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And the Joker Got Away: An Oral History of ‘Christmas with the Joker’

Mark Hamill, Kevin Conroy and producer Paul Dini reflect on the Joker’s first appearance in ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ and how it set the definitive tone for the Batman vs. Joker rivalry

The holiday season of 1992 was a festive time at Gotham City’s Arkham Asylum. The inmates had gathered for a Christmas party, and they took part in decorating and caroling. When they got to “Jingle Bells,” however, the Joker broke into the classic “Jingle bells, Batman smells” version. Next, the Clown Prince of Crime was handed the star for the Christmas tree, but when he placed it at the top, the tree emitted a blast from the base and began to launch like a rocket. Joker then jumped onto the tree and rode it into the sky. The Joker had escaped from Arkham Asylum, just in time to terrorize Gotham for the holidays.

That was the beginning of “Christmas with the Joker,” the second episode of the landmark cartoon Batman: The Animated Series and the first to feature Batman’s most famous villain. Along with Tim Burton’s first Batman film and comics like Batman: The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: The Animated Series helped to revitalize Batman for a new generation, leaving behind the campy humor of Adam West’s Batman and bringing forth a more serious take. More than a generation later, Batman: The Animated Series is still widely considered to be the best, most important Batman cartoon ever, and it’s informed nearly every take on Batman since. 

Moreover, with Kevin Conroy as the Caped Crusader and Mark Hamill as the Clown Prince of Crime, Batman: The Animated Series developed into what many consider to be the definitive version of the Batman/Joker rivalry, so much so that those two actors have revived the characters many times since the cartoon concluded in both video games and animated films. It all started, though, with “Christmas with the Joker,” which set the tone for the relationship throughout the series and beyond. 

Here to talk about that episode — as well as the larger Batman/Joker dynamic — are Hamill, Conroy, producer Paul Dini and several others who brought the not-so-heartwarming holiday story to life.

Kevin Conroy, Batman in Batman: The Animated Series: When I got cast as Batman, it was an amazing, lucky moment. I’d been working as an actor for over 10 years — mostly as a New York actor in the theater — and I just happened to be in L.A. for a pilot. My agent told me that they were doing this Batman cartoon, and while I knew nothing about animation, they’d asked me to audition. 

They’d seen over 500 people for Batman, and were looking for months. They couldn’t find the right voice. When I came in to audition, [producer] Bruce Timm asked me, “What do you know about Batman?” and I said, “I know the Adam West show from when I was a kid.” He immediately said, “No, no, no! We all love Adam West, but that’s not what we’re doing!” 

He then asked me if I knew anything about the tragic backstory of Batman and, honestly, I didn’t. He brought me up to speed, explaining that Batman’s parents were murdered when he was a child and how Bruce Wayne became the Batman. Hearing all that, I thought of Hamlet. Batman is this character with a dual identity who lives in the shadows and is living to avenge his parents’ death — I’d also done Hamlet two years before at The Public Theater — so, to me, Batman’s story sounded like a modernized version of that.

I put myself in the head of that boy who watched his parents get murdered, and my voice got darker and deeper and huskier. I went to this dark place, and began performing with that voice, and they essentially hired me on the spot. 

Mark Hamill, The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series: Kevin Conroy is just so perfect as Batman. That voice is like a massage on the back of your neck, it’s so rich and textured. When I became Joker — which was well after Kevin was cast as Batman — it became this partnership with the two of us. It was like a Laurel and Hardy kind of thing. The chemistry is so perfect with the two of us. Hot and cold, grounded and unhinged — it’s a nice contrast.

Paul Dini, writer and producer on Batman: The Animated Series: With Batman: The Animated Series, we wanted to do a classic version of Batman and the Joker, but we specifically didn’t want to do an origin story for the Joker. As far as we know, Batman and the Joker have been going at it for quite a while, which I think helped put him on equal footing with Batman. You come in knowing that Batman is this grim, dark guy who shows up at night and protects Gotham, and Joker is his opposite. He shows up funny and friendly, and then mayhem, death and madness ensue.

There have been all sorts of versions of the Joker. There have been very campy and cartoony Jokers, and there have been versions that have been terrifying. Then there was the famous version from The Killing Joke by Alan Moore, which is, I think, the one that really defined the Batman/Joker relationship for a lot of comic fans and casual readers. I’ve always said that if you don’t want to read the monthly books, but you want to get a sense of these characters, there’s probably no better primer than The Killing Joke.

But The Killing Joke was a one-shot, and we were looking to do the Joker as a regular villain, so we knew we needed another way of handling him. There were things about every version of the Joker that we liked — from Dick Sprang’s comical Joker to Neal Adamsreinvention of the character in the 1970s to Frank Miller’s version. I wrote a lot of the Joker’s stories in Batman: The Animated Series, and in my mind, he was always somebody who could turn on a dime. He could get you laughing along with him — the jokes would be funny and he’d be kind of engaging and have this charismatic side — then you’d notice that there’s a knife sticking in your belly. 

We went that way in a few stories, and in other stories, he was a bit more comical. In the film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, it was maybe the clearest version of what we were going for because it was a theatrical film and we weren’t constrained by the rules of children’s programming.

As for “Christmas with the Joker,” we thought it would be great to take the Joker and put him in a holiday setting because he’s the last person you’d want to see in a setting that speaks of family, warmth and friendship. So, after his escape, we had Joker take over the TVs of Gotham and reveal that he’s kidnapped some prominent Gothamites. While some of our episodes were adaptations of certain comic books, no specific comic informed this story — though there are many stories where he takes over the TV, which goes all the way back to the Joker’s first appearance in 1940, where his voice is being broadcast over the radios in Gotham.

I suggested Eddie Gorodetsky to write the episode. I’ve known him a long time — since we went to Emerson College together — and he’s one of the funniest comedy writers I know. He also loves Batman, and he has a particular fondness for a very skewed take on Christmas. Every year, from about 1989 until the mid-2000s, Eddie would send his friends his own Christmas mixtape which had the strangest, but most wonderful Christmas music. So I wanted Eddie for this episode because he had such an affinity for these elements.

Eddie Gorodetsky, writer of “Christmas with the Joker”: In college, Paul and I had bonded over movies from the 1940s, and when he told me about this new Batman show he was doing, he showed me this sizzle reel and I was so impressed. I don’t know Bruce Timm, but I want to give a shoutout to his artwork because what he did with Batman was mind-boggling. As much as we all love Adam West, my heart was always with the noir-esque Batman. That’s what they brought back to the character, and just being able to be a part of that was great.

Dini: It came out to be a really fun episode. The designs by Bruce and the team were spot-on, Kent Butterworth’s direction was fun and Eddie’s script had a nice bite to it. There was one really funny exchange — it was when Robin is trying to get Batman to watch It’s a Wonderful Life, and Batman says, “I’ve never seen it. I could never get past the title.” That was just a perfect comment for Batman to make. 

Hamill: “Christmas with the Joker” had so many elements that I loved. Anytime a villain commandeers a television station, that’s a great storytelling device. It also had a lot of sly humor in it. When I saw that they were going to have the Joker host a Christmas special in a red sweater like Perry Como, I thought it was so hilariously perverse — it was just a delight. 

Joker is really in his element in that episode. He’s on camera, he got to sing “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” and he got to ride a Christmas tree! What an exit! That episode really highlighted one of my favorite aspects about my version of the Joker — that he just really loves what he’s doing. The Joker takes great joy in his work. Anyone can rob a bank, but the Joker is a performance artist.

Conroy: “Christmas with the Joker” is a crazy episode. You can’t describe that episode to anyone, it’s like an acid trip. He rides a Christmas tree out of Arkham, then he’s on TV in a sweater holding Commissioner Gordon over a vat of acid — it’s wild. The only sense I could make of it was that it was the writer’s tribute to The Nutcracker. The Nutcracker is a crazy fantasy — with all these sugar plum fairies and nutcrackers talking and dancing — it doesn’t make any sense. To me, “Christmas with the Joker” is the Joker’s Nutcracker. No wonder it’s a fan favorite.

Kent Butterworth, director of “Christmas with the Joker”: This was just the second episode produced and the style and tone for the series was still evolving at this early stage. Bruce Timm’s design concept of the Joker also evolved during the production. Tim Curry was originally cast as the Joker, and his performance was much slower and laid back. He was later replaced with Mark Hamill who brought a special genius to the character.

Conroy: Tim Curry had done the Joker for a few episodes before he was replaced. He’s a wonderful actor, and I didn’t understand why they were replacing him until I saw what Mark Hamill did with the role. Tim was dark and scary, but then Mark came in and he was dark and funny. With Tim, there was a real danger to the character, while Mark was a Joker everyone could laugh with, even though he was psychotic.

Hamill: After Star Wars, I’d gone to Broadway to take advantage of the character parts that were available there. I did the first national tour of Amadeus, and then I did it on Broadway. I also wound up getting a Drama Desk nomination for Harrigan ‘N Hart. My point is, I wanted to do things that were outside the box and nothing like the character in Star Wars. With that, I’d read about the talent they were assembling for Batman: The Animated Series. I’m a fan of Batman comics, so I told my agent I’d like to be involved. They immediately gave me a role in the first Mr. Freeze episode, “Heart of Ice,” where I played a two-faced — no pun intended — businessman.

When I read it, I was struck by what a melancholy, poignant script it was. When I was there recording, I saw the artwork for the show and I was very enthusiastic. I also met Bruce Timm and [casting director and voice director] Andrea Romano and all the people I’d go on to have a long relationship with. I just let my fanboy flag fly with questions: “Are you going to do characters that haven’t been done before, like Ra’s Al Ghul and Two-Face and Clayface?” “Are you going to do episodes where there is no villain?” The Adam West show always had a villain as the guest star, but Batman has such a diversity of stories to tell. 

Anyway, I think they knew I had credentials in terms of knowing and loving the material, and I don’t remember how much time went by — maybe a month or two — before my agent called me and said, “They want you to audition for the Joker.” This was right after the controversy of the fans rebelling against the casting of Michael Keaton as Batman [for the Tim Burton movie], and of course, they were all proven wrong when he was so effective in the role. Now, I would’ve loved to play the Joker, but I knew it would be a public relations disaster if it was announced that Luke Skywalker, an icon of virtue, was going to play one of the greatest icons in villainy. So, figuring this would be a much bigger backlash, I went into the audition thinking, “Well, it’s too bad they can’t cast me,” and “I’m going to make them feel really sorry that they can’t.” As a result, I was really relaxed during the audition, which helped my performance. I just went in and let it rip.

On the audition script, it said: “Don’t think Nicholson.” All I had to inform my performance was this one drawing I’d seen of Joker during the “Heart of Ice” recording. Rendered in black and white, it was Joker holding up one finger with that huge mouth of teeth. In addition to that, I had done Amadeus for nearly a year, and while you can’t change lines in a Broadway show, you can find ways to keep it fresh for yourself. One of the things I used to do with Amadeus was play around with the laugh because it was required in the script that Mozart had a laugh that was totally incongruous to the celestial music he wrote. So, I had this arsenal of laughs for the Joker. 

Years later, I asked Andrea, “What got me the part?” and she said, “Immediately, when we heard your laugh, that was it.”

Dini: I remember he did the voice really well. It was distinctive, yet totally right and I could see that voice coming out of Bruce’s design for the character. Then he did the laugh — it was chilling, it was dark, it was cold, there was something a little lost about it, almost as though there was an element of tragedy to it. It was so multi-layered, and I remember when Bruce played the laugh for me, I said, “That’s the guy.”

Hamill: I got the part because I was relaxed, but once I got it, I went 180 degrees in the other direction. I told my agent, “I can’t do this! I don’t want to play a character that’s been done before!” Everyone has an idea of how they think the Joker should sound — he’s almost too high profile. So I was already freaking out, and then an actress friend of mine said to me, “That’s pretty brave of you, I wouldn’t want to follow Jack Nicholson in anything.” And I said, “Oh no! I didn’t even think about Jack Nicholson!” 

I was riddled with doubt when I went in to record my first episode, and I said to Andrea, “I don’t even remember what I did!” But she said “Relax, I have your source tape, you did a great job,” and I managed to get through it thanks to her. She’s a wonderful director. 

When I began, I was replacing someone [Tim Curry] who had recorded the Joker for at least four episodes — maybe as many as six — and, if I remember right, “Christmas with the Joker” might have been the very first one I ever did. I hate to bring up that I replaced another actor because it sounds like I’m denigrating him, which I’m not — I just bring it up because usually the show was recorded with the cast all together. But for those first few episodes I was all by myself, dubbing the lines where the mouth flaps were already animated, which is a much different process. His approach and his timing for the Joker was much different than mine, and even though I did what became that signature voice, I was constrained in those first few episodes.

When I went in for the first time to record an original episode, it was such a liberation. It was great to meet the cast, and they recorded everybody together. We did it in continuity. We’d start on page one, read all through the script, then we’d get notes, then we’d take a break, come back, start on page one and record all the way through. That’s a luxury nowadays as they’re much more fond of recording actors by themselves today. 

Conroy: Originally, I only knew Mark as Luke Skywalker, so when I heard he was coming in as the new voice of the Joker I thought, “Mark Hamill? That’s going to be weird.” But he would just go to this crazy place with his voice and his whole face became so rubbery. He transformed into the Joker right in front of me. 

Back then, Andrea would jokingly say that she had to come in and separate us sometimes because we were having too much fun together. We’d go crazy. It was fun, but it would get a little out of control. 

Hamill: Whenever someone calls me now and asks me to do the Joker — be it for the Arkham Asylum games or The Killing Joke movie or anything — I always ask, “Is Kevin doing Batman?” If they say “Yes,” I just say “I’m in!” 

I’ve never done the Joker with anyone else, but I did tease Kevin recently for something he did. He’s done some project with another guy playing the Joker — I forget what it was — but I DM’d him saying, “Don’t think I don’t know that you cheated on me with another Joker.” He wrote back saying, “I had too much to drink! I didn’t know what I was thinking!”

Dini: When we were doing Batman: The Animated Series, I always loved to see Conroy and Hamill in the studio together because they had a very easygoing rapport. They liked the characters, and they liked each other, and that dynamic was a really special part of the show. 

Hamill: Batman: The Animated Series was just a wonderful experience for me. I always looked forward to recording an episode because the scripts were so good. With the Joker in particular, they spaced out his episodes enough where he never wore out his welcome. There was enough time in between his episodes where the audience would go, “Oh boy, it’s a Joker episode!” 

For me, there couldn’t have been a role that was more removed from the character in Star Wars, and it’s been very gratifying to have people tell me things like, “When I read the comic books, I hear your voice,” or “You’re my favorite Joker” or even, “You’re my second favorite Joker after Heath Ledger.” You get used to people rating your accomplishments, but the response from fans has been wonderful. 

Conroy: I think fans have embraced the show — and new fans are still finding the show — because the producers never thought of Batman: The Animated Series as a kid’s show. It had to be kid-friendly, but it never talked down to the audience, and they wrote it on lots of different levels. They could be kind of wacky at times with the villains, but there was also this dark undercurrent of psychology with this tortured leading man. The darkness of Batman is, I think, what’s so appealing about him. He’s not this square-jawed, Dudley Do-Right kind of character, he’s damaged and he knows it. 

They also spent double the amount of money on an episode than was customary. It was a beautiful show with this timeless noir look to it, which is why it still looks so new today. There was also a big cast with eight or 10 people in the recording studio at once, and a full symphony to score each episode show. When does that happen in animation?

Gorodetsky: Most of all, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm are the people to be celebrated here. The two of them working in congress had a vision for Batman and they executed it — they revitalized Batman. The Nolan trilogy, for example — that never would have happened without Timm and Dini. There hasn’t been a Batman since that wasn’t informed by that cartoon, so for me, just being a small part of that legacy was pretty great.