U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Learning from Life Day

Star_Wars_Holiday_Special_8x10__67622.1405345638.1280.1280While there’s much disagreement among fans over what is the greatest of the Star Wars films, there’s no disagreement whatsoever about the single worst Star Wars product.  However much viewers disliked the prequels, however angry fans were about the way Lucas altered Episode IV for its DVD release, the Star Wars Holiday Special truly stands alone.[1]  Aired only once, the Holiday Special was broadcast on CBS on Friday, November 17, 1978, about a year-and-a-half after the release of the original Star Wars and exactly one day before the Jonestown massacre. Never released on home video and preserved only in a couple off-the-air VHS recordings, the show was infamous but largely unavailable for decades after its premiere.  But in the age of YouTube, the Star Wars Holiday Special suddenly became just a Google search away.  Its newfound ubiquity has turned it from the most obscure piece of the Star Wars universe to a piece of widely mocked so-bad-it’s-good culture, a kind of Wookiee-flavored The Room, Birdemic with a cantina scene.  The show’s 35th anniversary in 2013 even saw the creation of an unofficial website dedicated to it.[2]

On this Christmas Day, in the midst of another moment in which Star Wars is ruling our popular culture, I figured it might be interesting to revisit the Star Wars Holiday Special with the seriousness befitting the USIH Blog. Can we learn anything from this most ridiculous and appropriately derided television show?[3]

The Holiday Special is loosely organized around a plot involving Chewbacca returning to his family for the celebration of Life Day, which is apparently the Wookiee version of Christmas.  Most of the action concerns Chewbacca’s wife, Mala, his father, Itchy, and his little son, Lumpy, who are waiting at home, as Chewie, riding with Han Solo aboard the Millenium Falcon, has been delayed by imperial forces. (Of course, as Wookiees, none of Chewbacca’s family speaks English and one of the reasons that writers Pat Proft and Leonard Ripps were brought on board to turn George Lucas’s story into a script was that they had previously written for the mime team of Shields and Yarnell.)

The show also includes appearances from Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, reprising their roles from Star Wars.  Art Carney plays a space trader. Harvey Korman provides consistently unfunny comic relief in three separate roles.  Bea Arthur plays a Maude-like bartender at the Mos Eisley Cantina.  And, since this is a Seventies Christmas Special, there are plenty of musical numbers, from Bea Arthur, Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll (who, in the show’s most cringeworthy moment, plays a virtual reality character providing a sexual fantasy for the elderly Itchy), and, in the climactic scene in which the Wookiees celebrate Life Day, Carrie Fisher, who apparently would only appear in the show if they allowed her to sing.

So here is a list of a three (at least semi-) serious things that intellectual and cultural historians can learn (or at least get a greater appreciation of) from watching the Star Wars Holiday Special.

1) George Lucas’s Greatest World-Building Ideas Are Open Ended and Brilliantly Incomplete

Rafe Telsch, reviewing the 2004 DVD rerelease of George Lucas’s first film, the arty dystopian science fiction picture THX-1138 (1971), for CinemaBlend criticized the movie for its many unanswered questions:

There’s really not an aspect of THX 1138 that doesn’t cause some question to pop up in the mind of the viewer. THX (Robert Duvall) lives in a future society where everyone takes drugs to suppress emotions. Why take the drugs? Why live like this? Why not have real names instead of letters? We don’t know. Out of nowhere THX’s spouse/roommate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) starts altering the drugs THX takes so he starts to feel again. Why does she do this? How did she break free from the drug’s hold herself? We don’t know. THX is approached by a mysterious stranger, SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasence) who has observed the changes in THX and wants to become THX’s new roommate – which isn’t gay because there’s no sex in this future; the men are milked by machine. Why? We don’t know. Since in this future everything is monitored, it isn’t long before the love between LUH and THX is observed, and the two are arrested. As there’s no visible government, how is it decided to punish these two star crossed lovers? We don’t know. Eventually THX escapes with the help of SEN and SRT (Don Pedro Colley) who, despite looking like everyone else, is apparently a hologram. Why? We don’t know. The three find themselves on the run, attempting to “escape” – escape what and go where? (Say it with me) We don’t know.

Lucas has been justly criticized as a director and writer. But he is nearly universally praised as a world builder.  Though THX-1138 is a film that divides people, those who like it do so for the world Lucas imagines in it.  This is even more true of the original Star Wars.

And Rafe Telsch, at least in my opinion, has it precisely wrong. What makes Lucas’s worlds so wonderful are all their loose ends.  His very willingness, at least initially, not to answer all the questions gives the settings of THX-1138 and Star Wars a kind of spacious and lived in quality. Though it didn’t bear that name at the time of its release, Star Wars was conceptualized as Episode IV of a much larger saga. That famous crawl at the start of the movie fills in essential elements of the backstory, but so much is left untold and up to the viewers’ imagination. And many of the most effective moments of the movie are those that seem to point to more stories that we only get to glimpse. This is the genius of the Cantina scene.  One of the reasons that the merely suggested elements seem so rich is that Lucas cared deeply about them and often dreamed up backstories that he didn’t bother to tell his audience.

As Lucas filled in the blanks suggested by the first Star Wars movie, these senses of possibility collapsed a little.  Sometimes the answers Lucas provides deepen his stories, such as when we discover Luke’s paternity in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). But many other times knowing more removes some of the magic from the Star Wars universe.  Most found it only annoying when, in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), we discover that the Force is caused by microscopic organisms called midi-chlorians.

Nearly all the additional information we learn about Wookiees in the Star Wars Holiday Special detracts from our experience of Chewbacca, one of the original film’s most striking characters.[4]  The Holiday Special’s attempt to reprise the Cantina scene includes many of the same rubber masks but manages to rob Mos Eisley of its extraordinary sense of stories untold, in this case not so much by filling in more details as by reducing the diverse menagerie into the kind of generic Western bar crowd on which it was based.

Boba-Fett-Holiday-Special-Misc-08In contrast, the single really effective segment from the Holiday Special is an animated short that appears in the middle of the show and creates that sense of mystery and as-yet-unexplored worlds that made the original Star Wars so extraordinary.  The Holiday Special’s cartoon interlude introduces the character of the bounty hunter Boba Fett, who would reappear in the next two Star Wars movies and whose very mystery made him a wildly popular character with fans of the franchise.

2) Star Wars Could Have Been One Great Movie Followed by Dreck

Today, we take for granted that Star Wars is a multi-movie, multi-platform juggernaut. But audiences in 1978 didn’t know that that would be the case.  The extraordinary success of the first movie gave George Lucas the resources and clout to make more movies and expand the Star Wars brand.  But plenty of cinematic blockbusters are followed by utterly indifferent sequels (that other key Seventies blockbuster Jaws (1975) comes to mind).

The Star Wars Holiday Special was designed to strike while the iron was still hot.  It fell almost precisely between the release dates of the first and second Star Wars movies, about a year and a half after Star Wars and a year and a half before The Empire Strikes Back.   And while Lucas was no doubt interested in his fictional universe for its own sake, he and CBS were also interested in the vast commercial possibilities that Star Wars opened up.  The toy company Kenner, which had made the first Star Wars action figures, planned a series of action figures that would depict Chewbacca’s family, which it hoped to sell after the airing of the Holiday Special.  Eventually these were scrapped, other because the Special, while attracting a fairly well-sized audience was seen as a failure or because, unlike a movie that played for weeks, it provided too short a “selling window.”

Revisiting the Star Wars Holiday Special reminds us what a fragile thing the success of the original Star Wars was.  Not yet an entire franchise, Star Wars, which suggested so many possibilities, might have been followed only by crap like this.

3) In Retrospect, the ‘70s Variety Show was a Hot Mess of a Television Genre

A lot of what’s most awful (or wonderful, from the point of view of nostalgic kitsch) about the Star Wars Holiday Special is the genre it falls into: the late-1970s Christmas special and, more generally, the 1970s variety show.  The 1970s saw the last gasp of the variety show, one of the oldest tv genres.  Shows like The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978), The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour / The Sonny & Cher Show (1971-1974, 1976-1977), and The Donny and Marie Show (1976-1979) were big hits. But over the course of the decade they spent more and more time winking at the inanity of themselves. And by the 1980s, they had largely disappeared from network line-ups.

The gentle, but self-knowing, kitschiness of 1970s variety shows kept the genre alive during its last years.  But it was utterly at odds with the self-seriousness of the Star Wars universe. A number of variety show writers, including Bruce Vilanch, were brought into punch up the Holiday Special’s script.  Their brand of humor both doesn’t fit the world of Star Wars and hasn’t worn well.

[1] Even the one would-be defense of the show that I’ve read, written by Bonnie Burton and published by CNET two years ago at the time of its thirty-fifth anniversary, is more an appreciation for the nostalgic kitsch pleasure of watching it today than an actual defense of the show itself.

[2] Though I’ve never had trouble finding the Star Wars Holiday Special online, apparently Disney has been eliminating copies of since purchasing Lucasfilm in 2012. So you might want to grab it while you can.

[3] Apparently I’m not the only one this holiday season turning to the Star Wars Holiday Special.  Mental Floss published an oral history of the show last week.  And today SlashFilm published a long interview with its director Steve Binder, who made his reputation directing much better musical specials, including Elvis’s famous 1969 comeback special.  I’m indebted to both these posts for some of the information in this one.

[4] George Lucas was actively and enthusiastically involved in the early stages of developing the Holiday Special but drifted away from the project and came to detest the resulting product. Nonetheless, he wrote a large “bible” explaining the Chewie’s family and the world of the Wookiees, off of which the Holiday Special’s director Steve Binder worked.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Back in ’78 I watched both “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park” and the “Star Wars Holiday Special” and I turned out okay. What can I say? They were both better than “Battle of the Network Stars.”

    • Amazing how “Battle of the Network Stars” always came down to the final tug-of-war, wasn’t it?

  2. On the Wookie race (or peoples or civilization), I’ve been intrigued since Episode III that Yoda found them compelling and friendly. I’ve wanted to know more since, and hope that Episodes VIII and IX work on them. …Minor spoiler: I now know already that VIII doesn’t. – TL

  3. No contemplation of the 70s variety show is complete without The Muppet Show, which I contend both perfected and killed the genre. Lucas would have the good sense to bring in Frank Oz on the sequels… hmm.

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