In the 1970s, blockbuster sequels were hard to come by. Studios used franchising to paper up holes in their release schedule, rushing follow-ups into production to cash in on valuable IP as soon as possible. Miniscule budgets and quick production turnarounds made movies like the James Bond series consistently popular, but big-budget franchises were nowhere to be found.
The release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975 changed things, but only slightly. Universal gave its 1978 successor a relatively sizeable budget, more than four times that of the original Jaws. And it seemed to work: For a brief period, Jaws 2 was the most financially successful sequel of all time, making almost $200 million worldwide on a $30 million dollar budget.
The relative success of Jaws 2 didn’t assuage any of George Lucas’ concerns. A year after Star Wars became an American phenomenon, he was already waist-deep into production on The Empire Strikes Back, and the pressure was building. Lucas wasn’t just hoping to launch the first true blockbuster franchise with Empire; he was financially dependent on the film outperforming just about every sequel that preceded it. Determined to keep his company independent of the studio system, Lucas funded Empire with his own money, and it cost him a pretty penny. During production, the film’s budget ballooned to more than 150% of the original Star Wars‘ budget, leaving Lucas struggling to negotiate with 20th Century Fox and his own bank, which was threatening to call in his loan.
On top of these financial concerns was Lucas’ fear that the characters he had created would not maintain a grip on the cultural consciousness long enough for Empire to make any money at all. The studio perception of American audiences was that they were flighty and easily distracted; a phenomenon one summer could become a costly bomb the next. With this in mind, CBS pitched Lucas a concept that could “sustain interest” in the budding franchise, as well as potentially goosing toy sales: an old-fashioned comedy variety hour, to be broadcast just before Thanksgiving.
Famous control freak George Lucas wasn’t a huge fan of handing his baby over to CBS executives, but his work on Empire took top priority. He gave the group of veteran TV writers working on the special a simple concept, handed them a mythology “bible” that would keep them from violating franchise canon, and went on his way. At the time, writer Lenny Ripps told Vanity Fair, it seemed like a slam dunk: “My God, this is an annuity—Star Wars! How could it lose?”
The creative team would quickly find out that the Star Wars brand wasn’t an automatic ticket to greatness. Part of the issue was the concept Lucas presented, which sounded good on paper but collapsed in practice. The creator wanted the Holiday Special to center on Chewbacca’s Wookiee family, specifically his wife Malla, his father Itchy, and his son Lumpy (Lucas himself named the latter two characters, according to another writer on the project, Bruce Vilanch). It would revolve around the Wookiee holiday of “Life Day,” and Chewbacca’s struggles to return to his home planet of Kashyyyk in time for the festivities. The idea kept the special from being a time commitment for returning cast members, replacing them largely with faceless Imperial officers, masked Wookiees, and a guest cast of television comedy staples.
Unfortunately, it also removed everything that made the original Star Wars appealing to audiences, leaving them trapped watching a group of warbling monkey people doing menial tasks in preparation for a bizarre space holiday. What quickly becomes apparent while watching the Holiday Special is that Star Wars occupies a very specific cultural space, and if you tread just a little bit outside of that space, the entire endeavor collapses. It’s a space that’s difficult to explain and a tone that’s even more difficult to nail, but the Holiday Special manages to exist entirely separate from any kind of Star Wars tone whatsoever. It’s clear within the first ten minutes that the writers were hopelessly out of their depth, and it’s hard to blame them because while we know it feels wrong to watch a Wookiee baby take out the garbage, we can’t quite explain why it feels wrong.
From Chewie’s family’s very retro, spacious 1970s tree-apartment to Chewie’s wife’s human-sized apron, it’s all just a tiny bit too familiar to our eye, missing that slight otherworldly atmosphere that distinguishes Star Wars from something closer to our world. There’s a scene in 2002’s Attack of the Clones where we discover that luggage in the Star Wars universe consists of pretty standard suitcases, complete with wheels and extendable handles. It shares the Special‘s peculiar tonal inconsistency with the rest of the universe, an unconsidered detail that just barely skews the entire charade.
It doesn’t help that the Holiday Special is almost entirely plotless. It’s far more Holiday Special than Star Wars, an extended hang-out montage that cuts between shoddy Wookiee costumes and bizarre cameos from our favorite characters, all of whom look like they’re performing with a DL-44 blaster pistol pointed at them from just off-camera. The best thing one can say about the meat of The Star Wars Holiday Special is that it does really capture the feeling of sitting around your house on a holiday waiting for family to show up; the only problem is that watching a family of Sasquatches do that is even more interminably boring than doing it yourself. Lumpy watches a bizarre circus-act hologram; Malla struggles to master “Bantha rump” with the help of a Julia Child-esque cooking show.
Occasionally, a hilariously coked-up Star Wars cast member will phone in, with the highlight being an appearance by a wild-eyed Mark Hamill, apparently auditioning for Cathy Rigby’s Peter Pan stage role. In the time between Star Wars and the Holiday Special, Luke has apparently found time to meet Chewie’s entire family, because they’re all very familiar with him and his malfunctioning R2-D2 impersonator. Interspersed with these original trilogy cameos are bit parts for sketch comedians of the era. Carol Burnett Show star Harvey Korman appears in no less than three roles, including the aforementioned TV chef and a patron at the classic Mos Eisley Cantina who drinks through a hole in his scalp. Here, the cantina’s bartender is Maude‘s Bea Arthur, and she stars in an in-universe Mos Eisley soap opera that climaxes in a strangely emotional musical number.
But the real star of the Holiday Special is Saun Dann (Honeymooners star Art Carney), the man who runs the “general store” on Kashyyyk. Initially, Dann was an Empire Strikes Back concept that eventually evolved into Lando Calrissian, but here he’s just a vehicle that guides the Special through its lackadaisical Imperial invasion “plot.” He’s also the trader who delivers Chewie’s father Itchy the coveted–and infamous–gift that defines the Holiday Special, a “Mind Evaporator” that delivers him a vision of Mermeia (Diahann Carroll), a “holographic fantasy woman who existed within virtual reality as an erotic entertainer.” And then Chewbacca’s ratty-looking father watches a holographic adult film, on a primetime network television holiday special.
In the end, not even a bizarrely out-of-place Jefferson Starship performance could save the Holiday Special. By the time Chewie and his family finally don their long red robes and wander into a psychedelic starscape, the special has stretched on for almost two hours, and exhaustion has set in. The final bumper of the Wookiee family saying…grace (?) is just as bizarre as everything that’s preceded it. Lucas himself was astonished at the Special‘s poor quality, supposedly saying of it, “If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.” Ratings cratered roughly halfway through the program, and it was never broadcast again. Lucas has refused to give up the home video rights.
But a peculiar thing has happened since then: The Star Wars Holiday Special, like many similarly shoddy elements of Star Wars history, has become oddly iconic. The most popular element of the Special, a ten-minute cartoon segment, introduced fan-favorite character, Boba Fett. On top of that, Star Wars authors keep sneaking characters into current canon. A story by Kelly Sue Deconnick and Matt Fraction in last year’s A Certain Point of View anthology canonized Bea Arthur’s bartender Ackmena, and Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy brought Malla and Lumpy (now called “Waroo”) into the Disney fold. And if books aren’t enough for you, April’s trailer for Solo: A Star Wars Story seemed to imply the presence of Chewie’s wife.
So what is it driving this resurgence in Holiday Special nostalgia? For one thing, there’s something oddly charming about its low-rent, incredibly boring presentation of the universe we’ve come to love for its bombast and big budgets. It’s like a Star Wars home movie, and for die-hard fans of the series, it’s also a fascinating artifact that speaks to just how specific a hold these movies have over our culture. Yes, there’s something just so slightly off about all of it, and in trying to figure out what, we gain a new appreciation for the times this formula works so well. And besides, it’s fun to watch garbage sometimes. Carrie Fisher herself owned a bootleg copy of the Special, and she delighted in playing her scenes at parties when she wanted people to leave. How could you not love that?