Christmas in hell: The Star Wars Holiday Special

It’s now that season: snowflakes fall from the sky, reindeer land on rooftops, etc., etc., and lots of yule-y things happen. In celebration of this fact, and inspired by the Nostalgia Critic’s recent videos, Ashley and I decided to watch some of the saddest animation Christmas has to offer. We then followed this up with one of the saddest things that have ever been offered by anyone, ever.

Both of the animated videos we watched were silent and sublime; these were The Snowman (1982) and The Little Matchgirl (2006). The Snowman is just beautiful, based on a book of the same name by Raymond Briggs (who you may also know for the bleakly apocalyptic Where the Wind Blows). Introduced by David Bowie (!!!) and animated in Briggs’ quietly emotive storybook style, it tells very simply of a boy playing with his snowman, leading into delightful, imaginative adventures, accompanied by the song “Walking in the Air.” Watching this cartoon is like stepping out into the most tranquil and transient of winter mornings.

The Little Matchgirl comes from Disney and is based on a story by Hans Christian Anderson. Unlike many Disney products, however, it’s neither cutesy nor infantile; instead it speaks to the trauma of poverty and lost dreams as it shows an unwanted girl freezing on the streets amidst her garish, desperate fantasies. No anthropomorphic animals or obligatory songs here: just the contrast between cold gray and the warm colors of house and hearth to illustrate a subtly tragic story. The Snowman and The Little Matchgirl are half an hour and 7 minutes respectively; we strongly recommend you check them out this holiday season.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t just stop there. We had to keep going. And so, urged on by its abominable reputation, we watched The Star Wars Holiday Special. For those of you who don’t know, the SWHS was produced shortly after the release of the first Star Wars movie, when Star Wars fever was blazing a path across the nation. Some folks at CBS figured, Why not make a Christmas special themed around everyone’s favorite galaxy far, far away? (Needless to say, I have many reasons why not.) It was broadcast once. And never released on video. However, because that’s what the Internet is for, you can easily watch it on Google Video. (I am not liable for head injuries sustained during viewing.)

So. The Star Wars Holiday Special. Why is it so bad? There are many reasons, none of which can be recited without causing a little bit of pain. I mean, it all starts out with Han Solo trying to escort Chewbacca back to his home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” i.e. Wookiee Christmas. And at first you can think, “Huh, Han and Chewie flying around in the Falcon. Seems like your typical Star Wars stuff…” Then we have the credits. And it’s all downhill from there. Now, I don’t know too much about 1970s TV. But were variety shows really so madly popular that they had to shoehorn Star Wars into this format?

Presumably, if you are a relatively sane human being, when you think “Star Wars” your mind does not also jump to “Music! Comedy! Musical comedy!” But for some reason, somebody’s mind did just that. To this end, they added to the reliable Star Wars cast with such TV stalwarts as Art Carney, Bea Arthur, and Harvey Korman (the latter of whom plays 3 terrible roles). They also made pitiful attempts to fit the “music” and “comedy” (in the loosest senses of the words) segments into the main story, which only makes the special look more disjointed and inane than it already is.

So, after the credits, we are introduced to the first, agonizing segment, which strongly resembles an abortive pilot for a sitcom about Chewbacca’s family (mother Malla, father Itchy, and son Lumpy. Yeah.) The dialogue is entirely in “Shyriihook,” which is apparently the Wookiee language. Alas, Shyriihook is neither pleasant to the ear, nor particularly expressive. Therefore, we’re treated to about 9 whole minutes of Wookiees walking around their home, groaning and ululating loudly to each other. 9 whole minutes. Plus the first of many colorful psychedelic trips. High-quality television, this is not.

Mercifully, this would-be introduction to “Lumpy Knows Best” is cut short by a human voice – that of Mark Hamill, at the time recovering from a near-fatal car accident. He plays Luke Skywalker, working on an engine with R2-D2, and sets the Wookiees’ minds at ease. “Try to enjoy your Life Day,” he reassures them. If only Hamill’s soothing voice could similarly take away our woes. We then get a skit that involves Art Carney mumbling to himself (is it supposed to be funny-? We’ll never know), after which we’re shown Darth Vader marching about on a Star Destroyer. I know what you’re thinking: Darth Vader, voiced by James Earl Jones. Awesome, this can’t be a total waste of time!

Well, then we cut to a commercial break, and never see Vader again. (OK, maybe for about 3 seconds in animated form.) Instead we get to see more day-to-day Wookiee hi-jinks. Thrilling, no? Malla watches a four-armed Harvey Korman yuk it up while cross-dressing on a cooking show. Later, an ominous Imperial representative appears on an Orwellian telescreen in the Wookiees’ living room and starts barking orders. Then more Art Carney, handing out Life Day gifts. This is a man who had won an Academy Award only four years earlier. Fame is a fickle mistress.

It’s Carney’s Life Day gift to Itchy that leads us out of television hell and into some heretofore unimagined, somehow much worse über-hell. This is the abyss, folks. It’s never really explained, but his gift turns out to be some type of virtual reality chip, allowing Itchy to enter into an end-of-2001-style light show, which is also occupied by the floating head of Diahann Carroll (who had been nominated for an Oscar only three years prior while starring opposite James Earl Jones in Claudine). Carroll here plays a singing cyber-prostitute. Did I mention this has the words “Holiday Special” in the title? Check out some of her dialogue:

Oh, yes. I can feel my creation! [giggle] I’m getting your message. Are you getting mine? Oh! Oh! We are excited, aren’t we? Now! We can have a good time! Can’t we? I’ll tell you a secret: I find you adorable. [Itchy rewinds the program] I’ll tell you a secret: I find you adorable. [rewinds again] I find you adorable. [again] I find you adorable. I don’t need to ask how you find me. You see, I am your fantasy. I am your experience. So experience me! I am your pleasure. Enjoy me.

Oh, the ’70s. Those wild, liberated times, when hairy aliens getting off to human women in virtual porn was considered great yuletide programming. Carter was in the White House, and anything was acceptable. I guess? Carroll sings “This Minute Now,” the first of many unnecessary, forgettable songs. Then we watch Princess Leia chat with Malla while making snarky comments C-3PO – because this is Star Wars, remember? And not Interspecies Porno Theater. Which may come as a surprise.

The viewer is then granted the respite of more commercials, after which martial law is declared on Kashyyyk and the tone of the special radically shifts to a Wookiee Holocaust drama as Imperial Stormtroopers raid the house. And Jefferson Starship is played on a music box. I just said the words “Wookie Holocaust drama” and “Jefferson Starship” in two consecutive sentences. Either I’m babbling and psychotic, or it’s The Star Wars Holiday Special.

Then, finally, about halfway through the special, we get the one piece of redemption, however slight. It’s the segment that’s generally accepted as being not-quite-terrible: a short cartoon that introduces Boba Fett. Sure, it’s poorly animated (the robots look rubbery and Han Solo’s eyes look stitched shut), but at least it has a vaguely Star Wars-ish story. Something about an invisibility medallion on an orange planet called Panna, and Boba Fett being Darth Vader’s right-hand man. And… a sleeping virus that forces Han and Luke to walk upside down?

OK, it doesn’t make much sense, especially not in context (why is Lumpy watching a cartoon about his brother’s adventures?), but the point is, it’s by far the best part of the special. The scenes in the alien city play out like second-rate Ralph Bakshi, and that’s really the best you can hope for. But then, far too quickly, Boba Fett flies away for some reason, and it’s over. And it’s back to The Diary of Lumpy Frank (Schindler’s Wookiee?) as Stormtroopers needlessly tear the head off of Lumpy’s Bantha toy and barge back out. Which means it’s time for another random, unfunny skit starring Harvey Korman as a malfunctioning robot who has to flap his arms a lot!

These skits just go on forever, killing the special’s nonexistent momentum, and making you feel very embarrassed for poor Harvey Korman. (Luckily for Korman, he would go on to such comparatively dignified roles as “Captain Blythe” in Herbie Goes Bananas and “Professor Balls” in those Pink Panther movies they made after Peter Sellers’ death.) Inexplicably, the Wookiees’ telescreen starts droning on about a “live broadcast” that’s required viewing for Stormtroopers. And since a bunch of Stormtroopers are hanging around, they congregate near the telescreen and watch it.

The broadcast is initially described as if it were an ethnographic study of some distant outpost of the Empire. And indeed, it does take place in the Mos Eisley cantina, featuring many of the weird aliens you remember from Episode IV. But then the gruesome truth is revealed: it’s actually another “comedy” skit, plus a song, starring Bea Arthur as a bartender and Harvey Korman as an obsessive, Travis Bickle-esque patron who drinks out of a blowhole in his scalp. (Again, several words I had once hoped never to use in such close proximity.) After some banter, we get to the song, “Good Night but Not Goodbye,” which amounts to the Tattooine equivalent of “Closing Time” by the Minneapolis-based band Semisonic.

This was about the point where Ashley and I looked at the time left in the video and started cackling, “So close, so close, we’ve almost made it!” Han and Chewbacca finally arrive in time to easily dispatch a single Stormtrooper via Railing Kill – which is exactly the kind of thrilling action sequence you were waiting for after an hour and a half of soul-dismembering dreck, right? Han heart-warmingly wishes the family a happy Life Day, Art Carney briefly reappears, and then that ol’ reality rug is really pulled out from under us, as the Wookiees magically have red cult robes on, walk out into space, and end up in a fog-drenched Life Day celebration chamber!

As the viewer squints, disoriented, at the screen, C-3PO waxes philosophical about his inability to fully enjoy Life Day, and Princess Leia gives a dull monologue full of words like “life,” “hope,” “love,” and “life,” concluding with “This is the promise of the Tree of Life.” Finally, we get the big pay-off, as Leia sings a big, stupid Life Day son, set very roughly to the tune of John Williams’ original Star Wars theme. Some sample lyrics:

A day that brings the promise that one day we’ll be free

To live, to laugh, to dream, to grow, to trust, to love, to live, to be!

I’m thinking this was not exactly penned by Cole Porter. Maybe it’s awkwardly translated out of Shyriihook?

Somehow, the special continues even after she finishes singing. We get Chewbacca taking an extended look back at his own life, allowing for liberal repetition of clips from Episode IV. Then the Chewbacca clan returns to its home, where they sit together around a table filled with glowing objects. Just look at all that crass commercialization of Life Day. And at long, long last, the credits roll. Never was there a sweeter feeling than experiencing two hours of unmitigated torment and knowing that it’s finally over. Also, having a list of ending credits is like knowing who to blame. In fact, there’s a fun game Ashley and I played.

Director Steve Binder, shame on you!

Songwriter Mitzi Welch, shame on you!

Assistant art director Leslie Parsons, shame on you!

Choreographer David Winters, shame on you!

Script supervisor Sheila Lauder, shame on you!

You can do this for quite a while. In fact, by itself, it’s far more enjoyable than every second of the special itself. Sure, maybe these people were just doing it for the money. But I don’t see how that excuses participating in such an overwhelmingly atrocious venture. Hopefully they don’t make a mistake that egregious again, but even so… for shame. You too, hairstylist Evelyn Trimmer. That said, I will now try as hard as I can to block the whole damn experience from my memory. Maybe I’ll accidentally forget my sophomore year of college too. I don’t care; it’ll be worth it.

If you’re up for a better-than-miserable Christmas experience, there’s always the classics. Like Santa Claus. The Mexican one, from the ’50s. As featured on MST3K. OK, maybe the movie itself sucks, but there’s nothing like Mike and the bots singing and enjoying space snow to put you in the holiday mood. Alternatively, you can turn to Christmas music like Jonathan Coulton’s dystopian carol “Chiron Beta Prime,” or better yet, an entire movie full of suitably dark Christmas-y songs: Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Happy holidays, from Pussy Goes Grrr!

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