Aināt She Sweet

Kathie Lee Giffordās Christmas show comes but once a year thank God. by TOM SHALES

Kathie Lee Gifford got another hammerlock on Christmas and once again tried to throttle it to death. This time, though, she seemed to be attacking it with a little less vengeance and a little less bad taste than usual.

Kathie Lee Gifford: Just in Time for Christmas, her third annual holiday special for CBS, was relatively painless and rarely seemed to call for the rending of oneās garments or the gnashing of oneās teeth.

The special, which aired December 11th, was an improvement over last yearās, and the yearās before that, in that viewers were subjected to a less lethal dose of exposure to Giffordās much-exploited family and fewer scenes designed to show how much they wuvs and wuvs their wittle Supermommy.

Most of the hour consisted of concert footage shot at the Oklahoma City Civic Center Music Hall, with the local Philharmonic and such guest stars as Kathleen Battle, Christopher Parkening, Amy Grant, Bryan White, and Jeff Wood. This was intercut with the obligatory Gifford family follies, this time staged at the home of the starās parents in Rehoboth, Delaware.

Last year, columnist Frank Rich of The New York Times theorized that Gifford drags TV cameras into her various homes so they can be written off as business expenses. Last time, it was her lavish Aspen retreat. This year, she put her parentsā house on the tube, and perhaps on her 1040. Maybe next year she can do Kathie Leeās Christmas in a Limousine, or tape the special in a private jet. Or how about Kathie Leeās Christmas in a Closet, which would allow her to write off every article of clothing she owns, so long as itās glimpsed on camera.

Of this yearās guest stars, Battle was the most musically impressive, accompanied by Parkening on a quiet carol. A medley of holiday songs ended the program grandly, sung as it was by the entire company with bombastic orchestral and choral accompaniment.

But other parts of the hour sounded sour notes. Gifford burst from the wings at the outset braying the opening notes of "The Christmas Waltz," and when she finished the song, the first shot of the audience was of her lumpy husband Frank sitting in an aisle seat and applauding. Like he had any choice.

In a brief monologue, Gifford said Christmas was, among other things, the one time of year when we think about "how much we have to be grateful for." What about Thanksgiving? Ah, of course: At Thanksgiving we get to be grateful that Kathie Lee doesnāt do a Thanksgiving special.

Later, Gifford conducted another of her mini-seminars about raising children. She said she didnāt want her son Cody to hate people "and yet I want him to know there is evil in the world." This had to be a thinly veiled reference to TV critics, whom Gifford regards as perverted heathen ogres.

Thus did she and CBS refuse to make this yearās special available to the press in advance, a most unusual departure from standard operating procedure in the TV business. Ironically or not, some of the improvements Gifford made in this yearās special seemed in direct response to nits those Scroogy critics picked last year.

Somewhat sadistically, Gifford insisted on reminding the Oklahoma audience of the terrible terrorist bombing there in 1995 and at one point compared the loss of life in the tragedy with the death of one of her friends by cancer. This led her into the specialās title tune, marred only by the mediocrity of her singing voice and her insistence on adopting a look of pseudo-beatific sacrificial radiance.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Kathie Lee nipping at your nose. Or maybe, chomping at the bit. It was often said that Christmas wouldnāt be Christmas without Bing Crosby. But oh brother, would Christmas ever be Christmas without Kathie Lee Gifford.