Star Wars Meets Vaudeville: The Star Wars Holiday Special

It being the holidays and all, the Mad Marchioness and I took the opportunity to see something we’d been dying to look at for ages, the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. I’m quite sure I saw it when it first aired, but it has long been unavailable to the public, on serious lockdown as an embarrassment, and (at the very least) a non-canonical entry into the narrative. But we noticed its availability on Youtube the other night, and pounced on it like like lions on a gazelle. There is, by the way, no shortage of existing blogposts and internet articles about this historical oddity.  We merely want to share our own observations and introduce it to any of our readers who have not had the pleasure of rubber-necking this particular space wreck.

And also, we thought we might have something to add as a connoisseur of variety entertainment, for as we proclaimed in the title, this show is what happens when you mash-up Star Wars with a ’70s tv variety show. And 1978 was pretty much the last time you could do that. The form was drawing close to death by that point. As for the Star Wars part, there is a plot of sorts. Han Solo and Chewbacca are racing to get home to the Wookiee home planet in time for the annual “Life Day” celebration, because naturally there is no Christmas or Chanukah or Kwanzaa a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Key Star Wars cast members Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, and (the voice of) James Earl Jones, all showed up for this wild ride, and all are acting their hearts out, because it’s early days yet and most of them weren’t big enough stars to turn up their noses at it. (Sir Alec Guinness, however, was. Even if Obi-Wan hadn’t lost his light saber duel it’s doubtful he would have flown across the Atlantic for this fol de rol).

At any rate, the producers were given the tall order of manifesting the Star Wars universe on a 1970’s television variety budget. Kind of the opposite of when Star Trek got expanded to the big screen for the first time. We watch the spectacle of the most state-of-the-art special effects franchise in the world at that time being downsized to the level of painted stage flats, green screen effects, and props and costumes from storage warehouses. The Chewbacca family’s treehouse is decorated with that green carpeting stuff that TV set directors use when they have to create a setting for a comedy sketch set on a golf course. The kitchen has a stove — just like the one in your house. It practically says “Amana” on it. Chewbacca’s family members, who for some reason have humiliating clown names like “Lumpy” and “Itchy”, putter around the house waiting for the Wookiee of the house to come home. There are numerous extended scenes of them communicating in untranslated Wookiee language. No word of a lie, these scenes, consisting entirely of that weird Wookiee noise, go on for several minutes at a time, including the first ten minutes or so of the program. I would be majorly shocked if half of the audience didn’t change the channel right then and there.

So where comes the vaudeville? There are guest performances! By comedians, singers, dancers, and acrobats! Art Carney has the largest part, as some sort of repairman and friend of the family, who for some reason wears American eyeglasses and keeps notes on a folded piece of paper (I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen paper in any Star Wars movie). It is a sad spectacle to see Carney re-enact his Ed Norton business in an exchange with an Imperial Stormtrooper, like the old show pony who goes into his tricks whenever he hears his musical cue.

A lot of these variety turns happen on some device which is supposed to be the “television” equivalent in this universe. On this device, Chewbacca’s aged father watches Diahann Carroll deliver something that looks like a pay-per-view softcore porn segment.

Harvey Korman does some of the most painfully unfunny work of his career in fake commercials and a segment where he is a kind of Julia Child character with multiple arms, on a cooking show. (As my wife pointed out, Mrs. Chewbacca was wearing an apron while tossing around the meat chunks for her recipe). Jefferson Starship (sans Grace Slick) perform a dreadful song.

In one of the more elaborate set pieces, a humorless Bea Arthur plays the bartender at the famous cantina, in which she sings some sort of Brecht-Weill number and dances with Greedo. Many of the costumed creatures from the film appear in this segment, as does one character who does NOT belong — a giant mouse, the costume for which, my wife observed, must have been hanging in a nearby closet, and so why not? There are also acrobatic contributions by the Wazzan Troupe and Stephanie Stromer, and juggling by the Mum Brothers. And of course the Cantina Theme is played, which will always be the most vaudevillian thing about Star Wars. I had the single when I was a kid, and wore out the grooves, man! Cuz I was just that kind of nerd.

Hard core Star Wars people tend to be approving of an animated segment in the show, which among other things, marks the first introduction of the character Boba Fett. George Lucas originally intended Boba to be a much more major character in his story, but by the time of the next film The Empire Strikes Back, the part was whittled down considerably.

At the climax of the show, Carrie Fisher gets a chance to shine (and to prove she is the daughter of her parents) by singing a number of her own. And then there is a bizarre glimpse of the Life Day ceremony, where a conga line of green-screen Wookiees appears to dance into the sun. And then, since the program obviously ran short a few minutes, they pad out the remaining time with a bunch of random clips from Star Wars. 

Now, most of the internet chatter out there is of the “avoid this” variety, or at the most, “you must watch it once.”. But readers of this blog know that I am sick. I will watch this show MANY times from now on, probably annually. Because that’s how we roll on my planet.  Where I come from, this is “can’t fail” material. It may be terrible science fiction, but it’s a whiz bang weird variety show. May the Farce Be With You! And Happy Life Day, for those who celebrate!

To learn more about vaudeville, including television variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous