It's a Christmas tradition in geek culture as ingrained as Magic: the Gathering booster pack stocking stuffers: making fun of the Star Wars Holiday Special. And well we should: It has definitely not aged well, to damn it the faintest. Reviewing it is a guaranteed hit on YouTube, so every major reviewer has a shot at it. Let's get a few out of the way:
The Nostalgia Critic has the funniest review, hands-down:
The Cinema Snob has a great runner-up:
Dark Corners has a shorter, sweeter review:
Even geek-culture webcomic classic XKCD just had to take a swipe at it. The Star Wars Holiday Special is the very definition of "low-hanging fruit."
Yeah, and you know what? YOU'VE ALL GOT IT WRONG!
You young Millennial whipper-snapper Star Wars fans, I'm sorry, but you can take the next Star Tours shuttle express to planet Get Off My Lawn! There are a whole four decades of cultural and historical context you're all ignoring. What else do you do, break into Egyptian pyramids and graffiti critiques next to the hieroglyphics for not being lit enough? Settle down while I set you straight about this special:
Before we get started, I must make the following statement: I am a very mellow person normally, quite the laid-back cat. But if one of you so much as thinks hard about """correcting""" me when I say "Star Wars" by blurting out "You mean episode IV or Phantom Menace?" - I will come at you with everything I have and I will end you.
Here is a movie theater ticket stub from the premiere:
Read it. What does it say?
WHAT! DOES! IT! SAY!
It says STAR WARS. Eight letters, two words, that's it. No Roman numerals, no CGI, and Han shot first. That is the movie that we first-generation Star Wars fans went to go see. All subsequent revisions by George Lucas disappearing up his own backside trying to turn a lucky break into a lifelong career (our soon-to-be focus of this thesis) are null and void. In 1977, the movie was Star Wars. Staaaaaaaar Waaaaaaaaaars.
Now, I'm not here to defend the special, even though all us Generation-X kids tuned in that day and talked about nothing else that month. But some misconceptions about it need to be aired and cleared. It comes closer to making sense in context… Not that it makes sense still, but The Star Wars Holiday Special could use a lot of explaining.
Thing To Know #1: NOBODY Knew Star Wars Would Be A Success!
At the time Star Wars came out, George Lucas was a second-banana wunderkind discovery of much-more-established director Francis Ford Coppola. Going in, he had two, count 'em, two feature film directing credits to his name: American Graffiti (1973), an awkward coming-of-age teen comedy that had nothing to do with the work he's known for now (but a decent little flick anywho), and THX-1138 (1971), an arty, talky, thinky, psychedelic-dystopian sci-fi that was actually very mainstream for sci-fi of the time - it compares better to A Clockwork Orange (1971) or Peter Fonda's Idaho Transfer (1973) than to the work George Lucas is known for now.
Star Wars took everybody by complete gobsmacked surprise. The effects and look of the thing, the thundering sound, the combination of eccentric old-school Buck Rogers mentality and (we would later learn) ripped-off Akira Kurosawa story-telling with these zappy space battles and bombastic John Williams score guaranteed that the movie would get noticed.
That was life in the 1970s. The Exorcist, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien: somehow, without the World Wide Web, we all knew to just locust-swarm around one movie at a time.
So that's the first handicap of the Star Wars Holiday Special: They had no plan, but now executives were under pressure to cash in. To not cash in would have been like throwing free money away.
Thing To Know #2: TV Variety Specials Ruled The 1970s.
And did it ever suck! The 1970s were a decade where greedy Hollywood executives wanted to find a way to stop paying writers, but "reality TV" hadn't been invented yet. Instead, they came up with the "variety show." Everybody remembers and praises the gem, The Carol Burnett Show, but forgets the firehose of brain-melting spam that hurled across the boob tube. Hee Haw, Sha Na Na, Donny & Marie, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour.
Ever heard of The Captain & Tennille, a one-hit-wonder hubs-n-wife duo with a saccharine Neil Sedaka love song? Well, they had their variety show. John Denver? Had his own specials.
Picture every shallow wad of bubblegum on today's Internet who gets "influencer" status on Instagram now, only without the Instagram so they each get to command one prime-time hour per week, during a time when most people only had access to between ten and fifty TV channels. Don't like it? Read a book! Most of us did.
Handicap the second of the Star Wars Holiday Special: variety TV specials already had their expectations on the floor. By contemporary standards, it wasn't that bad, and no, you can't touch my scars, they're mine.
Thing To Know #3: Executive Meddling AND GEORGE LUCAS Made It Worse
TV variety specials were already heavily padded affairs; there was maybe two, three songs or sketches fleshed out with prattling stage banter and walk-on cameos from any random celebrity who happened to be near the soundstage the day they shot. But the Star Wars Holiday Special started out being slated for half an hour, minus commercials.
Studio executives rushed in after the fact to demand a longer cut, and they literally were grasping at straws at this point. Gosh, does it show, miniature hologram Cirque-Du-Soleil dance scene?
Now you think I'm also going to use the excuse that George Lucas was barely involved; his role in the special was to answer the phone at 2 AM and sleepily mumble "yeah, sure, whatever."
Well, no, in fact, the wookie reality show - the part that everybody complains about? That was his idea! So just maybe, if the executives had simply done the whole bit from the start with no input from George at all, we would instead have had a moderate half-hour of Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, Art Carney, and a cool little cartoon.
Maybe not classic TV, but doesn't it start sounding better if you cut out everything to do with the wookies? In any case, not only did the executives pad out time on a special that started with no good ideas, they also didn't have the sense to say no to Lucas because they were too busy counting Kenner action figure sales.
Third hit for the Star Wars Holiday Special: The cast was surrounded by idiots.
Thing To Know #4: Mark Hamill Had A Very Good Reason For All That Make-Up!
This is the part that always grills my jimmies: Everybody makes fun of Mark Hamill for his cameo in the special, where he's made up like a kewpie doll. The part I never hear mentioned is that Mark Hamill had been in a car wreck right before Star Wars premiered.
And we're not talking about a fender-bender; he rolled his BMW right through the siderail of a Los Angeles freeway in the days before airbags. In fact, his injuries forced a rewrite of the script to Empire Strikes Back where they crammed in that Abominable Hoth-Man attack to explain why he looked like he's stopped a train with his face.
Can we pause and appreciate just how traumatic it must be for an actor, suddenly world famous and the lead of the biggest blockbuster of all time, to get his face - an actor's most important asset - ruined literally on the eve of his fame? Can we also appreciate what balls it must take to crawl out of a hospital bed to come back for a cameo out of pure loyalty to your franchise?
SWHS hit #4: Mark Hamill has earned his fame many times over by now, not just for his talent, but out of being a pretty gutsy cowboy in real life. And what do you all complain about? He looked a little funny because he had to wear some make-up so he didn't scare everybody with the damage he took from eating a dashboard and several mouthfuls of the shattered windshield at 60MPH.
Thing To Know #5: You All Still Like Parts Of It
The cartoon, also a rushed, last-minute production like everything else in the special, was by Nelvana Entertainment, a studio that you have all failed to appreciate for far too long. I gassed about Nelvana already a few years ago, on a site whose owner has long since passed into the unknown, so I have no way of updating the dead YouTube link.
But anyway, forget the Ewoks cartoon, these guys had hands in animating with the Beatles, and also produced Rock & Rule (1983), a movie which, if you can't see why it still has a cult following, you are a complete Grinch.
SWHSH-6: Even Nostalgia Critic has to admit he liked Bea Arthur's Cantina number. Heck, I liked that part too.
Appendix: A Word About George Lucas', Um, Talent
I speak before you today as a Star Wars fan. Certainly not as devoted as some of you, but still a fan enough to have seen the original trilogy in theaters (the first one was still called Star Wars dammit), sat through this special on network TV, and owned the Kenner action figures.
Fair warning: I can like something - even love, adore, and cherish something - while still pointing out its flaws.
See this guy? Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this is Chewbacca… No wait, this is Jar-Jar Binks. The rest of you hate him. I actually don't think he's any worse than anything else in the Star Wars universe.
But that's because I see the whole damn franchise as irritating. I'm old enough to remember what George Lucas was doing before Star Wars, and how he lucked out and has never looked back. I remember how derivative and unoriginal the series is.
I never saw it as anything but crash-boom up on the screen, something to munch popcorn to and quote the occasional cheesy meme line. Yes, I saw the trilogy first-run, but it was with a copy of my idol Harlan Ellison's review "Luke Skywalker Is A Nerd And Darth Vader Sucks Runny Eggs" tucked in my pocket close to my blackened, leathery heart.
Star Wars? Seriously?
My taste in film is a matter of record for many years now. I'm a guy who considers Arizona Dream (1993) to be in my top ten favorite movies of all genres put together. When I say I'm a Star Wars fan, I mean I settle for it as a mediocre diversion when I don't want to think too hard.
It's the people who got blinded early, who saw Lucas' work as a genius in the first place, who had room for Jar-Jar to disappoint them. Those of us who know the difference between science fiction and a shoot-em-up Western in space were never disappointed because we always saw the series for the derivative pablum it was.
Sure, I hear you, Jar-Jar is irritating!
So is C3PO, Jabba the Hut, Chewbacca, Luke Skywalker and his "gee whiz I'm just a farmboy" act, the eccentric screen wipes, the utterly bland Leia, the "made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs"
Most especially the ass-pull revisionism that Lucas has wallowed in for the past three decades now - a pathetic public display by a man rightly insecure of his true talent, knowing he will never get a lucky break like that again, so he desperately hangs onto that Sarlac tentacle for dear life.
And what does he end up doing? Selling out to Disney. He could have done that forty years ago for forty times the money, adjusted for inflation.
The forced love storylines with cardboard dialog that sounds like two sentient Ikea sectionals trying to mate, the melodramatic NOOOOO!-ing, the obnoxiously cute furballs.
You're all welcome to get your deep life truths from Jedi mystical-babble if you want. I already sat through that noise in Kung-Fu, Buck Rogers, and Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, so everything Star Wars could ever show me was already tired old cliches and stock tropes before Lucas ever picked up his camera.
And yet, Star Wars is still entertaining. It's entertaining as a guilty pleasure only, a greasy burger basket full of zap-pow laser fights and rubber-suit aliens and hokey Saturday morning cartoon action. Jar-Jar Binks is nothing but one more burger coming down the conveyor belt of the burger factory.
This is your humble author, pronouncing the Star Wars Holiday Special as ironclad canon, the same way you all accepted Asogians as part of the galactic senate. And if anybody has a problem with that, "I'm available for lightsaber duels any Wednesday between the hours of D2 and 3PO."