Star Wars Explained is our ongoing series where we delve into the latest Star Wars shows, movies, trailers, and news stories to divine the franchise’s future. In this entry, we chat with A Disturbance in the Force co-director Jeremy Coon about the Star Wars Holiday Special and why we should rethink its infamous status.
Art is subjective. One person can watch one movie and love it. Another person can watch the same movie and loathe it. And yet, you’ll find few folks on this planet who will defend the Star Wars Holiday Special. Premiering on CBS a year after George Lucas‘ original movie shattered box office speculation and bore an unprecedented fandom we’re still swimming in today, the sci-fi variety show played like a psychotic fever dream. It’s got Bea Arthur, the songstress cantina maiden, Harvey Korman doin’ Julia Child with a few extra appendages, and Itchy the Wookie jacking into a VR headset so he can experience a disco one-on-one fantasy with Diahann Carroll.
The Holiday Special is one of those things that’s got to be seen to be believed, and Lucas did his best to keep it unviewable from the moment it aired. Just once. Infamy swarmed around it almost immediately; over the years, it became the hot bootleg item at any comic convention. Now, you can easily view it via YouTube, and the animated portion that introduced Boba Fett to the world can even be streamed on Disney+. The mystique has dwindled a bit, but its abnormality remains pure.
Released during SXSW this week, the documentary A Disturbance in the Force attempts to understand how the Star Wars Holiday Special came into being. Forty-five years later, it’s hard to comprehend how the franchise allowed such an obvious atrocity. What directors Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak postulate is that the one-time broadcast may not actually be as significant an oddity as we currently consider it. The Star Wars Holiday Special is actually rather pedestrian, just another weirdo variety show in a sea of weirdo variety shows.
Bea Arthur dancing with the Walrus Man (eventually rebranded Ponda Baba) does not look as bonkers when Wayne Newton was practically doing the same thing with Shamu during his Sea World special. A holographic Jefferson Starship makes total sense after Kiss met the Phantom of the Park in their primetime event. Even the Carpenters wanted to glom onto George Lucas’ vibe, releasing their Space Encounters show within the same year as the Holiday Special.
“I knew the variety stuff existed,” says Jeremy Coon, “but I didn’t know the level of how bad it was because a lot of that stuff just doesn’t see the light of day. They can’t replay it due to rights issues with the music they’re using. So most of it is just sitting in a vault somewhere. Steve [Kozak] grew up with that stuff, and he does clip clearance. Once he turned that stuff over to me, it’s like, ‘This stuff is gold!’ There’s so much there, and it puts things in context for the seventies and how bad TV was at the time.”
What separates the Star Wars Holiday Special from other variety shows of its era is that it’s Star Wars. The studio invested a lot of money; a reported one million dollars. The confidence that comes with such a large cash flow is baffling in its own right.
“I was curious about how expensive it was,” says Coon. “This was one of the most expensive TV specials at the time. So, my thought process was, ‘At some point, someone thought this was a good idea.’ No one in a vacuum was like, ‘Let’s just burn money.’ So, we dug into that.”
The documentary features a wide variety of talking heads. Some celebrity guests like Kevin Smtih and Paul Scheer watched the Holiday Special back in the day and marveled at its madness. Then there are those who helped bring it to life, at least those willing to talk. Convincing the below-the-line talent to spill the tea required some finesse, but the directors had an inside advantage.
“Steve Kozak’s dad was Bob Hope’s producer,” says Coon. “He started the process initially. He went through the Holiday Special‘s credits, and he’d be like, ‘Wait! I know this cameraman,’ because he shot all of Bob Hope’s shows. They were family friends. That was our gateway. They trusted Steve and knew he would not embarrass or make them look bad. Almost everyone we talked to, once people find out they worked on the Holiday Special, that’s all they want to talk about.”
Of course, A Disturbance in the Force doesn’t nab everyone responsible for the Star Wars Holiday Special. George Lucas doesn’t want to reflect on the project in any way, having rarely acknowledged the show in interviews. One of his most famous quotes surrounding the special – “If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it” – may not have ever been uttered.
“If I ever got a chance to interview Lucas,” says Coon, “I’d love to ask him about that quote. It’s funny. It’s a great hook. It’s one of the things we had to reference, and Paul Scheer talks about it specifically. It’s one of the things that got me to watch the Special. I was like, ‘Oh, Lucas hates this? I have to see it.’ But I don’t think he ever said that publically. There’s no reference to it, or if there is a reference to it, it’s for a comic-con in Australia, and he’s never attended a comic-con in Australia.”
Coon and Kozak are not done with A Disturbance in the Force. The film may have had its big premiere, but it’s a work in progress. They may not be able to get George Lucas involved, but they do have their sights set on other Holiday Special participants.
“Obviously,” continues Coon, “anyone from the cast, we’d be ecstatic to interview. We’re slowly working on the film still. The goal was basically to finish it, put our best foot forward, and have a successful SXSW premiere. It’s not like we’re just some fans that made a crappy movie. The idea is, ‘Hey, people seem to really be enjoying this. We’d love to have you be a part of it.’ So, that’s the next step. I don’t know if it’ll work, but we’ll at least take our best shot before we have to lock picture.”
A Disturbance in the Force highlights that uneasy period between the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. The first movie was a massive success, but its future was uncertain. Between 1977 and 1980, there were a few Star Wars toys, some comic books, and a couple of expanded universe novels. At no point could you press a button and watch the film on your television set. The Star Wars Holiday Special was what fans had.
“I can’t defend it,” says Coon. “I can’t be like, ‘This is The Godfather.’ But I love the crap out of it. There are people out there that wear it as a badge of honor. They had fond memories of it, and this was their only access point to Star Wars at the time. It wasn’t on TV every day. You couldn’t rent it. Video wasn’t a thing. This was all they got.”
The Star Wars Holiday Special basically existed to keep Star Wars in the public consciousness while Lucas prepped The Empire Strikes Back and several other projects. It was always meant to air once. Stakes surrounding its quality were low since its audience would forget about it a week after it played. It could afford to be just another dumb variety show, right? Wrong.
“More empathy for Lucas is actually the thing that surprises me the most,” says Coon. “That’s not something I was searching out for. I was very much the typical, ‘Why do they have to be so lame about this? Why can’t they put it all on Disney+?’ That kind of thing. I came around more to understand their position.”
Without Lucas chiming into the conversation, we’ll never know how much thought he ever put into the Star Wars Holiday Special. Mark Hamill or Harrison Ford joining Jeremy Coon for the next A Disturbance of the Force edit could help clarify. As it stands today, Coon and Kozak’s documentary fondly explains how the anomaly came to be within the context of its time. As history lessons go, it’s compelling.
Is the Star Wars Holiday Special actually good? Compared to other Star Wars movies and shows, no. Compared to other seventies-era variety specials, absolutely. Most importantly, it’s a time machine, a trip back to when Star Wars could have dwindled into obscurity, a fond memory for hardcore sci-fi fans only. No other Star Wars morsel does the trick quite like it.
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