The most enigmatic of Star-Wars-inspired pop cultural events between 1977 and 1980, if not of all time, is the Star Wars Holiday Special. For two decades after its first and only airing on the evening of 17 November 1978 by the CBS and CTV television networks, little was written or said about the special. It was, in fact, nearly forgotten.
The internet changed that. Now the existence of this notorious broadcast is well documented, and even the program itself is available for all to watch as often as they like. Yet the internet versions of the special betray their illicit, bootleg roots: the sound is poor, the video blurred or shaky. The reason is that George Lucas hates the Star Wars Holiday Special. He is said to have tried to buy all master copies of the program to destroy them, thus ensuring it was never seen again. What, one might ask, could be so distasteful to the man who wrote fart jokes into three different scenes of The Phantom Menace? The answer is complicated, but Art Carney, Bea Arthur, holo-porn and a singing Princess Leia figure prominently.
The plot, for want of a better word, concerns Chewbacca’s effort to return to his homeworld, Kashyyyk, in time to celebrate Life Day, a Wookie holiday for which no explanation is given. Chewbacca and his pal Han Solo are delayed by imperial forces who attack the Millennium Falcon en route and impose martial law at home. This might not be such a bad story if it were told with any conviction or interest. But the Star Wars Holiday Special is not about storytelling. It is a 1970s variety show with a Star Wars theme. Chewbacca, Han, Luke, Leia, Threepio and Artoo are hardly even in the show; they make appearances from time to time, but most of the two-hour-long special is devoted to Chewbacca’s family (wife Malla, son Lumpy and father Itchy—yes, really), a “trader” named Saun Dann (Art Carney), the proprietor of the Mos Eisley cantina, Ackmena (Bea Arthur), musical guests Diahan Carroll and Jefferson Starship, and a dance outfit called the Wazzan Troupe.
The program starts inauspiciously with a ten-minute long scene inside Chewbacca’s treehouse, seemingly miles above ground, in which no dialogue occurs save Wookie grunting. Chewbacca’s forlorn wife, Malla, stares at a framed picture of Chewie and is comforted by Itchy, a murderous-looking ape with an old man’s underbite and (we learn later) a taste for pornography. Itchy then turns his attention to young Lumpy, entertaining him with a hologram performance by dancing gymnasts dressed in skin-tight, insect-like green and red body suits. Some sport G-strings. This goes on for an eternity until Malla decides to call Luke on the videophone to find out where her husband is.
If the viewer has not noticed by now that the Holiday Special is a little strange, Luke’s appearance removes all doubt. His hair is cut in a girlish bob, his eyelashes are bovine in length and he is wearing a quantity of make-up usually reserved for the dead. The explanation I once heard for this was that Mark Hamill had been in a serious motorcycle accident shortly before the filming. Differing accounts of this accident can be found on the internet, and there is no telling which, if any, is true. In any case Luke looks awful, particularly when he grins creepily and says, “C’mon Malla, let’s see a little smile”.
Next up is Art Carney, of Honeymooners fame, who plays Saun Dann, the keeper of “Trading Post Wookie Planet C”. Malla calls him hoping for news of Chewbacca, which Carney delivers in thinly disguised code due to the presence in his shop of a moustachioed imperial trooper. (Carney tries to sell him a portable aquarium. The trooper replies, “I hate fish”.) Malla gives up on searching for Chewbacca for a while and tunes in to a cooking show in which the four-armed Chef Gormaanda (Harvey Korman, better known for his work on that other 1970s variety program, the Carol Burnett Show) walks the audience through her recipe for Bantha Surprise. Malla eventually gives up on the recipe, and an announcement over her videoscreen explains that the Empire is blockading the planet with the aim of controlling rebel activity. This news is presumably meant to increase the tension—how will Chewbacca make it home now?—but that effect is immediately undermined by the arrival of Art Carney at Malla’s front door with Life Day presents for the family. The Empire’s blockade appears to have some weak spots, as Carney was in his shop on Wookie Planet C only fifteen minutes earlier.
Lumpy runs off to his room carrying his gift. Malla gives Carney a peck on the cheek (he insisted) then leaves to admire her present, a sort of boom box in which Jefferson Starship are trapped. This leaves Itchy and Carney free to try out Itchy’s present in the family Mind Evaporator. This ominous-sounding device looks like a dentist’s chair with a welder’s helmet on top. By its name and appearance you would think it an instrument of torture, which it proves to be, for the viewing audience if not for Itchy. The decrepit Wookie climbs in and puts the mask on while Carney inserts his gift into the armrest. “Happy Life Day” says Carney, “and I do mean Happy Life Day”. Itchy begins to masticate (yes, masticate) as swirling lights and ethereal music set the virtual stage for singer/actress Diahann Carroll (later known for her role as Dominique Deveraux in Dynasty). Carroll gets right to the point, thrilling Itchy with lines like, “Oh, oh...we are excited, aren't we?”, “I'll tell you a secret, I find you adorable”, and “You see, I am your fantasy. I am your experience. So experience me. I am your pleasure. Enjoy me.” Throughout this the camera cuts between Carroll, giggling and smiling, and Itchy, squirming and writhing. Carroll then sings a song about infinitely extending this minute, repeating and repeating this minute, on and on and on and on. The lyrics could not be more appropriate—the song, like the entire program, feels interminable. But Carroll’s song does eventually end, and we are treated to one last shot of Itchy, masticating less vigorously now and with a distinct look of satisfaction that we cannot possibly share.
Next up are Leia and Threepio, calling in on the videophone to speak to Chewbacca. Leia is inexplicably annoyed, both with Malla and Threepio. She rolls her eyes repeatedly and clearly has no interest in chit-chat with the distressed Malla. Her tone of voice is imperious and unpleasant. She is thoroughly unlikable, but at least she is not singing. Cut briefly to Chewie and Han, who have escaped the imperial patrol and are looking for a place to land. Cut back to the treehouse, which has just been invaded by an imperial officer, a death squad commander and two stormtroopers with orders to search the place for rebels. If the show’s writers had hoped to inject any drama into the program by this plot twist, they immediately frustrate it with another musical number: Carney’s character persuades the death squad commander to sit down with Malla’s birthday gift and enjoy a little Jefferson Starship. They play for a while, their microphones and instruments glowing like violet lightsabers. When that ends Carney takes off, leaving the Wookies to work out their imperial entanglement for themselves. The imperial forces continue their search, looking for anything that might connect the occupants to the rebellion. Lumpy decides that this would be a good time to sit down and watch a cartoon about his father and other famous rebel heroes defying the Empire on a watery moon in the Panna system.
This ten-minute-long animated portion of the Holiday Special is often said to be its one redeeming aspect. Nonsense. It may not be quite as bad as a Wookie sex fantasy, but it is still awful. The story revolves around a magical talisman sought by the rebels (because it is a magical talisman). It turns out that the talisman makes humans fall asleep, so Chewbacca and the droids are the only ones left to save the dozing Han and Luke from Boba Fett, a seemingly-friendly mercenary riding a huge orangish pink dinosaur who turns out to be an agent of Darth Vader (and is apparently not human as the talisman has no effect on him). This is Boba Fett’s first appearance in any Star Wars tale. For the record, he does not speak with a New Zealand accent; Lucas has so far refrained from correcting this glaring continuity error.
If the pretext for showing us this cartoon was pretty slim, the transition to Bea Arthur’s cantina on Tatooine is even worse. A transmission over the videoscreen orders all members of the imperial forces to watch the following live broadcast, “Life on Tatooine”. As the officers and stormtroopers assemble around the monitor, the announcer introducing the program explains that it is “brought to viewers everywhere in the hope that our own lives may be uplifted by the comparison and enriched with the gratitude of relief.” But relief is still over thirty minutes away. Now comes Bea Arthur as Ackmena, the proprietor of a Tatooine cantina about to be shut down by an imperial curfew. Before that happens, however, she is hit on by Harvey Korman (again), who is now playing a lovestruck alien who drinks through a hole in the top of his head. Ackmena breaks his heart then tries to persuade her patrons to observe the curfew and clear out. The most effective way of clearing a room, she rightly believes, is to break out in song. She sings a song called “Goodnight but not goodbye”. Like every other musical act in the special, this one is cruelly long and dull.
The beginning of the end comes when Lumpy uses the gift Saun Dann gave him—a very 70s-looking home electronics kit—to fool the imperial forces into returning to their base, leaving only one stormtrooper behind. This trooper figures out Lumpy’s trick, however, and is about to shoot him when Chewbacca and Han arrive. Han and the stormtrooper have a brief standoff that results in the stormtrooper accidentally intentionally falling over the edge of Chewie’s treehouse (the railing was comically loose) and plunging to his doom. In this way he is spared from having to listen to Han tell the Wookies, with cringe-inducing sincerity, “You’re like family to me”. Han then leaves and Chewbacca enjoys a reunion with his family which is bizarrely interrupted by Art Carney again. The Wookies then bring out lit, egg-shaped lanterns and raise them into the air, presumably in some sort of Life Day observance. The scene then fades out and back in to the Wookies again, still holding the lanterns but now wearing Christmas-red robes and floating in a field of stars. They then file off one by one into a bright light, along with several other, similarly clad Wookie figures.
Just when you think it has ended, the program resumes with dozens of red-clad Wookies gathering in a night rally around a huge tree trunk. The droids are there, too. Threepio wishes everyone a happy Life Day and adds, “It is indeed true, that at times like this, Artoo and I wish that we were more than just mechanical beings and were really alive, so that we could share your feelings with you.” Before there is time for the audience to consider how stupid this is (Threepio’s sentiment being itself the expression of a feeling—envy—and therefore proof that they are in fact capable of feelings) Leia, Luke and Han show up. Amazingly Han has another toe-curling, buttock-clenching line to deliver (“All of you are an important part of my life, pal. I'm glad I could be here”) before Leia, ever the princess, takes it upon herself to address the Wookies about the significance of their own holiday. She ends, “This is the promise of the Tree of Life”. The sermon ended, all that remains is to sing the hymn. The program is nearly over. The viewer is at a loss to imagine what could make it worse. Then Leia, clinging to Chewbacca, sings these words to the tune of the Star Wars theme:
We celebrate a day of peace / A day of harmony / A day of joy we can all share / Together joyously / A day that takes us through the darkness / A day that leads us into might / A day that makes us want to celebrate / The light / A day that brings the promise / That one day we'll be free / To live, to laugh, to dream, to grow, to trust, to love, to be!
Cut, pointlessly, to a montage of clips from Star Wars (in case you have not seen it). Then another commercial break. Then a domestic scene: Chewie and Lumpy stare wistfully into each other’s eyes. The camera pans out to reveal them seated with Itchy and Malla at the dinner table. They all join hands and bow their heads in some sort of prayer to the Great Skywookie, and then, at long last, the credits.
Altogether the Star Wars Holiday Special is relentlessly bizarre, pitilessly long and more than a little camp. I have not recounted its plot from memory, for my memories of it are cloudy, almost dreamlike. It was not until I was nearly thirty that I discovered, thanks to the internet, that these foggy images I had in my mind of a Wookie house in the trees and a cartoon Boba Fett were not childhood hallucinations but actual recollections of a suppressed chapter in Star Wars history. Something I had read or heard about the forthcoming prequels taking place in part on the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk prompted my search. I recalled a portrayal of Kashyyyk in Marvel Star Wars number 91. But I also recalled seeing Wookies on television—with musical guests? A bit of digital digging turned up accounts of the Holiday Special, and even a few freeze frames from the program (but no video). I was amazed that I remembered the thing, and more amazed that George Lucas had permitted it to be done.
If, after reading all that, you still want to see the Star Wars Holiday Special, follow the Google Videos link below (with an introductory crawl that was not part of the original broadcast). Also below are some web pages dedicated to the special.
More SWHS content from THIS SORT OF THING: