Chewbacca’s son Lumpawaroo in 1978's Star Wars Holiday Special, which may not even be suitable for "bad movie night."
The old VHS tape of Star Wars that lived at my grandfather’s house was a fixture of our family's strange Christmas celebrations, a kind of post-present refuge from another communal viewing of It's a Wonderful Life. But nobody ever showed me the holiday special.
And that is exactly how George Lucas, Harrison Ford, James Earl Jones, and nearly everybody else involved with the 1978 CBS television event apparently wanted it.
As the first official spin-off of the film, a year after Star Wars had smashed all box office records to become the biggest grossing movie of all time, the financial logic of such a special seemed impeccable. To executives at CBS (no one is clear about who first proposed the idea) the show promised to be a ratings hit, and Lucas and his deputies at what was then known as The Star Wars Corporation saw an opportunity to extend the franchise, keep audiences' attentions rapt by the Star Wars universe, sell more toys, and earn new fans.
The original Star Wars cast in the special's agonizing grand finale, during which Princess Leia sings atop the Star Wars theme
The show would air on CBS just before Thanksgiving, when Nielsen audiences were plentiful, pleasing network executives and giving Lucas another chance to remind audiences about his geek universe just before toy-buying season. A year earlier, while the film was still in theaters, segments featuring the Cantina aliens on variety shows hosted by Donny and Marie Osmond and Richard Pryor had helped to boost ticket sales. With an actual feature-length sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, still two years away from theaters, a holiday special would help keep Star Wars fresh.
This of course was long before Lucas would be accused of sabotaging his franchise with embarssing follow-ups. Lucas himself would have little involvement with the actual production, but he would insist on one point: that the plot be centered around Chewbacca's Wookie family, based on, according to the production notes, “a veritable treasure trove of background information of ‘Wookiee’ lifestyle garnered from a 40-page ‘bible’ prepared for, but never used, in connection with the original motion picture.”
Bruce Vilanch, a comedy writer and classmate of Lucas's at USC who had been tapped to help pen the show, wasn't so sure. As he told Vanity Fair's Frank DiGiacomo in 2008, Lucas's instructions meant the show was in danger of looking like “one long episode of Lassie.”
Harrison Ford would later tell Conan O'Brien that he did not recall the holiday special
“I said: ‘You’ve chosen to build a story around these characters who don’t speak. The only sound they make is like fat people having an orgasm,’” Vilanch recalled. “In fact, I told Lucas he could just leave a tape recorder in my bedroom and I’d be happy to do all the looping and Foley work for him.”
Lucas would have his way: there was no shortage of people in Hollywood willing to do his bidding, and CBS was set on the idea. (Vilanch, known for his comedic contributions to the Muppets, Hollywood Squares and a slew of game shows, dropped out of the production mid-way through, and would also attempt to take his name off it.) Direction would fall to Steve Binder, a veteran of television variety shows who is known for coaxing Elvis back into crooning mode for a 1968 "Comeback Special" on NBC that today is sometimes considered a kind of forerunner to MTV's Unplugged series. But even that kind of legacy would have a hard time supplanting the memory of a non-denominational Wookie holiday celebration.
Harvey Korman plays an electronics salesman and a four-armed
alien chef named Gormaanda, "The Julia Child of the Milky Way"
Ultimately, the plot would be tied together by a story line about Chewbacca and Han Solo visiting Kashyyyk, Chewbacca’s home planet, just as the Empire has begun a blockade on the planet in search of the Rebels, and in the days prior to the Wookie's traditional holiday, Life Day. (The nerds in the audience will observe that while Life Day was originally intended to be a stand-in for Thanksgiving, a delayed airing of the special in other countries, where Thanksgiving isn't celebrated, created the impression that Life Day was actually meant to be the Wookie's version of Christmas; even Lucas is said to have mistakenly referred to the show as the "Christmas special.")
After an incredibly long prologue rolls across the screen, the action begins with baby Wookies playing with--surprise!--licensed Star Wars toys. Interspersed between lengthy, almost avant-garde bits of grunting, untranslated Wookie dialogue, are musical numbers, variety-show acts and celebrity cameos by 1970s talents like Art Carney (The Honeymooners), Harvey Korman (The Carol Burnett Show, Blazing Saddles), and Bea Arthur (Maude, Golden Girls). Korman plays a few characters, including an intergalactic Julia Child with four arms, cooking up a holiday treat called "Bantha's Surprise." Art Carney serenades the Chewbaccas with the chestnut, "“Why all the long, hairy faces?" Then he sits Chewbacca's dad Attichitcuk, or Itchy, down in front of a kind of virtual reality machine, in which Diahann Carroll shows up, for what can only be described as holographic phone sex.
“I know you’re searching for me," she purrs. "I am here. My voice is for you alone. I am found in your eyes only. I exist for you. I am in your mind as you create me. Aw, yes. I can feel my creation. I’m getting your message. Are you getting mine? Oh! Oh! We are excited, aren’t we? Just relax. Just relax. Yes. Now we can have a good time, can’t we? I’ll tell you a secret. I find you adorable." A circus-style acrobatics routine ensues, with uneven bars and juggling. It would be funny-awkward if it weren't so awkward-awkward.
"People told me about this gag years ago, so I was waiting for it to a degree," a critic named Chad Webb wrote on Nether Regions, his blog of DVD obscura. "But I was shocked and perplexed to actually see its suggestive trippiness. Yes, this happens."
The shark has long since been jumped when Jefferson Starship appears in the hologram machine, playing a version of "Light the Sky on Fire" to an enchanted Imperial policeman. Later on, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill show up looking like hostages. Some things defy description; some things don't quite merit it. And a very few things fit neatly into both categories.
"If I had the time and a sledgehammer," said George Lucas, "I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.”
“It was such a strange iteration of the original big-screen-movie concept and your regular variety-show, Carol Burnett vibe,” former Jefferson Starship lead guitarist and songwriter Craig Chaquico told DiGiacamo in 2008. “I was like tripping on it myself, man.”
For the finale, Princess Leia closes the show by leading the ensemble in a rendition of the "Happy Life Day" song, which is, incredibly, a re-tooled version of the Star Wars theme, with lyrics. She prefaces it with a speech that turns Life Day into a cause for civil rights, heroism, and love at the same time:
"This holiday is yours," she tells the assembled Wookies, "but we all share with you the hope that this day brings us closer to freedom, and to harmony, and to peace. No matter how different we appear, we're all the same in our struggle against the powers of evil and darkness. I hope that this day will always be a day of joy in which we can reconfirm our dedication and our courage. And more than anything else, our love for one another. This is the promise of the Tree of Life."
Carrie Fisher sings “Happy Life Day”
"I'm not convinced the special wasn’t ultimately written and directed by a sentient bag of cocaine," the AV Club's Nathan Rabin wrote in a recent monograph on the special. If it has "a single virtue, it’s that it does eventually end."
No Jedi mind trick could make the world forget. But Lucas had technology on his side: the film aired on American television only once, on November 17, 1978 on CBS from 8:00 pm to 10:00 pm. Then, the Internet was still in swaddling clothes, relegating samizdat broadcasts to the sneaker net of VHS bootlegs. On these tapes remain the only known extant versions of the show.
One first generation recording from Des Moines, Iowa’s KCCI, is available on many BitTorrent websites; another recording from then-CBS affiliate WMAR-TV in Baltimore, Maryland has been floating around YouTube in parts, featuring the original, mesmerizing commercials. Searching for imagery, I stumbled upon a few hilariously legitimate looking fan-made sleeves for a DVD version of the film that will almost certainly never exist.
"If I had the time and a sledgehammer,” Lucas said at a fan convention a few years ago, “I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.”
While he doesn't deny his responsiblity for the Wookie storyline, in a 2005 interview, Lucas passed the buck to the production team. "The special from 1978 really didn't have much to do with us, you know," Lucas told StaticMultimedia.com. "I can't remember what network it was on, but it was a thing that they did. We kind of let them do it. It was done by... I can't even remember who the group was, but they were variety TV guys. We let them use the characters and stuff and that probably wasn't the smartest thing to do, but you learn from those experiences."
To fanboys, the special is, in any case, a treasure-trove of Star Wars arcana. It introduces three members of Chewbacca’s family – his father Attichitcuk, his wife Mallatobuck, and his son Lumpawarrump – and marks the first appearance of cult-fave bounty hunter Boba Fett.
To others, this was the worst two hours of television ever. That was the assessment of David Hofstede, author of What Were They Thinking?: The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History. To Shepard Smith, Fox News Channel anchor, it was a “’70s train wreck, combining the worst of Star Wars with the utter worst of variety television.” In 2006, Conan O’Brian took a few minutes out of his interview with Harrison Ford to prod the actor about the special. He feigned ignorance, then looked on anxiously as Conan played a clip. "Thank you," he muttered.
As fiercely meticulous and protective as Lucas is now known to be, the special is a reminder that Star Wars has always been a big business. Despite his regrets, Lucas's commercial logic has kept expanding the universe with dubious sequels that can look from some angles like justifications for more merchandise and video games, augmented reality apps, Adidas commercials.
The costs of Lucas’s mistakes aren't commercial, really: despite the missteps that began at the holiday special, Star Wars continues to be one of the most lucrative brands in film history. That doesn't diminish the lesson of the holiday special: that any good story risks being ruined early on and from the very top. No universe is safe from the laws of entropy, or from a harebrained holiday variety show so terribly bad that it’s almost good. Almost.
Still, Carrie Fisher—not one to sky away from her own personal debacles—found a silver lining in the whole experience. In exchange for recording DVD commentary for the Star Wars films, she demanded that Lucas give her a copy. It was, as she told David Carr, "so that I could, you know, have something for parties … when I wanted everyone to leave.”
Watch the whole thing:
This story was originally published in 2010, and was updated on December 20, 2013.
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