The flagship track from the Bob Rivers Comedy Corp album Twisted Christmas, 1987’s The Twelve Pains of Christmas has matured into one of the few modern classics (if you’re weird like me).
In the late 80s, Twelve Pains was one of the few songs I specifically remember waiting by the radio to hear, my finger perched atop the RECORD button on a tape recorder whose microphone sat centimeters from the radio’s speaker. If you were born after 1985- this is how we old-timers used to capture songs that we wanted to listen to on-demand. We taped them, but we couldn’t just “set them up” to record “DVR style” and then scamper away merrily, we had to listen to hours upon hours of local afternoon DJ horseshit in hopes of seizing the melodic treasure that often evaded our carefully-set cassette traps.
Once I had successfully hunted down and recorded Twelve Pains, it was spectacular. And it was a CLEAN recording too, you know those ones where you’d hit record during the half-second of dead air before the next song began? Most of the time you were wrong, but whatever other garbage song they played instead of yours you could stop recording, rewind the tape and record over. But sometimes, and OH were they special moments, you’d simultaneously hit both RECORD and THE JACKPOT and capture the exact song you were hoping for from the very beginning, ideally with no DJ banter mucking up the opening notes.
Since 1987, Pains has never lost its luster. I don’t have to listen to that clean radio recording on cassette to hear it, not because I own the CD (which I do), but because it’s still in heavy holiday radio rotation every year. It’s one of the very few Christmas songs I take note of the first time I hear it each holiday season. That’s why this year when I heard it for the first time, I knew I had to give the unsung heroes of the song their due.
So who are these poor, tortured souls? Who are the men and women who bring The Twelve Pains of Christmas to life? They’re hard-working and they’re dedicated, but they’re at wits’ end and they’re falling apart rapidly. Here now, on the eve of their 30th anniversary, a definitive power ranking of the characters in The Twelve Pains of Christmas:
#1. The “Facing My In-Laws” Lady
Body of Work: “Facing my in-laws” (trembling) | “She’s a witch, I hate her” | “Gotta make ’em dinner!”
This woman is both the glue that holds the song together, and the pulse by which the song’s heart beats. Simply put, how she goes, the song goes. Things are business as usual for the song’s first handful of characters until the “Facing My In-Laws” Lady arrives to the party.
This woman is the catalyst for the song’s story and its characters’ descent into holiday madness. She represents the sixth Christmas pain, and upon her debut in the song, the other characters begin ad-libbing, delivering progressively darker and more angry messages until the song’s conclusive low point, the eleventh pain, when she simply breaks down, resorts to name calling (“She’s a witch”) and reveals her true feelings toward her mother-in-law (“I hate her”). This is very real familial animosity and marital strain, the peak of the song’s disunity, and it’s incredible.
#2. The “Rigging Up the Lights” Guy
Body of Work: “What, we have no extension cords? | “Now why the hell are they blinking?” | “One light goes out, they all go out!” | “Get a flashlight, I blew a fuse!” | “Fine, you’re so smart, YOU rig up the lights!”
No surprise here, the “Rigging Up the Lights” Guy is sort of the Beyoncé of this Destiny’s Child. Representing the second pain, Lights Guy is the character that people remember best. He’s a savagely angry and resentful head of household, and his expressive contempt for the Christmas lights most succinctly summarizes the song’s overall message. In the eighth grade, when I asked people if they were as familiar and in love with the song as I was, “Now why the hell are they blinking?!” was the line I would use to try to spark their memory.
#3. The Choir
The choir that repeats the “5 months of bills” hook and the “Finding a Christmas tree” refrain are the loom on which the Twelve Pains tapestry is woven, and their importance cannot be overstated.
They say that rainy days are necessary because without them we wouldn’t appreciate the sunny ones. Here, the choir is our rainy day. There are no frills or improvisations in their performance, but without the choir’s unwavering and steady presence, the other characters’ collective plunge into seasonal insanity would lose some of its edge.
#4. The Crying Kid
Body of Work: “I want a Transformer for Christmas!” | “Daddy I want some candy!” | “Buy me something!” | “I gotta go to the bathroom!”
This kid is the worst. His footprint on the song is small in comparison to some of the characters who arrive earlier, but when he emerges representing the 8th pain of Christmas, his impact on the situation is mighty. With a series of increasingly irritating demands, the boy puts off anyone who’s ever had small children, been around small children, or been to a mall at Christmas time. We all hate this kid, which is why he ranks so highly.
I can dig that the little guy wanted a Transformer for Christmas in 1987- I mean, who didn’t? Doesn’t make him any less awful.
#5. The Charity Hater
Body of Work: “Salvation Army” | “Charities, and whaddya mean ‘YOUR in-laws’?” | “Donations!” | “Get a job, ya bum”
This guy is SO annoyed by the mere existence of charity (and poor people), that he simply cites “The Salvation Army” as the thing he hates most about Christmas. I like to imagine that the song’s fictional creators walked down the street one day, polling fictional random citizens about what they hate most about Christmas, the same way the Family Feud folks gathered public sentiment to plug into their “survey says” answers for the show. When they asked this guy about his holiday pet peeves, he was ecstatic to finally have an outlet in which to vent about those damn charitable organizations that have RUINED HIS LIFE.
Also factoring into The Charity Hater’s ranking: the Empire Strikes Back-level reveal that comes with his “Charities, and what do you mean, ‘YOUR in-laws’?” line. In turning his focus to the woman who’s expressed frustration with her in-laws, Charity Guy reveals that he’s married to Facing My In-Laws Lady, making them the surprise (very irritable) power couple of the Twelve Pains.
#6. The “Sending Christmas Cards” Guy
Body of Work: “Oh I hate those Christmas cards” | “Ugh, making out these cards” | “Oh I don’t even know half these people” | “I’m not sending them this year, that’s it”
The only thing worse than having friends is having to send them a piece of cardboard to tell them you’re thinking about them. This guy gets it.
#7. Hangover Guy
Body of Work: “Hangovers” | “Oh jeez” | “Edith, get me a beer heh?” | “Oh jeez, look at this” | “Who’s got the toilet paper?” | “Shut up, you”
I’ll admit, Hangover Guy lost points because he IS Archie Bunker. It’s not that I have a problem with Archie, he’s a classic sitcom character, but everyone else in the song is an original character, created solely to express hatred for things that suck at Christmas time.
Hangover Guy uses all of Archie Bunker’s signature catchphrases, and when he specifically addresses ‘Edith’ in his request for a beer, he confirms the identity of who he’s more-than-loosely based on. Bonus points, however, for calling toilet paper “terlet papah”.
#8. Four-Way Tie: “Finding Parking Spaces” Guy, “Batteries Not Included” Lady, “Stale TV Specials” Guy, The “Singing Christmas Carols” People
The final four Pains of Christmas, by comparison to the first eight, are indistinct and uninspiring. None of them are particularly funny on their own, but they do have a purpose. It’s during these final four verses that the power characters step forward and put their final and most compelling imprints on the song.
The Crying Kid completely melts down, Charity Guy insensitively implores one of the less fortunate “bums” to “get a job”, In-Laws Lady finds the final burst of adrenaline necessary to semi-cheerfully “make ’em dinnah” before she completely breaks down, and everyone else makes their final, scathing criticisms of the Christmas season. The “Finding Parking Spaces” Guy, “Batteries Not Included” Lady, “Stale TV Specials” Guy, The “Singing Christmas Carols” People are role players and table-setters for the heavy hitters- important pieces for sure, but the glory and notoriety are elsewhere assigned.
When The Twelve Pains of Christmas turns 30 next year, it will mark three decades of hilarious but accurate illumination of the suckiest aspects of being an adult during the Christmas season, but the song’s message remains intact: How much more would the holidays suck if we couldn’t laugh about how much the holidays suck?
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