by U.J. Lessing
The question that has bugged Star Wars aficionados for many years is why George Lucas followed up the quintessential science-fiction film, Star Wars, with such an infamous disaster. Before The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas spearheaded the 1978 catastrophe, “The Star Wars Holiday Special.” This two-hour primetime show follows Chewbacca and his family of wookies as they celebrate the imaginary holiday, Life Day, despite the intrusion of storm troopers, Art Carney, Harvey Corman, Jefferson Starship and Bea Arthur.
“They had to be doping up. There’s no other explanation for it,” said Mystery Science Theater alum and Rifftrax founder, Mike Nelson. Nelson teamed up with friends Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett to create a downloadable audio track for rifftrax to play in synch with the special.
“We’re always looking for holiday things,” Nelson explained, “…since Life Day rolls around so often, we figured that the Holiday Special would be perfect for that…I was not familiar with it at all. I thought it was a half hour, so I gleefully agreed, ‘Oh! That will be fun!’ Then I actually got it in house and realized… this is a full, punishing two hours. But it was so weird that in some ways it was enjoyable to work on.”
The special was such a disaster that Lucas only allowed it to be aired only once–on November 17, 1978. “It seems unbelievable that (Lucas) didn’t know what was going on,” said Nelson, “that he was busy on something else, and just gave people this thing and sketched out this little story and let them go on it. It seems hard to believe, but I guess I’ll take him on his word.”
Making their first and only appearance is Chewbacca’s previously unmentioned family. His wife Malla and son Lumpy are fairly palatable, but Itchy, the wookie warrior’s toothless, invalid father, is just plain creepy. Nelson explained, “Chewbacca… he’s sort of a charming character in his way, especially in limited doses, but to have Itchy, with his horrible jaw grinding away at his prune-like face and making those hideous sounds at length, no one could possibly imagine, ‘Oh this is going to charm everyone.’ It’s hard to believe.”
The show also serves as a veritable fashion show of the seventies. Art Carney struts around with a large-collared open shirt. Bea Arthur dons what can only be described as a red velvet curtain. For Nelson, their displays evoke memories from the past, “That was an era when anyone thought that they could wear the fashion of the day. Even old people just went nuts. My dad was a fireman, and so I hung around a lot of the firemen when I was young and, from one year to the next, suddenly these guys with their leisure suits and their cookie dusters and their permed hair… Butch and Johnny and Pat …turned into bizarre freaks of fashion.
“I think it happens that fashions tends to be linear as you go through history, but there are pockets, like The Beu Brummels and stuff, where you have three-foot ruffles on the front of your shirt and giant collars that (come) just out of nowhere. And the 70s was one of those (decades) where everyone went mad. They just went insane for about ten years.”
Mike Nelson’s latest subject is definitely worthy of a good ribbing, and Nelson feels no guilt for shining a bright light on George Lucas’ most embarrassing venture. “Well he has put me through a lot of anguish, so I don’t mind a little payback.”