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Things You Didn't Know About The Star Wars Holiday Special

It was a day that still lives in infamy for fans, and a day George Lucas wishes everyone would forget. On November 17, 1978, The Star Wars Holiday Special aired on CBS at 8 PM. It played for an interminable two hours, and then it was never shown again. But that certainly didn't stop the urban legend of The Star Wars Holiday Special from growing as the years wound on.

The Star Wars Holiday Special is Lucas' Plan 9 From Outer Space, an embarrassment he's been hard-pressed to acknowledge. Despite official suppression of the production, bootleg copies have circulated for years, and the internet has made it easier than ever to access. More and more fans have seen it with every passing year, and as a result, there are more questions surrounding the Holiday Special than ever. How did this monstrosity come to pass? How much did Lucas play a hand in it at all? And why is this ridiculous TV special still with us after all this time? As it turns out, the answers to those questions are a saga unto themselves. Get into the Life Day spirit as we explore the strange truth of The Star Wars Holiday Special.

The Holiday Special was meant to bridge the gap between movies

Released on May 25, 1977, Star Wars was a surprise smash hit that captured the hearts and imaginations of audiences everywhere. Lucas had always planned a series of films, and The Empire Strikes Back went into production in 1979 for a May 21, 1980 release. Considering there would be a gap of several years between films, Lucas was convinced that a TV special could keep fans interested in the franchise until the next movie came along. CBS also told Lucas that a special could help sell more Star Wars toys, and even attract new fans to the movie.

In hindsight, it's odd to think that the American public could ever forget about Star Wars, or that there was anyone on planet Earth who hadn't already seen it. There was rabid anticipation for the toys as well that season, as they were finally hitting the shelves that winter. As Lucas recalled to Empire, "When you are starting out, you try all kinds of things. Fox said, 'We can promote the film by doing the TV special.' So I kind of got talked into doing the Special."

Lucas was involved creatively, at first

George Lucas is a legendary control freak, and at first, he was onboard to be creatively involved with the Holiday Special. He came up with the special's initial idea, which was to do a story primarily about the Wookiees. The writing staff included Bruce Vilanch, who went on to write jokes for the Academy Awards, and Pat Proft, a screenwriter who worked on Police Academy, The Naked Gun, and a number of other movies.

The story, such as it is, has Chewbacca trying to get home to his family in time to celebrate a Wookiee holiday known as Life Day. Vilanch knew this was going to be a tough job, because he had to write for characters who can't actually speak, and he told Lucas as much. As it turns out, Proft and writer Lenny Ripps wrote for the mime comedy team Shields and Yarnell, so they actually did have some skill in writing for non-verbal characters.

Regardless, Lucas was gone from the team by the time the special started filming in Burbank on a budget of $1 million, and his name isn't mentioned anywhere on the finished project. But he was indeed very much present in the project's early phases.

The Star Wars Holiday Special was inspired by variety shows

In the 1970s, the variety show was thriving on network television. Sonny and Cher, Carol Burnett, and Donny and Marie were all big ratings-getters back then. The Holiday Special was created in the variety show mold, but in hindsight, this was a big mistake. As Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz told Vanity Fair, "We should have realized that there was no way that we could fit the characters into this kind of format." Moreover, by the time the Holiday Special rolled around, variety shows were beginning to lose their luster. On every level, choosing this format was a mistake.

But boy howdy, does the Holiday Special commit to being a variety show. In addition to appearances from Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, Diahann Carroll, and Art Carney, the special also features a musical number from Jefferson Starship. As their guitarist Craig Chaquico recalled decades later, "It was such a strange iteration of the original big-screen-movie concept and your regular variety show, Carol Burnett vibe. I was like, tripping on it myself, man."

Boba Fett made his debut on the Holiday Special

These days, in the wake of the incredible success of The Mandalorian, Boba Fett is one of the most popular Star Wars characters around. Believe it or not, he made his debut on the Holiday Special. Boba Fett appears in an animated segment that was created by the Canadian cartoon company Nelvana, who had previously done the children's specials The Devil and Daniel Mouse and A Cosmic Christmas.

The segment was directed by John Celestri, who told StarWars.com that Lucas wanted the segment to look like the work of acclaimed graphic artist Jean Moebius Girard. "So for Boba Fett specifically, we had Moebius' designs along with a black and white home movie of the prototype Boba Fett armor to work from." Just as the writers struggled to create interesting stories for the Wookiees, Celestri had to create a compelling character that has no facial expressions. Thus, his interpretation of Boba Fett is similar to Clint Eastwood in his Western roles. "He had self-confidence and macho poses," Celestri detailed. "Without this influence it would have been too stiff."

Carrie Fisher did a musical number on the Holiday Special because she was in a Joni Mitchell phase

The Holiday Special has many crazy, weird, and "WTF?"-inducing moments, and one of the most bizarre is Carrie Fisher singing a musical number at the end of the show in honor of Life Day. As Vilanch told Vanity Fair, the Star Wars cast was largely reluctant to do the special, Harrison Ford especially so. Yet Fisher was willing to come aboard, as long as she could belt one out. "She was going through her Joni Mitchell period," Vilanch recalled. "She came into the office and played a couple of very lachrymose ballads on a piano. She was singing about heartbreak and all the Joni Mitchell things. She very much wanted to show this side of her talent. And there was general dismay because this was not what we wanted Princess Leia to be doing."

While the Star Wars gang knew they were caught up in something pretty ridiculous in the Holiday Special, they sucked it up, and director Steve Binder has said they were "a pleasure" to work with. And hey — Carrie Fisher did have pretty good pipes.

Harrison Ford strangled Conan O'Brien when he brought the Holiday Special up on his show

Okay, so he didn't seriously strangle him, but Harrison Ford definitely made it clear to Conan that the Holiday Special is a sore subject. 

When celebrities go on talk shows, they often have to endure embarrassing clips from old movies and TV shows that are dug up for laughs. When Harrison Ford appeared on Conan O'Brien, Conan mentioned the Holiday Special, which clearly caught Ford off guard. Once the subject was brought up, Ford grew quiet, and began squirming in his seat. As Conan accurately pointed out, "None of you look happy while you're making this thing." Ford shook his head no when asked if he remembered making the special.

"No memory of it at all," O'Brien said, incredulous. "So it doesn't exist in your [memory]. What if I told you I had a little piece of tape right now ... " Knowing he was going to have to suffer through one of the most embarrassing moments of his career, Ford then grabbed O'Brien, and briefly shook him around before a ridiculous clip from the show rolled for the audience.

The special only aired once, and it didn't even do well

After the incredible success of Star Wars, anything related to the film — toys, posters, merchandise — sold like hotcakes. So a Star Wars TV special hot on the heels of the movie should have been a ratings bonanza, right? Well, not only was the Holiday Special a total disaster of storytelling, it wasn't a big ratings winner either. Where Star Wars dominated the box office charts for most of 1977, the Holiday Special didn't even come in at number one in its time slot. It got beat out by The Love Boat and Pearl, a mini-series about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The Star Wars Holiday Special has never been aired since. But despite its abject failure, bootleg copies have circulated for years on VHS and DVD, and the internet has made it even easier to find. VCRs were expensive back in the day, but the versions that float online were clearly taped off TV, and some versions have all the commercials as well. Thus, the special survived in the shadows of fandom. Recall the hilarious scene in Weird Al's "White and Nerdy" video, where he's slipping money to a shady individual in an alley — but instead of buying drugs, the guy slips him a copy of The Star Wars Holiday Special on VHS. It might be awful, but it is the stuff of fan legend.

It was almost officially released on DVD

George Lucas is famous for saying that if he had time, he would gather up every bootleg copy of the Holiday Special and smash them with a hammer. But according to Vanity Fair, the special was almost released as a DVD bonus feature in 2007, when the original trilogy was released on DVD. It's not clear why this never went through — perhaps cooler heads and common sense prevailed. But if it ever officially comes out, it's doubtful it would do that much harm to the legacy of Star Wars. So many Star Wars fans have seen it already, for one thing, and remained ardent fans of the series. Moreover, it's a given that some Star Wars completists would love to have an official copy no matter what. Why leave their money on the table?

There was fan speculation about an official release when Lucasfilm was sold to Disney in 2012, but again, no go. Carrie Fisher joked to Lucas she wanted a copy from him so she could play it at parties when she needed to clear the place out, but not even she, apparently, had a copy to call her own.

The Holiday Special might be ridiculous, but it still has a place in fans' hearts

The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special hit Disney+ in November 2020, and is, thankfully, a vast improvement over the '78 version. And yet, nostalgia is powerful. Sure, the original special is ridiculous, but there are many fans who can still recall seeing it on that fateful night in November 1978. For them, there will always be a place in their heart for it.

Despite the special's infamy, its legacy is not going to fade away any time soon, if ever. Just as the Force will always be with us, so too will the Holiday Special. Fans have made their peace with it — and surprisingly enough, so has George Lucas. As he told Mental Floss, "I'm sort of amused by it, because it is so bizarre. It's definitely avant-garde television. It's definitely bad enough to be a classic."

For his part, Anthony Daniels, who plays C-3PO, is all for an official release. "Most things are buried six feet under," Daniels told Empire. "The Holiday Special is buried 20 miles under. If Lucasfilm had deep-down wit, they would go, 'Okay, here's the Special Edition of the Holiday Special.' Instead of making it a skeleton in the cupboard everyone's ashamed of, why not go, 'Okay, we blew it this time — why don't we see just how badly we blew it?'" Amen to that. Happy Life Day, everyone!