George Lucas reportedly said of the Star Wars Holiday Special: "If I had the time and a hammer, I would track down every copy of that program and smash it." The TV special is infamous in fan circles, and despite the lack of official release -- and Lucas's promise that they will never be one -- low-quality copies from the poor (or fortunate?) souls who happened to catch it on tape still abound at sci-fi conventions and on the Internet.
The story of the Holiday Special revolves around a Wookiee holiday, Life Day, analogous to Christmas (or perhaps Thanksgiving, since that was when the Holiday Special aired). Han tries to get Chewbacca home, but they are chased by Imperials and forced to make a detour. Meanwhile, Imperials impose a curfew on the Wookiee planet Kashyyyk and start searching Chewbacca's home. Eventually, our heroes return and celebrate the sacred Life Day ceremony.
The scenario is merely a very loose frame story to string together a two-hour variety show of performances by such guest stars as Bea Arthur, Diahann Carroll and the Jefferson Starship. The Star Wars characters make a few short cameos, including both new footage and some salvaged cuts from A New Hope, but they all seem embarrassed to be there.
What Went Wrong
Using Life Day as a frame device for variety acts wouldn't have been a terrible idea -- it wouldn't have been good, just not terrible -- if the frame had made any sense whatsoever. But the acts jump from one to another with no rhyme or reason, and the two attempts to actually tie them to things in the Star Wars universe create the worst logic bombs.
First, we have Chewbacca's son Lumpy and his father Itchy watching a holographic circus performance. Okay, not too bad; at least it's a break from the conversation in unsubtitled Wookiee that opened the show. But it just goes downhill from there. The next few acts include Chewie's wife Malla watching a four-armed cook (played by Harvey Korman in drag) prepare Bantha Surprise and, most uncomfortably, Chewie's father's virtual reality sex fantasy.
As the story progresses and the Imperials have invaded Chewie's home, Lumpy decides to watch cartoons. Apparently the recent exploits of Han, Luke, and Leia are already holodramas -- and illegal. Finally, we see the Imperial broadcast of a documentary: "Life on Tatooine." Apparently Bea Arthur as a bartender singing to her patrons is supposed to showcase the moral depravity on such planets and increase loyalty to the Empire.
A Place in Star Wars History
Perhaps the most frightening thing about the Star Wars Holiday Special is not the long passage of conversation carried out in unsubtitled Wookiee, the bizarre illogic of Chewbacca's son watching a cartoon about Chewie's adventures, or the "Life Day" theme song led by Carrie Fisher (who was reportedly so drugged up that she has no memory of the Holiday Special -- if only we were all so lucky). It is, rather, the fact that the Star Wars Holiday Special is canon -- that is, it really happened in the Star Wars universe.
The events and characters introduced aren't incidental, either. The Wookiee planet, complete with mile-high tree houses, appears in the Expanded Universe and Revenge of the Sith (although its name morphed from Kazook to Kashyyyk), and Chewbacca's family members make several appearances. Most importantly, though, the Holiday Special marked the first appearance of Boba Fett, who became such an immensely popular character with the fans that he was resurrected in the Expanded Universe after supposedly being eaten by a sarlaac in Return of the Jedi and given a full backstory in Attack of the Clones.
How to Watch the Holiday Special
Most bad Star Wars media is worth watching or reading just once, for the sake of understanding how it fits with and influences the rest of the universe. It's hard to recommend that for the Holiday Special. The truly sad thing is that it barely even makes entertaining fodder for Mystery Science Theatre 3000-inspired viewing parties. In short, it's too bad. It's so bad that your brain spends all its energy trying not to explode, leaving you none for snarky remarks.
So here's what you have to do: watch it twice.
It sounds painful -- and it is -- but the truth is that the only way to glean some enjoyment our of the Holiday Special is to impose it on others. Watch the Holiday Special once, so that you know what's coming, then watch it again with some friends. But this time, don't watch the Holiday Special. Watch their faces as they gasp in horror at how its awfulness has surpassed even their wildest dreams. In this way, the Holiday Special will live on, no matter what George Lucas has to say about it.
Air Date: November 17, 1978
Writers: Rod Warren, Bruce Vilanch, Pat Proft, Leonard Ripps, and Mitzie Welch
Directors: Steve Binder and David Acomba
Producers: Joe Layton, Jeff Starsh, Ken Welch, and Mitzie Welch
VHS/DVD Release: None, although you can find bootleg copies on eBay or at science fiction conventions.
Cast: Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), James Earl Jones (Darth Vader), Beatrice Arthur (Ackmena), Art Carney (Saun Dann), Diahann Carroll (Mermeia), The Jefferson Starship (Holographic Band), Harvey Korman (Krelman/Chef Gormaanda/Amorphian instructor), Mickey Morton (Malla), Paul Gale (Itchy), Patty Maloney (Lumpy), Jack Rader (Imperial Guard Officer), Stephanie Stromer (The Great Zorbak), Michael Potter (Imperial Guard Officer), Wazzan Troupe (Holographic Tumblers), Yûichi Sugiyama (Ringleader), Mum Brothers (The Reeko Brothers), Claude Woolman (Imperial Officer), Lev Mailer (Imperial Guard), John McLaughlin (Imperial Stormtrooper).
To find out what happened to the Holiday Special characters in the Expanded Universe, see "The Star Wars Holiday Special: Where Are They Now?"