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A new documentary examines the 'Star Wars Holiday Special' and asks: Why?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

A long time ago - November 1978, to be exact - instead of episodes of "The Incredible Hulk" and "Wonder Woman," CBS aired a holiday special that was, well, totally out of this world.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: "The Star Wars Holiday Special."

DETROW: That's right. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher all appeared in their roles as Luke, Han Solo and Leia. But there were guest stars, too. People like Bea Arthur were there. There was singing and dancing. There were skits. George Lucas had authorized "The Star Wars Holiday Special," but as you could possibly tell from that description, he hated it. It never aired again, and instead it became a beloved bootleg passed around from fan to fan. Now, a documentary called "A Disturbance In The Force" looks back at the special, talking to some of the famous fans who love it and the people who made it. And it asked the key questions, why, how did this ever happen, and others. Linda Holmes of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour joins us now to cover this strange territory. Welcome, Linda.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Thank you so much for having me. This is very exciting. I know you are a "Star Wars" guy.

DETROW: I am. And I can still remember, like, the first time I came across clips of this in, like, the GeoCities-era internet, and just thinking, like...

HOLMES: Yep.

DETROW: ...What is going on? Like, what is this? How did this special become so legendary?

HOLMES: Well, in the documentary, there are a bunch of guys who are "Star Wars" people like Patton Oswalt and Weird Al Yankovic and other kind of famous nerds. And they talk about how the fact that they never released this on any kind of home video officially made it feel sort of forbidden.

DETROW: Yeah.

HOLMES: So having a copy of it or even really knowing about it was a currency among fans. But I do think that also, it would not be as famous as it is if it were not as weird as it is.

DETROW: And for those who have not had the delight of watching clips of this, how would you quantify the weirdness of this...

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: ...Of this special?

HOLMES: I would say, on a scale of one to 10, the weirdness is at least a 12 or 13.

DETROW: Yeah.

HOLMES: The story in the special, to the degree there is one, is about Chewbacca trying to get back to his home planet to celebrate something called Life Day with his family. And they basically just hang a bunch of skits on that frame. So, for example, Chewbacca's wife tries to follow along as a TV chef who's sort of a Julia Child type with forearms - makes bantha surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL")

HARVEY KORMAN: (As Chef Gormaanda) Now, today I'm going to be using the tenderest cut of the bantha, the loin. The loin is very tasty and serves four nicely. But, of course, if your family has a hearty appetite, I would suggest then that old popular holiday favorite, the bantha rump.

HOLMES: The chef is played by Harvey Korman, and it's just - it's entirely comedic, but it's just kind of goofy. But I would have to say, I have to defend as the weirdest part Chewbacca's father, whose name is Itchy, putting on a virtual reality helmet and watching a kind of sensual presentation by Diahann Carroll, who, they explain in the documentary, replaced the original choice, who was Cher. There is no other way to say it. It seems like Diahann Carroll is trying to turn Itchy on. And you're not going to believe me, so I do have tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL")

DIAHANN CARROLL: (As Mermeia Holographic) Oh, yes. I can feel my creation. I'm getting your message. Are you getting mine?

DETROW: Oh, my God, I forgot. I forgot about this particular detail.

HOLMES: (Laughter).

DETROW: Like, yeah (laughter).

HOLMES: It's quite odd.

DETROW: (Laughter).

HOLMES: It's quite odd.

DETROW: I mean, like, the people who made "Star Wars" had some high-quality, you know, ideas, but then this happened. Like, who was like, you know what? This is going well. I like this script.

HOLMES: Well, what they say in the documentary is that "Star Wars" had come out in 1977 and been this enormous hit. But now it was 1978, and there was some concern at Lucasfilm and elsewhere that people would forget all about it before the next movie came out, because this was kind of before Star Wars was what Star Wars is now.

DETROW: Right.

HOLMES: So who knows if they're going to care by the time the second movie comes out? They also saw an opportunity to sell toys to kids at holiday time, because now you're, you know, a year and a half after the movie, you remind everybody how much they liked these characters.

DETROW: Still, though, how did it get so goofy?

HOLMES: Well, one of my favorite parts of the documentary is there's a rundown of what variety specials looked like in the 1970s in general, and the fact that at the time, this wasn't all that unusual a format. In fact, Star Wars had had a segment on Donny and Marie - of course, was Donny and Marie Osmond the world's most wholesome brother and sister, who had their own show. And that segment on their show is a lot stranger than the holiday special.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DONNY & MARIE")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (As Stormtroopers, singing) We're Darth Vader's Raiders, and we can't believe the things that you do. You're all right.

DETROW: (Laughter).

HOLMES: Yeah. So there were a lot of specials and variety shows just getting kind of thrown out there. So the people who produced this special kind of came from that world, from the variety special world. And they say that George Lucas mostly tapped out and didn't participate very much in putting it together. So it's really a variety show thing and not a "Star Wars" thing.

DETROW: And he learned a very important lesson and then didn't let anybody else contribute to the prequels. And he over-learned that lesson (laughter).

HOLMES: I mean, I assume it's one of the steps on his path to being - to, you know, controlling the franchise the way he did for such a long time.

DETROW: Yeah, but that gets to the broader second and third life of this thing, is that it happened and then George Lucas just disowned it, right? There's no other way to put it.

HOLMES: Right, right. And I think, like, if he hadn't done that, it might not have become as big as it is. It kind of developed this what doesn't George Lucas want you to see quality. Is it out there in the wilds of the internet? Of course, yes, but just like those VHS tapes, those are bootlegs. So in a world where it seems like everybody releases everything, anything that seems a little bit like somebody doesn't want you to see it has a special charm.

DETROW: Yeah. I mean, you, you are a critic. Do you think "The Star Wars Holiday Special" is worth trying to track down and watch for yourself if you haven't seen it?

HOLMES: You know, I personally tried. I did. But a lot of it is just really boring. At the beginning, Chewy's family is just Wookiee-ing around their treehouse, and they're just doing the Wookiee noise that I'm not going to try to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, vocalizing).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, vocalizing).

DETROW: (Laughter).

HOLMES: And there aren't any subtitles, so you're just trying to figure it out from context clues. And this goes on for nine minutes. So I can't recommend the special, but I do recommend the documentary, which has a ton of clips and will get you the highlights.

DETROW: I just want people listening to know that the script here has a note in brackets - the Wookiee-ing around is at about 55:30 (laughter).

HOLMES: Yeah. That's just me making sure that you guys know where to find the Wookiee-ing around in the documentary.

DETROW: Just doing the careful production that did not happen on "The Star Wars Holiday Special."

HOLMES: (Laughter).

DETROW: The documentary is a disturbance in the force, and you can rent it on demand from most of your online outlets. Linda, thank you for this really critical, important conversation.

HOLMES: Thank you, Scott. May the force be with you, obviously.

DETROW: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "MAIN THEME FROM STAR WARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.