert Report" is taped. (Keen-eyed viewers will remember that there were a few segs from around that time where Colbert never left the desk for Q&A segs with guests, because that half of his set was being used for the Christmas spesh.)
The guest stars were uniformly good-humored about the goofy/spoofy-ness of their segments. Country singer Keith made fun of his "boot-up-your-ass angry American character" of his songs with the pointed "Have I Got a Present for You." Legend sent up his sexy and soulful persona with a lascivious ode to "Nutmeg."
Costello was a great sport in taking on the most extensive role (and the most costume changes) in the spesh. Stewart brought in an interfaith component in making his neighbor a spiritual-swap offer of "Can I Interest You in Hannukah?" (The answer is no, as Colbert responds in the song: I'll keep Jesus/ you keep your potato pancakes/But I hope that you enjoy 'em/on behalf of all the goyim.)
But it was the Red-Headed Stranger (aka Nelson) who gave Colbert the touching Bing Crosby-David Bowie moment that he yearned for in their duet on "The Little Dealer Boy."
You three wise men/ please demur/ Behold a plant/ that smokes more sweetly/than either frankincense or myrrh.
Through the magic of digital editing, the entire group comes together for a spirited rendition of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." (The guests were never in the same room together during the filming.)
"As we were working on it I reminded everyone that I didn't want this to be a cynical take on Christmas. It's silly and stupid and egotistical at times, but it is not cynical," Colbert says of the special. "I didn't want this to leave anybody with a bad taste in their mouth."
Hence the closing number is a love song to the holiday, "There are Much Worse Things to Believe In," performed as a Colbert-Costello duet at the piano.
Part of the proceeds from DVD sales of the spesh (and there's a big honking red-light-flashing plug for the DVD built right in to the special) and the sales of the soundtrack on iTunes will be donated to the non-profit org Feeding America (formerly known as Second Harvest).
Having realized his Yuletide dream, Colbert's fondest wish is that "A Colbert Christmas" will become a TV perennial, like his other faves, and that the songs will weave their way into the fabric of Christmas celebrations from coast to coast.
"Hopefully, we'll be singing these songs for years," he says, earnestly.