Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer
December 19th, 2012
Todd plays "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" on the piano
ELMO & PATSY - "GRANDMA GOT RUN OVER BY A REINDEER"
A one-hit wonder retrospective
Todd: Welcome back to One Hit Wonderland, where we take a look at the full careers of artists who are known for only one song. And this week, we're... doing a...a special holiday edition. And I'm feelin' pretty Christmas-y, aren't you? I even got a...Christmas tree up and everything. [beat] Actually, uh...my roommates put that up. They're...they were making a big deal about it. None of those presents are for me. I checked. Not that I got anything for them either. You know, they don't...they don't really talk to me much...except when I'm late on rent. And...I think they said they wanted to do something Christmas-related with each other before they go home for the holidays. I'm...I'm not going anywhere, I'm just staying here. [beat] I'm really not much of a Christmas person.
- Christmas shopping montage set against Amy Grant - "Sleigh Ride"
- Amy Grant: Just hear those sleigh bells jingling
- Ring-ting-tingling too
Todd (VO): I don't know when I became so much of a Scrooge, but most Christmas music just doesn't do it for me anymore. I mean, it used to before I heard them all a zillion times. Nowadays, I think I associate Christmas music with Christmas shopping, and I hate shopping.
- Video for Lady Antebellum - "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas"
- Hillary Scott: Have a holly jolly Christmas
Todd (VO): Just never changes, this music. Just the same songs over and over again. There's...there's just nothing new to say about it, and even if you did write a new Christmas song, I probably heard billions just like it. We've exhausted all possible ways to write Christmas music. And as proof, I would point out that as far as thirty years ago...
Todd: ...Christmas music started getting weird.
- Video for Elmo & Patsy - "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"
- Elmo: Grandma got run over by a reindeer
Todd (VO): Yes, today for One Hit Wonderland, we are looking at a holiday classic. One of the few post-Baby-Boomer additions to the accepted canon of Christmas music—the jolliest, most festive song about vehicular manslaughter.
Todd: This is a song about murder.
Todd (VO): Yeah, you realize that, right? Kids and families have all been laughing and singing along with a song about a loved one's violent, painful death. Just so we're all clear on that, right?
Todd: Yeah...I have to know how this happened.
Todd (VO): And I have to know what the deal is behind Elmo & Patsy, the two freaks weird enough to want to sing this song. How do you get in the business of singing morbid holiday novelty music?
Todd: Well, let's find out. Yes, everyone, it's time to celebrate the holly jolly holiday with some holly jolly homicide. So let's get in the Christmas-y, grannie-killing spirit. Ho ho ho!
Before the fame
Todd: Our story begins with Merle Haggard.
- Clip of Merle Haggard performing "If We Make It Through December"
- Merle: If we make it through December
Todd (VO): In 1973, he released a Christmas album including the stone classic, "If We Make It Through December". But we're not talking about that song, but instead, a less-than-two-minute-long piece of album filler called "Grandma's Homemade Christmas Card".
- Album cover of Merle Haggard's Christmas Present, as "Grandma's Homemade Christmas Card" plays
- Merle: Grandma's homemade Christmas card from long ago
- Hangs proudly in the tree top with the tinsel snow
Todd (VO): Spoilers—Grandma's dead at the end. [Clip of Randy Brooks playing "I'd Rather Be Sailin' (With Governor Palin)"] This plot development pissed off songwriter Randy Brooks, who decided to save everyone some time by writing a song where you're not blindsided by a dead grandma in the final verse because Grandma's dead right at the beginning. Now you can have a whole song about dead Grandma. Isn't that great? Brooks wrote down this joke song and started playing small hotels and clubs.
Todd: One night at the Lake Tahoe Hyatt, he also shared the stage with one [album cover of Will You Be Ready?] Elmo and Patsy Shropshire, a husband-and-wife bluegrass team who [the couple on back of single cover] did performing on the side. This is, for the record, exactly what I expected them to look like. [Pictures of Elmo] Elmo's day job was as a vet, he...he grew up taking care of racehorses. In the 70s, he moved from Kentucky to San Francisco and started an animal hospital. Nice-seeming guy. He and his wife played music on the side. [Single cover of "Grandma..."] In 1979, Elmo and Patsy heard this song, liked it, and asked Randy Brooks if they could perform it themselves. And they did. They recorded it in 1979 and put it out on their own record label. And...in a sane world, no one would have listened to it, and that's where the story would end.
- Clip of Good Morning America piece about the song.
Todd (VO): But that's not what happened.
- Gene Nelson: I was always looking for something that was offbeat, funny...
- John Berman: It's all thanks to a San Francisco DJ.
Todd (VO): It started getting airplay in San Francisco country music stations, where it was immediately controversial, with some people hating it for its morbid subject matter, others thinking it was absolutely hilarious. And it started spreading from there to other country stations, and then to pop stations, until it somehow became a ubiquitous Christmas staple, becoming the #1 Christmas single of 1983, 1984, and 1985.
- Elmo: Some people loved it and some people hated it.
Todd (VO): It also frequently pops up on lists of most-hated Christmas songs of all time, only getting edged out [clip of...] by the singing dogs version of "Jingle Bells".
Todd: Really? Who could dislike this song? Well, let's find out.
The big hit
Todd: You know, as a kid, I didn't even realize this song was about death.
- Elmo: Grandma got run over by a reindeer
Todd: I mean, I got that Grandma got run over, but I didn't realize she was actually, honest-to-God dead.
- Elmo: You can say there's no such thing as Santa
- But as for me and Grandpa, we believe
Todd (VO): But...but yeah, she's really quite very dead in this. It wasn't a quiet, painless death either.
- Elmo: At the scene of the attack
- She had hoof-prints on her forehead
Todd: Okay, um...I'm just gonna drop the sarcasm. I think this song is terrible. Actually, I don't even know if that goes far enough. I think this might be my least-favorite Christmas song of all time.
- Elmo: She'd been drinking too much eggnog
Todd (VO): I'm not sure how I can explain, but this song just kind of fills me with...dread. It...it starts and my skin starts crawling, and I get nervous and kind of nauseous. There's just something about this song that just disturbs me, like...like, really deep down.
Todd: Now, it's not that I don't like dark or weird things. I like dark Christmas music. I like...
- Clips of...
Todd (VO): I like the Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack, and the Killers have a song called "Don't Shoot Me, Santa" that I really enjoy, and of course, there's Weird Al's "Christmas at Ground Zero", which is a holiday must-listen. So it's...it's not that it's dark that bothers me about this.
Todd: I think part of the reason what's wrong with it is just how...deeply unfunny it is.
- Elmo: Should we open up her gifts or send them back
- Chorus: Send them back!
Todd (VO): Elmo and Patsy's vocals are just...actually, I don't think Patsy sings on this at all. I wonder if she still gets royalties. But anyway, Elmo sings this in this voice that's just this strangling, browbeating, forced humor, like a parody of a kids show host. I...I feel like I'm constantly being violently elbowed in the ribs, you know.
Todd: Heh-heh, heh-heh. Get it? Get it?
- Elmo: And the blue and silver candles
- That would just have matched the hair in Grandma's wig.
Todd (VO): And it's not like I have no experience with corny-ass bluegrass music either. I've...I've listening to quite a bit of Ray Stevens in my day.
- Clip of Ray Stevens - "The Streak"
- Ray Stevens: Oh yes, they call him the Streak
- Look at that, look at that
- He likes to show off his physique
Todd (VO): Ray Stevens is probably who Elmo was trying to emulate here, but...he's much less funny.
Todd: This, as you can imagine, is a very serious criticism.
- Elmo: Grandma got run over...
Todd (VO): And also, of course, the crappy, chintzy Casio production doesn't help any, especially that endlessly repeating "Jingle Bell" riff. [imitating] Dun-dun-dun, dun-dun-dun, dun-dun-dun, dun-dun-dun
- Elmo: Now we're all so proud of Grandpa
- He's been taking this so well
- See him in there watching football
Todd: So is the implication here that Grandpa framed Santa and killed Granny himself, or did he just passively loathe his wife and is happy she's gone? You decide!
Todd (VO): I think my problem most of all with this song is just...is just how it doesn't seem to realize how dark the joke actually is. Ha-ha, she's dead! Get it? Like, isn't this a wacky turn on the holiday spirit? No, it's not wacky, it's just upsetting.
Todd: I had the exact same reaction to A Christmas Story, by the way.
- Clips from A Christmas Story
Todd (VO): Isn't it funny that his tongue got stuck to a pole, and that Grandma's dead? No, not really, no. It's just kind of disturbing and wrong.
Hell, even the video is off-putting. It looks like a John Waters movie.
- Elmo: They should never give a license
- To a man who drives a sleigh and plays with elves
Todd (VO): I don't get it. Why not? What's wrong with sleighs or elves? Why is that so bad that you don't deserve a driver's license? What have you got against elves?
Todd: Ugh! [Waves off to finish the segment]
The failed follow-up
Todd: Can we really call anything they did after this a failure? I mean, "failure" implies that they could've succeeded, and I'm not sure that's true. I mean, there's not exactly a [clip from American Bandstand] huge market for musical comedy, especially not back in the 80s and 90s. There was Weird Al, and...there was what? No one, right? Well anyway, they did in fact record another song with an actual music video and everything. And again, I think the joke was darker than they were prepared to deal with. It's called "The Doomsday Waltz".
- Video for "Doomsday Waltz"
- Dr. Elmo: Did you have to wait 'til Doomsday to say "I love you"?
- Did you have to wait 'til the missiles were in the air
Todd (VO): Ah, here's another fun little piece of Cold War paranoia straight from the atomic cafe. Actually, I think that's a pretty decent premise for a song. It's funnier than Grandma getting run over, at least. But, much like their first song, "Doomsday Waltz" is funny for exactly one line, and after that, you can just go ahead and ignore the rest. I mean, it doesn't really escalate like "Christmas at Ground Zero", which only got more gleefully, dementedly wrong as it continues.
- Dr. Elmo: Don't open your heart 'til just before an H-bomb blast
Todd (VO): Considering that Patsy's website proudly says that this song got played once on The Today Show, I'm going to assume it didn't do all that well on MTV...or anywhere.
Todd: Also, speaking of failed followups, Elmo and Patsy divorced in 1985.
- Girl: Better too late than never
Did they ever do anything else?
Todd: Do I really have to do this? Okay, after the divorce, Patsy went on to do...I don't know, something or other.
- YouTube video of Googling Geezer
Todd (VO): No, actually, I read Patsy's website, says she did a lot of commercials, and after the breakup, she bounced around various jobs as a music teacher, a DJ, an auctioneer. And while Elmo appears to own most of the legacy of "Grandma", Patsy seems to have taken charge of the song's B-side—"Percy, the Puny Poinsettia".
- Clip of dancing Percy singing with song
- Percy: Percy the puny poinsettia
Todd (VO): Turning it into a children's book, and also this monstrosity.
- Poinsettia: My leaves have never been redder
- Clip of Patsy performing with Santa
Todd (VO): After a long hiatus, she got back into recording holiday novelty music again. I...I don't really recommend it. She also seems like she's the kind of person who will eventually see this video, so I'd like to say that she seems like a nice lady who's lived a very interesting life...
Todd: ...and has accomplished more than you or I ever will.
- Video for "Grandma's Killer Fruitcake"
Todd (VO): While Patsy mostly retired from music for a long time, Elmo kept going as a solo act, calling himself Dr. Elmo. Yeah, I'm not sure if success was ever going to be possible on a scale of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer", but Elmo has certainly tried with many other holiday novelty singles, none of which ever got much play, like this one about fruitcake.
- Dr. Elmo: It was harder than the head of Uncle Bucky
- Heavier than a sermon of Preacher Lucky
- One's enough to give the whole state of Kentucky a great big belly ache
Todd (VO): Ah, fruitcake jokes. You ever even seen a holiday fruitcake? Think they went extinct decades ago.
- Dr. Elmo performing "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer
In addition to "Grandma's Killer Fruitcake", he also recorded such songs as "Grandpa's Gonna Sue the Pants Off of Santa" and, uh..."Don't Make Me Sing That Grandma Song Again". There were thematic similarities in his work, is what I'm saying here.
- Clip of the animated adaptation
- Narrator: No place was busier than my grandma's store.
Todd (VO): In 2002, he also managed to turn the song into the perennial holiday favorite TV special of the same name. Apparently, a lot of people have watched this on Cartoon Network over the years. I had never heard of it, I tried watching it, and...you know what? I have a pretty strong stomach as far as bad movies go, but I made it through about five minutes before I turned it off. I did get to see Grandma get trampled though. [Clip of Grandma getting run over by Santa] That's pretty funny.
Did they deserve better?
Todd...just sits there quietly
- Elmo: Grandma got run over by a reindeer
- Walking home from our house Christmas Eve
Todd: This episode was a mistake.
Todd (VO): This is...this is not what this show is supposed to be about. I was...I was expecting to cover underrated real artists, and novelty holiday songs are as far from real artists as I can get. Putting this episode together was torturous. I don't ever want to listen to this song ever again.
- Elmo: Sing it, Grandpa
Todd (VO): God, I think I'm somehow even less in the Christmas spirit than I was when I started. I just want this all to be over. Can we just skip to Groundhog Day?
Todd: Blegh. You know what? There's only one Christmas song I ever want to hear again for the holidays. [beat] You know what it is.
- Video for Justin Bieber - "Mistletoe"
- Justin: With you under the mistletoe
Todd: Now, that song's gonna stick around forever. I'm Todd In The Shadows wishing you a happy holiday where a loved one is not recklessly killed by a folkloric holiday figure. Merry Christmas to all.
- Grandpa: Merry Christmas
Closing tag song: Less Than Jake - "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"
"Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" is owned by Sony BMG
This video is owned by me
- The special actually aired in 2000, not 2002.