Exploiting our Archive: This Looks Terrible! Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

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I honestly can’t say how many times I have seen the Star Wars Holiday Special but I’m certain that I have seen it more often than I’ve seen Star Wars. I’ve lived with the intoxicating, brain-melting preposterousness and impossibility of the infamous 1978 special for a long time now.

I was introduced to the Star Wars Holiday Special as what was known at the time as a “party video”, an illegal or quasi-legal VHS tape that people watched with their friends in a party setting, preferably with a lot of marijuana and alcohol in the old days before the rise of Youtube and the emergence of DVD and Blu-Ray technology. 

Because the highly rated, hugely hated 1978 special has never been available in legal form following its initial, never to be repeated broadcast I felt like I was getting away with something by watching something that, from a legal perspective at least, was verboten. George Lucas has understandably done everything in his power to keep the Star Wars Holiday Special from being seen yet through a glitch in the matrix rubberneckers curious as to just how bad the buried nadir of the Star Wars universe could be could get their hands on a bootleg party tape without much trouble. 

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When Youtube launched, making seemingly the entirety of human civilization available at your fingertips that glitch in the matrix got a whole lot bigger. Suddenly anyone with a computer and access to the internet can watch a pretty good quality dub of the Star Wars Holiday Special just by typing those magical, unlikely words into Youtube’s search feature. 

I wrote about the Star Wars Holiday Special for a bonus-sized My World of Flops back in the day, yet despite the many, many times I have born witness to the ultimate Life Day celebration my brain stubbornly refuses to believe that the Star Wars Holiday Special is real, and official, and not some manner of wide-scale collective delusion. 

Re-watching Star Wars Holiday Special I was reminded of “Imminent Death Syndrome”, a classic Mr. Show sketch about a condition where a dying person’s friends and family all know that the dying person has very little time left on earth, even through the soon-to-be-deceased individual does not, so everyone goes out of their way to make their doomed associate’s final bit of time on earth as joyful and successful as possible. 

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In the case of the Star Wars Holiday Special Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew would be the one dying without realizing  it, the IMS victim. I imagine him having a conversation like the following with the people behind the Holiday Special 

Executive: Great news, Peter! People loved you as Chewbacca so much that you’re going to be the star and the focus of the new big Star Wars project, a holiday special for television!

Peter Mayhew: Are you sure that's wise? Chewie is a bit of a one note sidekick character. He basically just yells a lot. I’m not sure that’s a good anchor for anything big.

Executive: Oh, don’t worry. You won't have to carry it entirely by yourself. A lot of it will also involve your family. 

Peter Mayhew: My family? Does my character even have a family? He’s basically just a shouting space bear. Do shouting space bears have families? 

Executive: Of course they do! The public will fall in love with your family members Itchy, Lumpy and Malla the same way they’ve fallen in love with Chewie! 

Peter Mayhew: So my character is going to talk now? There will be subtitles indicating what he’s saying when he’s yelling? 

Executive: Oh god no! These new characters are going to be so fascinating, and so lovable and so irresistible that we won’t need to know what they're saying! So for the first fifteen minutes or so it'll be untranslated, non-sub-titled Wookiee yelling. Your wife, father and son will all be screeching at each other and we won't have any idea what they’re saying! 

Peter Mayhew: So it’ll be a Christmas special? At least that makes sense. 

Executive: Christmas special? Don’t be ridiculous. The Special will be deeply rooted in Life Day, a Wookiee holiday involving robes and gifts and a coked out of her gourd Carrie Fisher singing a song for some reason. All of the other characters will pop up briefly to wish you and your family a Happy Life Day. Sounds great, huh?

Peter Mayhew: I’ve got a bad feeling about this. 

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Alternately, I wonder if the Star Wars Holiday Special’s unusual opening was the result of the variety show veteran cursed with having to write the “funny” subtitled dialogue for the Wookiee getting blasted out of their gourd on cocaine and neglecting their assignment so when they were asked to turn in their work they insisted that, actually, when you really think about it, Wookiees are so funny and so lovable that they don’t need to be understood: they’re like Charlie Chaplin or Jacques Tati, only bleating, one-dimensional space monsters with zero talent for physical comedy. 

The weirdness and the surreal datedness of the Star Wars Holiday Special is inveterately rooted in the weirdness and the surreal datedness of the variety show and variety special, which proved too cheesy and too tacky to survive the 1970s, although they are occasionally resurrected for the sake of ironic, meta giggles. That’s not true of other forms of television. We’re still watching sitcoms. We’re still watching cop shows and westerns and hour long dramas. But unless we’re kitsch aficionados with impressive DVD collections, we’re almost assuredly not watching variety shows. So if Star Wars Holiday Special still seems unfathomably bizarre, that’s because what seemed normal and conventional on variety shows in the 1960s and 1970s seems utterly surreal to us now. 

Like The Phantom Menace, the Star Wars Holiday Special gets off to a deceptively soaring, promising start with that glorious, unmistakable John Williams theme. Then things immediately take a turn when a cheeseball announcer instantly transports us from long ago in a galaxy far, far away to a flimsy sound-stage with the announcement of special guests including Bea Artur, Art Carney, Jefferson Starship, the physical comedy stylings of Harvey Korman, a cartoon and a boner-inducing erotic dance number from the beautiful and glamorous Diahann Carroll. 

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To integrate these variety performers into a thin overarching narrative about Chewbacca’s family hoping that he will evade the sinister reach of the Galactic Empire in order to make it home safely in time for a big Life Day celebration Chewbacca’s family spend a lot of time watching screens. 

Chewbacca’s family are just like us: addicted to their infernal screens. Like the thought-provoking Adam Sandler movie Men, Women & Children, it invites the question, “Are we watching these screens, or are these screens watching us?

Chewbacca’s horny dad Itchy receives a hologram of the aforementioned sensual dance a friendly trader played by Art Carney assures him will got him rock-hard and ready for a little inter-racial, interspecies, inter-galactic action. 

Why would a dumb variety show for children about space monsters need an erotic dance sequence? I honestly have no idea. To be brutally honest, it seems a little inappropriate. Mother Malla enjoys watching a cooking show featuring Korman doing his damnedest to provide a little professionalism to this amateurish endeavor while Lumpy somewhat confusingly watches a cartoon about his father, his father's friends and his dad’s arch-nemesis Darth Vader. Why is his dad on TV? Why is he in cartoon form? What the fuck is going on? 

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At various points this monster-filled two-hour slab of space nonsense for kiddies suggests The Diary of Anne Frank, Paddy Chayefsky’s heartbreaking character of loneliness and desperation Marty and the musical Cabaret. 

When the forces of the Galactic Empire, who strike an unmistakably SS-like figure, are searching Chewbacca’s family treehouse for the big furry sidekick you half expect them to find the Frank family or the Jews who are hiding from Christophe Waltz in the bravura first scene of Inglorious Basterds. 

Harvey Korman plays several different characters here. One is Chef Gormaanda, a four armed alien space instructor who’s like Julia Child with twice the arms and attitude. Another is a character credited as “Amorphian instructor”, a malfunctioning robot and the third, god help us, is Krelman, a lonely barfly and bachelor of a certain age, not unlike Ernest Borgnine’s iconic sad sack Marty, who develops a poignant crush on Ackmena (Bea Arthur), the tough but loving proprietor of the Mos Eisley cantina. Yes, Korman’s lovestruck fool is exactly like Marty if Marty was a space alien who drank through top of his skull. 

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As a principled small business woman trying her damnedest to keep up a good face when confronted by forces of evil, Arthur sings a melancholy, bittersweet torch song that would not feel out of place in a moody drama about life under the Third Reich but feels violently, perversely out of place in a silly, surrealistic mind-fuck equally pitched at children who love Han Solo’s furry, bellowing pal and inexplicably can’t wait to learn more about him, his family and his religious customs and stoners for whom this is less a trippy mind-fuck than a bad acid trip in television form.

The intense cognitive dissonance engendered by the Star Wars Holiday Special begins the first moment onscreen and only increases until an astonishing climax where Chewbacca’s family, clad in monks’ robes wander through the cosmos to a special-closing musical number from Fisher, who is very visibly looking into the wrong camera. 

The other marquee characters in Star Wars (Luke, Han, Leia) seem so obsessed with Chewbacca celebrating Life Day with his family that it begins to seem a little suspicious. If all my gentile friends couldn’t stop talking about how excited they are for me to celebrate Chanukah, and what an amazing holiday it is for us Jews it would strike me as more than a little weird, like they were clumsily over-compensating for secretly being anti-Semitic.  

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The Star Wars Holiday Special is more than just a little weird. It’s utterly, completely, transcendently bizarre and only seems to be getting weirder and more preposterous with age. The Star Wars Holiday Special is officially in its forties at this point but retains the heart and soul of a very silly, very misguided and ultimately very stupid child. 

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