Mrs. Elf wants her son to leave the room so she can have a private chat with Mr. Elf. "Dear, why don't you go watch 'It's a Wonderful Life'? " she tells the kid. "I'm sure it's on every TV channel."

The mocking reference to the now inescapable Frank Capra classic suggests a certain hipness in yet another seasonal special, "A Very Retail Christmas," at 8:30 tonight on NBC (Channel 4). It's a quietly enjoyable half-hour, but on Christmas Eve, hipness may not be the object all sublime.

Paul Fusco, who created "ALF," the sarcastic space creature now living his second life in syndicated reruns, put together this whimsical fable about a labor crisis at the North Pole and how a ruthless toy manufacturer tries to capitalize on it. Fusco supplied many of the voices too -- mainly the ones that sound an ALFully lot like you-know-who.

Fusco clearly wants to avoid the route that most seasonal specials dutifully follow, being less interested in heart-tugging than in rib-tickling. Thus his cast of bulbous-nosed puppets and cartoonish humans makes the occasional disparaging reference to typical holiday fare.

"Nobody can destroy the magic of Christmas," Santa Claus tells one of his elves.

"That's not entirely true," the elf corrects him. "Did you see the John Davidson yuletide special?"

Santa, who wears a beeper for emergency calls, is winningly underplayed by comic actor Chuck McCann, seen too rarely on television these days. His eyes, how they twinkle. Also brightening things up is the very funny Christopher Hewett, "Mr. Belvedere" of the long-running series, who waddles in as a Dickensian ghost.

What's a Dickensian ghost doing in a North Pole story? It would take longer to explain than to watch the show.

Mr. Crandall, the bad-guy toy manufacturer, is played by Ed O'Neill, costar of Fox TV's caustic "Married ... with Children." As the world's most unscrupulous businessman (or one of, anyway), the man who already invented Baby Upchuck, a vomiting doll, next orders an underling to put very sharp edges on a toy metal car.

"I want to be able to shave with this thing," he barks.

While the dark or irreverent touches certify this as a very '90s production, there is a mildly applied Christmasy moral at the end, so not to worry about kids watching. What's lacking is some sort of spectacular special effect to give the program at least one tiny tinge of visual magic.

Perhaps "A Very Retail Christmas" is the first Christmas special for the new recession. God help us, every one.