Inside Bill Murray's Brilliant 'Rat Pack' Holiday Special

Comedian and Sofia Coppola reteam for Miley-singin', Clooney-swingin' yuletide party 'A Very Murray Christmas'

Paul Shaffer, George Clooney and Miley Cyrus join Bill Murray for his old-school holiday special, 'A Very Murray Christmas.' Credit: Ali Goldstein/Netflix

I'm the king of Christmas!" Bill Murray declares early on in A Very Murray Christmas, his one-of-a-kind Netflix holiday special — and by the end of an hour of music, comedy, and celebrity pals, the comedian has indeed earned that crown as our 21st-century Santa Claus, who seems to be everywhere at once, spreading good cheer.

"Everyone is happy when they see him ," says Sofia Coppola, who directed the special, available on the streaming service starting today. "He knows how to bring joy. Bill is so full of fun, it brightens up the holiday."

The show's plot: Murray is supposed to star in a live Christmas extravaganza, singing seasonal songs at the Carlyle hotel in New York City, but a huge snowstorm means that none of his celebrity-friend guests, such as George Clooney, can make it. Initially sour, he ends up befriending (and singing songs) with other people stranded in the hotel — like Rashida Jones and Jason Schwartzman, who play a couple forced to cancel their wedding because none of the guests could make it. "You look like you'd like to have your photograph taken with me," Murray tells the thwarted bride. "I notice that seems to really cheer people up."

"It's a Rat Pack view of the saddest Christmas turning into the happiest Christmas ever," says Paul Shaffer, the special's musical director. "And Billy's playing the character that we know and love, the guy we remember as Nick the Lounge Singer on Saturday Night Live. It's kind of a fictional character, which for the first time he decided to name Bill Murray— as if he himself is that guy — and we see him at Christmas time."

In Lost in Translation, Coppola directed Murray in one of his finest performances — also largely set in a hotel (in that case, the Park Hyatt in Tokyo). "It's my fault," she says of the similarity. "Without meaning to, I always end up doing something in a fancy hotel as a setting. But it was fun, because that gave us a way to create a world where anyone could drop by."

That melancholy story about an actor bonding with a fellow tourist was back in 2003 — so why did it take Coppola and Murray so long to work together again? The filmmaker says the pressure was daunting because "people keep that movie close to them." But last year, she was talking to Mitch Glazer, an associate producer on Lost in Translation who's also an old friend of Murray's and the screenwriter of Scrooged and Rock the Kasbah. "I was saying that I just want to see Bill sing at the Carlyle for a week," she said. (The hotel's Bemelmans Bar has a history of hosting musical acts like Bobby Short, Elaine Strich, and even Woody Allen.) Glazer and Murray had been discussing doing something for TV, and the two ideas merged. Originally it was going to be a Valentine's Day special; it soon morphed into a Christmas special.

"They haven't done them for a long time, and I love how random they are," Coppola says of those old-fashioned yuletide variety shows. "Like that one with Bing Crosby and David Bowie; it's so unnatural. There's no rules. You could have whoever you want come on and find a small amount of barely-any-logic to include them."

"[Bill] loves to sing. If he wants to sing 'Waterfalls' to Drew Barrymore, as he did on the 25th anniversary of SNL, you just gotta trust him that it's the right move."
—Paul Shaffer

So the guest stars include Chris Rock as himself, dragooned into singing "Do You Hear What I Hear?"; Jenny Lewis as a waitress, dueting with Murray on "Baby It's Cold Outside?"; and Maya Rudolph as a local barfly, who steps up to do a monster version of Darlene Love's anthem "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." During that performance, you can actually hear Murray laughing with delight in the background, hearing it for the first time; most of the special's music was recorded live on the set during the four-day shoot. Shaffer knew the song well, having backed Love singing it on David Letterman's late-night programs almost 30 times: "Maya said, 'I'd like to do that. And I said, 'Baby, if you want, who am I to say anything but "Go for it"?' And she delivered. I'm sure Darlene will be very gratified to hear it."

Not showing up for the shoot, after recording a vocal on "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'" and posing for photos with Murray and Shaffer: Rick Ross. Showing up and delivering above and beyond the call of duty: Miley Cyrus, who appeared, along with George Clooney, in a fantasy sequence (which also featured a troupe of dancers, who Coppola refers to as "the Murray-ettes."). When the director asked if they could work up an extra number, Shaffer and Cyrus prepped "Silent Night" during the lunch break; it's one of the show's highlights. How'd Shaffer get involved, anyway?

"Billy called and mentioned the idea to me, simple as that. That's all it takes — it sounded like fun. I've been playing for Bill Murray since before Saturday Night Live; we did stuff together for the National Lampoon Radio Hour. He loves to sing, and he's got an uncanny sense of what he can make play. If he wants to sing 'Waterfalls' to Drew Barrymore, as he did on the 25th anniversary of SNL, you just gotta trust him that it's the right move. I don't believe that he's a trained musician, by any means, but it doesn't matter."

In fact, Shaffer's public persona for decades has been a version of the lounge-lizard act he and Murray did together on SNL. "When I met Brian Doyle-Murray in '73," he explains, speaking of Murray's older brother, "he said 'You and my brother are into a very similar thing.' We were in our early 20s, shining a light on how ludicrous the old-fashioned show business was ... but at the same time, how much we loved it."

Murray having traded in irony for so long gives unexpected weight to Christmas sentiment; when he delivers an understated line reading of "Merry Christmas, everyone," the star seems sincere. He somehow finds the actual emotion behind the cliché.

"The show is really sincere," Coppola says. "But then we're being playful with it. I think it has a lot of heart — because Bill has a lot of heart."