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The Most Disturbing Moments Of The Star Wars Holiday Special

The Star Wars Holiday Special is like an ugly sweater. Every year, someone's bound to roll up to a Christmas party after one too many eggnogs and force everyone to look at this garish display of retro-kitschy tackiness. For some, it's a manufactured punchline of cynical yuletide irony. For others, it's an itchy, uncomfortable embarrassment best left packed away alongside the plastic dancin' Santa. For still others, it's a warm wrapping of absurd nostalgia at the time of year they need it most.

But unlike an ugly sweater, there's only one Star Wars Holiday Special. After its lone official TV airing in November of 1978, the two-hour extravaganza fell into obscurity, and eventually infamy. Bootleg copies festered in the VHS bins at conventions. Urban legends swirled about just how much George Lucas hated it. Talk show hosts used it to embarrass the stars involved. Then came the internet, and a new generation of Star Wars fans discovered this particular '70s variety show, like Rey beholding the ancient Jedi texts.

It's clear that The Star Wars Holiday Special is experiencing something of a cultural reevaluation. After all, The Mandalorian referenced Life Day almost immediately in its debut episode. Jon Favreau has even pitched (or perhaps threatened) the idea of producing a modern-day follow-up for Disney+. But even those of us who think of the 1978 original as a delightfully bonkers pop culture time capsule have to admit that some things about it are downright nightmarish.

Are the Star Wars Holiday Special's credits insulting Kenny Baker?

The winter of 1978 was mere months removed from the record-blasting box office run of Star Wars — many theaters kept the movie playing daily for over a year past its May 1977 debut. With The Empire Strikes Back still a year and a half away, the prospect of a new installment in the adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han getting beamed directly into living rooms across America was, in short, a big deal.

Imagine the thrill, then, of hearing an announcer rattle off the names of all your favorite star warriors during the holiday special's opening credits. Even then-unsung performers got shouts out: "Anthony Daniels as C-3PO! Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca! R2-D2 as R2-D2!" That last one should've made even the most starry-eyed Star Wars fan stop and ask — as another TV debut of November '78 famously did — "What'chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?"

R2-D2, as true adherents of the Force know, was originally performed by the late Kenny Baker, who controlled the droid (usually from inside) in both the original and prequel trilogies. Now, there are some conflicting reports regarding Baker's involvement in the holiday special — he's often credited with working on the 1978 spectacle, but filmmaker Mick Garris has listed remote-controlling R2 for the special among his early work. Regardless, claiming that everyone's favorite astromech unit played himself is at least insulting to the performers involved, and at most a disturbing suggestion that he had somehow been made sentient in the service of a cheesy variety show.

Unsubtitled Wookiee Game

Did you know that the Wookiee language is called Shyriiwook? Now that we've enriched your life with that knowledge (you're welcome), you might be wondering if Shyriiwook is a language you could actually learn. Well, it's not an option on Duolingo yet, but if you're looking to immerse yourself in the poetry of the Wookiee tongue, there's no better place to start than The Star Wars Holiday Special.

Before the show's opening credits, fans are treated to a brief scene of Han Solo promising to get Chewbacca home in time for Life Day. It's a good thing we're given that, because after the main titles (and an ad for General Motors — "People building transportation to serve people"), we're taken to the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk (which is, oddly enough, pronounced "ka-ZOOK" later in the special). That's when we meet Chewie's family... and the dread sets in.

Look, Wookiees are inherently lovable, and it's charming whenever Han or C-3PO let everyone else in on one of Chewie's witticisms. But it's hard to describe just how grating it can be to the human ear when three Wookiees, each with a different vocal pitch, are roaring at each other for several minutes straight, with no one to interject or even translate. It's a relief when Chewie's rambunctious son, Lumpy, settles down to watch some hologram acrobats, but even during that bizarre reprieve, you're left to wonder, "Is this... the whole thing?" An ominous start, indeed.

The sad stars of Star Wars

Remember when circuses used to have live animals? As a kid, you'd roll up under the big top on a cotton candy rush, so excited to see some elephants. They wouldn't do much but walk in circles and rear up on their hind legs, but yeah! Elephants! It was so exciting to see the elephants. Every year, though, you'd get a little older, and the show would seem a little sadder, and you started thinking more and more about how the elephants really didn't belong under those harsh lights, surrounded by those leering children, shouted at by unpleasant men as they marched through a sickly sweet miasma of beer and despair.

If the circus in this metaphor is The Star Wars Holiday Special, the elephants are Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher. There's a reason circuses don't have elephants anymore, and there's a reason there was never another Star Wars Holiday Special.

It's hard to ignore how obvious it is that the stars of Star Wars are not thrilled to be on the set of the special. Ford's line deliveries barely rise above the disgruntled mutter of a drunk parking ticket recipient. Hamill, caked in TV makeup and lit like an oblivious Ken doll, seems to have no idea where he is. And Fisher, who never shied away from discussing her own drug use during this period with both courage and humor, is obviously, uh... well, she's coping, bless her.

Gormaanda's Kitchen Nightmares

Harvey Korman was a comedy treasure. With his work on The Carol Burnett Show, The Filntstones, the films of Mel Brooks, and countless TV appearances (often partnered with Tim Conway), he became a staple of the '60s and '70s pop culture landscape. His impeccable comedic timing and persnickety screen persona provided unforgettable moments that will live forever. He was also in The Star Wars Holiday Special.

In fact, Korman pops up as not one, not two, but three separate characters throughout the special, and to put it mildly, none of them would rank alongside Blazing Saddles among his best work. His first character is Gormaanda, a TV chef whose cooking show is watched by Chewie's wife, Mala, as she prepares the family's Life Day dinner. Think of Gormaanda as a kind of four-armed Julia Child. It's a premise that's not without comedic potential, but there's something about the frenzied, manic energy that Korman builds to as he chants "Stir, whip! Stir, whip! Whip, whip, stir!" over and over again that's far more unsettling than it is uproarious. It doesn't help, either, that the over-the-top character falls uncomfortably into drag joke tropes, or that the makeup gives the vague suggestion of blackface. In short, it's a lot.

he Holiday Special's bendy droids might make you queasy

The absolute highlight of The Star Wars Holiday Special is "The Faithful Wookiee," the animated segment famous for introducing the world to Boba Fett. Produced by Canadian studio Nelvana with a style inspired by French cartoonist and sci-fi concept artist Moebius, the short is a beautifully bonkers little adventure, and it's a shame there weren't a hundred more episodes of a Star Wars cartoon just like it (though, for what it's worth, Nelvana would go on to produce Droids and Ewoks in the '80s).

On the other hand, if you're someone who is weirded out by extremely stylized animation, the cartoon could easily turn into an uncomfortable watch for you pretty quickly. Particularly bizarre are the robots, who have a certain rubbery quality to their limbs that makes them look like they're made out of something very different from the metal of their live-action counterparts. That's all well and good... until C-3PO blinks. With eyelids. Eyelids that are... vertical? Look, the cartoon is great, but we can't promise it won't give you the uneasy feeling that these aren't the droids you're looking for.

Itchy's very special Life Day gift

All right, let's get this out of the way up front: we mean no disrespect to the late Diahann Carroll. There's no reason to think a Star Wars special wouldn't be a great gig, and she did her best with what she was given. It's just that what she was given was... how do we phrase this delicately? She's the holographic object of elder Wookiee lust. Yeah, "elder Wookiee lust" is about as delicately as we can phrase it.

See, before our galaxy had the Oculus Rift, Chewie's father Attichitcuk (a.k.a. Itchy) had a "mind evaporator." It's responsible for The Star Wars Holiday Special's most uncomfortable moment of all, when the Wookiees' family friend, trader Saun Dann (Honeymooners star Art Carney), gives Itchy a very special Life Day gift. "It's kinda hard to explain," the dirty old man says as he inserts a cartridge into Itchy's VR helmet. "It's a, uh... wow." And the way he says that "wow" makes it very clear what kind of experience the family patriarch is about to have right there in the living room in front of the Force and everybody.

Diahann Carroll then appears to the dirty grandpa as a holographic entertainer known as Mermeia. Her performance of the song "This Minute" is plenty lovely (if very, very long), but Itchy makes the whole thing feel... well, itchy, with his excited grunts and the horny flapping of his rancid puppet gums as he repeatedly rewinds Mermeia's husky whispers that she "finds [him] adorable." And lest you assume this yuletide eroticism was an accidental bit of '70s background radiation, the shooting script specifies that Saun Dann presents his gift "as if he is giving Itchy the most X-rated piece of literature in the galaxy." The Star Wars Holiday Special is many things, but one thing it is not is an accident.

The Star Wars Holiday Special grinds to a halt

Like Gormaanda, the second character played by Harvey Korman is also part of an instructional video. Dromboid is an android who appears onscreen to teach Lumpy how to assemble a mini-transmitter. Is Dromboid's scene better or worse than Gormaanda's? Well... it's different. It sure is different.

The "joke" in this sequence — singular noun form carefully chosen — is that Dromboid has a tendency to sort of break down, slurring his speech or losing mobility in various parts of his face and body. Sometimes he talks very slowly or stops to adjust his own joints. That's it. That's the whole thing. It goes on for several minutes.

The worst part is that Dromboid's appearance occurs about two-thirds of the way through the special, at a time when you're already going to be predisposed to feeling like it will never end. You've come so far, but still have so far to go. And in comes this grim specter of futility, trapping you in a Wookiee-populated purgatory beyond the bonds of time. Happy Life Day. It's always been Life Day. It will always be Life Day.

Krelman can't take a hint

In one of The Star Wars Holiday Special's many shoehorned transitions, we find ourselves at Chalmun's Cantina in Mos Eisley, that wretched hive of scum and villainy where Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi first met Han Solo. That's where we encounter Krelman, the third and final Harvey Korman character, and before you can say "Maclunkey!" he's made another situation extremely uncomfortable.

Krelman is chatting up the unflappable bartender Ackmena (the inimitable Bea Arthur) in what is clearly an ongoing one-sided flirtation. It's played like an old-fashioned comedy routine, with two charming performers and the special's sharpest writing (Ackmena's prickly dialogue is genuinely funny, especially with the laser blast precision of Bea Arthur's delivery). But none of that can save the scene from the squicky feeling of watching a "Nice Guy" refuse to take a hint from a woman in a service job who's bound by professional courtesy to put up with him. It's just way too real.

There's also a bit of a physical ick factor in the way Krelman pours a drink into a hole in the top of his head. Is that a second mouth up there that's just... always open? Weird.

The powerful pathos of Bea Arthur

The good times at the cantina come to an end when an Imperial decree announces that a curfew has been placed on Tatooine due to "increased activity among subversive forces." That means Ackmena has to usher her patrons out — maybe forever. When getting the alien revelers to leave proves to be a challenge, she sings "Goodnight, But Not Goodbye," a song set to the tune of the original "Cantina Band" jam from Star Wars (that's "Mad About Me" by Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes, for you intergalactic Spotify users).

The whole thing is very silly, but it also turns out to be surprisingly heartfelt. Bea Arthur, as always, gives it her all with her sincere pleas to a room full of rubber-headed monster suits. Watching this neighborhood watering hole face possible destruction by an authoritarian regime, it's impossible to not feel like The Star Wars Holiday Special has some real emotional stakes, like Casablanca with a hammerhead.

The Mandalorian has shown us that Chalmun's Cantina is still operating several years later (after the events of Return of the Jedi), though when Mando visits it, it's far emptier than it is in either A New Hope or the Holiday Special. We can only hope that Ackmena and her wife Sorschi live happily ever after.

Fascism comes home for the holidays

Star Wars has always been built on parallels to real-world conflicts. The American Revolution, World War II, Vietnam, and even the War on Terror can all be seen in George Lucas' saga if you look at it from a certain point of view. But the movies themselves are too fast-paced, fantastical, and full of space wizards with laser swords to ever get too down about Earth Wars while you're watching Star Wars.

It might be surprising, then, to take a long look at The Star Wars Holiday Special and realize just how real the stakes can get. From the street-level look at how governments clamp down on subversive activity to the scene of stormtroopers tearing apart a child's bedroom in search of hidden rebels, the Empire has frankly never felt more like actual Nazis than they do here. The special's focus on the domestic lives of civilians — civilians attempting to prepare for a joyous holiday under the looming shadow of encroaching fascism — brings home the heroism of the Rebellion and the horrors they're fighting in the most disturbing way possible.

What is Life Day, anyway?

Finally, The Star Wars Holiday Special approaches its climax (such as it is) when Chewie arrives home with Han, who trips a stormtrooper to death off the family porch in the silliest bit of self-defense ever seen in any war movie or holiday special. Reunited with his family at last, Star Wars' resident wife guy Chewbacca begins preparations for Life Day. Apparently, this involves everyone putting on red robes, grabbing some orbs, marching into a large open space and... standing there?

Oh, also, Princess Leia sings a song — a Life Day carol titled "A Day to Celebrate," which just so happens to be set to the tune of John Williams' Star Wars main title theme. That's right: every time you hear that stirring anthem that symbolizes all of Star Wars, that towering giant of film history and American culture, know that in-universe, it is to Luke Skywalker what "Ding Dong Merrily on High" is to you.

But, like, what even is Life Day? In the intro to her song, Leia mentions "the promise of the Tree of Life," which has never been mentioned before, but is presumably the extremely big tree near which they're all standing. She name-drops harmony, joy, and courage, all in a vague, nondenominational sort of verbal snow globe. We then see a montage of scenes from Star Wars as all the characters apparently stand around and remember how rad Star Wars is. Maybe that's the true meaning of Life Day: Star Wars is rad as hell.

The inescapable '70s energy of The Star Wars Holiday Special

Despite the fact that The Star Wars Holiday Special has very little to do with Star Wars or holidays, it does have a certain festive warmth about it. There's an indefinable quality about these two hours that puts one in the mind of cozy, shag-carpeted dens, with loved ones gathered around the glow of a cathode ray tube TV. Even if that bears no resemblance to your own childhood holidays, you feel it. It somehow reminds you of Star Wars and holidays, even if it's neither.

That's really the secret power of The Star Wars Holiday Special. It's not really Star Wars as we know it, but it's a fascinating artifact of a time when Star Wars could be anything. In our modern age of "Special Edition" revisions, debates over the various levels of canon, and toxic discourse giving fandom a bad name, isn't there something wholesome about this cheesy '70s variety show boldly taking George Lucas' mythology into kitschy, cozy, ugly sweater territory, without concern for the state of the franchise or the value of the brand?

Star Wars is timeless, with its remixing of ancient myth and legend having now been passed down through generations, with no end in sight. That makes the holiday special... well, special, as it is so very '70s. Where else can you find R2-D2 existing alongside Jefferson Starship as themselves (performing a song which absolutely slaps, by the way)? It's unique. It's surprising. Whether you find it disturbing or wonderful is up to you.

Except for the elder Wookiee lust. No one should be into that.