A long, long time ago—Nov. 17, 1978, to be exact—in a television galaxy far, far away (one that only had three major networks), Star Wars unleashed what would become its single most embarrassing artifact upon 13 million unsuspecting CBS Friday night viewers. More embarrassing, even, than the title The Force Awakens. It was the Star Wars Holiday Special, the subject of this week's Throwback Thursday.
Forget Jar Jar Binks, the rest of The Phantom Menace, Princess Leia making out with her brother Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, and the immortal Revenge of the Sith line "Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo!" None of those ignominious Star Wars moments can compare to this debacle, which aired only once.
A year after Star Wars became the highest-grossing film ever, George Lucas was sold on the notion that the special, airing on CBS the Friday before Thanksgiving, would help tide fans over until The Empire Strikes Back's 1980 release—and sell some toys along the way. His name doesn't actually appear on the Holiday Special, though he reportedly insisted on the show's ridiculous storyline, about Chewbacca's efforts to return to his family and tree-house home on Kashyyyk to celebrate Life Day.
But first, let's go back a few days, to this CBS promo that aired on the network earlier that week (intro-ed by One Day at a Time star Valerie Bertinelli). It gave audiences the first glimpse of the horrors awaiting them: "Will Chewbacca get home to his planet in time for the big Wookiee celebration?"
"Far out Friday," indeed! After watching that promo, I only have two questions. One, was the special made on a dare? Two, forget the Star Wars Holiday Special, can we watch Flying High instead? (Alas, the comedy-drama about three flight attendants—who judging by that promo, do nothing but rip off their clothes—was off the air two months later.)
It was immediately clear to anyone who tuned in on Friday at 8 p.m. ET that the show was a train wreck. If the 10-minute dialogue-free Wookiee sequence wasn't awful enough, then the virtual-reality sex scene—which still haunts my dreams, and in which Diahann Carroll urged Chewbacca's father, "I am your experience, so experience me. I am you pleasure, so enjoy me!"—sealed the deal.
While the entire, interminable Holiday Special can be found online, I don't recommend tracking it down. It doesn't fall into the "so bad it's good" category; more like "so awful that there aren't enough drugs in the world to make this good." That is if there were any drugs left beyond the ones seemingly consumed in front of and behind the camera during production.
Instead, stick to these two bookend clips, which touch upon many of the special's highlights and lowlights. Here's the opening—leading off with the sad announcement that Wonder Woman and Incredible Hulk were preempted for this disaster. It's packed with gigantic red flags: a nonexistent budget (are crew members simply jostling the Millennium Falcon set back and forth? What's with the awful stage makeup? And why can't someone turn on a light or two?), a seething Harrison Ford forced to utter lines like "That's the spirit! You'll be celebrating Life Day before you know it!", cheapo graphics sullying the majestic John Williams Star Wars theme, a silly opening credit sequence that will have you pining for Too Many Cooks and, worst of all, the following ominous proclamation: "Introducing Chewbacca's family. His wife, Malla. His father, Itchy. His son, Lumpy."
We'll skip past most of the program's assorted trippy weirdness, including circus performers, endless close-ups of expressionless Wookiee faces, TV stars like Harvey Korman, Art Carney and Bea Arthur doing shtick, and skip to the closing scene, featuring the shell-shocked Star Wars cast—including Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher—helping the Wookiees celebrate Life Day. A glassy-eyed Fisher delivers a nonsensical monologue before breaking into an excruciating song set to the Star Wars theme—where's Bill Murray's SNL lounge singer when you need him? It's, well, see for yourself:
And with that, the Star Wars Holiday Special limped to a finish. Afterward, Lucas did the only humane thing: He took the program out back and put a bullet in its head. It never aired again, nor was it ever released on video or DVD, and the only copies that exist are bootlegs recorded during its broadcast. As Lucas reportedly said, "If I had the time and a hammer, I would track down every copy of that program and smash it."
The good news is that no matter how hard Lucas seemed to try with the prequels, the franchise never got any worse, or more embarrassing, than this. Happy Life Day!