It was sort of like catching your friends on a Tumblr porn account. People you recognized and love were caught in awkward positions, doing things that just seemed so unlike them. And afterward, you may have wanted to talk about it but the best approach was to just ignore that it ever happened.
Cue opening Star Wars theme song and title crawl, “Episode X-Mas: No Hope.”
Debuting 36 years ago today, the Star Wars Holiday Special remains one of pop culture’s dirtiest little secrets. And shortly after this endeavor began to sell toys and the brand after the original film, and about a year and a half before the May 1980 sequel, you can’t help but have a bad feeling about this. A two-hour sci-fi freak show, with one or two moment of quality, the variety show special cashed in on the success of the previous year’s Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
It aired once, on CBS, pre-empting The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman. Skits featuring a four-armed alien Julia Child-esque chef, musical interludes and uncomfortable actors flashed across TV screens before disappearing into obscurity among a lot of negative reception, yet spurring decades of conversation.
The Star Wars Holiday Special lives on.
Despite George Lucas’ desire to find the "time and a sledgehammer" and "track down every copy of that show and smash it” -- because, as he claims (but TV joke writer Bruce Vilanch questions), he wasn’t involved but learned not to let “variety TV guys” take over his characters -- a simple search on YouTube yields results of a few generations-old VHS dubs of Carrie Fisher singing lyrics to the famous theme song, and Harrison Ford telling Chewbacca’s really gonzo family that they are "like family" to him.
Want to see classic comedic actors Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur and Art Carney (who gives us the proton pack years before Ghostbusters) enter the Star Wars universe alongside footage from the 1977 film, a holographic Jefferson Starship and a band of bizarre tumbling circus performers? You can, with minimal search engine effort. But caveat emptor videntes.
The plot of the holiday special revolves around Han Solo and Chewie attempting to make it home so the Wookiee can celebrate Life Day (a Kashyyyk holiday that involves ... you know what, never mind) with his wife Malla, son Lumpy and father Itchy. Most of the action, however, focuses on the Chewbacca family as they contend with Imperial forces, and forced diversions -- such as a number on Tatooine with the future Dorothy Petrillo Zbornak singing in the Mos Eisley Cantina, a wretched musical lounge of scum and villainy. Lest we forget, there is also the still-uncomfortable virtual reality space porn sequence between Itchy and Diahann Carroll ("Oh, Oh! We are excited, aren't we? ... I am your fantasy, I am your experience, so experience me, I am your pleasure, enjoy me" ... Ick, seriously, Chewie's dad?)
And if you think this sounds vaguely uncomfortable, hold on. Just when you might think the special has peaked with lousy quality, the deal keeps getting worse all the time. Whereas the Star Wars films largely hold up despite being a product of the 1970s, the holiday special feels like it exists in a disco galaxy nearly 40 years ago. Aside from the 10-minute animated Boba Fett sequence, which does hold up pretty well and gives us the bounty hunter pre-Empire Strikes Back, most of the overly long and drawn-out special -- where Wookiee roars are the closest we come to dialogue for extended periods -- is disregarded as a product of the Dark Side.
But guess what? It does exist!
As much as the Star Wars Holiday Special is something of a dirty little secret -- something that all players involved either deny happening (joked Ford to Conan O'Brien in 2006) or use as a way to shoo away party guests (said Fisher in 2010) -- it happened. And like Jake Lloyd or Jar Jar, there is no erasing the disturbance it caused. Millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced … but then they got some strong bandwidth a few decades later, started uploading the special and began crying out all over again. The special is a geek culture Tijuana Bible, traded across platforms and impossible to suppress.
As bad it was, and is, it is now as much a part of the Star Wars universe as Figrin D’an and all his Modal Nodes. No matter how badly the special can get, settling into a rhythm far worse than Oola’s could be on a drunk day, one is compelled to continue watching. What’s more, it will not go away, and it actually serves as an awkward story in our shared fandom.
And as someone who watches the holiday special every year as part of an “oooh man, that’s rough” family tradition, I don’t think it’s such an awful thing for this painful two hours to be thawed out of carbonite annually. It shows us the worst moments of Star Wars fandom and serves as a warning of where we could return.
Do it wrong, and Star Wars can be served up like a warmed-over dish of Bantha poodoo digested for a thousand years in the belly of a Sarlacc. So we occasionally need to gaze into the abyss to see the abyss gazing back at us.
And like that Tumblr account with photos of friends acting only slightly less slimy than Jabba with his serpentine tongue, the images from the holiday special will never go away. It is a part of us. Similar to the Force, Star Wars flows through pop culture; it can have a strong influence on the weak-minded and set us down a dark path.
But if we use the tragedy of the holiday special as a sort of nerd training, it can make us stronger. Sort of like Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s scorching (but potentially worse if you hear Carrie Fisher missing that high note).
So watch the Star Wars Holiday Special on this 36th anniversary. A domain of evil, it is. But in you must go, and you will find only what you take with you -- assuming you take a lot of 1970s imagery, more Wookiees in red robes than you care to encounter and some really tortured acting.