‘The Star Wars Holiday Special’ (1978): TV extravaganza is what today’s world needs

Dear God, now, more than ever…we need The Star Wars Holiday Special.

By Paul Mavis

Considering how severely the original Star Wars cult has degraded, due as much to the passage of time and the constant rehashing and reimagining and rebooting, as to the Dark Side Disney buying it and making it laughably irrelevant with their sinister devotion to poisonous wokeness, I hardly think, then, that anyone will take offense if I celebrate what was once the most reviled element of the Star Wars canon: 1978’s infamous CBS Thanksgiving TV spectacular, The Star Wars Holiday Special!

Now, if you just said in your mind, “It’s not canon!” then you’re precisely the reader I want around for this review. Not because I’m some huge Star Wars expert and I’m going to change your mind, but because you need help. You need counseling if such canonical debates over anything related to what essentially was just a Saturday matinee kiddie movie somehow blown up into some quasi-religion for arrested development cases, occupies your mind to that extent. Everything’s everything, baby…nothing matters that much. But if some things do indeed matter…Star Wars sure as hell ain’t one of them.

If you’ve read some of my past reviews (you need more help than the hypothetical guy above…), you may have noticed that I make no secret of having enjoyed Star Wars when it first came out…but that was all. I didn’t see it twice. I didn’t worship it. It didn’t change my life. Frankly, I had just as much fun watching Slap Shot, Airport ’77, Black Sunday, The Eagle Has Landed, Annie Hall, The Car, Cross of Iron, Rollercoaster (Sensurround was the sh*t…), A Bridge Too Far, The Rescuers, The Exorcist II: The Heretic, Sorcerer, The Spy Who Loved Me, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Deep, One on One, Orca, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and particularly Smokey and the Bandit that summer, as I did watching Han and Luke and Leia and Chewie do their thing. Burt slamming that Firebird around was just as thrilling to me as Luke piloting that X-Fighter down Death Star alley.

Movies for me were an ever-expanding experience that started when I was 3-years-old (seeing a return matinee of Doctor Dolittle) and continued on through countless other titles. Significant landmarks certainly dotted my consciousness (seeing the Connery Bonds re-released as double features on huge screens, a drive-in double feature of The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure are just two examples), but no one movie like Star Wars was going to define my entire moviegoing gestalt.

But yeah…of course I watched The Star Wars Holiday Special when it first aired on CBS on November 17th, 1978. I was 13, and you just didn’t turn away from anything Star Wars-related if you were a teen. And no, after 43 years of course I didn’t remember any of it because the only memory I do have of it was my old man screaming, “Turn that sh*t off!” when he found out the absolutely lush, bounteous Wonder Woman was replaced that Friday night with screeching hairballs. The tradition of tuning in any network holiday special was imprinted on me since day one of my TV watching genesis, so naturally I would dial up The Star Wars Holiday Special. Do I remember any remorse at subsequently missing it that night? Not really…I probably just shrugged and switched over to The Love Boat or The Rockford Files, and that was that.

So, I’m coming to The Star Wars Holiday Special (via the relatively nice bootleg on YouTube) basically “clean.” No memories of it to defend, no axe to grind against it, no slavish, adolescent devotion to the whole silly Star Wars thing. And what I found was bizarre, certainly…but really no more egregious or outrageously “wrong” compared to so many other variety specials put out during the mid-70s (seriously: just watch any random episode of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour series and your jaw will hit the floor). The Star Wars Holiday Special, except for its protracted length and its reliance on a thin narrative framework, uses the exact same elements of so many of those TV specials at the time: bored, contractually-obligated guest stars, lame comedy skits, spotty musical numbers with flashy costumes and shrill arrangements, a nice message at the end of the program, and most important of all, plenty of commercials to sell the advertisers’ products. The fact that so many angered Star Wars fanatics beat their breasts over this innocuous piffle serves to not only illustrate their own humorless fidelity to the nostalgia generated by Star Wars…but also their paltry understanding of what constituted 1970s network television.

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Since George Lucas banned The Star Wars Holiday Special from ever being repeated or released on home video or streaming (we’ll see how long Disney holds out from squeezing an extra buck from their failing franchise), a very brief synopsis might help. It’s “Life Day” on the green, forested Wookiee planet, Kashyyyk (I can’t believe I’m typing this…), where Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) lives with his wife, Malla (Mickey Morton), his father Itchy (Paul Gale), and his ornery young son, Lumpy (Patty Maloney). Chewie, though, is nowhere to be found this Life Day, and his family is very worried (jesus christ…).

Inbetween yelling at Lumpy to take out the trash and do other household chores, Malla makes video chat calls to Chewie’s friends, to see where he might be. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and robot R2-D2 don’t know anything, but they’re sure everything will be alright. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and droid C-3PO don’t know anything, but they’re sure everything will be alright. Only galactic trader and family friend Saun Dann (Art Carney) knows that Chewie and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) are making their way back to Kashyyyk in the Millennium Falcon, and that everything will be alright. Unfortunately, soldiers of the Galactic Empire decide to visit Chewie’s home, in the hopes of snaring him, while the Empire declares martial law and orders a full Australian Covid lockdown of the entire planet (Biden, Gates, and Dr. Fakey just read that and went into seizures of joy). Will Life Day be ruined?

Am I watching a very special episode of Land of the Lost? That’s the first note I have written down for The Star Wars Holiday Special, after about 10 minutes of untranslated Wookiee walking and talking as Chewie’s family settles into what looks to be a typical American family holiday: lots of joyless chores and screaming at each other. I couldn’t put my finger on why Lumpy sounded so familiar until I remembered that screeching kid on the bus I see every day (his mom’s got him on a leash). “Serious” Star Wars fans can’t stand this opening segment of The Star Wars Holiday Special, but I have to tell you: my youngest daughter, raised on brief YouTube and Tik Tok vids of shrieking inanity, found all this hilariously grotesque.

Trying to get your bearings inbetween The Star Wars Holiday Special‘s “angry young Wookiee” kitchen sink drama and the inserts of Chewie and Han fleeing from Imperial Star Destroyers gets steadily more problematic, particularly when you eventually figure out that the action and variety special elements are never going to come together. Perhaps due to the network restrictions for a family holiday show, if the worst the Empire can do in The Star Wars Holiday Special is to close a bar and make a kid clean his room, the producers should have just ditched the laser blasts altogether and stuck with musical comedy/variety.

As for those elements, some work and some don’t…spectacularly. Not helping the special’s chances of holding the audience (after ten minutes of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning on Wookiee Planet C) is Lumpy’s rapturous attention on the hologram antics of the Wazzan Troupe dancers, who execute Bob Fosse-ish poses with spastic abandon. The fact that Lumpy gazes at this spectacle in an euphoric haze should certainly give the butch Chewie pause.

Right on schedule for these kinds of specials, it’s time for a guest star, and nothing says “holiday fun” like a grumpy, unbuttoned-to-the-navel, and, I would assume, sober-by-taping Art Carney. Except for his previous Honeymooners association with CBS, I can’t imagine why he was hired for this (except to get the grandparents out there around the tube, too). Carney as Ed Norton was an inspired genius, and as a dramatic actor, the Best Actor Oscar winner was formidable, as well (the previous year, he had scored again on the big screen in the criminally neglected noir, The Late Show). But here…he’s a blank, neither funny nor dramatically compelling (even a little Norton hand shtick for an Imperial guard doesn’t work). He’s clearly picking up a check.

He does “unsavory,” well, too, considering he supplies Gramps Itchy (who looks like the inspiration for the Predator alien) with some holiday virtual porn. Plugging Itchy into a psychedelic hair dryer, a leering Carney promises a “Wow” for Gramps, before the elder Wookiee conjures up virtual fantasy figure Diahann Carroll. Looking dishy as hell in her slinky Bob Mackie gown, the sensuous Carroll (summoning up Shirley Bassey with that John Barry-like arrangement and the Maurice Binder visuals) sings about being Itchy’s dirty dream (“I am your fantasy. I am your pleasure. Enjoy me,”). If any family viewers were left after Lumpy’s insistent vocalizing, the rest split after this incomprehensibly inappropriate sequence.

The Carol Burnett Show alumnus Harvey Korman contributes three bits for The Star Wars Holiday Special. His take-off on a Julia Child cooking show gets an ever-so-slight nod for his insistent, “Stir! Whip! Stir! Whip! Whip…whip…stir!”, but the extra alien arms gag doesn’t work. Everyone seems to hate his computer instructional video skit, where android Korman keeps glitching during his spiel, but I didn’t mind it. It’s one-note, and not particularly funny…but the rapid video editing glitches were amusing, and certainly not common on 1977 TV (did the creators of Max Headroom catch this back in ’78?).

Oh…I forgot. Jefferson Starship. They show up on a Rebel Alliance Close ‘n Play. The best that can be said is that lead singer really rocks it out to that pink glowing dildo. Hey, it still beats We Built This City….

My favorite segment in The Star Wars Holiday Special is Bea Arthur’s Mos Eisley cantina sequence. Playing the owner/bartender, the bullfrog-voiced, world weary cynic Arthur has a funny/sad romantic bit with Korman (playing an alien who drinks through the top of his head) that features a weirdly brilliant Pinteresque exchange, with Korman the passionately obtuse pursuer, and Arthur the resolutely impassive object: [Korman]: They’re more than words. That’s why I went home and thought and thought about what you said!
[Arthur]: Oh?…What did I say?
[Korman]: It doesn’t matter, silly! What you said’s not important. It’s what you meant!
[Arthur]: So?…what did I mean?
[Korman]: I decided what you meant is exactly the things I needed to hear!
[Arthur]: Well…I’m glad to hear about that.

If Vivien Merchant and Patrick Magee gave that exchange on the Broadway boards, Clive Barnes would have raved. Faced with another Empire lockdown that threatens her business (make your own joke), Arthur effortlessly knocks out a Sondheim-like One More Round from Ken and Mitzie Welch (more Carol Burnett Show alumni), shown off to very good advantage by director Steve Binder’s snappy staging.

As for the Boba Fett cartoon clumsily inserted into The Star Wars Holiday Special, it’s the one element of the special that most hardcore Star Wars fans agree is worth airing again. Animation company Nelvana’s spidery, indie comic book look is a cool hook for this short, and more importantly, it gets in and gets out, very cleanly, with its story about a “sleeping virus” whose only cure is to wreck the American economy and shoot experimental junk into every single person’s veins…or else. Wait. I mean, they just have to hang upside down for awhile to feel better.

That may be a joke, but watching The Star Wars Holiday Special now, with all its Imperial lockdowns and stormtroopers and video surveillance, one can’t help but relate it to today’s waking nightmare. After the Wookiees successfully astral project their hairy asses into a cosmic “Life Day” gathering, the slightly worse-for-wear Star Wars cast shows up for a curtain call. A chemically swacked Carrie Fisher, in the beatific form of Princess Leia, seriously intones to her hirsute acolytes, “This holiday is yours. But we all share with you the hope that this day brings us closer to freedom, harmony, and peace. No matter how different we appear, we’re all the same in our struggle against the powers of evil and darkness.” Clearly, Princess Leia today would be an anti-vaxx, anti-lockdown conservative. A hot one.

Princess Leia’s “metal bikini” costume worn by Carrie Fisher in the 1983 Star Wars film ‘Return of the Jedi.’

No worries, though, if you think The Star Wars Holiday Special will end on a genuinely thoughtful note. Fisher immediately launches into a suspiciously Rankin/Bass-ish holiday tune, which she murders so deliciously, while our remaining cast inches slowly away from her. Harrison Ford, after a few gallant efforts to hit “3” on the 10-point enthusiasm scale, finally gives up and openly glowers at the camera. And future non-star, non-A-lister, complete washout in terms of capitalizing on a career springboard that would have catapulted even a dead dog in the street into superstar status Mark Hamill smiles his wide-eyed speed freak smile and shakes his saucy blonde bob, looking exactly like the love child of Mary Martin’s Peter Pan and MADtv‘s Stuart Larkin (poor C-3PO has the worst of it, bobbing back and forth like he desperately needs to a take a 40-weight oil leak).

This Thanksgiving, you don’t have to watch The Star Wars Holiday Special like it’s some apocalyptic horror, because it’s not. You’ll just be disappointed, going in with that gleeful expectation. Instead, watch it exactly in the context in which it was conceived and produced: a typical 1970s network television holiday special—some good bits, mostly bad—based on a smash hit movie that was still just that at that moment in pop culture…not a manufactured, ersatz religion. You’ll enjoy it more that way.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

6 thoughts on “‘The Star Wars Holiday Special’ (1978): TV extravaganza is what today’s world needs”

  1. I was also 13 years old when CBS aired this special, but i have no memory of watching it. That’s probably because I never cared much for the movie. I had to be dragged to watch the sequel movie, which I liked even less. I probably watched THE LOVE BOAT that night if this is when ABC gave it a special Friday-night airing. I’ve read plenty about this special though, and since it’s twice as long as any BRADY BUNCH HOUR, it’s probably 4 times as bad.

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  2. Great review as always and I watched this at 12 years old. I was so excited to see this and then had to suffered through it. I actually remember changing the channel a few times but kept coming back to it.

    Now, I have a bootleg copy on dvd and howl at it. It’s like no one knows or cares what or why they are even in it. Dare I say the whole thing looks improvised! And the cast is clearly waiting for the paycheck with a “is this over yet?” look on their face.

    I was more amused by your hit on We Built This City…great line but I do like that song lol. I’m a big Star Wars fan and yes, it’s changed over the years, I’d love this guilty pleasure in a blu-Ray glory!

    You are exactly right, this is what your typical 70’s special was like and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Happy Life Day!

    Like

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