Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
On November 17th 1978 I was elven years and one day old, and I thought my life was ruined. At the time we lived on a thirty-five foot boat in Southern California, and in this pre-cable time, we had an aerial antenna that on a good day could get four channels (and two of them were ABC). Occasionaly on overcast days we could barely make out CBS. This was the day of the Star Wars Holiday special. Already a pariah among the pre-teen geek set for being the last person in our clique to see Lucas’ magus opus, I was in fear what would happen to my nerd cred if I missed this. For a brief moment through the gray haze of our 10’ black and white television I could make out the body of the Minimum Falcon, then the screen dissolved into static. I was devastated, I began to cry. My dad explained matter of factly that I could just watch it next year, and that it would probably be on every year until the end of time. Little did we know powerful forces were moving at that very moment so that The TSWHS would never be seen on broadcast television again.
Fast-forward ahead thirty-six years to Christmas 2014. I worked a five hour shift and joined my extended family at my aunt’s house for the holiday dinner. After the diner and the kids opening all their presents my sister brought out her laptop and we watched a pixilated version of the much maligned Christmas special. The show was bad and it didn’t improve with age. Even with me doing the Rift-Trax thing and mocking it, as well as my timely comments of Star Wars trivia, couldn’t save this clunker. We both got up for pie around the time the cartoon came on and got back just in time to see Han Solo pitch a stormtropper off the Wookie’s balcony.
For the uninitiated The Holiday Special was a musical comedy verity special (?!?) that aired only once in 1978 featuring the original cast of Star Wars. George Lucas one public comment on it was “if he had a sledge hammer he would destroy every copy of it that existed.” It isn’t so bad it is good. It is so bad it is terrible. Many fans have never seen it and are aware of it only through pop culture (like the scene in Weird Al’s White and Nerdy video where he buys a boot leg version from a gangsta.) Or the urban legend that Carrie Fisher (Princess Liea) was high as the Death Star when she sang the holiday song.
So the first question we have to ask, as we explore this travesty, is why did they make it in the first place? The answer is Lucas was afraid people would forget about Star Wars. Despite his space opera being on lunchboxes, magazines, greeting cards, toys, tee-shirts and anything else that could be merchandised, he was afraid that America’s love affair with his movie was just an infatuation and that people would lose interest when the sequel came out two years later. He felt the need to get his franchise back in the public’s face and felt that a holiday special would be the perfect way.
So the next question is why in the name of Darth Plaguies would you make it a musical comedy verity show? The original concept wasn’t a verity show. Lucas had very little to do with the actual show. He gave a brief overview about Chewbacca trying to get home to his family for Life Day, then basically turned it over to the TV production company. (Though some cast members claim he was sent dallies and approved the final product) The verity show came up on the fourth draft which was turned in on October 13th 1978 just a little a month from the air date.
When Lucas turned his back on the project the people he had left in charge went with what they knew. Verity shows like The Sonny and Cher Show or Donny and Marie where having their last hurrah, during this time. They were also big draw during the holidays. Art Carney, Bea Arthur and Harvey Korman would draw older viewers, with the younger TV audienceee willing to see anything with the Star Wars brand on it. To the show’s producers it seemed like a natural fit. Unfortunately they apparently had zero appreciation of the subject matter.
As strange as it might seem, Star Wars and musical verity worked at least once on the small screen. When Mark Hamill guest hosted The Muppet Show. He played both himself and his ‘cousin” Luke Skywalker. Of course that time he had the benefit of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and rest.
The main cast of Star wars Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie and the rest make what amounts to extended cameos. The plot focuses on Han Solo trying to get Chewbacca back to his home world to celebrate Life Day. But since the big stars are barley on screen, the first quarter of the show focuses n Chewie’s extended family, wife Malla, father Itchy and son Lumpy. They are Wookies and for the first twenty minutes or so there are no humans with them. That means the whole time the dialog is growls and grunts. Keeping in Star wars tradition there are no subtitles for the Wookies.
To fill time Lumpy watches a holographic circus on a Dejarik board (the 3D chess Chewie plays with the droids on the Millennium falcon) In 1978 this was probably cutting edge special effects but looks dated now and just drags on too long.
Harvey Korman has three roles, including the scene where he plays Ms. Gormaanda, a female alien four armed chef. I am sure that the show writers just fell into giggling hysterics when they imagined Korman in drag with four arms doing a Julia Childs parody, going to fast in her recipe for anyone with two arms to keep up. Now Korman probably had the best comedic timing of anyone in his generation, but the truth is he just doesn’t pull it off.
Later Trader Dann (played by Art Carney) gives Itchy a hologram tape cassette for his mind evaporator. (A virtual reality machine). The appearance of the VR tape is a hole five years before William Gibson cyperpunk Opus Neromauncer. And the Wookie does what you think he would do with it, he uses it to access porn.
Over all TSWHS is a family friendly show, but the writers deliberately told the actors to act as if the tape was the dirtiest filthy piece of pornography in the galaxy. Diahann Caroll plays the holographic beauty Mermeia. She is a virtual hologram that is created by the user’s fantasies. Though on TV she just sings, it is implied much more is happening off screen. It is a sad fact that CBS wanted Diahann Caroll to be on the show because of the lack of people of color in the Star Wars universe, and that the first African American in the SW Universe is in fact a porn slave.
As the Imperials occupy Chewbacca’s home they are forced to watch a documentary on life on Tatooine. Bea Arthur plays the cantina barkeep. She would later tell the Portland Mercury that she wasn’t even aware that her sketch was part of the ‘whole Star Wars thing” at the time. She sings to a bar room full of intoxicated aliens The strange masks and costumes that seem so otherworldly and new only a year before by 1978 and on the small screen seemed old and stale.
The part of the show that is seen as the crown gem is the cartoon. This marks the first appearance of nefarious bounty hunter Boba Fett. The cartoon story line has Chewie seeming going berserk and tying up Han Solo and dashing off to a distant world. Luke and the Droids pursue him and they meet the deceitful Fett. It turns out a virus is driving the humans crazy and the Wookie is searching for a cure. R2D2 realizes that Fett is a baddie by the way he treats his dinosaur mount and prevents Fett form capturing the Heroes of Yavin.
The cartoon is done in the style of the seventies, with angular features, comic book four color coloring and a lot of white with lines in the background. It is the grandfather of The Clone Wars and Rebels. And for what it is, it is pretty good, and rises above the rest of the show.
So with Lucas sending his lawyers out to destroy the copies of the show like Vader sending out Viper Droids to destroy the rebel base, how did the show survive? The answer is an old (now at least) and a new technology. Back in 1978 the VCR was an expensive piece of equipment. But a few fans did copy the show’s one and only airing. Somehow a few copies did survive on cassette (or maybe even Betamax), and were not taped over with copies of Buck Rogers or Cousin Eddie’s wedding reception. These languished in the den of geeks until they could be downloaded on to the web. Now a new generation could see the sucky black hole that is the Star Wars Christmas Special. Though it been pulled off Youtube several times there are still many places where one can watch all or part of the special on the web.
You have to be a glutton like my family to want to watch it. But in general I think it is a great warning to Disney that not everything with a Star wars brand is gold.