When it comes to holiday celebrations, TV holiday specials are a mainstay for many. Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown are just a few examples that one can count on for reliving nostalgia and embracing the season each year.
But not every television special sticks the landing, which brings us to The Star Wars Holiday Special, which originally aired on November 17, 1978. Coming hot off the heels of the blockbuster smash Star Wars: A New Hope, expectations were through the roof. Things…didn’t go well.
The reaction by fans, cast and crew were so negative, that it never re-aired in the U.S. or received any official home video release. For children who watched it in ’78, this made the whole thing feel like some crazy hallucination. But thanks to the power of YouTube, we can attest that it did in fact exist — and that it is absolutely insane.
So in honor of the holidays and the Star Wars: Rogue One premiere this week, let’s look at a horrible special far, far away and a long time ago, with 15 bizarre factoids about a production George Lucas laments ever came to fruition.
15. Chewbacca’s Family Grunting Scene
The plot for the holiday special revolves around “Life Day,” a sacred holiday that brings Chewbacca and Han Solo to visit the Wookie’s home planet Kashyyyk for a yearly celebration. This leads to the anti-climactic opening scene where Chewie’s family does chores while awaiting his return. It’s a sluggish and annoying ten-minute segment (we dare you to watch it on repeat for an hour–betcha can’t!) spoken entirely in Wookie, with no subtitles for clarification.
Yep, this awkward exchange of desperate and indecipherable pantomime (with cheesy background music to match) pretty much sets up the dysfunctional dynamic that plagues the entire storyline. And to further understand just how perfunctory and poorly thought out Chewbacca’s relatives are, get a load of their nicknames: his father is “Itchy” and his son is named “Lumpy ” (his wife gets off with the least ridiculous moniker of “Mala”). Keep in mind that these are only slightly more poetic than their full names of Attichitcuk, Mallatobuck, and Lumpawarrum.
14. Bea Arthur: Singing Mos Eisley Bartender
Maude and Golden Girls star Bea Arthur doesn’t exactly scream “musical barkeeper”, and her unlikely casting as Mos Eisley bartender Ackmena is yet another odd element of one whackadoo special. In this scene, she provides her husky pipes over a familiar but slowed down Cantina Band melody. The song Good Night, But Not Goodbye is a paean to customers that she can’t wait to get rid of (having to dance with a few drunken louts in the process, including one groping giant rodent). And her vocal performance is the definition of acquired taste.
Like everyone else in the Holiday Special, Arthur has a look of “Let’s wrap this up…and do you have my check?” throughout the proceedings. The cast and crew backed this up in an article with Mental Floss, saying she was “cold” and “demanding.” As for her own feelings, the late actress recalled in a 2005 interview that “I didn’t know what that was about at all…I had no idea it was even a part of the whole Star Wars thing … I just remember singing to a bunch of people with funny heads.” That may be the most appropriate description about the whole cursed production.
13. Boba Fett’s Totally Random First Appearance
While most fan’s introduction to the mysterious bounty hunter Boba Fett occurred in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, hardcore fans of a certain age got their first look at the helmeted mercenary in the Star Wars Holiday Special. But his introduction proved a bizarre one at that.
While Chewie’s son Lumpy is trying to keep himself preoccupied when Imperial stormtroopers raid his home, he decides to watch a cartoon on his view screen. The animated film in question features his dad along with Han, Luke and Leia and the droids, who visit a planet made of goo that’s filled with dinosaurs.
Why would Lumpy be watching an animated feature with his dad in it? How did that ever get created, and why does Lumpy try to hide it from the stormtroopers? It’s never explained at all, but we get a glimpse at Fett, who appears at first to attempt to befriend our heroes before his true nature is revealed. Oddly enough, Fett gets more screentime in this goofy cartoon than Empire Strikes Back or Return of The Jedi! It’s also the least grating moment in the entire holiday episode, so take that for what it’s worth.
12. Jefferson Starship’s Hologram Music Video
Basically, the Star Wars Holiday Special is comprised of two things: bad jokes and bad songs. But the holographic music video featuring Jefferson Starship is notable for being an especially bonkers segment. Honeymooners star Art Carney appears as an electronic salesman, tasked with soothing an especially irritable Imperial officer.
His fix? A magical suitcase capable of projecting this trippy musical number, featuring groovy laser-light effects that play over the band’s performance of “Light The Sky On Fire”, which, while not as horrible as the group’s later hit “We Built This City”, manages to be a completely unmemorable rock number. Not to mention the fact that its a bit too uptempo to qualify as “soothing.” As far as why they chose a generic Jefferson Starship rock song to include in a futuristic holiday special (introduced by an aging comic legend no less), we have no clue. But that goes for about every moment in this train wreck.
11. Harrison Ford Looks Completely Miserable
Aside from the occasional wry grin, we’re used to seeing a sourpuss Han Solo on-screen. But even by his scoundrel standards, the character looks pretty miserable throughout the entire production of the Star Wars Holiday Special. You can chalk that up less to characterization and more to actor Harrison Ford’s mindset about being included in such a horrific project.
To see him saunter about in his role, which brings Solo to the planet Kashyyyk to visit Chewbacca’s family, is almost painful, as he’s clearly unhappy about being in the low-rent production padded with sickeningly sweet moments and corny jokes.
In an interview promoting Cowboys and Aliens, Ford made no apologies for his disdain: “It was in my contract–there was no known way to get out of it.” He admitted that he hasn’t even seen the finished product: “No…I was there, man.” In a separate interview with Yahoo! News, he was more concise: “What an embarrassment.” Perhaps this experience was the initial inspiration for Ford to beg Lucas to kill off his character. But alas, the character’s end didn’t come until 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
10. Cooking Show Segment
As if the opening 10 minute Wookie grunting sequence wasn’t ridiculous enough, the Star Wars Holiday Special also treats viewers to a Wookie cooking segment. Because why not, right? While Chewbacca’s wife Mala is mortified that her hubby may be dead, she decides to lift her spirits by watching a weird cooking show to get her thoughts focused on the holiday festivities.
The cooking program features Harvey Korman as Chef Gormaanda, a Julia Child-like celebrity chef, but of the extraterrestrial variety. Sporting an annoying accent, stale jokes, and looking like a cross between The Tin Man and Doctor Octopus, Korman’s character offers a manic style of cooking, repeatedly reminding his audience “stir, whip, stir whip, whip, whip, stir” and that they should be “having fun” as they cook. The commandment to have a good time feels more like a desperate cry for help to the audience to find a morsel of humor in this joyless segment. And despite his (and Mala’s) ridiculous antics, there’s no such luck.
9. The First Star Wars Sequel
Perhaps the most dubious and crazy aspect about this clunker of a production is that it’s officially the second installment in the Star Wars franchise, which is somewhat amazing. That’s right folks, the first Star Wars sequel was a bargain basement variety show, not the stellar The Empire Strikes Back. It makes for a fascinating juxtaposition, however, as the franchise would go from its most saccharine chapter to the darkest (and best) entry in the series.
The fact that George Lucas’s name doesn’t appear in the Holiday Special credits isn’t simply a vote of no confidence from the Star Wars creator — more on that in a bit — it also shows how his and the cast members’ involvement with Empire at the time contributed to the lack of focus and slapdash production. No one was truly invested in the Holiday Special, and it’s readily apparent. It was a cynical effort to push toys and keep the name alive. Amazingly, Lucasfilm consultant Miki Herman would sum up the disaster thusly: “The interesting thing is, the day after the special aired was the day of the Jonestown Massacre. It was just a bad time for everyone.”
8. The Hologram Nightmare Circus
In this segment, Lumpy treats himself to a hologram performance by a group of costumed dancers. Imagine a pint-sized Cirque du Soleil without any interesting choreography and that’s pretty much it. To top off this lame display, we get a queasy honking synthesizer score that sounds like a Mannheim Steamroller outtake. While it only lasts 2 minutes and thirty-four seconds, it feels like a lifetime (like in Wookie years).
Lumpy is way into it however; grunting, clapping and trying to make it look far more impressive and entertaining that it is, which is yet another perfect example of how network brass and the behind-the-scenes production team repeatedly tried to polish a turd that stunk too terribly to ever coalesce into anything worthwhile. That’s the thing about the Star Wars Holiday Special: it may be an assault on the eyeballs and ears, but you just can’t look away.
7. Horrific Production Values
While The Star Wars Holiday Special is the first official sequel to Lucas’s space opera property, it clashes so visually and tonally with A New Hope that it pretty much prevents audience immersion from the get-go. Whereas A New Hope looked amazing on a modest budget of $11 million, the special cost only $1 million, and that translated into a production entirely shot on videotape, with no flashy effects.
This cheap look gave it the visual panache of your average network variety special, and this trickled down into its additional cast of sitcom performers like Bea Arthur and Art Carney, along with The Carol Burnett Show’s Harvey Korman. The Burnett comedy and musical stylings were also present thanks to series writer Bruce Vilanch contributing jokes. Not a good mix.
Special co-writer Leonard Ripps would later complain about this cross-pollination of the production, saying “Lucas wanted a show about the holiday. Vilanch and everyone, they were wonderful writers, but they were Carol Burnett writers. In the litany of George’s work, there was never kitsch. Star Wars was always very sincere about Star Wars.”
6. George Lucas Hated The Concept, But Gave In Anyways
“If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.” Those words came from George Lucas himself when describing how much he despised the end results of the holiday special. The Star Wars creator felt roped into doing the variety show in the first place, saying in a 2009 interview that “Fox said, ‘You can promote the film by doing the TV special.’ So I kind of got talked into doing the special.”
While he may have had reservations, he did craft the original story (which would be fleshed out and drastically changed by a host of writers). Co-writer Leonard Ripps noted that Lucas’ “idea was basically for a Wookiee Rosh Hashanah. A furry Earth Day.” Oddly enough, he also recalled that Lucas said that Han Solo “was married to a Wookie but that we couldn’t mention that because it would be controversial.” Come again? How amazing would that have been to include?
As oft is the case with Lucas, his desire to sell toys and merchandise came at the expense of his reputation. That being said, the Holiday Special is still more fun to watch than those damn prequels.
5. Harvey Korman Pours A Drink In His Head
Harvey Korman does his best to liven up this cursed affair, but he could never rise above the material. In addition to his groan-worthy cooking show host character, he also plays the pervy alien Krelman, who hits on bartender Bea Arthur while getting sloshed in the Mos Eisley Cantina. After tiring of his harassment, she actually gets so irritated that she goes over to lavish attention on Hammerhead.
While she wanders off, he pours a big glass of intergalactic grog in a hole in his head. After that proves ineffectively impressive, he keeps on hitting on Arthur’s character, offering her a flower and totally creeping her out by misreading her indifference as some sort of hard-to-get routine: “I decided what you meant was exactly the thing I needed to hear.” Luckily, in her typical gruff manner she gets him to buzz off and sings the aforementioned closing time song to further the hint — get out, dude!
4. Chewbacca’s Dad Gets Seduced By Diahann Carroll In Erotic Hologram Performance
We’re not sure exactly how this bizarre and provocative moment ever made into a children’s holiday special, but thank the Sith Lords that it did, because it’s one of those remarkably (and unintentionally) hilarious moments that has baffled anyone with the misfortune of seeing the Star Wars Holiday Special.
Dynasty actress and musical theater star Diahann Carroll appears as Mermeia, a holographic fantasy woman who gets Chewie’s father Itchy all hot and bothered while using the virtual reality device described as a “mind evaporator.”
Her gyrating musical performance of “This Minute”, featuring lyrics like “I am your fantasy, I am your experience — so experience me. I am your pleasure,” would feel inappropriate for any family show, but that fact that there’s an interspecies sexual element added on top makes it even more unnerving. We think some things in the Star Wars universe should be left sacred, most notably how a Wookie grandpa decides to gets his rocks off. None of our business. Thanks!
3. Luke Skywalker’s Awkward Attempt to Make Chewie’s Wife Smile
In one of the most off-putting sequences you could ever hope to see, Luke Skywalker talks to Mala via a communications device. In between performing maintenance on R2-D2 in his workshop, he tries to calm her nerves as she awaits her hirsute hubby to return: “C’mon, Chewbacca’s not going to want to come home to a bunch of long faces. C’mon, let’s see that smile.”
We’re then subjected to what seems like an eternal moment of Mark Hamill grinning in deranged fashion, until Mala finally breaks into some sort of pseudo-smile. It’s yet another unintentional example of a human and wookie having a weird romantic moment, which would surely result in Luke getting his limbs ripped off if Chewbacca had walked in and took it the wrong way. Making things even more garish is Hamill’s clown-paint makeup, a drastic attempt to hide his recent cosmetic surgery after a car accident. As far as the actor’s involvement in the special, he had this to say: “I thought it was a mistake from the beginning…I initially said that I didn’t want to do it, but George said it would help keep Star Wars in the consciousness.” At least he succeeded in getting his musical number nixed. Our next entry wasn’t so lucky.
2. Painfully Uncomfortable Musical Finale
The Star Wars Holiday Special saves the worst for last in this cringe-worthy finale: a musical number performed by Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. Her Life Day song is downright sacrilegious, with lyrics like “No matter how different we appear, we’re all the same in the struggles against the powers of evil and darkness” awkwardly retrofitted upon John William’s classic Star Wars theme. Fisher gives it her all, but let’s just say there’s a reason she never had a musical career.
Like the rest of her Star Wars alumni, Fisher wasn’t excited about doing the special, but got lured into it with the musical number. Sure, she was dealing with her own off-camera personal issues at the time (the actress has been pretty vocal about her battle with substance abuse), but there’s no excusing this melodic trainwreck. As far as her own thoughts on the infamous Star Wars entry, Fisher makes it short but sweet: “It was awful.”
1. It Refuses To Die
“It’s true…all of it.” Those solemn words spoken by Han Solo in The Force Awakens could just as easily apply to the Star Wars Holiday Special. Despite nearly everyone involved in the production being embarrassed by it, the fact that Lucas wants all evidence that it exists destroyed, that it only aired once and isn’t commercially available, the fact that it seems too crazy to actually exist…all these points are immaterial. It does exist, it is horrible, and no one affiliated with the Star Wars franchise will ever fully rid themselves of it.
It lives on through bootlegs, YouTube, Rifftrax and other incarnations, allowing fans who saw it as kids to relive its odd charms, and newbies the chance to discover that yes, it’s just as bad they’ve heard. Even Lucas has accepted its place in pop culture, saying in an interview, “I’m sort of amused by it, because it is so bizarre. It’s definitely avant-garde television. It’s definitely bad enough to be a classic.” We like to believe that he doesn’t feel the same way about The Phantom Menace.
Well, that wraps up our look back on all that’s amazingly horrible about the Star Wars Holiday Special! What other crazy trivia would you add to the list? Tell us in the comments, and Happy Life Day everyone!
Star Wars: Rogue One hits theaters on December 16, 2016.
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