“Christmas With the Joker” is closer to typical Saturday morning fare than the series pilot. The episode would be a disappointment, but for introducing the Joker as voiced by Mark Hamill.
Voice casting director Andrea Romano had difficulty casting the Joker, as too many actors mimicked the camp Cesar Romero brought to the 1966 TV series. Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Hunt For Red October) was initially cast, but dismissed during pre-production for reasons which seem to vary according to whom is asked.
Hamill, a comics fan, sought an audition for the series after reading about the creative team’s intent in the trades. However, he resisted reading for the Joker, given the stamp Romero and Jack Nicholson already had put on the role.
Nevertheless, Hamill threw himself into the reading, believing the man always known as Luke Skywalker would never be cast as the arch-villain. He was mistaken; the catalog of laughs he developed for a stage run of Amadeus sealed the deal. Thus, the episode opens with Hamill caroling the parody of “Jingle Bells (Batman Smells)” as the Joker escapes Arkham Asylum during a party, riding a rocket disguised as a Christmas tree.
In the Batcave, Batman confers with Robin (Loren Lester), his first appearance of the series. Dick Grayson is aged a notch beyond Boy Wonder. A college-aged Robin will be able to act in ways that might be censored otherwise.
Batman presses Robin into an immediate search for the escaped lunatic, over Grayson’s suggestion that they watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Wayne has never seen the yuletide classic and presumes it to be saccharine. In this brief but funny exchange, Grayson is established as a softening influence on Wayne’s more grim, obsessive nature.
They patrol Gotham, but turn up only false alarms. For example, a rough-looking man seems to be stalking an elderly woman, but is revealed to be returning a wrapped package she dropped on the prior block. (The scene is likely an homage to Harlan Ellison’s classic Bat-story, “The Night of Thanks, But No Thanks!“)
Returning to Wayne Manor,”It’s a Wonderful Life” is pre-empted by the Joker, who stages his own Christmas special, clad in a red holiday cardigan like a demented Bing Crosby. He has taken Commissioner Gordon, Det. Bullock and tabloid TV reporter Summer Gleeson (Mari Devon) as hostages, referring to them as “The Awful Lawful Family.” The Joker plans to murder them at midnight. (Gleeson is not introduced well here, perhaps an artifact of the production order differing from the order episodes actually aired.)
As Batman and Robin search for the source of the transmission, the Joker uses a Gotham-themed model train set to introduce a segment in which his henchmen – Donner and Blitzen – blow up the Presidents’ Bridge as the 11:30 train approaches. The Batmobile intercepts the train. Robin detaches the passenger compartments; Batman evacuates the engineer just before the engine plummets through the wrecked track to a fiery end.
The dynamic duo traces the broadcast signal to an observatory. The Joker has converted the structure’s dome to a gun turret, which fires upon Batman – and later randomly on Gotham. While Batman draws fire, Robin enters the observatory and survives a row of weaponized Joker mannequins to destroy the big gun with a detonator.
Batman destroys the presumed antenna, but the broadcast continues. After the Joker forces Gleeson to open a package containing a vintage “Betty Blooper” doll (an homage to Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop), Batman deduces the Joker must be at the Laffco toy factory which once manufactured the dolls.
Inside the darkened factory, Batman and Robin repel attacks by giant toy soldiers as the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” plays over the intercom system. They also knock down a wing of toy airplanes piloted by mini-Jokers to another Nutcracker tune, “The Russian Dance.” Donner and Blitzen fire on Batman with machine guns, but Batman uses a giant teddy bear as a decoy before toppling them with it.
Curtains part, revealing the Joker, who has suspended his hostages above a vat of molten plastic. He threatens to cut the rope unless Batman opens his Christmas gift. Though Robin fears the worst, when Batman opens the gift he is merely struck in the face by a spring-loaded cream pie as the Joker cackles. The Caped Crusader then advances on the Joker, who severs the rope. Batman makes an acrobatic leap to cast the hostages out of harm’s way.
Batman seizes the Joker, who wriggles free because he was wearing multiple Christmas sweaters. The Clown Prince of Crime hustles along a factory catwalk, but slips on a roller-skate and is saved by Batman from falling into the molten plastic. Batman wishes the Joker a Merry Christmas, to which he replies, “Bah, humbug!”
The evening ends with Wayne and Grayson settling in to watch a recording of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” while a straight-jacketed Joker sings “Deck the Halls” to himself in an Arkham cell.
“Christmas With the Joker” relies much more on its action sequences that Batman’s detective skills. Nevertheless, the first look at the Batman-Robin relationship is intriguing. Moreover, this episode’s portrayal of the Joker is notable above and beyond Hamill’s voice work. Batman’s main adversary is established here as less camp than Romero’s version, but less psychopathic than in some of the comics and less anarchic than Heath Ledger’s later take in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
This version of the Clown Prince of Crime is perhaps most reminiscent of Nicholson’s performance in Tim Burton’s first Batman film. He is a showman who must amuse himself above and beyond his potentially murderous antics. The hostage scheme also offers the Joker more than one opportunity to note that (like Batman) he lacks a family.