Disney made a $4 billion gamble on whether or not there was a way to revive Star Wars after years of anticipation gave way to years of groaning and grumbling. For many of those Star Wars fans, this aching disappointment was something new. As children they grew attached to the Ewoks, not viewing them as some ridiculous toy ad. Had they just been a few years older, they’d have known that an expanded Star Wars universe isn’t always a good one, as evidenced by the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special.
Growing up in the era of VHS and the prequels years away, The Star Wars Holiday Special was the stuff of legend. Though there were bootleg VHS copies being circulated, it wasn’t exactly the stuff that was easy to track down for a pre-teen Star Wars fan. Years ago, I finally sat down and watched the special, and was shocked to find that it was, in fact, way worse than ever described. As a matter of fact, The Star Wars Holiday Special is worse than any of the prequels, which is no small achievement.
The special aired on CBS in 1978, its goal was to keep Star Wars relevant in the time between the first film and The Empire Strikes Back, which was two years away. It aired one night only around Thanksgiving, stunned its audiences, and disappeared into the ether. If not for the advent of VCRs, which had debuted 2 years prior, The Star Wars Holiday Special would’ve been forgotten to time. It’s rumored that George Lucas said that if he could, he’d track down every copy and destroy it with a hammer. Many speculate that Lucas’ hands off approach to the special is why he would later turn into an endless control freak, tampering with his films more than 30 years after their release.
Chief among the reasons that The Star Wars Holiday Special was such a disaster is the baffling decision to basically turn, at that point, the biggest movie ever made into a variety show. Written by people like Bruce Vilanch, a longtime writer of jokes for the Oscars, Pat Proft, the creator of Police Academy and a writer on the legendary Police Squad!, Rod Warren, a writer for Donnie and Marie amongst other forgettable specials, as well as other veteran variety show writers Mitzie Welch and Leonard Ripps. The entire show is so tonally unbalanced that each successive decision is more bewildering than the one that comes before it.
Much like the early introduction of Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace, The Star Wars Holiday Special doesn’t even attempt to hide its awfulness in the early going. During the opening credits the announcer exclaims, “and introducing Chewbacca’s family! His wife, Malla. His father, Itchy. And his son, Lumpy!” This is then followed by Han Solo, a seriously disengaged Harrison Ford, and Chewbacca, as always Peter Mayhew, in the Millennium Falcon trying to flee Imperial ships. You see, Chewbacca has to get home to his family for Life Day, a Wookie holiday where they dress up like Free Masons or something.
I imagine that the writers’ room was something straight out of The Simpsons and the creation of Love Day. Not merely content to introduce a number of utterly meaningless characters, the show then spends nearly 15 minutes with nothing but the groans and growls of this Wookie household. For reasons that make sense to no one, there’s not even one character in the room that could translate these growls. In the first scene with Luke Skywalker, where Mark Hamill looks like Mr. B Natural, he plays a guessing game in trying to figure out what in the hell they’re actually saying. And it all keeps going on for seemingly an eternity. Making matters even worse, the Wookie costumes were obviously made on budget, their cheap exteriors preventing its actors from even miming what the hell is happening onscreen.
The roster of guest stars is full of all the hip, young comedians that were sure to drive the kids wild, like Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, Diahann Carol, and the Jefferson Starship. In what is possibly some failed attempt at meta commentary, the show features most of these guests by having them appear in shows that characters are watching. The song that Diahann Carol performs suggests a Her-like relationship between Chewbacca’s father and the hologram of the disco goddess. In a Cabaret-like segment, which is completely tone deaf, Bea Arthur serenades the Tatooine Cantina, a segment that may have worked better with someone a little more sultry than everyone’s favorite Golden Girl – this, by the way, is a show being watched by some Imperial commander. The same could be said of the Jefferson Starship’s far-out performance. And then there’s the part where Lumpy watches a Star Wars cartoon. This cartoon is only notable as the first appearance of Boba Fett, but they did give Boba Fett more characteristics in this brief animated segment than they did in all of the movies.
There’s this overwhelming sense that everyone involved in The Star War Holiday Special knew it was garbage. The final musical number performed by Carrie Fisher, who apparently only agreed to do the show if she were allowed to sing, is just the apathetic coda that the show deserved. There were countless horrible variety shows in the ‘70s. And while it could be said that this one receives extra attention because it’s Star Wars, this one is beyond horrible. An unholy mishmash of bad jokes, bad music, bad effects, and insane dialogue consisting only of growls, The Star Wars Holiday Special failed to capture even the faintest magic of the film. The magic and wonder of strange new worlds and space battles was replaced with bewilderment and confusion. It’s an astounding work if only because it makes you ask, “What in the hell were they thinking?” about every 2-3 minutes. The Star Wars Holiday Special will endure the ages because it’s such a wild miscalculation, like they attempted to make it for an alien species without the aid of an interpreter. And with that, Happy Life Day to all, and to all a good night.