Say the words The Star Wars Holiday Special around a group of geeks, and you'll most likely be met with guttural groans and a lot of glares. The 97-minute TV special debuted on Nov. 17, 1978 (making this its 40th-anniversary year), and never aired again. Many fans, as well as director George Lucas, would prefer to pretend the Wookiee- and disco-saturated show never existed, but I watch it every year as a holiday tradition to amuse myself and horrify my friends.
The infamous TV special aired on CBS, parent company of CNET. It featured not only the iconic Star Wars characters Chewbacca, Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, C-3PO and R2-D2, but also new characters like Chewie's wife Malla, his son Lumpy and his father Itchy. If that's not intriguing enough, we get Golden Girls actress Bea Arthur playing Ackmena the cantina bartender; The Carol Burnett Show veteran Harvey Korman playing myriad bizarre characters; and actor Art Carney as electronics salesman Saun Dann and friend to the Wookiees.
The gist of the plot is that Han Solo and Chewbacca are on their way home to the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate the holiday Life Day, which is sort of like Christmas without Jesus and involves just a lot of awkward caroling in space with Wookiees wearing red robes and led by a very out-of-it Princess Leia played by the.
However, on the way home in the Millennium Falcon, Han and Chewie encounter enemy attack from the Empire and are delayed. That's as close to the real movie action as we're gonna get. The rest feels like Keeping Up With the Kardashians with Wookiees.
George Lucas was busy working on The Empire Strikes Back in 1978, so he left creating, directing and producing The Star Wars Holiday Special to Smith-Hemion Productions, which also produced the Tony Awards. Because of Lucas' lack of usual attention to a Star Wars project, the show went from being a possible extension of A New Hope to a bizarre variety-show style farce that could only be appreciated while intoxicated or heavily sedated.
It's been reported that Lucas wishes he could destroy every copy. According to urban legend, Lucas said, "If I had the time and a hammer, I would smash every copy of the Holiday Special." In reality, he told Maxim magazine in a May 2002 interview, "That's one of those things that happened, and I just have to live with it."
In addition to calling the show cheesy and even unwatchable, fans often grumble that it promises appearances from the original Star Wars cast only to deliver the occasional cameo from Skype-like calls from Luke, R2-D2, Leia and C-3PO to check in on Malla with concern that Han and Chewie haven't arrived home for Life Day yet.
Boba Fett even shows up -- in a Star Wars cartoon created by the production company Nelvana midway through the show. Lumpy watches an animated short featuring Luke, Han, Vader, C-3PO, R2-D2 and his own dad Chewbacca. Since the Holiday Special airs before The Empire Strikes Back premieres, this is where fans remember being introduced to the beloved bounty hunter.
Personally, I love the random, non-canon characters -- most notably Bea Arthur who tends bar at a cantina full of aliens and the Bith band "Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes." She fends off affection from yet another character played by Korman. But best of all she sings a you-don't-have-to-go-home-but-you-can't-stay-here song called "Goodnight But Not Goodbye" to kick out all the bar patrons. It's like an episode of Cheers in space!
The bulk of the show takes place at Casa de Chewie. Malla is cooking Bantha Surprise for dinner with help from "The Julia Child of the Milky Way" Gormaanda, played by Korman in drag who endlessly chants "Whip! Whip! Stir! Stir! Whip!" Meanwhile, Lumpy watches holographic dancers that act like Cirque du Soleil on acid. This goes on for what seems like hours and is usually when most Star Wars fans cry "Uncle Owen!" Amateurs.
For me, however, the show is practically a master class in Wookiee speak. You don't really pay attention to what Wookiees sound like until you're forced to listen to their roars, moans, chuckles and whines in endless bouts of conversation that never get subtitled. When I watch the special, I like to shout out my own Wookiee translations, which are probably way off-base from the real plot and a lot more R-rated then they need to be.
The show takes a rather smarmy turn when Art Carney shows up at the Wookiee household wearing his unbuttoned, large-lapeled disco shirt with gray chest hair spilling out. He flirts with Malla then gives Grandpa Itchy what I can only describe as "awkward hologram porn" featuring actress Diahann Carroll wearing a form-fitting Bob Mackie gown perfect for Studio 54. As Mermeia, she sings suggestively to a lustful elderly Wookiee.
Before you can heave in your mouth at the thought of what Grandpa Itchy may or may not be doing while watching Mermeia, Stormtroopers show up at the Wookiee household to stir things up looking for Han and Chewie. Don't worry! Carney comes to the rescue with a Jefferson Starship hologram music video to distract the Empire.
Before you argue that this kind of absurdist Star Wars action is what makes the show unwatchable, let me remind you that with this camp comes a wide selection of vintage commercials that alone make it worth your while to find a bootlegged copy.
My favorites include a sing-along PSA for the Ladies Garment Workers Union complete with more pantsuits and beehives than a Grease reunion. There's a CBS News break about the Soviet neutron bomb, a caught double agent and a blizzard in Minnesota. Creepy Contac cold medicine capsules being spilled out like a slow-mo version of Valley of the Dolls. Control-top pantyhose for the working woman.
A guy wearing a shimmering gold-spandex body suit delivering flowers at a hospital for FTD. A Lincoln Mercury Bobcat Wagon for sale at only $4,142. And finally, a retro commercial for the new line of Star Wars toys, which include the ultimate kid fantasy -- a Death Star Space Station complete with a working trash compactor!
It's that classic Star Wars toy commercial that reminds us what this whole saga really means to fans -- a celebration of oddballs trying to find their destinies in a galaxy full of powerful villains, malfunctioning droids and a Jedi who just wants to be a hero.
While The Star Wars Holiday Special feels more like a Wookiee reality show, it still holds some magic for those of us who want to believe that somewhere out there, Malla is cooking Bantha Surprise and Bea Arthur has a pint waiting for us.
First published Dec. 21, 2013 at 4 a.m. PT.
Update Nov. 17, 2018: Refreshed for the special's 40th anniversary.
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