Growing up, the original Star Wars was a Christmas ritual. The old VHS tapes that lived at my grandfather's house were a post-present refuge from another accidental TV viewing of Miracle on 34th Street or the yulelog. And yet somehow, amid all those festive viewings of the trilogy on VHS, none of the adults ever mentioned the actual holiday special.
Which is just the way George Lucas wanted it. After the two-hour film aired on CBS in 1978, it was quietly pushed under the rug, an episode that nobody—not Lucas, not Harrison Ford, nor Carrie Fisher, James Earl Jones, Art Carney, or any of the other stars of the holiday television "event"—wanted to remember.
"If I had the time and a sledgehammer," Lucas said a few years ago, "I would track down every copy of that show and smash it."
But no Jedi mind trick could make the world forget this now. For years, The Star Wars Holiday Special was passed around on home recordings; now it's uploaded to torrent and video sites. There may even be other copies. In exchange for recording DVD commentary for the Star Wars films, Carrie Fisher demanded that Lucas give her a copy. It was, she told David Carr, so she could "have something for parties…when I wanted everyone to leave."
There is, for example, a moment featuring the band Jefferson Starship, playing a version of "Light the Sky on Fire" to an enchanted Imperial policeman from inside a hologram machine. Craig Chaquico, the former lead guitarist of the band told Vanity Fair's Frank DiGiacomo in 2008: "It was such a strange iteration of the original big-screen-movie concept and your regular variety-show, Carol Burnett vibe. I was like tripping on it myself, man."
George Lucas himself had little involvement with the actual production, but he would insist on one point: that the plot be centered around Chewbacca's Wookie family, based on, according to the production notes, "a veritable treasure trove of background information of 'Wookiee' lifestyle garnered from a 40-page 'bible' prepared for, but never used, in connection with the original motion picture."
Bruce Vilanch, a comedy writer and classmate of Lucas's at USC who had been tapped to help pen the show, was skeptical from the beginning. Follow Lucas's instructions, he warned, and the show was in danger of looking like "one long episode of Lassie."
"I said: 'You've chosen to build a story around these characters who don't speak. The only sound they make is like fat people having an orgasm,'" Vilanch recalled. "In fact, I told Lucas he could just leave a tape recorder in my bedroom and I'd be happy to do all the looping and Foley work for him." ( Vilanch, known for his comedic contributions to the Muppets, Hollywood Squares and a slew of game shows, dropped out of the production mid-way through, and would attempt to take his name off it.)
After a surprisingly long prologue crawls over the screen, Han Solo and Chewbacca are on their way to Kashyyyk, Chewbacca's home planet, just in time to celebrate the Wookie's traditional holiday, Life Day, and just as the Imperial army has begun a blockade on the planet as they search for Rebels. On Kashyyyk, the action begins with… Baby Wookies playing with licensed Star Wars toys.
The rest is musical numbers, comedy routines, lengthy stretches of untranslated Wookie dialogue. Harvey Korman as an intergalactic Julia Child cooks up a holiday treat called "Bantha's Surprise." Art Carney serenades the Chewbaccas ("Why all the long, hairy faces?"), and sits Chewbacca's dad Itchy down in front of a kind of virtual reality machine. There, Diahann Carroll shows up for some holographic phone sex. A circus-style acrobatics routine ensues, with uneven bars and juggling. Jefferson Starship and Harrison Ford. Mark Hamill and Arthur Bea. Bad animation. Some things defy description, some things don't quite merit it. Much of it makes Jar Jar Binks look like a pretty darn good idea.
For the finale, Princess Leia leads the ensemble in a rendition of the "Happy Life Day" song, which is, incredibly, a re-tooled version of the Star Wars theme, with lyrics. She prefaces it with a speech that turns Life Day into a cause for civil rights, heroism, and love at the same time:
"This holiday is yours," she tells the assembled Wookies, "but we all share with you the hope that this day brings us closer to freedom, and to harmony, and to peace. No matter how different we appear, 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 reconfirm our dedication and our courage. And more than anything else, our love for one another. This is the promise of the Tree of Life."
Fanboys might argue the special is a treasure-trove of Star Wars arcana. It does introduce three members of Chewbacca's family – his father Attichitcuk, his wife Mallatobuck, and his son Lumpawarrump – and marks the first appearance of the bounty hunter Boba Fett.
Others might say that this was the worst two hours of television ever made. "I'm not convinced the special wasn't ultimately written and directed by a sentient bag of cocaine," Nathan Rabin once wrote. "If it has a single virtue, it's that it does eventually end."
It's not hard to appreciate why this exists. It was a year after Star Wars had smashed all box office records to become the biggest grossing movie of all time, and the financial logic of a TV spin-off of some kind—especially when TV audiences were plentiful, and right before shopping season—seemed impeccable.
To executives at CBS (no one is certain who first proposed the idea) the show would be a ratings dynamo. To Lucas and his deputies at what was then known as The Star Wars Corporation, it was an opportunity to extend the franchise, sell more toys, earn new fans, and keep audiences' attentions rapt by the Star Wars universe until the next film, The Empire Strikes Back, which wouldn't arrive in theaters for two years. (A year earlier, while the film was still in theaters, segments featuring the Cantina aliens on variety shows hosted by Donny and Marie Osmond and Richard Pryor had helped to boost ticket sales.)
Hollywood had no shortage of people willing to do the bidding of George Lucas, and CBS was sold on the idea from the moment it was hatched by an anonymous executive, somewhere. (Direction would fall to Steve Binder, a veteran of television variety shows who is known for coaxing Elvis back into action for a 1968 "Comeback Special" on NBC that is sometimes considered a kind of forerunner to MTV's Unplugged.)
Lucas accepts responsibility for the Wookie storyline, but in a 2005 interview, he passed the buck to the CBS production team. "The special from 1978 really didn't have much to do with us, you know," Lucas told StaticMultimedia.com. "I can't remember what network it was on, but it was a thing that they did. We kind of let them do it. It was done by… I can't even remember who the group was, but they were variety TV guys. We let them use the characters and stuff and that probably wasn't the smartest thing to do, but you learn from those experiences."
At the time, The Star Wars Corporation had technology on its side: the film aired on American television only once, on November 17, 1978 on CBS from 8:00 pm to 10:00 pm. The Internet was still in swaddling clothes; viral parodies were decades from being a thing.
One first generation recording from Des Moines, Iowa's KCCI, is available on many BitTorrent websites; another recording from then-CBS affiliate WMAR-TV in Baltimore, Maryland has been floating around YouTube in parts, featuring the original, mesmerizing commercials. One fan site includes what appears to be a Photoshopped DVD box for a commercially-released version that will almost certainly never exist.
If lessons can be drawn from the holiday disaster, I see two: Star Wars was always a business venture, and no matter what George Lucas or anyone else does to it, it's likely to remain one of the most lucrative "brands" in film history. And also: any good story risks being ruined early on and from the very top. And just as no universe is safe from the laws of entropy, Star Wars is certainly not insulated from the worst, commercial impulses of the holidays on Earth.