What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen? To give you an idea of how bad the Star Wars Holiday special is, take that terrible movie you have in your mind, add MAC and Me, take a dash of The Garbage Pail Kids movie, and then throw up all over it.
What you’re left with still looks like Citizen Kane compared to the Star Wars Holiday Special.
The Star Wars Holiday Special was a television variety special produced by CBS that aired on November 17, 1978. It was intended to keep the public’s interest in Star Wars but is considered one of the worst shows in TV history.
I have watched this thing multiple times, so I am here as your tour guide to show you everything about this thing that makes it so bad.
OK, buckle in—here we go…
Setting the Stage for the Star Wars Holiday Special
You’ve probably never heard of Star Wars before, but it was a small indie film from 1977 about robots and monsters. Check it out, though—it’s not bad.
When Star Wars hit the theatres, it changed the course of movies forever. No one had ever seen anything like it, and Star Wars fever was everywhere.
George Lucas could now continue his trilogy as planned, but it would be years until the next offering—The Empire Strikes Back—would be released.
Lucas needed something to keep the fans happy and keep Star Wars in the minds of the public.
He probably shouldn’t have worried about that.
The thing was, any inclusion of Star Wars content was still helping to sell tickets as the movie had stayed in theatres for a long time. Variety segments on shows like Donny and Marie and The Richard Pryor Show were creating an enormous surge in ticket sales.
CBS came to Lucas and said he needed to strike while the iron was hot.
But George Lucas was a busy guy. He could help develop the concept (which we’ll cover more in a moment) but he didn’t have time to undertake and oversee an entire TV special.
This lack of control over this Star Wars “project” is apparently what made him so possessive of the franchise, and a control freak about all production matters.
The Plot of the Star Wars Holiday Special
Han Solo is trying to get Chewbacca back to his home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate the Wookie holiday, Life Day.
That’s it, that’s the entire plot.
What unfolds over the next TWO HOURS are various side distractions while we wait for Chewbacca and Han to get back.
The beginning of this is worth looking at, though. We start in the home of his family, which includes his son Lumpy, his wife Malla, and his father, Itchy.
If you need an indicator of how bad this special is, you will find out in the opening scene. For 10 straight minutes, there isn’t a single line of dialogue and all we hear are the Wookies communicating with each other. That’s nearly half the length of a sitcom — with no commercials. There are no subtitles and you are left trying to figure out what the hell is going on.
Writer Bruce Vilanch called the sounds of the Wookies similar to two fat people having orgasms.
Finally, this opening scene is broken up by comedy legend Art Carney of all people, who gives little Lumpy a video hologram of a creepy performance by an early Cirque de Soleil. This thing legit feels like a bad acid trip.
We do get some plot exposition where we find out the Empire is trying to lock down the area and intercept Han Solo and Chewbacca. Martial law is declared on the planet and they’re trying to lockdown the area around Chewie’s sweet treehouse.
Side note: a reference to the treehouse was made in Ernest Cline’s great new book, Ready Player Two.
Here are some more of the time killing scenes:
A Cooking Show
We watch an actual cooking show featuring a Julia Child-like alien called Gormaanda played by Harvey Korman. Chewie’s wife is watching the instructional show to make Bantha Surprise.
Harvey Korman is great, and the phrase “stir stir, whip whip” will be stuck in your head for days.
A Very Disturbing Fantasy Sequence
This involves singer Diahann Carroll and the grandfather Wookie in a scene that can only be described as soft-core porn — which apparently is what the writers were going for.
The fact this appears in a kid’s show is very alarming. Cher was first asked to play this role but smartly declined. It’s not like this scene contains any nudity, but the intention of it will leave you feeling dirty with the form of dirt that doesn’t come off in the shower.
A Performance by Jefferson Starship
This is one of the easiest ways to kill some time, and I’m honestly surprised we didn’t get more performances by them. Seeing Jefferson Starship in a Star Wars special makes just as much sense as seeing KISS in the Paul Lynde Halloween Special.
At least they have starship in their name…
An Actual Technical Manual Instruction Video
We’ll get to why this special was so long, but this scene takes the cake as far as asinine time waisting. I have seen this thing multiple times, and still not sure what the instruction is for.
Harvey Korman is back again, playing a robot, guiding us through the technical manual while little Lumpy follows along.
A Catina Closing-Time Bar Song
This is not bad and gives us a bit more collection to a New Hope. It’s set in the cantina, but I think we’re to assume this is on Kasyyyk, and not Mos Eisley?
But the Empire is trying to lockdown everywhere they can, and I think it’s left up to us to decide how close Tatooine and Kasyyyk are?
Either way, this isn’t the worst part of the special and it features Bea Arthur (who’s a genuinely excellent singer) essentially recreating her role of Maude. She runs the Cantina and sings a very Les Miserables “life is terrible, but here’s to life” style of song.
The costumes of the creatures are OK, but apparently, they were so hot that people were passing out in them. This scene apparently took a straight 24-hours to film.
We also get another appearance by Harvey Korman as an alien that drinks through the top of his head. Korman is great throughout this special and it was said that he kept the mood upbeat and light considering everyone else wanted to gouge their eyes out.
Throughout the special, we also get appearances by Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, RD-D2, and some scenes of Darth Vader taken out of A New Hope. Unless you were one of those people who saw it 268 times in the theatres, you may not have recognized the scenes and believed they were new.
We also see Harrison Ford at the beginning, and end of the special. Ford CLEARLY does not want to be there and looks extremely pissed off to have to fulfill this contractual obligation.
You can see how furious he is in the opening credits. He’s not even trying to hide it and it’s just glorious.
The Ludicrous Ending of the Star Wars Holiday Special
There’s one decent part which we’ll get to in a minute. But if this whole thing is not absurd enough, the wheels completely fall off at the end.
Chewbacca and Han finally get home, and the Life Day celebrations can begin. The festivities — which look like they were filmed in a cave — include Princess Leia actually singing a song to the tune of the Star Wars theme while the Wookies walk around in long red robes. (Carrie Fisher is clearly on some kind of mind-altering substance in this scene.)
The ending scene seems like footage out of some animal cult, and the Wookies walk through space toward a bright light in some of the worst use of green screen you will ever see.
The budget also seems to have been completely spent, as the other Wookies clearly don’t have Wookie suits and are just wearing the robes and a mask. You honestly just have to watch this to see how ludicrous it is.
But don’t take my word for it, just listen to the words of Princess Leia herself to close out the show!
“… 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 reaffirm our dedication and our courage. And more than anything else, our love for one another. This is the promise of the Tree of Life.”
I should probably point out that the Tree of Life hasn’t been mentioned once in this entire special.
Why Was This Thing So Damn Long?
At best, you might get 30-minutes of content from all this — but it would still be terrible. An hour is out of the question, and two hours results in the mindlessness we got.
In fairness, they only intended this to be an hour-long special, but since Star Wars was so hot, every advertiser wanted to get on board. Since the network only had dollar signs in their eyes, they accommodated all the advertisers by stretching this thing to two hours.
But as I said; they barely had 20 minutes of usable content. This is why we have all those long extended scenes that are killing time waiting for Han and Chewie to return.
The cooking scene alone goes on for 5 minutes, and huge stretches of time have no dialogue whatsoever. The Cantina scene goes on forever, and any time-wasting opportunity is taken advantage of.
The best example of this is the glorious scene with Art Carney that only Honeymooners aficionados would catch. He’s about to show one of the guards his piece of equipment and goes into the classic Ed Norton bit where he is so distracted trying to focus that the guard (Ralph) loses it on him.
I hope the true Honeymooners fans out there caught this.
Who Put the Star Wars Holiday Special Together?
If you look at the credits of the people involved, you will see some that have experience in TV variety specials. But why would Star Wars be a variety special? Well, I’m not sure how old you are, but variety specials were the bees’ knees during the 60s and 70s.
Since there was nothing else to do in the 60s and 70s, prime time TV was the focal point of entertainment. There were only three networks, and variety shows were treated like major events. Over the years, we’ve had variety show classics such as:
- Sonny and Cher
- Carol Burnett
- Donny and Marie
- The Brady Bunch Variety hour
- The Paul Lynde Halloween special (please watch this train wreck too if you get the chance. It should still be up on YouTube)
And every celebrity you could ever think of had a variety show at some point, including Dolly Parton, The Jacksons, John Denver, Johnny Cash, and Diana Ross.
These specials were made up of singing, dancing, surprise guests, and multiple sketches.
Even though variety shows were popular, they had really faded going into 1978. But it didn’t matter, the premise of the Star Wars Holiday Special would be variety-based. This explains the absurd musical numbers and unrelated sketches, aka Harvey Korman.
How could this format work with Star Wars? Well, it clearly didn’t. Fun fact: Most of the special was filmed on the same set where Ellen records her show today.
They developed the script with George Lucas in just one day. The premise of the Wookies spending Life Day at home was actually considered as the original opening shot of a New Hope. Lucas had also envisioned a spinoff movie involving the Wookies, but he let the writers have access to all his Wookie notes.
The script got reworked so many times that it resembled nothing close to what George Lucas had first come up with. The constant rewrites resulted in the mess we got.
The rewrites were getting so out of hand that there was to be a scene where Luke Skywalker sang. Mark Hamill thankfully vetoed this.
The Only Redeeming Part of the Special
The only standout part of this entire special is an animated sequence. This gives us the first appearance of Boba Fett (calm down, nerds, I know he appears in a deleted scene in a New Hope.)
In this sequence, we see the Millenium Falcon crash-land on the moon of Panna. Our first meeting with Boba Fett is when he saves Luke from a sea monster and says he is there to help the rebels.
Han and Luke are infected by a sleeping virus, and Fett and Chewie go to look for a cure. Fett is actually contacting Darth Vader, C3-P0 finds out about this, they confront Fett when they return, and he takes off. We won’t see him again (and technically for the first time) until the Empire Strikes Back.
This cartoon is pretty great. Some of the versions you will see on YouTube have cut out this entire sequence. I think there were some Copywrite issues–but it’s honestly the only good part of the special.
Nelvana ltd. out of Toronto put together this animation sequence that George Lucas actually wrote. They animated it in the Moebius style, which gives it a dated look—but still makes it unique.
The cartoon also features all the voices of principal actors, but has Don Francks performing the voice of Boba Fett. You may know Francks as the voice of Dr. Claw on Inspector Gadget.
How Did The Star Wars Holiday Special Go Over?
Not well, it did not go over well — but I assume you already knew that. It only aired one time, and for the ratings that night; it definitely did decently. But it should have. This was a Star Wars event for TV, after all. And the opening minute and credits made it seem amazing.
Until it got going.
Ratings-wise, it did well drawing in 13 million viewers. But it didn’t even win its time slot. Since the thing was so long — and asinine — most kids (who were the target audience) couldn’t stay up long enough, and the ratings for the second hour dropped.
I was only one at the time and would have been much more interested in trying to eat my own feet. And if you were parents of young children, you probably would have turned it off after that Diahann Carroll scene.
In fairness, everyone involved with the show realized they had a train wreck on their hands, but it was too late to change anything as they had to get this thing out in time for the Holidays. This is why it’s not a Christmas special, but instead a Holiday special as it was meant just as much for Thanksgiving as it was Christmas.
Since the special only aired once, no one could relive what they had just seen. It existed as some sort of weird drug hallucination. Pretty much no one had a VCR (read all about the history of VHS vs BETA here) so no one could record it to relive later.
But legend of the special started to grow…
Bootleg copies started making the rounds. Years later, many would discover it for the first time. This is when Lucas allegedly said that he wished he could smash every copy with a hammer.
These days it’s become even easier to share through torrenting, but there have been great copies available on YouTube for years now.
Reactions of the Cast
The funniest thing about this special is how no one wants to be associated with it. The stars of Star Wars–who are now household names—weren’t that famous yet and had no choice but to appear in the special.
And it’s amazing how much they hate the involvement they had.
There’s a great interview with Harrison Ford on Late Night with Conan O’Brien where Ford lunges at him after mention of the Holiday Special.
C3-P0 actor, Anthony Daniels once humorously threatened an interviewer saying that watching the special could cause you to die.
Carrie Fisher reportedly agreed to do a DVD commentary only if she could get a copy of it. Her reason? She wanted to have it to put on to force people to leave parties at her house when she wanted them gone…
The competition for worst Star Wars entry is sadly a competitive category now — but the Star Wars Holiday Special takes the cake. The problem is, it’s now become Star Wars canon, as they have referred to Life Day in the Mandalorian, and a Lego Star Wars Holiday Special also is a tribute to it.
For George Lucas and everyone involved, it looks like this thing isn’t going away anytime soon.
Deep down, I love this thing. I love it for the absurdity, the ridiculousness, and the fact people worked hard to get this thing on the air. We can look at it in the same way you always look at an accident, or can’t ignore it like other disasters such as Keeping up With the Kardashians.
So if you haven’t seen this, what are you waiting for? There are several excellent copies now on YouTube. But I challenge you to see how long you can watch this thing for without checking your phone, opening another browser, or turning it off altogether.
If you can make it more than 15 minutes—you clearly have some sort of Jedi powers.