On Nov. 17, 1978, the Star Wars universe was rocked by a disturbance in the Force more calamitous than the destruction of Alderon, more catastrophic than the Clone Wars, and more devastating than the introduction of Jar Jar Binks. It was The Star Wars Holiday Special (or TSWHS), a two-hour prime time special on CBS in which two worlds collided: Star Wars and the traditional television variety special. If you have a bad feeling about this, you aren't alone.
TSWHS was broadcast only once, but that was enough to secure its place as both Star Wars' and television's guiltiest of pleasures. George Lucas (who declined to be interviewed for this story) has disavowed it. Author David Hofstede ranked it No. 1 in his book, 'What Were They Thinking: The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History." A seemingly mortified Harrison Ford, appearing last February on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, tried to evade Conan's questions about TSWHS by stating that he had no recollection of it "whatsoever." Then, Conan played the clip in which Ford's Han Solo tells Chewbacca's clan, "You're like family to me."
Even TSWHS co-producer Gary Smith, whose more than 40-year Emmy-winning career includes some of television's most acclaimed variety specials featuring the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Barbra Streisand, concedes TSWHS was not one (or two) of his finest hours. Never released on home video, TSWHS does survive on bootleg videocassettes and on the Internet. A special five-minute version posted on YouTube has received more than 580,400 hits.
The plot of TSWHS plays like a demented SCTV sketch: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away Han Solo and Chewbacca are racing to Kashyyyk, Chewie's home planet, in time for him to celebrate the annual Life Day celebration with his family. Meanwhile, Chewie's wife Malla, his son, Lumpy, and his father, Itchy, anxiously await his return, while Imperial Stormtroopers, under direction from Darth Vadar, exhibit very un-Life Day behavior, ransacking homes, imposing curfews, and shutting down the Cantina.
But here's where it gets weird. Mixed in with all the principals from the original Star Wars movie (as well as bounty hunter Boba Fett, who, TSWHS defenders point out, makes his historic debut in the Star Wars canon in an animated sequence) there are Bea Arthur singing a Brechtian tune in the cantina; Diahann Carroll entrancing Lumpy as his virtual reality fantasy; and Harvey Korman cooking up an alien Julia Child impersonation.
This is what O.M.G. looked like in 1978.
"Weird Al" Yankovic, who affectionately needled Star Wars with his popular Lucas-approved song parodies "Yoda" and "The Saga Begins," included a sight gag in his "White and Nerdy" video in which the title character makes a back alley purchase of TSWHS. In a phone interview, the comedian could not make it through the list of the show's guest stars without cracking up. "Nobody evokes the gravitas of the Star Wars universe more than those people," he said.
TSWHS is awful, but, to quote the title of Carrie Fisher's 2003 novel, it is "The Best Awful." "I think it's one of the most amazing things I've ever seen," marveled Mike Nelson, who, with his former "Mystery Science Theatre 3000" costars, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, recorded heckling audio commentary to accompany the special that can be downloaded from Rifftrax.com. "It makes you want to reach behind the scenes and imagine how it all happened," he said in a phone interview. "You have to ask, 'Who approved it? Where was the fail safe point?'"
Put in historical context, TSWHS was not all that out of the ordinary, points out Bruce Vilanch, who co-wrote the script. "Star Wars was just so hot, and in those days, television specials were all about taking the hottest movie phenomenon and capitalizing on the audience," he said. "There were all kinds of specials. The year before, I had worked on The Paul Lynde Halloween Special with Margaret Hamilton, Kiss, Florence Henderson, and Witchy Poo from 'H.R. Pufnstuf.' So a Star Wars Holiday Special made perfect sense."
Some fans believe it was television philistines who trashed Lucas's vision. But according to several who were involved in the production, Lucas, whose name is conspicuously absent in the credits, did supply the story and the creative blueprint. He then focused his attention on The Empire Strikes Back, leaving the screenwriters with formidable challenges.
For starters, Vilanch pointed out, wookiees do not speak. They make noises "that sound like fat people having orgasms." (The first ten minutes of TSWHS take place in the wookiee household. None of the grunts, groans, or howls are subtitled or translated. It goes downhill from there.)
Gary Smith, who with the late Dwight Hemion, created the 1976 special, "America Salutes Richard Rodgers: The Sound of His Music," for Twentieth Century Fox, was recruited by the studio. "They asked us if we would be interested in working with George Lucas," he said in a phone interview. "I said, 'Of course, who wouldn't?'"
Smith brought in Steve Binder to replace director David Acomba. Smith and Binder had first worked on the 1965 rock music series, Hullabaloo. Binder had since directed some of television's most memorable specials, including Elvis Presley's 1968 "Comeback Special." Smith laughed at his own unintentional pun when he said, "Unlike any of the shows we had done, we were more executioners (on this project). Once we got the outline from George, it was up to us to find a way to put it on paper. I'm certainly going to put as one of the highlights of my career as having the opportunity to work with someone as brilliant as George Lucas to the extent that we might have bitten off more than we could chew."
Binder never met Lucas, but he was given a 25-page backstory about the wookiee planet and Chewbacca's family. He only had a week to prep before taking control. "You were really dealing with apples and oranges," he said."One of the problems with the TSWHS, I think, is with the anticipation of George Lucas coming to television with the Star Wars brand, the expectations were way out of line with what the reality was. Star Wars fans were expecting to see (the grand scale of) the Star Wars movies."
They certainly weren't expecting musical numbers and comedy. But according to Vilanch, the entertainers had the most fun making TSWHS. "Harvey was in hog heaven," he said. "Bea, too. This was something she wouldn't have gotten to do on Maude. And Diahann was sexy and gorgeous."
TSWHS was filmed on a soundstage at Warner Bros studios. Ingenuity would be required to get a project strapped for time and money back on track. "I was told there was no money to build any sets for the climactic Life Day production number," Binder recalled. "I sent the art director out to buy hundreds of candles. With a black environment, candles are a wonderful visual effect. Necessity is the mother of invention, and that's how it ended up on the screen."
Though he did have the complete creative input that he prefers on a project, Binder said he had nothing but fond memories of the experience. "I thought it was a great opportunity to work with the caliber of staff that was there. No matter what project you do, you're always going to learning something new. I was anxious to be involved and especially to work with a lot of the Lucas people as well as the staff that Gary and Dwight had brought in. The boat had, in a sense, sailed before I came to direct. It was a case of following the script and making sure the ship ran smoothly, which it did. I don't remember any confrontations. It was a totally pleasant experience. I had a great time with the actors, especially Harrison. I can't think of anybody on that set who acted like they didn't enjoy coming to work."
Never rebroadcast, the TSWHS had over the years become something of a Holy Grail and rite of passage for Star Wars devotees. The Internet has made it more accessible, and for those seeing it for the first time, Yankovic suggests it is probably best to watch it in five to ten minute segments. "Your brain melts if you have to watch all two hours in one sitting," he cautioned.
Yes, TSWHS is as big a target as the Death Star. Comments accompanying the YouTube clips are particularly brutal, most of them variations on the word "suck." But for those who want to learn more about TSWHS without all the snark and bile, there is starwarsholidayspecial.com, a labor of love that Scott Kirkwood, 38, launched five years ago. Visitors can view prototype TSWHS toys and the official original press kit. There is also a transcript of the script and audio downloads of the musical numbers. Kirkwood also sets the record straight on a number of urban legends surrounding TSWHS (yes, Luke Skywalker does wield a different lightsaber than was used in "Episode IV," and no, it cannot be verified that Lucas actually said the widely circulated quote that he would like to take a hammer to all existing TSWHS bootleg tapes).
But at the heart of the site is its Feedback section in which visitors post their memories of watching the Special when it originally aired. Most are touching tales of adolescent wonder and disappointment. "I still have a soft spot for the damn thing," writes Kevin K. "Unless you were a kid at the time, you have absolutely no idea how momentous this occasion was--Star Wars anything on TV!"
Momentous or not, there are no current plans for a TSWHS home video release. "I seriously doubt [it] will see any kind of official release, although I could be proven wrong," Yankovic mused. Lucas "could be working on a Special Edition right now in which Bea Arthur actually shoots Greedo first in the Cantina scene."
This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in The Los Angeles Times.