A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
Director / producer / writer George Lucas must have been really enjoying the unexpected success of his Star Wars (1977), the first in a series of films that launched a franchise that is still going strong. Star Wars wasn’t just a giant box-office hit, it was a pop culture sensation. Across our pretty planet, lines at theatres would wind around the block with people dying to see it. Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill went from working actors to movie stars overnight, and Lucas became a very, very rich man. He must have especially enjoyed the studio’s error in giving him sole ownership of the merchandise rights.
Yet, you must wonder whose idea it was to bring Star Wars to network television as a Thanksgiving variety special. The result is, without doubt. one of the weirdest, wackiest, most wonderful moments in Star Wars and Television History.
On Friday November 17, 1978, CBS broadcast The Star Wars Holiday Special featuring the film’s cast and bringing Lucas and his Star Wars brand a bigly opportunity to dominate pop culture again. Replacing the popular The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman series that night, the Star Wars Holiday Special aired from 8-10pm.
If you think that the prequels to the original Star Wars trilogy were a terrible idea, what would that make a Holiday Special? Lucas has never been shy about using the brand to make more dough. There has been a Star Wars Christmas album, a Star Wars cookbook, and a Death Star waffle maker, yet Lucas remains embarrassed about the Holiday Special.
It isn’t entirely dreadful. Fans may have been glad to learn that Wookiees celebrate “Life Day”; intriguing because it represents a theological tradition other than The Force. The show was also the introduction of bounty hunter Boba Fett. Plus, imagine finding out the name of Chewbacca’s home planet Kashyyyk, 27 years before The Revenge Of The Sith (2005).
The Holiday Special’s plot features a trade embargo in space, a device Lucas wasn’t too embarrassed to use again in The Phantom Menace (1999). Some of the show adds something to the Star Wars universe, I’m certain.
The special broadcast was sponsored by General Motors and was directed by Steve Binder, who did Elvis, Presley’s big 1968 comeback special. The thin thread of a plot involves Han Solo and Chewie careening about in the Millennium Falcon, trying to make it home in time for Life Day, a celebration that, more than a little, resembles Thanksgiving. It was shot on cheesy-looking sets; every expense was spared. It features unfunny skits with Harvey Korman and Art Carney, whose line “I love to make a wookiee happy” should have become a catchphrase. There are insanely nutty dance numbers and listless songs performed by Jefferson Starship, Bea Arthur and Diahann Carroll.
Carroll was in a sketch that was startlingly transgressive, playing the sexual fantasy figure of Chewie’s father, Itchy. Wookiee Nookie in the family hour? Itchy is seated in his recliner with a virtual-reality headset called the “Mind Evaporator” on his head. Carroll appears out of nowhere and starts to make suggestive salacious purrings: “I’m getting your message. Oh, we are excited, aren’t we?”, as the camera cuts to the hairy creature groaning with pleasure. It can’t be unseen.
The Star Wars Holiday Special was broadcast in the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and it aired only once. Since that time, Lucas had declined any release of it on any format. Lucasfilm has only allowed one segment to be officially distributed, and that is as an extra feature on the 2011 Star Wars Blu-ray, and it’s the animated short introducing Boba Fett. The Star Wars Holiday Special is reluctantly mentioned on the official Star Wars website, where it is described as “more than awkward”.
Lucas has rarely spoken about it, but he once aid at a Star Wars fan convention:
“If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.”
Unlike the controversial digital tinkering that Lucas did with his original trilogy in the 1990s, some things cannot be altered.
For years, the only was to see The Star Wars Holiday Special was from someone who taped it on a VCR. It became a holy relic for die hard Star Wars fanatics. Now, you can watch it in all its deranged greatness, and experience the same crushing confusion and disappointment as the nerds in 1978. Lucasfilms appears to have decided that foggy memories and the passage of time have made the Star Wars Holiday Special just obscure enough to not get litigious by its continued illegal availability. I found it today on YouTube, and I offer it up to you as a special holiday gift.
It’s a real stinker, for sure, but with some moments of campy fun. Carrie Fisher once begged Lucas for a copy, and in exchange, she recorded commentaries for the Star Wars box set. She said she liked to put it on at parties… when she wanted guests to leave.
If you can’t give yourself over to two hours of the thing, I have also posted a highlight so you can get the idea.