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Inverse
Entertainment
Mark Hill

45 Years Ago, Star Wars Survived The Single Worst Moment in Franchise History

— CBS

To love Star Wars is to hate Star Wars. You probably think the prequels are stupid, or the sequels took the wrong direction, or the Disney+ offerings are aimless. No fan likes everything, yet they sit down and watch it all anyway, willing to waste their time just in case the latest release recaptures what made Star Wars special to them.

This is the fate of all franchises. Star Wars was a scrappy little sci-fi series overcome by the need to sell merchandise and pad Disney’s bottom line. But Star Wars becoming a soulless mercantile enterprise isn’t a modern phenomenon; it sold out years before The Empire Strikes Back cemented its legacy.

We always try to find the good in things, so let’s be clear: the Star Wars Holiday Special is bad. Really bad. It is not a misunderstood classic or a diamond in the rough. C-3P0 actor Anthony Daniels called it a turd, and he was being generous. It’s a misfire so legendarily ill-conceived that for decades it was spoken of in whispers and half-truths. And yet fans need to watch it, if only to see how far we’ve come.

The Holiday Special opens with Han and Chewbacca trying to outrun Imperial forces and get Chewie home for Life Day, a Wookiee Christmas knockoff. From there, we cut to Chewie’s family on “Kazzook,” the special’s name for the Wookiee homeland (and just one of many elements Star Wars would later bury). What follows is 10 minutes of Chewie’s father, Itchy, his wife, Malla, and his son, Lumpy, grunting and gesturing as they act out remedial sitcom hijinks.

It’s a bold choice to make the viewer root for the Empire to euthanize Chewbacca’s progeny, but after about five seconds of hearing Lumpy’s high-pitched buzzing you’ll be sick of the little shag carpet. It’s a mercy when a human actor appears with the gift of the English language. Who do you think gets the most screen time? Harrison Ford? Mark Hamill? That’s right, Art Carney. The Honeymooners actor plays a merchant, family friend, and facilitator of Wookiee madness.

The Wookiees go about their Life Day as they wait for Chewie, and while they’re eventually investigated by Imperial troops looking for Rebel sympathizers, the story is a thin wrapper for the special’s variety show format. Lumpy enjoys a holographic circus performance, while Malla prepares bantha stew with the help of a four-armed TV chef played by Harvey Korman in drag and blackface. A grumpy Imperial soldier is placated with a Jefferson Starship music video, while horny old Itchy enjoys a sensual Diahann Carroll performance. And yes, don’t worry, Bea Arthur gets a segment.

In between the skits and songs, our beloved heroes fulfill their contractual obligations by calling the family videophone. Mark Hamill is caked in makeup that makes him look like a woman introduced in a very special episode of a ’70s sitcom. Harrison Ford acts like he’d rather be getting a colonoscopy. Only Carrie Fisher seems to be enjoying herself, and she was amid a serious coke addiction. It’s interesting to see the quotidian realities of another galaxy, but no one comes off well here; even the Empire’s goons have been reduced from blowing up planets to ripping the head off Lumpy’s stuffed animal.

The special’s supposed highlight, an animated sequence that introduces Boba Fett, feels like it owes its praise to Stockholm Syndrome. Fett is more Snidely Whiplash than stoic brooder, and Luke is a gullible hayseed. The animation is memorable, but mostly because Han looks like he belongs in Ren and Stimpy. Even its framing as an in-universe cartoon Lumpy enjoys is confusing. Later, when Carrie Fisher is serenading robed Wookiees amid an ethereal starscape, you’ll be begging Darth Vader to appear and strangle someone, even if it’s you.

The Holiday Special is cheap, rushed, terrible, and absolutely fascinating. It aired in the United States on November 17, 1978, 18 months after Star Wars hit theaters. No one knew Vader was Luke’s father, let alone that one movie would grow to encompass 12 theatrical titles and a titanic commercial empire. The sequel was in the works, but the three-year wait was considered long and risky. It might have all just been a flash in the pan. The Holiday Special was an attempt to keep the good times rolling… or at least cash in while the getting was good.

While George Lucas suggested focusing on Chewbacca’s family, he and other Lucasfilm creatives had little real input. With variety shows in vogue, the job was fobbed off to genre veterans like Bruce Vilanch. Given the production’s time constraints, it’s a minor miracle they were able to make anything at all. But the special’s intentions were always clear. It wasn’t art; it was a reminder to put Star Wars toys under the Christmas tree. It was a painful lesson to young fans who waited over a year for a precious glimpse of more Star Wars.

Today, the Boba Fett segment is on Disney+, while the whole special lives on YouTube. But for decades after it first aired, it was gone. It was a pop culture cryptid mocked by everyone from Weird Al to Family Guy. It was so infamous it became mandatory viewing for hardcore Star Wars fans, a rite of passage made possible by bootleg VHS tapes. That takes dedication, even if you’re watching ironically.

Lucas has tinkered with the movies since the ’90s, but the Holiday Special is frozen in carbonite. The props and costumes are pure ’70s. Its writers barely understood Star Wars and the brand wasn’t protected by its corporate owner like Smaug guarding his gold, a scenario impossible to imagine today. Even the variety show format, now all but extinct, makes it a time capsule. It’s a glimpse of what Star Wars was before it was everything, and to watch it today is a strange act of love. Star Wars may be a soulless machine, but it’s given countless people memories they cherish. It can be appreciated for that even at its lowest and lumpiest.

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