HOLLYWOOD - It's a time for Christmas specials. Of course (clears throat, tucks thumbs into suspenders, rocks back on heels) in my day, they really knew how to make those things, how to pack a lot of holiday spirit into an hour of laughs and song and falling soap flakes. They called it "variety," and it is dead.

Or nearly. Here comes

Elmo's Christmas Countdown

to bring back a little of that old-school (or preschool) magic. Airing at 7 p.m. tomorrow on 6ABC and starring Elmo - the little red pronoun-challenged monster whose laugh has launched a thousand migraines - it has been made by people who know their show business.

Sesame Street,

which applied


rhythms to children's programming, is a variety show in essence, and

The Muppet Show

, in which flesh-and-blood guest stars and their felt-and-foam hosts did comedy and sang songs, was a variety show in fact.

Now, I understand that there are those who regard Elmo as just another Barney the Purple Dinosaur. But they are not the same. Elmo is a little red monster, and Barney is a man in a dinosaur suit. Or perhaps it's a woman. I really don't care. It is clearly all a game with Barney; I don't believe there's a sincere dinosaur bone in his body. And although I have read that someone named Kevin Clash "plays" Elmo, I have seen pictures of Kevin Clash, and he is a grown adult many times Elmo's size. So that is obviously nonsense as well. (Perhaps he's like a personal assistant or something.)

At the center of this special is Stiller the Elf, voiced by Ben Stiller (sounding a little bit like Kermit the Frog, actually). The high-strung Stiller has come to Sesame Street - rendered not in its usual form but as a giant pop-up book - because market research has informed him that Oscar the Grouch is the perfect monster to perform the Christmas countdown, without which Christmas cannot start. This involves a kind of blocks-filled Advent calendar called a Christmas Counter-Downer, and when Oscar sends the blocks flying and Stiller goes to pieces, it's up to Elmo to keep believing. (Elmo has saved Christmas once already, by the way, in the movie

Elmo Saves Christmas

. He also has testified before Congress.)

Each new box returned to the Counter-Downer leads to a skit or song. Elmo's star power has drawn a mess of famous humans to his side - Sheryl Crow, Jamie Foxx, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys and Brad Paisley drop in, alongside the usual Muppets. Charles Gibson voices Charles Blitzen, the news-reading reindeer.

It's always a little exciting when



is on after dark, and they have gone a bit adult for the after-dinner crowd. There are topical allusions, Christmas-themed epithets: "What in the holly and the ivy?" "A royal pain in the King Wenceslas." In the hour's strangest segment, Tony Sirico (Paulie on

The Sopranos

) and Steve Schirripa (who was Bobby) play Bert and Ernie in a special within the special, directed by Bert and Ernie, who despair of the actors' getting the Bert and Ernie laughs right, or even their telling a simple joke.

"Not to worry, my good friend," Sirico says. "I can handle this."