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FoCC Book Review: A Disturbance in the Force: How and Why the Star Wars Holiday Special Happened

By Jason Delgado 

When George Lucas decided to bring the stars of the first Star Wars (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford) together again on television a year after the pop-culture phenomenon movie’s release for a Holiday Special, he likely figured that nothing could go wrong? Many Star Wars fans already know that the Holiday Special from 1978 is a disaster of epic Death Star-size proportions, but how did this Titanic on television happen, and for what reason? Author Steve Kozak’s fascinating and fun read A Disturbance in the Force: How and Why the Star Wars Holiday Special Happened dives into all these answers, the characters involved, and more in entertaining ways that even non-Star Wars fans can appreciate, while painting a picture of 1970’s variety television. 

A central figure in the book is Charley Lippincott, a guy who previously did not get his just due when it came to the smash pop culture sensation that the original Star Wars became. Charley was a marketing genius, who figured out that Comic Cons, novels, comic books, and merchandise could sell a movie better than the tried-and-true method of star power. Star Wars did not have major film stars, besides a few older actors such as Alec Guinness, so Lippincott went to places like San Diego Comic Con, and presented slide show panels for the film, while telling the story, in order to garner interest. Hollywood has come to use these panels in the present day for huge star-studded events with footage and surprises, but it was the innovative genius Charley who started it all, more than 40 years ago. Lippencott also made sure that a Star Wars novel was out a year before the film’s release, and that three issues of a Marvel Star Wars comic book were available. It all worked like gangbusters, and Star Wars became a cultural landmark right out of the gate, but sadly, Charley was the forgotten man behind the marketing for far too long.

Another key person highlighted in the book is Frank Wells, who is most likely the central reason why the Star Wars Holiday Special happened. Wells was the vice chairman for Warner Bros. at the time of the smash-hit success of Star Wars, when he called a meeting in late July of 1977 (at the height of Star Wars theater-going mania) between George Lucas, Charley Lippincott, and producer Gary Kurtz. Wells wanted to re-release Lucas’ disappointing THX 1138, and Lucas was not pleased. According to Lippincott’s journal (that was found after his death), Wells wanted to re-release the film in September of 1977 because “Star Wars is a big deal now, but by Labor Day, it will be a flash in the pan.” The three men were all shell-shocked, and then furious, especially George. “You should have seen the steam pour out of George’s ears,” Lippincott said. Shockingly, the Star Wars Holiday Special was born out of spite, in order to prove Wells wrong and to make sure to keep the property in the public’s mind for the time between the years when The Empire Strikes Back would be released. Another reason for the Special was to sell the Star Wars toys that were being released at that time, but it sounds like merchandising money was icing on the cake to some sweet revenge. 

Why the Holiday Special turned out the way that it did should be studied in film and television history books for ages to come. Lucas and others involved had insanely odd ideas such as watching a Wookie family grunt with no dialogue for far too long to kick it all off, a gyrating Raquel Welch (who luckily, did not end up participating), the band Jefferson Starship (who was chosen simply for their sci-fi sounding name and songs) with super cheesy (even for the times) effects during a music video scene, and a grandpa Wookie named Itchy watching VR soft-porn to the sultry voice and moves of singer Diahann Carroll (during a Special that kids were watching). When they made the odd decision to combine the sci-fi world of Star Wars (done on an extremely cheap scale) with the strange variety hour musical format, and add aging comedic song and dance stars of yesteryear such as Bea Arthur, Art Carney, and Harvey Korman, what could go wrong?

Steve Kozak makes this tale extremely fascinating and eye-opening, with gems such as legendary comedian Robin Williams almost being discovered for the Special (thank goodness for him that he was not used!) and Han Solo secretly being married to a shocking character (read the book to find out!), while providing commentary from pop culture luminaries such as comedian Bruce Vilanch (who was a writer on the Special), Weird Al Yankovic, Seth Green, and Kevin Smith. Kozak also paints a valuable contextual picture of just how awful variety television of that time could be, with interviews with people who lived through it and participated, such as Donny Osmond.

As a Star Wars fan myself and someone who remembers some of that horrible variety TV, I could not put this book down. Even if I was not a fan, the film/television historian and comedy fan in me is endlessly entertained by the strange and comical choices made that led to what we see on YouTube or bootleg copies. Lucas famously said that he wished that he could smash all of the Holiday Special copies personally with a hammer. You would think that with all of the campiness involved in the Special that it would be an easy watch, but no, it’s a slogfest. Weird Al even mentions in the book that “Your brain melts if you have to watch all two hours.” Fortunately for readers of the book, learning about the ins and outs of this disaster, while laughing at the absurdity, makes for a blast of a reading. The Force will be with this one, always.

You can find A Disturbance in the Force: How and Why the Star Wars Holiday Special Happened on Amazon, or wherever books are sold!

Jason Delgado

Jason is a CSULB film school alum and movie guy for Friends of Comic Con. He loves movies, TV, writing, comics, going to Cons, basketball (Lakers), music (all forms of rock + 90's hip hop), football (Chargers), his dog, and most importantly wife and newborn son. He's written a comedy/sci-fi script, and wants to write more in between raising a son. He doesn't often cosplay, but when he does, it's as Iron Fist. Follow him on Twitter @JasonDelgado78