The Star Wars Holiday Special: may the farce be with you

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This feature originally appeared in Empire magazine, issue 235, published in January 2009.

On February 8, 2006, Harrison Ford appeared on TV talk show Late Night With Conan O’Brien. O’Brien, a huge Star Wars fan, was ostensibly giving Ford the chance to plug his latest thriller, Firewall – the one where he plays a bank computer-security officer – but with one little question, O'Brien injected a palpable sense of unease into the interview. "Do you remember making The Star Wars Holiday Special?"

Ford greeted this with a nervous shake of the head and stern silence. O'Brien upped the ante by threatening to show a clip and Ford jokingly grabbed O'Brien by the lapels. Then O'Brien ran the clip and Ford tried to play along, pulling anxious, distracted grimaces. When the horror finally came to an end, Ford muttered a gruff, sarcastic, "Thank you." Talk turned quickly to Firewall.

Star Wars Holiday Special

Ford's embarrassment is just the fringe of the frisson surrounding The Star Wars Holiday Special, in which George Lucas' galaxy far, far away collided with the cheesy TV variety show, seeing Han, Luke, Artoo and Threepio share screentime with the likes of Art Carney, Bea Arthur and Jefferson Starship. Ever since its only US airing on CBS in 1978, The Holiday Special – the holiday it refers to is Thanksgiving, not Christmas, as is often misreported – has elicited a constant source of curiosity, comedy, disbelief, dismay, debate and enmity among the fanbase. For, however bad you imagine it to be, nothing can prepare you for the sheer awfulness that plays out over its 97 minutes (120 with ads). It is just something you have to experience for yourself.

I own a pirate video, but I have to be pretty drunk to watch it.

"You need to see it with a bunch of friends who can ooh and ahh and gasp," advises Anthony Daniels, who luckily went through the whole debacle behind C-3PO's mask. "I own a pirate video, but I have to be pretty drunk to watch it."

For years, The Star Wars Holiday Special took on a rarefied, talismanic significance within the fan community. It was something you heard about from friends of friends, glimpsed grainy black-and-white pictures of in Starlog, searched for at movie conventions, looking for that elusive VHS. Now, in this age of eBay/YouTube accessibility, it seems the right time to ask the simple questions: what the hell is it, and how the hell did it happen?

In May 1978, George Lucas was approached by TV company Smith-Hemion to do a Star Wars TV one-off. A year after its release, Star Wars was still riding high in theatres - many cinemas held one-year birthday parties to celebrate - and the opportunities for (bullshit marketing phrase alert!) synergy seemed too good to miss.

“When you are starting out, you try all kinds of things," Lucas told Empire in 1999. "Fox said, 'We can promote the film by doing the TV special.' So I kind of got talked into doing the Special."

At this stage, Lucas must have felt he had put his baby in good hands. Smith-Hemion were a production outfit well-versed in making populist TV spectaculars starring the cream of showbiz royalty: Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Neil Diamond, Elvis Presley, Kermit The Frog. As well as a strong pedigree, they also had a thick contacts book, including ties with a Canadian animation company, Nelvana, one of the few to emerge from the whole farrago with any credit. Lucas, busy with The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Lost Ark, provided some story ideas and access to cast and props, then pretty much left the project alone. It was a decision he would come to rue.

Star Wars Holiday Special

With a budget of around $1 million and a month to shoot at Burbank Studios, David Acomba, a classmate of Lucas' at USC and a maker of music-based projects, was initially hired to direct. But he swiftly left the project over creative differences and was replaced by Steve Binder, the director of the Elvis '68 Comeback Special.

For the core idea, Lucas returned to an idea that fascinated him during the early drafts of Star Wars. "I thought it would be fun to do a story about Wookiees," he says simply. Passing through a clutch of writers - Leonard Ripps, Bruce Vilanch, Mitzie and Ken Welch, Pat Proft (of Naked Gun fame) - the script worked through five drafts, moving into increasingly bizarre areas.

Wookiees sound like fat people having orgasms when they talk. So they're tough to write for.

"It felt like 'Episode 32' of the saga," recalls Vilanch. "Unfortunately, when they talk, all the Wookiees sound like fat people having orgasms. So they're tough to write for. Every line of dialogue is,'Oh, ee, ahh.' How do you write that? The Wookiees can't speak, but the Wookiees were the central characters. So I said, 'Well, we have to load this up with stars who sing and dance and do schtick to cover up that the story is about these walking carpets!'"

The actual premise of the Holiday Special is not terrible enough to set alarm bells ringing straight away: caught under fire by an Imperial blockade, Han Solo and Chewbacca are struggling to get back to Chewie's home planet of Kashyyyk to join the celebration of Life Day, the Wookiee equivalent of Thanksgiving. Back on Kashyyyk, Chewbacca's nuclear family - his missus Malla, his dad Itchy and his son Lumpy - nervously await his arrival. Yet rather than do what normal families do on boring Bank Holidays (sit in traffic, queue forever in B&Q, watch Uncle Buck followed by The World's Strongest Man), Chewbacca's clan find their own means of amusement, each one more ludicrous than the last. And yes, you did read that right: it's Itchy and Lumpy.

So that's the outline. This is how it breaks down, in all its sorry, soggy detail..

Star Wars Holiday Special

00.00: Things kick off with some stock footage of the Millennium Falcon and Imperial spaceships, intercut with Han and Chewie squabbling in a cardboard replica of the Falcon's cockpit. The jump to lightspeed segues into the titles, with a stentorian voiceover announcing, "THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL."

03.16: We come back to a Ralph McQuarrie illustration of Chewbacca's family treehouse. Inside it's a scene of furry family life (with costumes created by, among others, Stan Winston). Malla is in the kitchen. Itchy is whittling away at a toy X-wing. Lumpy is running around, high on the Wookiee equivalent of Sunny D. At this moment, it feels like a Mike Leigh drama with Wookiees replacing Alison Steadman. It should be stressed that all the action is played out with growls, groans and grunts, with nary a hint of a subtitle.

04.51: They're still grunting with no subtitles.

05.23: They're still grunting with no subtitles.

06.47: They're still fucking grunting with no fucking subtitles.

07.02: To calm his hyperactive grandkid down, Itchy digs out a holoprojector and beams onto a table an act that wouldn't make it through the heats of Kashyyyk's Got Talent, a band of acrobats, gymnasts, jugglers and circus performers. Whatever it is, it calms the little tyke down and he reluctantly starts the washing-up.

Star Wars Holiday Special

11.22: Malla contacts Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, under a ton of make-up to hide the scars from his recent road accident) with a secret video communicator hidden behind a wooden cabinet. Luke says Chewie won't let her down.

15.25: We leave the Wookiee residence to join a Kashyyyk trading post run by Saun Dann (the always likable Art Carney), who is trying to flog gadgets to an Imperial officer - probably the only American-accented officer in the entire Empire.

18.50: An outtake from Star Wars sees Darth Vader and Melanie Healy's dad from EastEnders walking through the Death Star discussing the Rebels. Wasn't the latter blown up in the first film? And, come to think of it, wasn't the Death Star?

19.30: Back on Kashyyyk, Malla tries to forget her missing hubbie by watching a cookery TV show in which four-armed chef Gormaanda (Harvey Korman, aka Hedley Lamarr from Blazing Saddles) tries to whip up Bantha Surprise. Although the comedy is risible, it is strangely comforting to know that, even A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far, Far Away, the telly is clogged up with shite cookery shows.

Star Wars Holiday Special

25.19: In an attempt to ramp up the dramatic tension, the plot sees the Empire declare martial law. Aptly enough, the Wookiees go apeshit but are calmed down by the arrival of Saun Dann armed with presents. Saun Dann tells Itchy he's brought him a "proton pack for the mind- evaporator". Itchy settles into a kind of La-Z Boy with a hairdresser's hairdryer on his head, and so begins the Holiday Special's most infamous set-piece. Out of a swirl of '70s video effects, a husky female voice whispers, "I exist for you alone." Diahann Carroll, a kind of younger Shirley Bassey, emerges dressed in an outfit too outré for Mamma Mia!, singing...

”Oh, we are excited, aren't we?/Well, just relax. Just relax/You see, I am your fantasy, your experience!/So experience me. I am your pleasure. Enjoy me.”

Star Wars Holiday Special

In a big close-up, Itchy growls a moan of satisfaction, and as the song continues it becomes clear this is the universe's one and only example of Wookiee porn. Apart from how objectionable this scene is, it also doesn't work narratively: how concerned can Itchy be about his son if he is happy to bliss out to a woman with bad hair?

35.33: While her father-in-law spanks the Wookiee, so to speak, Malla goes back to the secret video communicator thingy and dials up a shellshocked Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and C-3PO. "One realised, even in the segments that were pure Star Wars, that something terrible was happening," says Daniels. "There didn't seem to be any eye in the sky saying, 'Listen, guys, this is crap - let's cut it!'"

One realised that something terrible was happening.

42.45: Without warning, stormtroopers invade the treehouse. To try and calm the situation down, Saun Dann - it's his sole plot function to calm everything down - brings out what looks like a ghettoblaster with sewing-machine knobs. After twiddling a few, Jefferson Starship appear singing Light The Sky On Fire, with singer Marty Balin wailing some guff about pyramids and the great god Kopa Kahn into a big old dildo. "It made The Carol Burnett show look like high art," recalls sax player Steve Schuster.

48.00: Saun Dann leaves and the Imperials' search for signs of Rebel activity continues. Lumpy finds himself a video screen (how many TVs can one treehouse sustain?) and watches a cartoon. This is without doubt the sole, genuinely un-ironic highlight of the entire Special, partly because there's no godawful songs, but chiefly because it features the first appearance in any form of Star Wars' coolest character: Boba Fett. On the hunt for a magic amulet, Han and Chewie crashland on the water planet of Panna. Luke and the droids mount a rescue mission and run into mysterious stranger Fett, who offers to help them. The bounty hunter takes Luke to the Millennium Falcon, where Han, and then Luke, succumb to a sleeping virus produced by the amulet. Fett and Chewie (who rightly doesn't trust Fett) travel to Panna City for an antidote, where Fett reveals his true colours: he is in the employ of Darth Vader. After successfully delivering the cure, Fett's allegiances are discovered and he blasts off on his jet pack. As is the law with the end of kids' cartoons, the heroes start laughing inanely.

Nelvana's animation is crude, certainly, but this has the feel of Star Wars, with a rare glimpse of a Y-wing, Fett riding sea monsters and an exciting chase involving a cool Imperial gunship. What is never explained is why Lumpy is allowed to put the show on while Imperials are ransacking his house – surely this is exactly the kind of Rebel propaganda the troopers are looking for?

01.01.00: Following another astonishingly unfunny skit involving Harvey Korman as a malfunctioning robot in an informercial, the TV cuts to Life On Tatooine (aka outtakes from A New Hope), an Imperial propaganda piece. We cut inside the Cantina to see tough- broad barkeep Ackmena (Bea Arthur, later the gravel-pit-voiced one on The Golden Girls) schmoozing with Greedos, Hammerheads and Walrus Men as Krelman (triple-threat Korman) pours drinks into the top of his head and moons after her. "I still don't understand what Harvey Korman was doing! " recalls Arthur. The protracted banter between the two is bad enough, but the worst is yet to come – Ackmena's song to the Cantina patrons, a lament to the pangs of last orders:

"One more chorus, one more tune/It's not the end, friend, if you're a friend, friend/Then come back to me, pal. To celebrate, pal/ You have to wait, pal."

The number ends with Krelman offering Ackmena a flower. As Imperial propaganda, it is effective: if this is what happens in a liberated society, long live the Empire!

01.20.00: Finding nothing incriminating in the Wookiee residence, the Empire departs, leaving one luckless 'trooper behind. Not before time, Han and Chewie turn up, dispatch the soldier and engage in cringeworthy banter, before Han retires : ... to let the Wookiees observe Life Day. After all this, the celebration of Life Day turns out to be a damp squib. Ascending to some kind of astral dimension, the Wookiees, sporting red robes, march solemnly into a ceremony hall carrying big lightbulbs. It's frankly a piss-poor turn-out - about 12 Wookiees - and the Wookiee elders must have been delighted by the arrival of Luke, Leia, Han and the droids to make up the numbers.

We now come to the centrepiece of the holiday and the climax of the Special. Leia (Fisher, still shellshocked) singing The Life Day Song, a hymn to the sacred day itself, set badly to John Williams' Star Wars theme:

“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.”

In short, it is a day designed solely to celebrate another day. Brilliant.

01.34.00: A dissolve from Leia to Chewie segues into a montage of clips from Star Wars (in the years before VHS, it must have been tremendously exciting for fans to relive the film at home). We return to the Wookiee home with the whole family gathered around the dining table. As they hold hands and bow their heads in respectful silence, the Special mercifully draws to a close.

Star Wars Holiday Special

“It was my first experience of television,” reflected Lucas. “It just kept getting reworked and reworked, moving away into this bizarre land. They were trying to make one kind of thing and I was trying to make another, and it ended up being a weird hybrid between the two. I'm not sure either position would have worked on its own, but by combining them..."

By the time The Star Wars Holiday Special was ready to air, Lucas had removed his name from the credits. Accompanied by huge hype, the show was broadcast on Friday, November 17, 1978 at 8pm, and generated reactions ranging from bemusement to horror. Toy manufacturers Kenner, who had jumped at the chance of producing a new toyline based on Chewbacca's family, axed their plans soon after the broadcast and, unsurprisingly, the Special has never been re-broadcast or made commercially available.

Most things are buried six feet under. The Holiday Special is buried 20 miles under.

"Most things are buried six feet under," says Daniels. "The Holiday Special is buried 20 miles under. If [LucasFilm] had deep-down wit, they would go, 'Okay, here's the Special Edition of The Holiday Special.' Instead of making it a skeleton in the cupboard everyone's ashamed of, why not go, 'Okay, we blew it this time- why don't we see just how badly we blew it?'"

Initially, LucasFilm maintained a wall of silence on the Holiday Special – it never appeared in official Lucas biogs - but over the years there seems to have been a slight thawing of the carbonite. A promotion for the Robot Chicken Star Wars special saw an animated Lucas discuss his hatred for The Holiday Special in a psychoanalyst's chair, admitting that he might have done the same with the Robot Chicken experience - the doctor shakes his head and says, "Thirty years of therapy down the drain." That Lucas voiced the skit himself proves George can embrace the funny as well as the dark side of Star Wars' grandest folly.

“I’m sort of amused by it, because it is so bizarre," he laughed. "It's definitely avant-garde television. It's definitely bad enough to be a classic."