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 show. 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. 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 his host’s questions about “TSWHS” by stating he had no recollection of it. Then, to freshen up the aging action star’s memory, O’Brien 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, 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 them to be with Chewie’s family for the annual Life Day celebration. Chewie’s wife, Malla, his son, Lumpy, and his father, Itchy, anxiously await his arrival, while Imperial Stormtroopers, under direction from Darth Vader, 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 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 OMG 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 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’ vision. But according to several people involved in the production, Lucas, whose name is conspicuously absent from the credits, did supply the story and 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 10 minutes of “TSWHS” take place in the wookiee household. None of the grunts, groans or howls is subtitled or translated. It goes downhill from there.)
Co-producer Smith brought in Steve Binder to replace director David Acomba. Smith and Binder had first worked together 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.”
Binder never met Lucas, but he said he was given a 25-page back story about the wookiee planet and Chewbacca’s family. He had only a week to prep before taking control. “You were really dealing with apples and oranges,” he said. “One of the problems with the ‘Special,’ 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 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.”
Never rebroadcast, “TSWHS” has become something of a Holy Grail for “Star Wars” devotees. The Internet has made it accessible, and for those seeing it for the first time, Yankovic suggests it is probably best to watch it in five- to 10-minute segments. “Your brain melts if you have to watch all two hours,” he cautioned.
For those who want to learn more without all the snark and bile, starwarsholidayspecial.com is 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.
But at the heart of the site is its Feedback section, in which visitors post their memories of watching “TSWHS” 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.”
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.”