With the weather cooling, the space heaters out, and the appearance of Christmas lights on houses, it’s beginning to look a lot like Yulemala. What’s Yulemala you might ask? It’s holiday themed Yakmala. Films that try, fail, and warm my two-sizes too small heart with the spirit of brotherhood and friendship — or “brothership” as I like to say. We begin the month with a doozy. It’s that most infamous of Christmas time fruit cakes, “The Star Wars Holiday Special.”
The late 1970s was a very different time. It still sustained that now extinct form of television known as the variety show. As a former employer and TV producer once explained to me, the variety show was predicated on the idea that it presented “a little something for everybody.” That is certainly true about this particular Holiday Special which featured –among other things — an animated Star Wars short, a Jefferson Starship performance, Bea Arthur singing one of the greatest bits of Star Wars filking ever devised, and, of course, Harvey Korman, Harvey Korman, and Harvey Korman.
It also features one of the greatest barriers of entry ever known to American TV audiences.
The first act is nothing but un-subtitled Wookie vocalizations. Much has been said over the years about this choice … but considering that the show is first and foremost a variety program, it’s easy to see how the producers would think this unfetter access to everyday life in the Star Wars Galaxy would a big draw for kids.
These are the same producers who thought the kids would love Art Carney.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around Life Day on the Wookie Planet that will come to be known as Kashyyyk. The walking carpet family of Mala, her son Lumpy, and his grandfather Itchy await the return of Chewbacca, who, it turns out, is husband, father, and son to the respective members of the household. Meanwhile, Han Solo and his hair-suit (see what I did there) co-pilot fight through an Imperial blockade to make it back in time for the Life Day celebrations.
Lumpy finds the wait intolerable, so Itchy puts on a holographic Cirque du Soleil performance for him. When it ends, Mala makes him wash the dishes while she makes a call to fan favorites R2D2 and Luke Skywalker. The special was recorded sometime after actor Mark Hamill’s infamous car-crash, so he looks a little weird in this scene.
Even if they’re trying to hide the reconstruction of his face, he’s a breath of fresh air as his in-English banter breaks the monotony of the Wookie howling.
Mala’s next call is to the nearby junk trader Sondan (ART CARNEY!). At that moment, he’s being accosted by an Imperial Death Squad Commander (at least, that’s what it what it said on the action figure package). The scene is a chance for Carney to do some of his curmudgeonly crafted “comedy.”
Carney was a much more straightforward comedic actor during the Golden Age of Television. He’s famous to a previous generation as Ed Norton on “The Honeymooners,” but that character is a far cry from the late middle-aged bloated relic gnashing his way through the perfunctory writing on display in the Star Wars Special. Carney would go on to play an ill-tempered Santa Claus in the Yulemala classic, “The Night They Saved Christmas.”
The scene cuts to a Star Destroyer apparently in orbit around Tatooine, Darth Vader gets word that the Millennium Falcon is headed for the Wookie sector and tells a nearby air that the Rebels must be identified even “if it means searching every household in the system.” I might be wrong, but I think that line is the most embarrassing thing James Earl Jones ever said as the character before he had to shout “Noooooooo!”
Back on Kashyyyk, Mala learns how to cook Bantha loin with the help of an alien cooking show host played by Harvey Korman and several puppet arms. This is another opportunity for “comedy.” It’s also the source of the infamous, “stir, whip, stir, whip, whip, whip, stir” chant that drove Justin nuts the first time he was exposed to the Special. What surprises me the most about this sequence is how Korman isn’t directly parodying a specific TV chef, but, instead, cooking shows of the era in general.
Han and Chewie come out of Hyperspace in the middle of an Imperial convoy, leading them into a fight with some TIE Fighters. At the same time, martial law is declared on Kashyyyk. Sondan comes to Mala’s home and drops off a power converter. He also has a number of Life Day gifts: a communicator rig for Lumpy, a Jefferson Starship holobox for Mala, and for Itchy, um … well, how do I put this …
HE BROUGHT ITCHY SOME PORN!
There is some downright pervy old man shit in the middle of this Star Wars Holiday special. Granted, it’s an interlude leading into Diane Carroll’s musical number, but she says some shocking things when you remember that kids were the primary fans of Star Wars at the time. “Oh, we are excited, aren’t we?” and “I can feel my creation” are just two examples of the strangely provocative dialogue. During Carroll’s song, we cut back to Itchy as he appears to writhe in orgasmic bliss.
Which, if we go back to the “something for everybody” theory, means this is what the producers thought the grandpas in the audience wanted. I’m no marketing genius, but I’m pretty sure no grandfather ever wanted to watch a Wookie jacking off to Diane Carroll in his recliner. Of course, this was before Furries, so this scene might be catnip for a few people nowadays.
With Itchy now sated, Mala receives a call from a clearly drunk Princess Leia (no, seriously, she has trouble getting up and around her desk without stumbling) who needs to talk to Han or Chewie … probably because they took off with all her 20-year single malt Yavin Scotch. Instead, she asks Sondan to look after the Wookie family.
With that cameo over, the Falcon arrives over Kashyyyk. Lumpy hears a familiar ship roar overhead and rushes to the door only to find Imperial Storm Troopers on the other side! Oh no!
Actually, this next segment features some of the only material in the entire saga to actually illustrate the oppression of innocents by the Empire.
Besides the other well-known errors with the Prequels, those films kind of make the case for the Empire. Before Palpatine, the Senate was a column of squabbling, impotent bureaucrats who’s own self-interests led the Republic to fall on their watch. Before the establishment of regional governors, the outer rim was a greater den of scum and villainy controlled by ruthless organized crime syndicates and heartless corporations. With the First Galactic Empire, there came order, structure, clean hyperspace routes, schools, and aqueducts. Things were better with the Empire.
Except, of course, for two things. The Empire blew up Alderaan in its ultimate show of technological might and a Storm Trooper ripped the head off of Lumpy’s stuffed Bantha. The fiends! Well, they do a little bit more than that. The Troopers brandish their laser rifles and their grey-suited commander snears, snarls, and gets special glee when he tells Lumpy to clean up his room. It’s one of the few effective things in the entire Special as it reveals not only the sort oppression the Empire engages in, but the complicity of the men and women in the Empire’s employ. They enjoy the power they’ve been given.
This above diatribe also takes the place of talking about Jefferson Starship’s performance, of which there is nothing to say.
No wait, there is something! This is clearly the teenager portion of the “something for everybody” model. I’m pretty sure by the time this special aired, the kids were already rocking out to the musical stylings of Ace Frehly, Peter Kriss, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, so the producers miss the mark again.
To keep Lumpy busy, Mala lets him watch an animated retelling of a recent Rebel operation featuring Han, Chewie, the Droids, Luke, and Leia. This is the so-called “good part” of the Special as it introduces us to Intergalactic Man of Mystery Boba Fett.
The short has that sort of rubbery animation that was in fashion at the time, but is unsettling and weird to the modern eye. Beyond that, the characters are all designed to look like teddy bears; making it odder still is that it’s voiced by all the original actors. This, paired with the goofy quality of the character models, makes the whole thing look like a wisely abandoned pilot for an animated series. While some fans really like the cartoon, I think its cheesily made and kind of dumb. Here’s an example: on a call to Vader, the Dark Lord praises Fett as “the best bounty hunter in the Galaxy,” but his plan was to get Luke and Han to treat him like a friend. When the droids discover his ruse, he uses his jet pack and takes off.
Following the cartoon, Lumpy uses Harvey Korman’s second stab at “comedy” to build the communicator Sondan gave him. Once complete, he uses it to fake a retreat order for the Imperial search party.
Okay, we’ve finally reached the real good part. Bea “punchline of all lesser comedians’ jokes” Arthur and her Cantina Cabaret! After Harvey Korman fails to impress with more of his “comedy,” Arthur sings a Antony Newley-style number called “Goodnight, but Not Goodbye.” It also utilizes the melody the Cantina band plays in Star Wars which I think must horrify some people. I can’t deny that after listening to the song several times that it grew on me, particularly because of the way it makes Justin quake with fear.
Once the Imperial commander receives the phony retreat order, he leaves behind a lone Storm Trooper who discovers Lumpy’s communicator and smashes it. He chases the young Wookie outside the house where they run into Han and Chewie, who dispense with the Trooper. After that, the two Rebels are warmly greeted by Mala and Itchy.
I’ve got to say this, Harrison Ford fucking commits to his shitty lines. When he tells Mala that they’re “like family” to him, you buy it. It’s a pretty amazing performance and I guess that was the Star Wars portion of “a little something for everybody.”
After one more appearance by Sondan, the Wookies prepare for the Life Day celebration which includes dressing up in red robes and using crystal balls to teleport to a hastily conjured set that contains “The Tree of Life.” At the base of the tree, all of Chewie’s Rebel pals appear to wish him the best. Princess Leia also gives a speech about their eventual victory over the Empire and sings a “song.”
Now I know why Carrie Fisher was drunk earlier. She had to mentally prepare to sing this bastardization of the main Star Wars theme and hit a note that’s clearly outside her range. This scene is so awkward and embarrassing, even the Droids look uncomfortable.
There’s a short wrap-up that sees the Wookie family eating their Life Day meal as the camera pans away and the end credits role.
Well … what else can be said about this thing? If I could ever interview the people responsible I’d ask one important question: WHY THE DAMNED WOOKIES? Considering how little Chewbacca appears in the production, why set it on Kashyyyk? I suppose the foresty feel most resembles Christmas, but the generic Life Day could’ve worked anywhere. It’s just as easy to set it the Rebel fleet where members of Leia’s adoptive family who survived the destruction of Alderaan assemble to celebrate their local solstice festival (because axial tilt is the reason for the season). There could’ve been human actors in human situation having human conversations.
Even in that, it would still suck because if there’s one format you can’t squeeze Star Wars into, it’s variety television. The scope is too big, the story too exciting. Everything kids want a Star Wars TV special to be is everything TV (at the time) could not deliver. Conversely, all the things TV could do was everything a Star Wars fan DIDN’T want in a Star Wars special. They didn’t want Jefferson Starship, Harvey Corman, or Diane Carroll getting a Wookie off.
At its heart, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” was and is a misguided early attempt to cash-in on the megafranchise that is Star Wars. It sits in a special place because its also the first spectacular failure of the brand. It’s composed of the nightmare scenario George Lucas had for his funny space movie and he’s been running from this thing ever since.
Maybe that’s why he hates Boba Fett so much …