Interview

Bruce Vilanch Attempts to Defend the ‘Star Wars Holiday Special’

Listen as the comedian tries his best to shed light on the insane choices made to create what one critic has dubbed, "The worst two hours of television ever."

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(Photo Courtesy of Bruce Vilanch)

The “Star Wars Holiday Special” aired back in 1978, two years after the original “Star Wars” film became the biggest blockbuster of all time. It did not fare as well as the movie. In fact, one critic dubbed it “The Worst Two Hours of Television Ever.” [Ed. note: You can watch the entire show in all its glory here.]

Amazingly, one of the show’s writers was Bruce Vilanch. He’s had a storied career as a joke writer for performers from Bette Midler to Robin Williams and has six Emmys to his name. He also spent four years as a regular on “The Hollywood Squares” and appeared on Broadway in the musical “Hairspray”. So when Rico spoke to Bruce about “The Star Wars Holiday Special,” he welcomed him like this:

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Rico Gagliano: Bruce, you are a hero for agreeing to revisit this dark stain on your resume.

Bruce Vilanch: Thank you. Bowing humbly.

Rico Gagliano: You’re a champ. First of all, Lucasfilm kind of tries to distance itself from the fact that the special ever existed.

Bruce Vilanch: Oh, yeah.

Rico Gagliano: It aired one time and never again.

Bruce Vilanch: That’s right.

Rico Gagliano: It’s not available on home video.

Bruce Vilanch: No, [George Lucas] has made it his goal to erase it.

Rico Gagliano: For the many who therefore have not seen this, tell us the plot, such as it is.

Bruce Vilanch: Well, it’s about the Wookiees and Chewbacca, who, you know, is the very large Wookiee. He looks kind of like a Yorkshire terrier on steroids and wears a bandolier.

He’s with Han Solo in the Millennium Falcon. And their goal is to get Chewbacca home to the Wookiee planet in time for Life Day, which is their big annual day on the planet.

This was a day, I think, George invented. And I think he thought it would become like “Festivus for the rest of us.” It presaged “Festivus for the rest of us.”

So, the story is they have to get him back to the home planet. They are being pursued by Imperial Stormtroopers. And while that’s happening, on the Wookiee planet we meet the Wookiee family: Mrs. Chewbacca, Grandpa Chewie — who’s a silver-haired daddy — and little Chewie, Jr.

Rico Gagliano: Named Lumpy.

Bruce Vilanch: Lumpy? Lumpy, that’s right! I’d forgotten. Well, that was my nickname at certain points of my life, so naturally I forgot. I block it.

Rico Gagliano: The first, I would say, 20 minutes of the show takes place in Chewbacca’s family’s house, where his kid hangs out with Chewbacca’s mom and dad, as you mentioned. Here is a sample of the dialogue.

Rico Gagliano: OK. It’s like 20 minutes of that, Bruce.

Bruce Vilanch: I’m telling you, you…

Rico Gagliano: Unsubtitled Wookiee grunts.

Bruce Valance: …You taped me during an interlude in my cabana! [Laughs.]

Rico Gagliano: Whose idea was this?

Bruce Vilanch: Well, it was George’s. Believe me, if they had said, “You’re going to do a show in which the lead characters are the Wookiees, and they speak no known language, and they all sound like people having orgasms,” then I would’ve said, “You’re crazy! You could never do this show!” It was only because it came from George Lucas that the thing happened.

Rico Gagliano: Were you there on the set, by the way, for this?

Bruce Vilanch: I absolutely was, yeah.

Rico Gagliano: Was there any discussion of how insane this was?

Bruce Vilanch: It seemed like… it was a challenge. It was almost like dance. Like if they could indicate what they were doing just using their bodies… there was a school of thought that this was a great artistic endeavor. I mean, not that the show is artistic — it was a variety special for television — but we thought we were doing something that nobody else would do.

Rico Gagliano: Well, that’s for sure.

Bruce Vilanch: And what could you do? Other than really load the thing up with subtitles, and then it would kind of look funny.

Rico Gagliano: I guess.

Bruce Vilanch: In a whole different way.

Rico Gagliano: The other thing you loaded this up with was, as you mentioned, a lot of variety show elements, kind of sketches.

Bruce Vilanch: Right.

Rico Gagliano: They star just a who’s-who of American comedy from the late ’70s… and also the last people who should ever have been cast in a “Star Wars” spin-off. You have Bea Arthur, who later starred in “Golden Girls,” Art Carney… and I want to roll a clip of the late comedy genius, Harvey Korman, playing a four-armed cooking show host teaching Chewbacca’s mom how to make “Bantha Suprise.”

All right, so at this point, I’m going to quote The Onion’s A.V. Club, who wrote about the show — this is a quote — “I’m not convinced the special wasn’t ultimately written and directed by a sentient bag of cocaine.”

Is that what was going on with that scene?

Bruce Vilanch: Well, there was a lot of that. Absolutely, yeah. I mean, it was 1977! I think after 40 years, probably the statute of limitations has run out, as well as the cocaine.

Rico Gagliano: Sure.

Bruce Vilanch: But yeah, there was a lot of that going on. You know, in that sketch he was doing Julia Child. Harvey Korman — who was very popular at the time — was doing her as an alien who had many arms, and so could multi-task like nobody else. And of course, here’s poor Mrs. Chewbacca. She’s trying to figure out how to do it, and you know, she’s a Wookiee and she doesn’t have motor skills a whole lot. So it was kind of like making Frankenstein do “Puttin’ On the Ritz.”

Rico Gagliano: Exactly. From “Young Frankenstein.”

Bruce Vilanch: Yeah. You know, for a sentient bag of cocaine, there’s a germ of a good idea.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, there you are.

One more scene that I have to play for those who haven’t heard it. This is when Chewbacca’s elderly Wookiee dad gets hooked up to a virtual reality machine, and he basically fantasizes about a hot, sexy woman, played by the singer Diahann Carroll. Here is a clip.

Rico Gagliano: Bruce Vilanch, this is a prime-time holiday special!

Bruce Vilanch: I know! Inter-species porn, how do you like that?!!

The idea… there’s been an idea in science fiction for a long time of a helmet device that you wear that transmits fantasies into your brain. And of course, the first thing you think of is: “I want an erotic fantasy.” Of course — everybody wants an erotic fantasy. So we decided it’d kind of be a parody of the kind of soft-core porn that was going on around then that you could–

Rico Gagliano: But what is this doing in a holiday special, Bruce?!!

Bruce Vilanch: Well, you know, it’s to appeal to all types!

Rico Gagliano: You wanted a broad appeal.

The new “Star Wars” movie comes out in December. As someone who has officially contributed to the “Star Wars” Universe, do you get to go to the premiere?

Bruce Vilanch: I don’t think so. I mean, every time I see George, his expression is grim. I once asked him about the show, and he just kind of cut me off. He didn’t want to talk about it. He’s like, you know, Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” The girl who goes off and marries the Gentile doesn’t exist anymore.

Rico Gagliano: You sound a little bit hurt by that, though. On some level, are you proud of this thing?

Bruce Vilanch: No. I mean, no. I know it’s one of the worst television shows of all time. And I’ve written… Listen, I wrote “Wayne Newton at Sea World.” So I know whereof I speak.

  • zachlen

    He’s a terrible comedy writer.The person most responsible for the good Bette Midler stuff is Bill Hennesy. He was a friend to the end. RIP

  • pretto

    To be fair, a lot of young people watch this online, completely separated from the context of the era. Believe it or not, the Star Wars Holiday Special wasn’t any weirder than most tv network variety specials of the late 1970s.

    • Rico Gagliano

      Well, as a Gen Xer let me say from experience: Specials of the era may’ve been as weird, but few misunderstood their source material or audience to quite this astonishing a degree!

  • Nate

    Star Wars was released on May 25, 1977. This special aired in November 1978. That is not two years later.