Let’s revisit the train wreck that is the ‘Star Wars Holiday Special’
Every cinephile worth his or her salt should watch the Star Wars Holiday Special at least once. Not because the special is a particularly good piece of SW material – it’s not – but because it’s unlike anything else in the Star Wars universe. Imagine a bad episode of SNL mixed with the worst The Muppets Show episode, starring Chewbacca’s family, and you’ll be close to the weirdness experienced during those ninety-seven minutes.
Disappointingly, the Star Wars Holiday Special isn’t available through any official distribution channels. It was never released on home video and it’s never been hosted on any legal streaming services. You’d think, if nothing else, Disney + would be proud to showcase this unique bit of SW history but nope. Instead, last month they released The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special in an apparent attempt to replace the original.
But not all hope is lost! Thanks to devoted bootleggers – members of the rebellion, you could say – who refuse to let the Star Wars Holiday Special fade into oblivion, you can find decent-quality streams on YouTube (and if you’re more hardcore, you can buy VHS copies on the black market). Here’s a taste of what you can expect when you finally sit down to watch the special.
The Star Wars variety hour (and thirty-seven minutes)
As much fun as it is to blame most bizarre SW-related choices on George Lucas, fact is, he had very little involvement in the Star Wars Holiday Special. According to Lucas, after the massive success of the first Star Wars movie in 1977, he was approached by CBS about doing a TV special with the characters and basically said, “Sure, go nuts”. He would come to regret not being more hands-on in the project.
The Star Wars Holiday Special was brainstormed by variety TV writers & producers. It reunited most of the cast from the original movie and intermingled them with entertainers such as Harvey Korman & Bea Arthur in a bunch of alternating segments loosely based around Life Day, a fictional Wookie holiday. There are songs, there are dances, and there’s a “wait, what?” Bobba Fett cartoon in the middle.
Mama Wookie, Papa Wookie and Baby Wookie
The one Star Wars Holiday Special element we can blame George Lucas for is its focus on Chewbacca’s family. Lucas wanted the special to be centered around Wookies & their culture. He certainly got his wish – in a monkey’s paw kind of way – because we get a lot of Wookie wackiness in this thing.
The Star Wars Holiday Special holds the honor of introducing Chewbacca’s father (Itchy), wife (Malla), and son (Lumpy). Just like Chewie, they communicate through grunts and roars with no subtitles in sight. That’s quite the barrier to put between the main characters in your show and its audience, but the special throws itself into it with cheerful abandon.
The story revolves around the family waiting for Chewbacca to arrive so they can celebrate Life Day. It takes Chewie a while to make it due to Imperial interference, and Itchy, Malla, and Lumpy have to deal with harassment from stormtroopers in the meantime. They also have to deal with some wonky TV programming designed to spotlight the special’s guest celebrities.
Guest stars galore
While we get a decent amount of screentime from the Star Wars cast, the bulk of the entertainment duties in the Star Wars Holiday Special rests on the shoulders of comedians & musicians who hadn’t been associated with the franchise until then. They pop up as part of TV shows Chewie’s family is watching (and in an oddly sexual segment, as part of Itchy’s virtual reality “fantasy”).
Harvey Korman, a staple of Mel Brooks’s productions & The Carol Burnett Show, makes the most out of this opportunity by playing three different characters over the course of the special. None of them are particularly funny but you can’t say he’s not trying. At one point he plays a four-armed alien version of Julia Childs, for crying out loud (we still have nightmares about this cook chanting “stir whip, stir whip, whip, whip stir”)!
Diahann Carroll, a renowned Tony-award winner, seduces Itchy with her silky voice in the aforementioned virtual reality segment. Cringe! Later, the rock band Jefferson Starship pops in with a music video for a song exclusively produced for the Star Wars Holiday Special. But all that pales in comparison to Golden Girls’ Bea Arthur’s turn as a Mos Eisley bartender singing a lullaby to all her customers. Brace yourselves.
Oh, hi, Bobba
Say what you will about the Star Wars Holiday Special (and most people have) – it still introduced one of the franchise’s most popular characters. No, not Lumpy. This is Bobba Fett’s first appearance! When you think about it, without this special, we would never have gotten The Mandalorian. Chew on that, haters.
Fett’s debut is in animated form, as part of a Star Wars cartoon, Lumpy watches on his Wookie tablet. The cartoon recounts an old adventure from the original SW gang, with the original cast lending their voices to Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, C3PO and R2D2. This is clearly the only part of the special Lucasfilms isn’t embarrassed about, since it was included as a bonus feature on the Star Wars: The Complete Saga blu-ray set, in 2011.
Bring it home, Princess
All the main characters from the original movie get a scene or two in the Star Wars Holiday Special to remind viewers of better times (even Darth Vader stops by for a menacing cameo), but Carrie Fisher takes the cake with her big finale. Princess Leia sings us out with an original holiday song as Chewie has flashbacks to all the cool stuff that happened in the first Star Wars movie.
Overall, there’s worse, less-colorful holiday fare to have as background noise while you and your loved ones are chugging eggnog cocktails. Give it a try!