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Revisiting 1978's Misbegotten Variety Show 'The Star Wars Holiday Special'

Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels and Peter Mayhew on the set of "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back" directed by Irvin Kershner. (Photo by Lucasfilm/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels and Peter Mayhew on the set of "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back" directed by Irvin Kershner. (Photo by Lucasfilm/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Back in September, when the first presidential debate sputtered to its ugly, obstreperous end, Mark Hamill tweeted that it was the worst thing he had ever seen on television “and I was in The Star Wars Holiday Special.” Such shade from Luke Skywalker is to be expected, as over these past 42 years the ill-conceived CBS variety show tie-in to the previous summer’s box office juggernaut has attained legendary status as a Hindenburg of kitsch horrors. A hilariously misbegotten attempt to blend the cutting-edge blockbuster with an old-timey, Golden Age of Television sketch-show sensibility, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” cost $1 million to produce and aired exactly once, on Nov. 17, 1978. George Lucas has often been quoted as saying that if he could, he would happily track down every copy in existence and smash it with a sledgehammer.

This week, “The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special” premieres on Disney+, and although we weren’t privy to an advance peek, one can assume it will be an entertaining branding exercise that’ll move a ton of toys over Christmas and probably open even more new revenue streams for the multibillion-dollar property. This is what Hollywood is best at these days — capitalizing on cross-promotions and creating more market share. They weren’t always so good at it, though. Especially when something seismic like “Star Wars” came along and blew up everybody’s ideas of what movie marketing could be.

In September of 1977, four months into Force-mania, C-3P0, R2-D2 and Chewbacca had guest-starred on a very special episode of the “Donny and Marie” show. The extravagant closing segment featured the Osmonds as Luke and Princess Leia (unknowingly spoiling the “Return of the Jedi” revelation that the Skywalkers were siblings) as well as an up-for-anything Kris Kristofferson as Han Solo, singing Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Wanna Take You Higher” while they all board the Millennium Falcon. As ghastly a spectacle as this may seem, it nonetheless prompted a bump at the box office for “Star Wars” and got the suits thinking seriously about television tie-ins.

Lucas and his creative team were plenty preoccupied at the time with “The Empire Strikes Back,” which left his initial idea for structuring a show around a holiday celebration on Chewbacca’s home planet of Kashyyyk in the hands of a bitterly divided creative team trying to reconcile the newfangled science fiction elements with the vaudevillian format of televised variety shows. This is how you wind up with Bea Arthur as a bartender at the Mos Eisley cantina, dancing with Greedo while singing a Kurt Weill-ish ballad about the Empire’s new curfew. It also explains Harvey Korman (in the first of several roles) as a four-armed alien Julia Child, hosting an intergalactic cooking show.

But what nobody can explain even all these decades later is the troubled production’s insane idea to have the story revolve around Chewbacca’s family — his wife Malla, father Itchy and son Lumpy — while they wait around for him to get home for their holiday dinner. After the opening credits, there’s not a single word of English uttered for more than 10 minutes, just these large, furry beats lumbering around the set, grunting and groaning. Writer Bruce Vilanch objected to spending so much screen time with the creatures as “the only sound they make is like fat people having an orgasm.” A large fellow himself, Vilanch suggested they could save money on dialogue recording by leaving a tape recorder in his bedroom.

There’s really no possible way to understate how alienating and bizarre the opening of this program is, just watching the Wookiees wander around and moan. It’s so anti-entertaining as to border on the avant-garde. Carrie Fisher claimed she had one of the only extant original copies and used to put it on at parties when she wanted people to leave. (I tried something similar with my old bootleg VHS in the late ‘90s, and be forewarned that folks on certain substances at odd hours of the morning will not handle the experience well.) The comedy sketches and musical performances appear on screens and electronic devices in Chewbacca’s family home, so you’re mostly watching Wookiees watch television.

Until the most notorious number. Friendly next-door neighbor Art Carney — reprising his Ed Norton schtick from “The Honeymooners” while wearing a shirt disturbingly bereft of buttons — straps Grandpa Itchy into a proto-VR headset so the horny old dog can watch Diahann Carroll, in a skimpy Bob Mackie dress and a pale pink wig, cooing into the lens that she wants him to “experience her” and pretty much inventing the concept of camgirls while the aged animal whimpers and shudders with carnal delight in his recliner. You stare at it slackjawed in disgust, wondering if you’re really watching an elderly Wookiee masturbate and if so, why aren’t all these people in jail?

Production woes were rampant, with original director David Acomba walking off after only shooting two numbers. (He didn’t even call to say he’d quit, sending a telegram instead.) TV legend Steve Binder, who’d directed such classics as “T.A.M.I. Show” and “Elvis’ ’68 Comeback Special,” was brought in to rescue the rest. The film’s stars Hamill, Fisher and Harrison Ford, working very much against their will due to contractual obligations, look hilariously miserable (and rather well-medicated) throughout their brief appearances. Despite a budget that was by all accounts absurd, the crew still ran out of money before filming the comically cheap finale, for which Binder just set out a ton of candles.

Every other aspect of Lucas’ galaxy far, far away has been rehashed, recycled and marketed to death, and yet “The Star Wars Holiday Special” remains in the ether. (It took me ages to get my hands on a tape of it growing up, but of course, nowadays everything’s out there on YouTube.) I wrote an article much like this one 20 years ago begging for the show to be released on DVD, but Lucasfilm still won’t budge. If nothing else it’s an extraordinary cultural artifact from a moment when popular entertainment was changing so quickly even the creators couldn’t keep up. The “Star Wars” industrial complex is always trying to stay current, constantly retconning its legacy with revisions and special editions, to a point where last year's "The Rise of Skywalker" spent most of its running time trying to rewrite everything that had happened in 2017's "The Last Jedi." The whole series has become like your friend who uses too many filters on their Instagram photos, while "The Star Wars Holiday Special” is the saga’s embarrassing high school yearbook picture hidden in the back of the closet, wearing bell bottoms and braces.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece misspelled "Wookiee." The fictional creatures from the planet Kashyyyk in the "Star Wars" universe have two e's following the 'i' in the name of their kind, not one. We regret the error.

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Sean Burns is a film critic for The ARTery.

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