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 in many communal viewings of It's a Wonderful Life. But nobody ever showed me the holiday special.
That's exactly how George Lucas, Harrison Ford, James Earl Jones, director Steve Binder, 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 stakes were high. The special would air on just before Thanksgiving, when Nielsen audiences were plentiful, pleasing CBS 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 boost ticket sales. With an actual sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, still two years away from theaters, a holiday special would be just the thing to keep Star Wars fresh.
Harrison Ford told Conan O'Brien that he did not recall the holiday special
This was long before Lucas could be accused of sabotaging his franchise with embarssing follow-ups. (On Friday, Disney completed its acquisition of Lucasfilm, paving the way toward a new Star Wars movie, and sending nervous shivers down many a fanboy spine.) 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 thing, 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.”
“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 surmounting the memory of a non-denominational Wookie holiday celebration.
Harvey Korman as an electronics salesman and a four-armed alien chef, in the vein of Julia Child
Ultimately, the plot would be tied together by a story line about Chewbacca and Han Solo visiting Kashyyyk, Chewbacca’s home planet, to celebrate a holiday called “Life Day.” But first they must cope with a blockade of the planet by the Galactic Empire, who are searching for members of the Rebel Alliance.
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, but I was shocked and perplexed to actually see its suggestive trippiness," Chad Webb writes on Nether Regions, his blog of DVD obscura. "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 improbably into both categories.
Jefferson Starship, “Light the Sky on Fire”
“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 DiGiacomo. “I was like tripping on it myself, man.”
"If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.”--George Lucas
No Jedi mind trick could make the world forget. The film aired on broadcast television only once, on November 17, 1978 on CBS nbsp;from 8:00 pm to 10:00 pm. Lucas had technology on his side: 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 commercials. (You have many better things to do but you can watch it here, starting with part one.) Searching for imagery, I stumbled upon a hilariously legitimate looking cover for a DVD version that will almost certainly never exist.
"If I had the time and a sledgehammer,” George Lucas said at a fan convention a few years ago, “I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.”
While he insisted on 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 another kind of education, an embarassment of Star Wars trivia and kitsch. 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.
"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.".
As fiercely meticulous and protective as Lucas is known to be, the special is a reminder that he’s also a shrewd businessman. To executives at CBS (no one is clear about who first proposed the idea) the prospect of a special looked like 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, generate new fans and sell more toys. 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: despite the missteps that began at the holiday special, Star Wars continues to be one of the most lucrative brand 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 movie so terribly bad that it’s almost good. Almost.
Carrie Fisher sings “Happy Life Day”
At the end, Princess Leia leads the ensemble in a rendition of the "Happy Life Day" song, which is a re-tooled version of the Star Wars theme song with lyrics.
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.”
Images via starwarsholidayspecial.com; a version of this article originally ran in December 2010.