I was there. 45 years ago. Sitting in my living room, waiting, tuned in to CBS on November 17, 1978. No Love Boat, Lou Ferrigno or Lynda Carter tonight – tonight was reserved for (epic trailer voice:) The Star Wars Holiday Special.
I clicked the TV dial all the way over to WHIO and sat down on the couch. On screen, they announced that the Incredible Hulk wouldn’t be airing tonight and as the word SPECIAL spun around into multi-colors, the lights went down and the Millennium Falcon flew away from a dingy brown planet that looked a lot like Tatooine, its engines deafening.
Of course, the lights didn’t go dim, and my parents had maybe a 24” tube TV with built-in speakers that crackled if you turned it up too loud. But I didn’t care – I was returning to a galaxy far, far away.
When people talk about the Star Wars Holiday Special now, the words campy, silly and absurd come up a lot. Like they’re looking back with disdain, not just for the show, but for those 13-million or so of us huddled around our television sets. Like we didn’t know. Even at 8-years old, it was clear to me that mashing together a science fiction masterpiece like Star Wars with the format of The Carol Burnett Show was questionable at best.
You see, we didn’t have Disney+ or the Cartoon Network, or Blu-rays or DVDs or even VHSs back then. My first Star Wars recording consisted of a pair of 90-minute audio cassettes, which I personally recorded from the CBS Network TV Premiere in February of 1984. The VHS had come out the previous year, finally, but was $80.00 for the clamshell videotape.
In 1978, all we had was one movie – Star Wars – that had played for over a year in still pretty packed theaters. The movie disappeared for just one week while FOX changed out the first reel in every theater across America, and the next week, the opening crawl told us this was Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope!
Sure, we had Alan Dean Foster’s novelization, the toys, and the comics – issue 1 coming out more than a month before the movie debuted (on my birthday!). In fact, 2 issues were released before the movie, which would have been huge spoilers, except at the time, reading comic books was about as popular as seeing good sci-fi movies in the theater. But even then, those all paled in comparison with seeing the real-life heroes on screen – even if it was a tiny one.
People wanted more Star Wars, and they got it.
From a Certain Point of View
Alright, maybe it was weird that we met Chewbacca’s family, including “Itchy,” his father, and Lumpy, his son. But bear in mind that George Lucas was busy working with Lawrence Kasdan & Irvin Kershner to make The Empire Strikes Back. And the five writers on the Star Wars Holiday Special – including comedian Bruce Villanch and Pat Proft (who would go on to pen the Police Academy films) had only Lucas’ media interviews and some haphazard scraps of ideas to work from.
In his original script for Star Wars, Lucas had a society of primitive Wookies defeat the technologically superior Empire, one of the many ideas that got canned due to budgetary issues – in this case for the better. Of course, Lucas brought them back – or at least a smaller version in
Revenge Return of the Jedi – the Ewoks.
And let’s be honest, it’s not like George was a storytelling genius either. He’s remembered more fondly now, but it doesn’t take much digging to find records of Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford complaining about unwieldy, jargon-laden confusing dialogue. Or how the first screening for his USC buddies (and Spielberg) went poorly – and they pitched in to fix it. Or that the story was ultimately saved by his then-wife and editor Marcia Lucas, who reformed the story tighter around George’s Jungian/Campbellian hero’s journey narrative.
So why couldn’t we visit the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk – built inside Warner Bros. Sound Stage #1 (where most recently Ellen hosted her talk show)? Why couldn’t the Wookies play with the same Kenner toys we had? And since Wookies can’t vocalize English – or any human language – why not add some human characters? Especially ones played by the top stars of the day – Beatrice Arthur (Maude), Art Carney (The Honeymooners), Harvey Korman (The Carol Burnett Show) and, ahem, The Jefferson Starship (the Zoroastrian themes of their hit song “Miracles” fit with Lucas’ Force)?
The truly amazing thing is that Broadcast network TV would even attempt this. After an opening sequence with Han and Chewie running from the Empire, trying to make the jump to lightspeed to make it home in time to celebrate Life Day with Chewie’s family, we spend nearly 10 minutes with the Wookies and no understandable utterances whatsoever.
Which might have also been when the non-super fans tuned out.
Then we get to chat with Luke Skywalker – who miraculously can understand the Shyriiwook language, even across massive subspace distances, on a screen tinier than my parents’ TV. Luke encourages the worried Wookies, that Chewie’s never missed a Life Day yet (nevermind all that time in Imperial slavery!), and he won’t this year either. Then he’s back to fixing his engine with Artoo, and probably grateful to be (temporarily) out of the show. Han and Chewie continue their journey, interspersed with repurposed film footage, including a cameo by Darth Vader.
The Wookie family then try to contact the Trading Post on “Wookie Planet 3.” Art Carney distracts an Imperial soldier while offering the worst coded wordplay ever to Chewie’s wife Mallatobuck on the screen, assuring her that her “expected… Shaggy Carpet, made by Han-d, Solo is on its way.”
While waiting, Malla enjoys a cooking show, hosted by Harvey Korman as a 4-armed alien Julia Child-style chef. Later an imperial commander of some sort – he bears no clear rank or insignia – announces martial law and a blockade on the “Kazook planet.”
Carney stops by the house, bearing gifts like some Star Wars Santa. Malla gets a holoprojector that looks like a sewing machine, Lumpy a set of space legos, and Itchy a cartridge for his VR chair. Which is where it gets really creepy. Not sure the 8-year-old me completely understood what kind of fantasy Diahann Carroll’s mermaid was for Itchy, but it goes on for way too long.
Look; Another Cameo!
Princess Leia and C-3PO interrupt for a pointless message, and we’re back to the Wookies. Finally, just before the halfway point, Han and Chewie get to the Wookie homeworld – the Falcon seemingly greenscreened over a much different landscape than the Ralph McQuarrie matte painting/model mockup we saw of the Wookie’s treehouse before.
But it’s a feint! The ship they hear is actually Imperial Stormtroopers at their door. Imperials search the treehouse, with Art Carney distracting with a larger than usual ration of schtick. He turns on Malla’s holoprojector for the Imperials and we all get to enjoy “The Jefferson Starship,” playing “Light the Sky on Fire” – full of fun mystical lyrics.
While the Imperials continue their hurried search of the treehouse, Malla sits Lumpy down to watch some afternoon cartoons, sponsored by the Alliance – and the hands-down, best part of the show begins. A cheesy animated Star Wars cartoon that stars a heretofore unknown character – Boba Fett! The animated show features our rebel friends, in a style that alternates between classic Rankin-Bass and a near Genndy Tartakovsky anime style.
Of course, this is a Fett unlike we’ve seen since – even on Disney+. He rides a sea serpent, rescues Luke, talks a lot – often using the sobriquet “Friend,” takes Chewie on a quest to steal an antidote from Imperial forces in a nearby city… and then reports in to Darth Vader. Later when his loyalties are revealed, he activates his rocket pack and jets off… Okay, so he’s kinda like the Fett’s we know.
As the Imperials are wrapping up their not-so-hurried search of the treehouse, a mandatory broadcast comes on – a moral documentary predating, but strangely reminiscent of, the show Cops.
“Life on Tatooine”
It features an extended scene in a familiar cantina, with Bea Arthur as the bartender and Harvey Korman – in his third appearance – as a lovesick patron with a crush on her. And just as this SNL-style sketch feels like it’ll never end, it’s interrupted by another Imperial edict – that somehow simultaneously interrupts the documentary – and plays within it?
Bea Arthur, somehow responding to the very signal that interrupted her scene with Korman is scurrying around the bar, trying to chase the patrons out. The aliens from Mos Eisley are all here – and a few newbies, like a giant mouse and a Michael Myers (Halloween) lookalike. When they protest her evacuation, she gives up – and sings a song, dancing with a Devaronian and a Rodian. Sadly, Greedo does NOT shoot first and put us out of our misery, but she does sing everyone but Korman out of the bar.
The Imperials get a call – faked by Lumpy’s android (also Korman) and leave except for a lone Stormtrooper, who discovers the ruse and is going after Lumpy when Chewie and Han suddenly appear to save the day. Han fakes the Trooper out and casts him out of the treehouse. Cue a Wilhelm scream – seriously. Han greets the family, then abandons poor Chewie to this morass of a Life Day Special.
Finally Life Day!
Chewie and Malla have a romantic reacquaintance, then are interrupted yet again by an announcement, looking for the missing trooper. Art Carney once again saves the day, and the true Life Day celebration can begin.
Glowing snowglobes somehow transport the Wookies, decked out in maroon robes, to a queue where they march into the sun, bright cave opening, Tree of Life, where they’re somehow reunited with C-3PO and R2-D2, despite neither being anywhere near the planet or together. And of course, they’re shortly joined by Luke, Leia, and Han.
And Carrie Fisher sings. In the midst of the celebration, we push in on Chewie and he remembers first meeting Luke and Obi-Wan, flying in the Falcon, playing Dejarik (holochess), seeing the Death Star, scaring the Mouse droid, Vader killing Ben Kenobi, and the awards ceremony where he didn’t get a medal.
Then we’re back in the treehouse, the Wookies pray for their meal, and we slowly fade to black.
Yes, it sounds crazy and contrived. It absolutely was. But it was also Star Wars, and as a friend likes to say, “Star Wars is like pizza… even when it’s bad, it’s still pizza.” While 13-million people sounds immense in our niche-programmed streaming age, the special didn’t even crack the top 10 Nielsen ratings for the week.
Despite George Lucas’ ire, and although there has never been an official release of the show past its doomed airing on CBS stations across the country, bootleg VHS and DVD copies can be found at Star Wars Celebration, and nearly any fan or comics convention. There are also some decent recordings saved on YouTube, of course.