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“The Star Wars Holiday Special”: The colossally-awful variety show that George Lucas would rather you forget existed
If you’re not entirely sick of hearing about the new Star Wars movie yet (and we don’t blame you if you are), then please indulge us as we take a snarky look back at the colossally-awful clusterfuck variety show for the ages, “The Star Wars Holiday Special,” which aired on the CBS network one Friday night, November 17, 1978, just one week before U.S. TV audiences would be celebrating Thanksgiving, and a little over a month before Christmas Day.
Across the U.S., an estimated 13 million households (according to Nielsen) were very much looking forward to show, airing from 8-10pm and starring members of the main cast from 1977’s Star Wars movie (Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca the Wookie, Anthony Daniels as C3PO, Kenny Baker as R2D2) along with a cast of Hollywood variety-show regulars and TV celebs that included Art Carney, Bea Arthur and the “Carol Burnett Show”‘s Harvey Korman, who showed up in multiple roles, one of which was an incompetent, malfunctioning robot.
No one had any idea, really, that the hour-and-a-half CBS special would end being possibly the worst broadcast event of the last fifty years. The venerable TV Guide ranked this special at #11 on their “25 Most Hilarious Holiday TV Moments” special, calling it “unintentionally hilarious,” and both TV Guide and “TV Land” ranked “The Star Wars Holiday Special” at #59 on their “Top 100 Unexpected Television Moments” in a five part special that aired from December 5-9 in 2005, but honestly, we can’t imagine ten holiday moments being more ‘hilarious’ (if that’s the word) than anything in this show.
The holiday special was broadcast in its entirety just the one time, and has never been rebroadcast or “officially” released on any format of home video. In 2014, a Salon article reminded us that the “home video market was several years off (cost of a VCR in 1978: $1,000; cost of a home video: $100)”.
For decades now, Star Wars fans have traded mostly poor-quality VHS recordings made from its original telecast, which have, of course, have now ended up on the Internet, and there are reasonably good quality versions to be found, fairly easily, but most have been duplicated and re-duplicated so often that most copies of the special available today are based on second-to-sixth-generation VHS dubs.
Some of the dubs include the original commercials that aired during the show, as well as the local news breaks. You can judge for yourself by watching the three clips we’ve provided (Youtube regularly features the entire holiday special too — feel free to seek it out on your own if you must).
There was actually a plot to this catastrophic mess, which was written by George Lucas’s former USC classmate Bruce Vilanch (the noted “comedy writing pioneer” is the one who writes those awful jokes read at the Oscars and other award show telecasts) and a handful of TV writers who were all experienced variety show veterans.
One reason for its dismal failure is it clearly was aimed at an entirely different TV audience, which is why it strings together a series of musical numbers, celebrity cameos and other variety-show acts that really have very little to do with anything Lucas would have created in the first place.
But let’s examine that plot, shall we? Chewbacca and Han Solo are trying to get to the Wookie’s home planet, Kashyyk, in time to celebrate the holiday called Life Day, but they first have to fight off the Empire, and a couple of Star Destroyers and a bunch of Stormtroopers who are searching for members of the Rebel Alliance.
The episode spends a lot of time with Chewbacca’s family — his father Attichitcuk, wife Mallatobuck and son Lumpawarrump, better known by their nicknames, Itchy, Malla, and Lumpy — who live together in an elaborate treehouse. The sounds the adult Wookies made during the special were apparently originally recordings of bears and lions at Olympic Game Farm in Sequim, Washington, and Lumpy’s Wookie warblings, a recording of a baby bear at the San Diego Zoo was the original source.
Some of them pass the time, anxiously waiting for Chewie to return, by doing circus-style acrobatics on the uneven bars, and juggling — which apparently is how Wookies prepare for Life Day — while Chewie’s wife Malla talks to Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker via videophone.
They also watch cartoons, holographic musical performances and an intergalactic cooking show. According to Vilanch, Lucas originally intended for the story of Chewbacca’s family to appear somewhere in the Star Wars saga, but we just can’t wrap our minds around that factoid.
We are also treated (if that’s the word) to Princess Leia singing the film’s “theme song,” sung and the end of the show to John Williams’s Star Wars theme (she’d apparently wanted the opportunity to show the world she could sing).
The program featured stock footage from Star Wars too, and we’re officially introduced to the bounty hunter Boba Fett during a short animated cartoon (called “The Faithful Wookiee,” it’s probably the best part of the entire show; the Toronto-based Nelvana Studios would later produce two more Saturday morning cartoons — “Droids” and “Ewoks,” both debuting in 1985).
Oh, and then there’s “Maude” main actress, Bea Arthur, appearing as a bartender in the Mos Eisley Cantina on the desert planet of Tatooine, who sings one “Good Night, But Not Goodbye.” Harvey Korman also appears as a barfly who drinks through a hole in the top of his head.
Incidentally, The large white rat suit in the Cantina scene was made for The Foods Of The Gods, which we told you about here.
The special features three additional musical numbers, including “This Minute Now” by Diahann Carroll, who appears as a hologram in a tight, shimmery gown, which apparently makes the granddad Itchy visibly horny (according to producer Mitzie Welch, who wrote many of the songs, Carroll’s sequence was intended to be “soft-core porno that would pass the censors”), and “Light the Sky on Fire” performed by Jefferson Starship, presented as a 3D music video watched by one of the Imperial guards.
Director George Lucas was apparently creatively involved at the beginning, and had presented television producers with an idea for a yuletide special, but he apparently didn’t have much involvement in the production of the special, as he was busy elsewhere. He supported the hiring of the special’s director, another former USC film school classmate, David Acomba, who fought with producers (apparently he suggested Robin Williams for the special but that idea was nixed by CBS executive producers).
Acomba ultimately left the production after clashing creatively with representatives from the network (who also clashed with Lucas too). He was replaced by Steve Binder, a veteran of television variety shows who had coaxed Elvis into making his 1968 “Comeback Special.”
Lucas — who had given up creative control and let the TV writers and execs use his characters however they see fit — ended up hating the special and disavowing its existence, until he could no longer escape being asked about it, and according to more than one source, he’s said “If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.”
There’s a possibly apocryphal rumor that Lucas famously tried (and failed) to buy up all master copies to make sure it was never broadcast again. Harrison Ford has said he has no memory of it whatsoever and so it doesn’t exist, as far as he’s concerned (sorry, Mr. Ford — it exists).
We realize most of you have probably become aware of “The Star Wars Holiday Special” at some point over the years and perhaps you already know all about it, and you also probably know that critics (of all types, professional and sniping bloggers) over the ensuing years since it first aired have not held back whatsoever in expressing just how much they hated the show, although we have to say, some of them have found very funny ways to express their hatred for the holiday special.
Then there are those critics — and we have to say, we can’t blame them either — who never quite bought into the Star Wars saga to begin with, like Marc Campbell of the awesome Dangerous Minds blog, who just the other day posted on Facebook that he thought Star Wars was “hopelessly square, a space western in disco drag.”
A few years ago, Nathan Rabin of the A.V. Club wrote “I’m not convinced the special wasn’t ultimately written and directed by a sentient bag of cocaine.” He added that if the holiday special has “a single virtue, it’s that it does eventually end.”