New Doc Chronicles the Making of the Infamous ‘Star Wars Holiday Special’
Everyone has their opinion about what constitutes the worst of Star Wars. Some think it’s the prequels, with their intergalactic tax conflicts, talk of midi-chlorians, stiff acting, and corny dialogue. Some despise what they call “Disney Star Wars,” with its constant nostalgia bating and never seeming to follow through on the potential of promises that were teased.
As a lifelong fan of Star Wars, I hold a consistent viewpoint: when measured against an objective yardstick, the nadir of Star Wars content is indisputably the Star Wars Holiday Special. This is not to stoke the embers of the perennial Star Wars vs. Star Trek debate; however, it must be noted that within the expanse of the Trek galaxy, I have yet to encounter an offering that plummets to the abysmal depths reached by the aforementioned Holiday Special.
Released in November 1978, sandwiched between the release of 1977’s A New Hope and 1980’s superior sequel The Empire Strikes Back, the Star Wars Holiday Special aired only once on CBS. It soon became infamous for its low quality and the fact that it didn’t tie into the narrative from the movie that people were invested in, much less make any sense to begin with.
The crux of the Star Wars Holiday Special orbits around Chewbacca and Han Solo’s quest to reunite Chewie with his Wookiee family for the celebration of “Life Day” on their native Kashyyyk. Strangely, the spotlight often lingers not on the saga’s heroes but on Chewbacca’s family—his wife Malla, son Lumpy, and Grandpa Itchy. Their activities and viewing habits are what provide the various transitions between performances in the special. Incidentally, they only speak in Shyriiwook, their native language, which is never translated for the viewer.
The cast of the Star Wars Holiday Special reads like a rogue’s gallery of unexpected cameos. Imagine, if you will, Bea Arthur before she stepped into the iconic shoes of a Golden Girl, Harvey Korman in the aftermath of his run on The Carol Burnett Show, and even lauded talents like Art Carney and Diahann Carroll, whose appearances feel incongruous in the intergalactic tableau. Then there’s Jefferson Starship, who, in a bid to encompass the full spectrum of entertainment, beam their performance into the narrative via a hologram, a spectacle for Chewbacca’s son. The casting is as bewildering as it is ambitious, an eclectic mix of stars who are strangers to the Star Wars domain.
Bea Arthur has a jaunty little tune because she’s the owner of and bartender at the Mos Eisley cantina who sings a toast to one last round before the Empire shuts the whole operation down. Harvey Korman plays a loyal customer helplessly and hopelessly in love with her, on top of his other roles as a drag-inspired galactic cooking instructor and a video instruction manual that keeps glitching. Art Carney probably fairs best out of all of them as a local human trader on good terms with Chewbacca’s family. Diahann Carroll whispers a strangely erotic poem to Grandpa Itchy. And we’re just scratching the surface.
You may be wondering about Han, Luke, and Princess Leia. Well, they’re certainly around, but mostly relegated to cameo appearances throughout the special until its grand finale. Mark Hamill looks barely recognizable as Luke Skywalker, wearing an absurd amount of makeup to cover up facial scarring from a then-recent motorcycle accident. Carrie Fisher looks coked out of her mind, but at least she gets to sing the ending song whose lyrics are set awkwardly to Star Wars’ main theme. Harrison Ford just looks like he does not want to be there and isn’t having a good time. R2-D2 and C-3PO make an appearance, as does Chewbacca, who barely features despite the special’s focus on his family.
In the grand tapestry of pop culture, Star Wars was but a fledgling phenomenon at the time of the Holiday Special. It’s easy to overlook, but the franchise teetered on a precipice where it could have spiraled into oblivion like so many trends of the 70s—think disco fever or the Pet Rock, which burned bright but faded quickly. In that era, television variety specials were the rage, ephemeral yet ubiquitous. From the family dynamics of The Brady Bunch to the comedic antics of Paul Lynde, each found a moment in the spotlight. It was against this backdrop that Star Wars, riding high on the wave of its cinematic triumph, dipped its toes into the variety show format, aiming to harness its burgeoning popularity in a television landscape where even galaxies far, far away weren’t immune to the charm of prime-time specials.
Despite having seen the Star Wars Holiday Special more times than I would care to admit, I hadn’t realized before viewing the new documentary A Disturbance in the Force: How The Star Wars Holiday Special Happened that it came about to keep Star Wars relevant and in the public eye before the release of The Empire Strikes Back. The groundbreaking success of Star Wars caught everyone off guard. To what was at the time a very budding franchise, exposure was key, and this included the appearance of Star Wars characters in costume next to the likes of Donny & Marie Osmond and the Muppets even before the special aired. The reverence that Star Wars fans give the franchise today was hardly extended to it in its early years.
No one intentionally sets out to make a bad product, and at the time, the Star Wars Holiday Special may have even seemed like a good idea. The first Star Wars movie is so good because, like so many other classics, it feels timeless. Across generations, kids and new fans alike have fallen in love with the franchise precisely because of that timelessness. On the other hand, the Star Wars Holiday Special reminds you that Star Wars was very much a product of the 1970s.
Another key reason for the existence of the special was to expand the lore of the Star Wars universe. As derided as it is, one of the Holiday Special’s lasting contributions to the Star Wars canon was the first appearance of bounty hunter Boba Fett, who first appeared in a cartoon during the special before his first onscreen appearance in Empire two years later. That cartoon is one of the few Holiday Special segments that’s been publicly released.
The development of the special is highlighted throughout the documentary, as various archive clips are pulled from the people involved with the production, as well as people willing to talk to the camera, most notably comedian Bruce Vilanch who served as one of the writers. At one point, the producers were so desperate for talent that they started scouting comedians in California, including one in particular who was garnering a lot of positive buzz. When pitched to the studio, they dismissed the notion, saying that the comedian wasn’t well-known enough to have a role on a show intended for a national audience. The comedian in question? Robin Williams, who would explode in popularity just a few months later with the debut of Mork & Mindy.
The documentary features the likes of “Weird Al” Yankovic, Patton Oswalt, Kevin Smith, Paul Scheer, and Bobcat Goldthwait providing insight into their own personal relationships with the special. At one time, seeking out the Holiday Special was a rite of passage for nerds everywhere, proving an urban legend that couldn’t possibly be real: “Did you ever hear Star Wars made a shitty Christmas special in the 70s?” With its broader exposure on the Internet, the Holiday Special simply won’t go away, as much as George Lucas would like it to.
I do have a new appreciation for the Holiday Special after seeing this documentary, which I highly recommend. The Star Wars Holiday Special is so easy to mock because just reciting its major plot points already sounds like the outline of a stand-up routine: Chewbacca’s wife learns how to cook from Harvey Korman in drag as a robot! Grandpa Itchy watches porn! Jefferson Starship shows up! The Wookiees wear Snuggies on Life Day! Now, I see it more like a tumble in the early baby steps for a franchise I love. Yes, it was a tumble that nearly derailed the franchise before it had even had the chance to take off, but luckily, as the documentary points out, the franchise got back up and came out even stronger than before.