“…And Introducing Chewbacca’s Family!” Case File #30: The Star Wars Holiday Special
My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s a twice-monthly survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were a financial flops, critical failures, and lack a substantial cult following.
Star Wars has a tricky dual identity. It has created one of the most revered and popular mythologies of our time, a rich, dense universe that trumps even Lord Of The Rings and Star Trek in its influence and enduring popularity. It would be hard to imagine a world without Star Wars. Yet Star Wars is also, on some level, silly space nonsense designed to entertain small children and sell toys.
Star Wars fandom borders on a secular religion. In a fascinating Vanity Fair piece on the subject of this Case File, one of the Star Wars Holiday Special writers refers to it as a “sacred text” his addition is somehow supposed to have discredited. Yet the toy-selling nature of George Lucas’ empire is never far from the surface. Centering the last half of a sequel around painfully adorable living teddy bears like the Ewoks, as Lucas and director Richard Marquand did in Return Of The Jedi, might seem heretical to those who take Star Wars seriously as the archetypal myth of our time and take to the Internet to furiously debate what is canonical and what is not canonical, but it makes perfect sense from a marketing perspective. Similar logic helps explain the ubiquitous presence of a divisive, silly-talking frog-man/regressive racial caricature in The Phantom Menace. For Star Wars cultists, Jar Jar Binks’ centrality to the first new Star Wars movie in 16 years, a film cultists anticipated the way evangelicals do the return of Christ, wasn’t just jarringly out-of-place—it was heretical. But when considering the goal of entertaining small children and selling toys, Lucas’ affection for Jar Jar Binks looks a whole lot savvier.
Besides, are fuzzy-wuzzy sentient teddy bears or a silly-talking frog-man really that much more ridiculous than an effeminate robot and his bleep-bloop-dispensing sidekick doing a Laurel-and-Hardy-in-space routine, or a wrinkly, diminutive, backwards-talking green guru dispensing sage advice and ass-whippings in equal measure? Yet R2-D2, C-3PO, and Yoda are treasured fixtures of the Star Wars universe, while Jar Jar Binks and the Ewoks are considered juvenile embarrassments.
It seems like Star Wars fans only really have a problem with the deathless franchise getting silly and childlike when Lucas’ sops to his film’s massive prepubescent fan base are poorly received. And there are killing sprees perpetrated by flag-burning neo-Nazi pedophiles that were better received than Jar Jar Binks’ inclusion in the Star Wars canon. You’d have to travel back to the giddy days of 1978 and the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special to find another component of the Star Wars universe as alternately mocked and reviled as Jar Jar Binks, that so nakedly set out to entertain small children and sell toys at the expense of the franchise’s underlying seriousness and ambitions to Joseph Campbell-style mythmaking.
George Lucas is rightly considered one of the preeminent control freaks of our time, an obsessive who can’t stop fiddling with his films decades after they became pop-culture phenomena. Yet he was shockingly asleep at the wheel when The Star Wars Holiday Special was rushed into production to appease a public that only thought it could not get enough of Luke Skywalker and his pals. In fact, it doesn’t seem too great a stretch to see Lucas’ fabled control-freak tendencies as a direct response to the all-consuming awfulness of The Star Wars Holiday Special. Lucas would let others direct Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, and claims he’s ready to hand off his baby to a new generation of myth-makers/toy-sellers now that he’s sold it to Disney for a little over $4 billion. But, for the moment, there’s no doubt that everything connected to Star Wars strongly reflects Lucas’ vision, for better or worse.
That was not the case with The Star Wars Holiday Special, which reportedly came from Lucas’ massive vault of elaborate backstories and film ideas. According to the special’s official production notes, the producers “had a veritable treasure trove of background information of ‘Wookiee’ lifestyle garnered from a 40-page ‘bible’ prepared for, but never used, in connection with the original motion picture.” Why on earth would the producers need 40 pages on the quirks and proclivities of quintessential supporting players like Wookiees? Because in The Star Wars Holiday Special, they’re the main characters! Who needs space battles and lightsaber duels when you can feature scene after scene featuring the incomprehensible grunting of characters that one of the special’s writers, Bruce Vilanch, ridiculed as “sound[ing] like fat people having an orgasm”? In Vilanch’s estimation, it was just a little counter-productive to make a special about hirsute aliens who can’t speak, yet are nevertheless central characters. So the writer in the question threw up his hands and figured, “Well we have to load this up with stars who sing and dance and do shtick to cover up that the story is about these walking carpets,” according to an interview he conducted with the website Combustible Celluloid.
And yes, that is the Bruce Vilanch, the ginger-haired Muppet-man, one-time Hollywood Squares staple, and awards-show-patter contributor whose name has since become writerly shorthand for “comedy hack.” Joining him were fellow veteran gagman, Zucker brothers collaborator, and future Police Academy creator Pat Proft, and Leonard Ripps, Rod Warren, and Mitzie Welch, comedy and variety-show specialists with credits like The Jim Stafford Show, Van Dyke & Company, and The Sonny & Cher Show.
Vilanch’s presence explains an awful lot about The Star Wars Holiday Special, but I’m still not convinced the special wasn’t ultimately written and directed by a sentient bag of cocaine. Not people on cocaine, mind you, but powerful stimulants that somehow came to life, got an agent, and transcribed the entire script on a three-day jag, ranting, like Alfred Molina in Boogie Nights, “The whole thing will take place on the Wookiee planet, right? And it’ll be about Christmas. No, Hanukah. No, Life Day! We’ll make up a holiday just for this. And the Wookiees, we don’t know what they’re saying, but other people do! And Princess Leia will sing a song and Bea Arthur will be there, but she’ll be, like, doing a cabaret number, like, downbeat and creepy and melancholy, and Jefferson Starship will show up—I’ll figure out why later—and there’ll be an erotic interlude involving Diahann Carroll and Chewbacca’s really horny dad, and Luke Skywalker will be there, and Darth Vader, and a cartoon! There will also be a cartoon and did I mention Jefferson Starship? And we’ll get Harvey Korman and Art Carney. Oh, it’ll be—what was I talking about just then?”
I like to imagine that before the special was filmed, Harrison Ford was a lovely, patient, kind-hearted mensch, but that having to deliver lines like, “I know your family is waiting. I know it’s an important day” to a man in a giant space-monster costume transformed him into the bitter, mean-spirited crank we all know and reluctantly tolerate today. At the risk of being unkind, Ford does not deliver lines like, “That’s the spirit! You’ll be celebrating Life Day before you know it!” with much conviction. It’s almost as if he did not believe deeply in that sentiment, or, if I can be even more unkind, the spirit of Life Day.
I similarly like to imagine that Carrie Fisher was sober as a Mormon on Judgment Day prior to having to tell Chewbacca’s family, “This holiday is yours, but we all share with you the hope that this day brings us closer to freedom and to harmony and peace. No matter how different we appear, we’re all the same in our struggle against the powers of evil and darkness. I hope that this day will always be a day of joy in which we can re-confirm our dedication and our courage, and more than anything else, our love for one another. This is the promise of the Tree Of Life.” That moment then sent Fisher into the nightmare tailspin of drug and alcohol abuse that nearly destroyed her before her phoenix-like resurrection as a sharp-witted humorist able to glean big, bleak laughs out of trainwrecks like The Star Wars Holiday Special.
After embarrassing himself onscreen in The Star Wars Holiday Special, is it any wonder Mark Hamill eventually shifted into behind-the-scenes voiceover work in cartoons? It couldn’t have escaped his attention that a cartoon introducing Boba Fett was the only element of the Holiday Special that was well-received, and even that stood out largely by virtue of not being as egregiously awful and inappropriate as the rest of the special.
The Star Wars Holiday Special seems to explain an awful lot, even if the special itself remains largely inexplicable. The special at least gives wide-eyed audiences a horrifying taste of what they’re in for in an opening-credits sequence that features an announcer booming, “Introducing Chewbacca’s family! His wife Malla! His father, Itchy! His son Lumpy!”
The Star Wars Holiday Special opens with Ford’s Han Solo and Chewbacca en route to Chewbacca’s home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate the bullshit holiday of Life Day with Chewbacca’s family. In a bid to escape some Star Destroyers, Han Solo and Chewbacca’s ship goes into hyperspace, leaving Chewbacca’s family to worry about when, or if, their father will come home. Much of the first half of The Star Wars Holiday Special is then dedicated to a trio of hairy space monsters patiently biding their time while waiting to see if their father will come home in time for Life Day. Seriously. Waiting For Godot featured both less waiting and more crowd-pleasing action than The Star Wars Holiday Special.
In an attempt to alleviate their agonizing boredom just a little, Chewbacca’s family seeks out information about his possible whereabouts from such contractually obligated co-stars as Hamill, who looks patently insane attempting to carry on a rational conversation with giant space bears who communicate through grunts, groans, and goat-like bleating.
Attempting to establish and maintain even the faintest illusion of reality while acting opposite furry space monsters speaking an imaginary language is an acting challenge of the most challenging and idiotic sort. Hamill, Fisher, and Ford are utterly defeated by it. Fisher stops just short of reading directly from her script to broadcast her lack of engagement. The only actor up to this unique challenge is Carney, who deserved not just an Emmy, but a Nobel Prize for delivering a convincing, even naturalistic, performance as a friend and ally of Chewbacca’s family in the most impossible of circumstances.
Though it’s at least decent enough to include perfunctory cameos from the film’s stars, The Star Wars Holiday Special has more in common with the variety specials that were Vilanch’s stock in trade than it does with Star Wars or its sequels. The special pads out its interminable two-hour running time in ways that are fascinatingly misguided at best and agonizingly, punishingly dull at worst. The special is never stranger or more perversely inappropriate than during an inexplicable psychedelic sequence featuring Diahann Carroll as the holographic representation of grandpa Itchy’s most fevered erotic fantasies, who appears to Itchy as a sensual vision and cooingly explains, “I know you’re searching for me. I am here. My voice is for you alone. I am found in your eyes only. I exist for you. I am in your mind as you create me. Aw, yes. I can feel my creation. I’m getting your message. Are you getting mine? Oh! Oh! We are excited, aren’t we? Just relax. Just relax. Yes. Now we can have a good time, can’t we? I’ll tell you a secret. I find you adorable.”
That monologue would sound leering and flirtatious even if Werner Herzog delivered it, but Carroll ratchets up the bizarre eroticism of the scene with her sexy giggling, girlish cooing, orgasmic moans, and Marilyn Monroe inflections. The sequence suggests nothing so much as phone sex—intergalactic, interspecies, intergenerational, interdimensional phone sex between a sexy human hologram and a horny old goat. To paraphrase Glenn Plummer in Showgirls: What Carroll is doing isn’t dancing; it’s teasing Itchy’s dick!
Equally inexplicable and inappropriate, albeit for much different reasons, is a bizarrely out-of-place song-and-dance number starring Bea Arthur wearily crooning a melancholy torch song to the patrons of a bar filled with aliens from the cantina scene in Star Wars. In keeping with the special’s bizarre tonal shifts from wacky comedy to breathtaking earnestness to incomprehensibility, the Arthur torch song is weirdly redolent of the tragic world of Cabaret, with Darth Vader’s emissaries standing in for the Nazis. It’s sad and blatantly theatrical, a Kurt Weill-inspired number in a special about screaming wooly beasties.
If The Star Wars Holiday Special has a single virtue, it’s that it does eventually end. Chewbacca and Han Solo make it home to celebrate Life Day and Fisher—who would only appear in the special if she was allowed to sing—celebrates togetherness first with the unspeakably clumsy, awkward monologue quoted above, and then with a ballad that pretty much killed Fisher’s hope of a musical career in its infancy.
The Star Wars Holiday Special was directed by Steve Binder, who also directed Elvis Presley’s 1968 comeback special, which gives him the curious distinction of having helmed one of the most loved and most hated specials in the history of television. Lucas learned some hard lessons about letting Binder and others tamper with his baby from The Star Wars Holiday Special. It aired only once and has never been available legally on home video in any form. It probably never will be. The Star Wars Holiday Special might have succeeded in entertaining small children (and that’s extremely questionable, given how weirdly boring it is) and selling toys, but even if that were so, it was the emptiest of victories.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco