The Infamous Star Wars Holiday Special

42 years ago, there was a great disturbance in the Force: a terrible variety show.

George Lucas, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill at a induction ceremony at the Hollywood Walk of Fame

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It’s been called “the worst two hours of television ever.” TV Guide described it as “unintentionally hilarious.” It’s long been regarded as the absolute worst thing about a pop culture phenomenon that is famous for the devotion of its fans. It is, of course, 1978’s Star Wars Holiday Special, 98 minutes of the worst of 1970s variety television that, amazingly, managed to trap the stars of the 1977 blockbuster within it as well. That’s right — Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, and James Earl Jones found themselves in the program along with, bizarrely, Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, Diahann Carroll, and, wait for it, Jefferson Starship. If you know, you know, but if you don’t, prepare yourself for a bad idea that somehow became worse in execution, and learn how the franchise is aiming to take the notion of a holiday special back.

TV Guide ad for the Star Wars Holiday Special
1978 TV Guide print ad for the Star Wars Holiday Special (©CBS, Disney)

If you’ll allow a personal digression, this writer watched the Star Wars Holiday Special during its single airing on CBS on the night of November 17, 1978. Your humble scribe was five, and even then, I knew it was awful. I actually told many people about it over the years, and they didn’t believe me. “Seriously,” I would say, “it had Chewbacca’s family and Bea Arthur and a Boba Fett cartoon. And Carrie Fisher sang a song!” My memories were ascribed to lies, storytelling, heavy drug use, or sometimes all three.  But I was not wrong. It happened. Although George Lucas wishes it didn’t.

The special started to come together in the wake of the huge success of Star Wars in 1977. With ongoing marketing, merchandizing, the movement of Lucasfilm to a new facility, and the impending work on the sequel that would become The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas was besieged with offers. One was for a holiday special; Lucas’s only involvement was to suggest that it revolve around Chewbacca’s Wookiee family. Beyond that, Lucas’s whirlwind of activity would keep him focused on other concerns. The special began to evolve into a hybrid of a live-action story featuring members of the cast (who were under contract) trying to get to the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk for the holiday of Life Day, an animated segment using the cast as voice actors, and other segments, including musical numbers and skits that were in line with the variety shows of the day. Those pieces were filled out by popular stars like Arthur, Korman, and Carney.

Anthony Daniels discusses the special. (Uploaded to YouTube by Entertainment Tonight)

It’s hard to say what’s bad about the special outside of, well, all of it. The film quality is poor, the musical sequences are bizarre, the skits are bad, and the lengthy stretches of Chewie’s Wookiee family are interminable. Nearly everything is played for laughs, but almost nothing is (intentionally) funny. Even with the parade of weirdness on screen, it’s poorly paced and oddly boring. The one thing that’s been celebrated over the years is the animated sequence that introduces Mandalorian armor-wearing bounty hunter Boba Fett. Aside from that bit, the show has been widely panned by fans, critics, the cast themselves, and Lucas over the years. Fisher once joked on Times Talk in 2010 that she did the audio commentary for the DVD releases of the film on the condition that Lucas give her a copy of the special so that she could “have something for parties . . . when [she] wanted everyone to leave.”

Over the years, the special became an object of cult legend. It never re-aired on TV, and Lucas, despite being an aggressive merchandizer in all other areas of Star Wars licensing, refused to allow it to be released on VHS or DVD. When Disney acquired Lucasfilm for over $4 billion in 2012, there was speculation about its release, but nothing happened; the same cycle of speculation occurred when Disney+ launched last year, but the special has only remained available via bootleg tapes and the infrequent upload. It occasionally pops up to be mocked; assessing the first Biden-Trump presidential debate, Hamill tweeted that it was the worst thing he’d ever seen, and he “was in the Star Wars Holiday Special.”

The trailer for The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special (Uploaded to YouTube by Star Wars)

This year, however, Disney is making a cheeky attempt to take back the brand. For some time, Disney and Lego have partnered on comedically flavored Star Wars animated programming, but now they’re leaning all the way in. The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special, which begins streaming November 17 — the same date as the original airing from 1978 — positions itself as a pseudo sequel, going so far as to include Chewbacca’s Wookiee family (which had previously been expelled from the official Star Wars canon). The special pulls in other characters and voice actors from every era of Star Wars (notably Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Kelly Marie Tran and the cast of The Clone Wars), up to and including the most recent cinematic trilogy and the streaming hit The Mandalorian.

The Star Wars Holiday Special has served as something of a cautionary tale to franchise overseers. It is possible to stretch a property too far, but it’s also possible to recover from mistakes. The poor reception for the show did nothing to hurt the box office when Empire landed in 1980, and since that time, it’s become something of an inglorious footnote in a much bigger and more successful film legacy. It’s fair to say that some fans may have a soft spot for the variety program in the way that they harbor affection for, say, Jar Jar Binks or some of C-3PO’s cornier lines. But it’s also fair to say that many more fans would be content if all the remaining copies digested in the belly of a Sarlacc for a few thousand years.

Featured image: Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. A good article on a Christmas special I’d certainly never heard of before. I feel more like you about it than Bob. I can’t tell if he really wants to see it or not. He doesn’t usually have me guessing in his comments how he feels, but here I don’t know. Since this program is so rare and difficult to find, I think it’s kind of nervy of him to ask for it as a birthday gift. He could be pulling your leg, but does give good reasons for wanting to see it. If you find a copy it might be kind of expensive. I make sure anyone I consider getting a present really wants it, and will appreciate it. It’s your judgement call on this one. Just putting in my 2 cents.

  2. Well, I have to say that I’m an original ‘Star Trek’ fan vs. any ‘Star Wars’ anything, like Bob Sassone. That is not to say I dislike it, much less hate it. I’ve always been indifferent towards it after seeing it in May 1977. I guess I was still 19 since my birthday was the 26th. It was within the first week of it coming out. You’d know the release date better; I don’t care to bother looking.

    YOUR feature here has me REALLY wanting to see this old-fashioned ’78 Star Wars Holiday Special! Since it’s this “horrible thing” best digested into the belly of a Sarlace (?) for a few thousand years, that makes it forbidden fruit now that I have to see. YOU sold me on it when I read about all the great stars that were on it, that are gone now!

    So what if they made asses out of themselves. It sounds like an asinine, kick-ass hoot to me. Yeeeeeeee Haw!! Now you know what to get me for my next birthday, Troy! Thanks in advance.

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