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Lucasfilm

Your Kids Need to Witness the Horror of the 1978 ‘Star Wars’ Holiday Special

The new Lego Star Wars Holiday Special was funny, bland and inoffensive. It's time to take things up a notch.

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For decades George Lucas has pretended that 1978’s notorious Star Wars Holiday Special did not exist out of deeply understandable embarrassment. It ran only a single time in 1978 when the world hungered mightily for a new Star Wars product and Lucas wouldn’t have a sequel out until 1980’s Empire Strikes Back. It has never been available on home video though you can, and should, watch it on Youtube with your progeny, if only to test the theory that children will, in fact, watch anything.

So when I learned that forty-two years after the original caused a confused nation to earnestly inquire, “What the hell was that?” the Lego Star Wars Holiday Special would be hitting Disney+ just in time for Life Day it struck me as incredibly audacious, a delightful lark from a franchise that had finally developed a sense of humor about its biggest non-Jar Jar Binks humiliation.

I was wrong. The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special is anything but audacious. It’s forty-seven minutes of blindingly slick fan service that couldn’t be safer or more predictable. It’s not delightful, nor is it a lark. The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special gives Star Wars the tongue-in-cheek, smartass Robot Chicken treatment, which can’t help but feel redundant considering how often Robot Chicken has done a better job spoofing Star Wars, both in individual episodes and multiple Star Wars-themed specials. These days, Parents and children know to expect a certain level of cleverness and sophistication in Lego productions, as well as an unmistakable slickness to the animation that appeals to both small children and dad-stoners. At best, Lego can be dazzlingly clever and surprisingly poignant and profound. Alas, The Lego Star Wars Special is not The Lego Movie or The Lego Batman Movie. It’s a typical Lego product, which is usually good enough but not for a project with this much-unrealized potential for subversion and sly meta-commentary. The disappointing new special gives fans exactly what it thinks they want–the most iconic characters! The biggest moments! All with tongue thoroughly in cheek!–in an almost perversely unsatisfying way.

The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special riffs extensively on seemingly every bit of Star Wars lore with the maddening exception of The Star Wars Holiday Special. I spent the whole special waiting for Chewbacca’s family to show up and grunt incoherently for ten to fifteen minutes. I was disappointed. The Disney+ exclusive doesn’t even end with someone zonked out of their mind on all the drugs in the universe (that would be Carrie Fisher’s blissed-out Princess Leia) singing a song set to John Williams’ Star Wars theme the way the original holiday special does.

The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special doesn’t necessarily make The Star Wars Holiday Special seem “better” by comparison but it does underline the qualities that make it extraordinary, unique, and unforgettable if also total garbage.

I’m old enough that my first exposure to the Star Wars Holiday Special came during college in the mid-1990s from a bootleg videocassette “party tape.” I was told that I was about to watch some of the craziest shit ever to appear on American television, something so exquisitely, transcendently and completely wrong that I would have a hard time believing that it existed even as I watched it with my own eyes.

It more than lived up to its reputation. It continues to live up to that reputation. At this point, I’ve seen the Holiday Special twice as often as Star Wars, something like five or six times, yet my brain still angrily refuses to process the infamous TV turkey as anything other than the deranged fever dream of a madman, an utter lunatic completely divorced from reality and sanity.

Decades later, the Star Wars Holiday Special retains its power to shock both in terms of an endless parade of choices that are simultaneously insane, inexplicable, and defiantly non-commercial and its mere existence.

Those choices begin with making consummate sidekick/second banana Chewbacca’s family the focus of the special, then having these bizarrely ugly, off-putting, intensely horny space bears communicate exclusively through grunts and noises that are never translated or subtitled for the harrowing crucible that is the special’s first fifteen minutes. It extends to giving Chewbacca’s viscerally disturbing horny old man of a grumpy dad a showcase where a psychedelic hologram played by a distressingly sensual Diann Carroll performs a sexy, trippy dance in the realization of this gargoyle-faced space monster’s most fervent, feverishly erotic fantasies.

 

You’ve really got to hand it to the Star Wars Holiday Special: it doesn’t let the fact that its heroes are ugly, grunting, sub-verbal beasts, and its audience of small children keep it from being unnervingly sexual at times. Other than Star Wars, the Star Wars Holiday Special is the only major Star Wars production from the 1970s. It’s not just from the 1970s: it’s the 1970s incarnate, as opposed to the relative timelessness of movies famously set long ago in a land far away.

The Star Wars Holiday Special also takes place long ago in a land far away that will feel like an alternate universe to your children: the 1970s, when the boob tube overflowed with variety shows, each tackier and more shameless than the last, a good percentage of the film and television industry was clearly stoned on the job in ways that are very apparent and Harrison Ford wasn’t powerful enough yet to be able to say no a misbegotten project that required him to earnestly deliver lines like, “That’s the spirit! You’ll be celebrating Life Day before you know it!” to his sentient bearskin rug of the best buddy without groaning in embarrassment or making the universal jerk-off motion.

Variety shows might just be the television genre that has aged the worst and most. There’s a reason the once-thriving genre is a half-forgotten relic of a much earlier show-business era. When filtered through the garish, coked-up filter of Pink Lady & Jeff or The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, George Lucas’ beloved mythology looks so different and bizarre as to be unrecognizable.

The special’s unnecessarily involved plot involves Chewbacca and Han Solo trying to beat an Empire blockade and lockdown to get back to the Wookiee’s home in time for a Life Day celebration.

The Star Wars Holiday Special really doubles down on the idea that the Empire and Darth Vader are Outer Space-Nazis trying to implement an Intergalactic Fourth Reich. When stormtroopers arrive at Chewbacca’s house in search of him it feels more like Schindler’s List or The Diary of Anne Frank than a fun space opera.

Only the special’s writing staff, which includes both punch-up king Bruce Vilanch and future Naked Gun and Real Genius screenwriter Pat Proft knows why they thought Star Wars +Triumph of the Will + The Donnie and Marie Osmond Comedy Hour was the right direction to take this red-hot if tricky material. Yes, the Star Wars Holiday Special is the secret Leni Riefenstahl/Sid and Marty Krofft collaboration we never knew we needed.

So in between glorified cameos from the aforementioned Ford, Mark Hamill (looking for all the world like a more heavily-made up Dorothy Hamill) and Carrie Fisher that can best be described as “contractually obligated”, or in the case of Fisher, “stoned”, we’re treated to wacky physical comedy from variety show staple Harvey Korman, the rock stylings of musical guest Jefferson Starship and Bea Arthur, with fascinatingly misplaced gravity, singing a melancholy saloon song that seemingly belongs in Cabaret more than a kid’s show about furry space creatures enjoying a nice holiday together.

Star Wars Holiday Special has a little bit of everything, up to and including an unnecessarily prolonged glimpse into the sexual appetites and tastes of elderly Wookiees. That includes a segment of genuine quality in the form of a cartoon from Nelvana in the style of underground comic book icon Moebius that introduced audiences to a badass bounty hunter who was into the whole “mask” thing way before COVID-19 named Boba Fett.

No matter how many times you and your family see The Holiday Special it never stops surprising you. In the case of the well-regarded cartoon, it’s by doing something in this surreal off-brand special that feels worthy of being canon and not a hypnotically insane aberration.

The Star Wars Holiday Special is legendary. It’s unique. It earns its place of both pride and shame in the all-time annals of So Bad It’s Kind of Great. This enduring embarrassment to one of the highest-profile, most lucrative franchises in existence is paradoxically so intensely dated that it will stand the test of time as the ultimate expression of drugged-up 1970s excess and judgment that is not just bad but the absolute worst. The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special, in sharp contrast, is just more shiny space nonsense for children designed to be consumed mindlessly and quickly forgotten.

Watch the whole thing here. (While this YouTube link lasts.)