This past Saturday marked the 40th anniversary of The Star Wars Holiday Special airing on CBS. Legendary in the Star Wars universe as being terrible, so much so that George Lucas has personally vowed to destroy every copy and Carrie Fisher would play it at parties when she wanted people to leave, the special has left an indelible mark on that brand that spawns ridicule, confusion, and (sometimes) ironic appreciation. It is an intergalactic spectacle like any other.
Airing on November 17th, 1978, the plot of the special follows Han Solo and Chewbacca being pursued by the Galactic Empire. Solo is urgently trying to get Chewbacca back to his home planet of Kashyyyk so he can celebrate Life Day, a deeply spiritual holiday for the Wookies, with his family. Meanwhile, Chewbacca’s family on Kashyyyk, prepare for the holiday. Itchy, Chewie’s father, spend times watching a virtual reality fantasy programs starring Diahann Carroll (which effectively serves for pornographic use). Malla, Chewie’s wife, is prepares a meal from a television cooking program hosted by Harvey Korman as a four-armed, purple-skinned alien. And Lumpy, Chewie’s son, Lumpy tinkers with a video screen so he can watch things such as a cartoon starring Boba Fett.
Imperial stormtroopers and an officer force their way into the Wookie house ins search of Chewie until Lumpy uses a machine to imitate the voice of their commander and they are ordered to return to their base. The fun doesn’t end at the Wookie home as we are given a glimpse of life elsewhere in the galaxy. In the famous Mos Eisley cantina on Tatooine, the Empire has initiated a curfew and Ackmena, portrayed by Bea Arthur, is forced to close the cantina early, but not before putting on a musical number.
Just in the nick of time as not to be discovered by the stormtroopers, Chewie arrives and is reunited with his family. From there, they prepare for the festival at the great Tree of Life, where they hold glowing orbs and are dressed in red robes against the backdrop of space. As they walk into a star, they are greeted by all of their friends and heroes of the Star Wars film including Luke, Leia, C-3PO, and R2-D2. Leia gives a short speech about the importance of Life Day and, in all her coked-up gloriousness, sings a song to commemorate the occasion.
What makes the holiday special an embarrassment for Lucas and the franchise is the shear camp of the thing. The special was designed to capitalize on the era’s trend of airing variety shows as television specials, which would explain the involvement of Korman and others like Art Carney. Their involvement adds outdated schtick humor that I’m sure was not even funny at the time.
Also, the segments of the special are incredibly weird. I mentioned earlier the virtual reality porno fantasy Itchy was engaging in. That’s true. It is Carroll speaking seductively and making a lot of sexual innuendo towards the camera. Other segments include Itchy watching a Cirque de Soleil style acrobatics show.
Strangely, a lot of screen time was dedicated to the Wookie family with no discernible dialogue. A good chink of the special involves them growling and roaring at each other with the audience unsure of what is being communicated.
I’ve seen several of these clips many times, and I have actually watched the special in its entirety. Not even Mark Hamill has done that. I find it entertaining in a this-is-ridiculous-but-fun-to-watch-in-a-group-setting-under-the-influence-way. IT is certainly not something to sit through sober.
The special, despite the many atrocities it commits towards culture and good taste, did serve an important place in the Star Wars canon. The special did introduce the planet of Kashyyyk and Boba Fett, who has gone to be one of the franchise’s most beloved characters. When Disney purchased the franchise and committed everything apart from the films to be considered non-canon, they still made the holiday special canon with the inclusion of Ackmena in a book of short stories about the first film. So, say what you will about Disney, they at least have sense of humor about this and it is funny to think that the holiday special, despite Lucas’ intent, remains current in the Star Wars universe.
One of the more interesting aspect of the special is a performance by Jefferson Starship. Lumpy, as a way to distract one of the Imperial guards, tunes his video screen to a music video of Jefferson Starship, as an unnamed human band, performing “Light the Sky on Fire.” Cast with shades are dark pink and red, the band performs their interstellar rock ballad with gusto that effectively keeps the guard entranced. Originally under the working title of “Cigar-Shaped Object (Vanished Without a Trace),” the song was a promotional tie-in for their compilation Gold, though the single that would appear on that collection is different than the one on the special. The performance on the holiday special would also be Marty Baslin’s final appearance with the band before later rejoining in 1993.
If you have yet to watch The Star Wars Holiday Special, please do. Get some friends together and just do you own home version of Riff Trax. What a great way to spend Life Day and the memories will be implanted in your brain forever as people pity you when you tell them you’ve seen the special in its entirety.