This is the second post in a daily series. Read about it here and see the list of previous posts here. A new post about “Star Wars” will be posted every day for 40 days leading up to the franchise’s 40th birthday on May 25th.
Bruce Vilanch proved he was a comic genius by contributing to Bette Midler’s 1974 Broadway show “Clams on the Half Shell,” but even he could not save “The Star Wars Holiday Special.”
The two-hour event aired on CBS on Nov. 17, 1978, and has since become famous for being terrible. Vice’s Motherboard said it “was the worst thing on television ever.” Anthony Daniels, the actor behind C-3PO, said “You will die if you watch it.” And, perhaps most telling, even George Lucas thought it was awful, saying, “If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.”
You’ll remember this is the guy who loaded “Attack of the Clones” with lines like “I’m haunted by the kiss that you never should have given me,” and “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere.” For Lucas to think something should be smashed with a sledgehammer must mean it was really, really bad.
And, well, it was.
It was basically a variety show of musical numbers and sketches strung together by a story in which Han Solo and Chewbacca tried to outrun the Empire so that they could get to Chewie’s home planet of Kashyyyk so that he and his family can celebrite the Wookiee holiday Life Day. The special included Luke, Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2, and Darth Vader, and introduced Boba Fett in a cartoon short.
But a big bulk of the special took place at Chewbacca’s house while his family waited for him to get home. The problem with this, though, is that Wookiee language is nothing but grunts and growls.
In a 2008 interview with Vanity Fair, Vilanch explained how he had approached Lucas with concerns. His worry was that if the special focused too much on the non-verbal Wookiees, it ran the risk of becoming “one long episode of Lassie.” Vilanch said:
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.’ 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.
Lucas was apparently not amused. Vilanch continued:
This was his vision, and he could not be moved. And of course “Star Wars” was so gigantic that he had been validated a hundred times over. So he had what a director needs to have, which is this insane belief in their personal vision, and he was somehow going to make it work.
So Vilanch and the rest of writers had the unenviable task of trying to base a story around Chewbacca’s family. Their solution was to find ways to take attention off the Wookiees. This included a virtual reality headset that allowed Chewie’s father to have a fantasy about a hologram woman played by Diahann Carroll.
A similar gimmick was used to show a song performed by Jefferson Starship.
The special also had Bea Arthur as a bartender singing to patrons of the Mos Eisley cantina.
I mean, I told you this was terrible.
But the redeeming part of this special comes from Vilanch himself, because each time he’s been interviewed about it, he seems to hold back less and less. It does not matter whether you’ve heard the jokes once or a dozen times, because Vilanch talking shit about the very special he helped write never gets old.
The Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television conducted a lengthy interview with Vilanch in 2011. During the three hour interview, Vilanch discussed Sonny and Cher, Paul Lynde, “The Brady Bunch Variety Hour,” Donny and Marie, and, of course, “The Star Wars Holiday Special.”
Don’t attempt to drink anything around the 1:45 mark, lest you want to do a spit-take on your screen.
The Dinner Party Download, a radio show produced through American Public Media, had Vilanch on in December 2015. During the interview, Vilanch more or less confirmed that a lot of cocaine was confirmed while the show was produced. Listen to the show here.
The Night Time Show is a podcast in which comedian Stephen Kramer Glickman interviews a variety of people, including comedians and comedy writers. Vilanch visited the show in the fall of 2016, and though he repeated the joke about fat people, he had some new lines and anecdotes. “The Star Wars Holiday Special” part of the interview starts around the 32:20 mark.
To watch “The Star Wars Holiday Special” in full, watch it here.
But really, there’s no reason to watch it, unless of course to imagine Vilanch’s Wookiee impression each time a Wookiee speaks. That could make it better.
Certainly wouldn’t make it worse.