45 years ago today saw the first and only American airing of the near-legendary Star Wars Holiday Special, and for better or worse fans have not stopped talking about it since. That’s why filmmakers Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak have assembled a new feature-length documentary, entitled A Disturbance In the Force: How the Star Wars Holiday Special Happened, which chronicles the making of the infamous Holiday Special and examines the late-1970s variety TV phenomenon that made it possible.
I recently had a wonderful opportunity to interview both Coon and Kozak about the documentary, its celebrity interview subjects, how they really feel about the Star Wars Holiday Special four and a half decades later, and how they each celebrate Life Day.
Mike Celestino, Laughing Place: I want to start off by asking about your history with the Star Wars franchise. Did you grow up as a fan?
Jeremy Coon: “I was born in , so I don’t have any memory of not being a Star Wars fan. My brothers were 9 and 10 years older than me, so the first movie I remember seeing in the theater is Return of the Jedi as a four-year-old. We had to sit in the front row. I don’t remember the movie, but I remember sitting in the front row and being excited– that feeling. So I don’t remember not being a Star Wars fan, because I had all my brothers’ toys when I was a kid, and those were the toys I played with from birth– as soon as I could start playing with toys, basically.”
Steve Kozak: “I kind of couldn’t stand science fiction as a kid. I’ll name drop– I grew up in show business, in television. We had a few family entertainment friends; we had the Bob Newhart family and the Don Rickles family, and Larry Rickles, Tim Newhart, and Robert Newhart Jr. came over to my house. I lived a block away from Westwood, where Star Wars was [playing in the theater], and I’m like, ‘I am totally not gonna go see that.’ Because they’d go, ‘You gotta see this. You gotta see this.’ And of course, what an amazing experience [once I did] see it the first time in a theater. People that saw it on a video screen the first time [had] a totally different experience, no matter how great your monitor is. So that was basically it. I’ve loved Star Wars ever since, [though] I’ve still never branched into science fiction.”
LP: Getting into the Star Wars Holiday Special, did you see it on its original airing or were you exposed to it later on?
Coon: “I wasn’t born yet. I was negative-one. But the first time I saw it was [when] a friend of mine gave me a bootleg DVD in like 2002, and I watched maybe the first 15-20 minutes, and I wasn’t convinced that it was a real thing. It seemed like it was a prank. I just couldn’t get through it. I didn’t finish watching it and I put it away, and then I’d say around 2010 it started becoming much more of a pop-culture reference.”
Kozak: “What’s funny is one of the co-producers [of the film], this guy Jason Lenzi, who’s a great pop-culture person– he does action figures– he was telling me, ‘When I saw this in 1978, I didn’t think it was that bad. And I remembered actually seeing it on television at the time, and I had forgotten that I actually liked it. I don’t remember not liking it, but you had low expectations in those times. If you know much about TV variety [shows, they were] they’re targeted toward certain demographics, so the Star Wars Holiday Special was just like everything else. They had Harrison Ford for the kids and Jefferson Starship for the teenagers, and they had sexy women… there was a little [something] for everyone. That’s like a year before, which a lot of people don’t know, the same people that produced the Holiday Special produced the David Bowie / Bing Crosby thing [as part of Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas], which is one of the greatest holiday moments ever produced. And when you watch that as a kid, you’re watching for David Bowie– I could care less about anyone else. I got my one song, which wasn’t great– I didn’t really like “The [Little] Drummer Boy” at the time– and he did his song “Heroes,” I remember… that was it. But I wasn’t disappointed, because you never got what you wanted. You got a little bit of, ‘Oh that’s for the David Bowie fans. That’s for the Bing Crosby fans.’ So I got my allotment, and you had low expectations, I guess is the point, for these shows that you were never gonna get more than eight minutes of Harrison Ford.”
LP: How did this documentary come about for you? How did you get aboard with this project?
Coon: “I happened to cross paths with Steve on something that was unrelated, and he happened to mention that he wanted to do a documentary on the Star Wars Holiday Special. Steve’s dad was Bob Hope’s agent and producer, and a bunch of his family friends had worked on all these variety specials, and it was the same people who’d worked on the Star Wars Holiday Special. He was looking at the credits, [and] he just happened to [notice] like, ‘Oh, I know the camera guy, and the director is a good friend of my dad’s,’ so he had really easy access to these people that worked on it, and that gave a strong base to start with. My first [thought] was, ‘Let’s interview everyone we can that worked on it, because a lot of these people are in their 80s.’ I mean, it’s 45 years ago. You could’ve been 35 back then… and also memories fade. But it was fun to talk to people who were there– they were there as it happened, and there’s this weird correlation– the people who were like 20 vividly remember it, because they were huge Star Wars fans. If you were like 35 or 40, it was just kind of another variety special, so they didn’t necessarily have as good memory. It was just another show to them at the time.”
Kozak: “I have an association of people that do film research– about 300-400 members– and we were looking for kind of a bad show to do what the Emmys do. They do something called ‘For Your Consideration.’ I was thinking, ‘Why don’t we do something called “For Your Reconsideration” and revisit an old show?’ And then we thought, ‘Let’s get one that’s really bad, like The Brady Bunch Variety Hour.’ And then I thought of the Holiday Special, and it turns out that a very good family friend was the director. And we don’t let him off [the hook]– he has to take the abuse. But that was pretty much how I got involved in it. I did start working with a couple of people that I thought would be good partners for it. I had never done a documentary before, and most of the people wanted to make it like a segment on Mystery Science Theater. They wanted to just throw rocks at it. And it turns out I have a mutual friend with Jeremy, and that’s John Heder from Napoleon Dynamite. We were talking about doing an event with him, [and] when I reached Jeremy, I happened to offhand mention the Star Wars Holiday Special project, and he just immediately went insane. You know, you always have these ideas when you pitch something– I wasn’t even pitching; it was an offhand comment, and within 48 hours he had a letter to me in the mail like, ‘Let’s do this.’ And he agreed with me that this is not just knocking this for an hour and a half. ‘Let’s really try to explain why this happened,’ and that’s where it started from.”
LP: In interviewing the folks who actually worked on the Star Wars Holiday Special, what were their thoughts on that special now? Do they feel proud of it? Do they regret having contributed to it?
Coon: “I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say they regret working on it. I mean, [writer] Lenny Ripps is like, ‘Even though people hate it, people love the fact that he worked on something that was Star Wars-related.’ So I would venture to say that of anything they’ve worked on, this probably has more attention. People still talk about it 45 years later. So it’s hard to give that up, even if you’re not necessarily proud of it. But [for] most people now, it’s far enough removed. I’ve always equated this movie [to] going back and looking at your high-school yearbook. No one was cool in high school 30 or 40 years ago, so you just kind of own it. The more you can embrace it and have a good time and laugh about it, as opposed to pretending like it never happened, that’s kind of our approach with this film.”
Kozak: “The ones that we interviewed, specifically Bruce Vilanch [and] Lenny Ripps, those people are proud to be associated with it. Again, at the time, this is just what you did. This isn’t any worse than KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park– a couple months before, they have a TV movie with KISS running around Magic Mountain trying to combat someone who’s trying to clone everyone in the park. That’s what it was: it was these goofy variety shows, so most of them have a good laugh about it. As Lenny Ripps said, ‘Of all the things I’ve ever written, this is what people like to talk about at parties. I’m a hero at parties because I was connected to Star Wars.”
LP: You also have a handful of celebrity Star Wars fans appear as interviewees in this documentary like Kevin Smith, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and Seth Green. How did you get these folks to participate in A Disturbance In the Force, and how excited were they to talk about this subject?
Coon: “A lot of that we owe to our producer Kyle Newman and our executive producer Adam F. Goldberg. They either knew everybody or knew how to get to people. I mean Adam knows Kevin personally. I interviewed Kevin, and I was like, ‘Hey, thanks for doing this.’ The first thing he said was, ‘Man, if I had found out about this movie and you hadn’t asked me to be interviewed, I would have been furious.’ He was like, ‘I need to be in this.’ We thought the best person to interview [for this] is someone who’s a celebrity that’s knowledgeable like an expert, and then is also part of the story. Seth Green nails all three of those, because he’s actually worked for Lucasfilm. He’s the next best thing to interviewing [George] Lucas, I feel, because he’s talked to Lucas directly about it. It’s just nice to have people that are naturally funny– no offense to the other people we’ve interviewed, but it’s just nice to bring some of that [into the documentary]. It’s like, ‘Who would I want to watch this with and talk about this with?’ was the guiding light.”
Kozak: “Kyle Newman wrote and directed Fanboys, and he’s the whole key to getting those extra people. I knew Donny Osmond, and it was great [to talk to him] because he’s actually involved in the [Holiday Special]. He’s not just a celebrity person; he’s really involved in the story. The whole success of the Donny & Marie episode that they had Star Wars characters on is really the throughline to the special. It’s why Lucas really wanted to [do it]: he loved that experience; it got tons of people coming to the theaters [to see the movie]. But then Jeremy was very anxious to get a lot more other celebrity interviews. I didn’t really understand it as much, but Jeremy has done documentaries before, and his concept is, ‘These people are more interesting.’ It turns out that these people were not just celebrities that we were getting. Kyle Newman and Adam Goldberg got us Kevin Smith, Seth Green, Taran Killam, who’s amazing in it, and Paul Scheer. And they all provided really great [commentary]. It was a great addition, and I remember I just didn’t really think it needed it, but it really adds a tremendous [value]– not just in the celebrity billing of it– they’re just really great interviews. Jeremy went and interviewed some of those people, and he got some great interviews with them.
LP: Did Weird Al by any chance talk about the joke in the ‘White and Nerdy’ music video where he buys the holiday special on bootleg VHS off the black market?
Coon: “That’s the main reason we asked to interview him. We interviewed him right before a show, and he was nice enough to give us ten minutes. We were like, ‘Here’s our four questions.’ [We] ripped through them, and that was the first one.”
LP: Comedian Gilbert Gottfried has unfortunately passed away since you got to speak with him. What was that like, having one of the final interviews with a comedy legend like that?
Coon: “It was during COVID. This has been a four-year process– it’s just how it usually works out on documentaries. But Steve did that remotely. Gilbert was in Florida. [He] was nice enough to give us an hour, so we had someone go out there and shoot that. But yeah, he’s Gilbert– he’s one of a kind. He’s funny. We initially asked him because he had done a podcast on the Star Wars Holiday Special– he had done an hour-long [episode] talking about it, so he was familiar with it. There’s like a ten-minute [rant] he goes on; it’s like an Aristocrats-type joke about the Star Wars Holiday Special. It’s filthy, but it didn’t make the cut. But getting people like that, that are naturally funny, it’s a documentarian’s dream.”
Kozak: “Gilbert Gottfried is an insanely educated person about the special– he knows so much about it, and he’s one of the funniest people in the world, so that was absolute gold. I mean, he talked to me for an hour about it. I wish I could have aired 2% of what he said.”
LP: Have you heard any official response from Lucasfilm about the documentary? Have you been in contact with them?
Coon: “We talked to them early on. There [are] certain people at Lucasfilm that are like, ‘Hey, you need to embrace this,’ and I think there are certain people there who are still like, ‘We gotta pretend like this doesn’t exist.’ And those people are still in charge. I think the official response was, ‘It’s too soon to tell the story.’ I mean, I understand their position. They don’t necessarily want to encourage things like this, but they also can’t shut them down. I did a film called Raiders– it’s about the kids that did a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark. [We] experienced a very similar thing, where their position is not taking a position.”
Kozak: “I mean it makes sense for them. They don’t want to greenlight something, but if they would have said no and filed an injunction or something, whatever they would have done, it would have just added to the documentary. We could have made the documentary about us vs. Lucasfilm. It would have been a bigger mess. There’s nothing wrong with it– the elements that are used in it are all done fairly. There’s not a ton of footage in the actual documentary, A) because it’s not ours, and B) because it’s just awful. It’s not like it’s ‘so bad it’s good.’ It’s so bad it’s unwatchable. How much can you show? Yeah, you can show the Wookiee porn scene, as it’s known affectionately. You can show that– that’s pretty hard to edit down. But how much are you gonna show a bunch of Wookiees grunting with each other? The other thing I was gonna say is that we were very respectful to [George] Lucas. I think Lucas comes off very well in the film. Very well. In fact there’s a whole nod that we have to not being so overly critical of people’s sophomore efforts. Like when they hit it big, that they don’t have the right to just do something weird afterwards without getting the whole world up against them for daring to try something different.”
LP: I have trouble sitting through the Holiday Special myself, but I do have fans that are big fans and embrace it as part of the Star Wars universe. What do you think the legacy of the Star Wars Holiday Special is today?
Coon: “For me, the best [way to] determine what you think about the Holiday Special is how old you were when it aired. If you were five to twelve years old, you thought it was the greatest thing, and you probably have very fond feelings for it. That’s the Jon Favreaus and Dave Filonis that are now making Star Wars content. My [viewpoint] from 2002 as an adult is very different than if you were eight or ten. But at the same time, the thing I find most interesting about it and that was kind of the catalyst for the documentary is that it’s this weird time period before Star Wars became Star Wars– it didn’t know quite what it was; they were still trying to figure it [out]. And it’s the dying days of variety TV; it’s the only time something like that could have happened. It’s just a great snapshot to be like, ‘Well, for all the mistakes Star Wars might [have made] since then…’ The Star Wars Holiday Special I do feel is integrally important to how Lucasfilm operated after that, because they basically clamped everything down, IP-wise. I don’t know if there was a direct correlation, but there was definitely a ‘this can’t happen again’-type attitude, and they made sure that that didn’t happen.”
Kozak: “I think unfortunately it just continues to be this trainwreck. It had the greatest cast. I will make a quick plug: I have a book coming out on it [also entitled A Disturbance In the Force], and a lot of the stuff in the book is not mentioned in the documentary. And a lot of it is the cast– I mean it was [also] this amazing crew that [production company] Smith-Hemion had. This was the top production company in the business. You had [Wookiee costume designer] Stan Winston and [creature supervisor] Rick Baker, the most amazing makeup and special-effects people. You had the best of the best in the business. You had head writer Bruce Vilanch, you had Pat Proft, who ended up creating the whole Police Academy [franchise]. I think that it becomes a dream team without a good coach. Chuck Daly dealt with the Magic Johnson / Michael Jordan / Larry Bird “Dream Team” because he was good at dealing with difficult people– high-maintenance, big A-type personalities, from coaching the Detroit Pistons. He knew how to deal with Rodman and all these [other players]. He knew. [The Holiday Special] needed someone like that to balance it out, and I think in its legacy it becomes an analogy for ‘too many chefs in the kitchen’ and no one really taking responsibility and saying, ‘This is mine.’ It’s almost like everyone was planning their escape routes while they were in production.”
LP: A Disturbance In the Force premiered at SXSW earlier this year. What are the further release plans for the documentary? When will other Star Wars fans around the world be able to see it?
Coon: We’re playing DOC NYC in New York– that’s our final film festival. If you go to our website, it’s HoldaySpecialDoc.com, we have a ton of theatrical screenings in the next couple of weeks. The great folks at Alamo Drafthouse that I’m friends with were happy enough to be supportive of the movie and independent film. They’re happy to help us by doing screenings around the country, so tickets are on sale for that. We’re gonna make a formal announcement on November 17th, which is the 45th anniversary [of the Holiday Special] on Life Day, so that’s gonna be our big launch to announce everything.”
Kozak: “It will be available on VOD, and the Blu-ray comes out in the beginning of December.”
LP: How are you pitching this documentary to people who aren’t familiar with the Star Wars Holiday Special? What is your approach to selling this concept to folks outside of the Star Wars fandom?
Coon: “Initially we did not care about those people. We were kind of like, ‘Well, let’s just make this film [that appeals to] a niche of Star Wars fans.’ To our surprise and luck, people who hate Star Wars love the movie. I mean, I have friends of mine, and I’m like, ‘There’s no way they’re gonna like this movie.’ And they loved it, because it’s a time capsule of variety TV and how bad it was in the late 70s– just how different the industry and marketing was in this time period. It was a lot rougher and less defined back then; you just did whatever. And it’s fun to think how much it’s changed in 45 years, so the Holiday Special– whether you’re familiar with it or a Star Wars fan or not– that aspect of that storyline people really responded to and had a good time. At the end of the day, this is just meant to be fun, lighthearted entertainment. We don’t have any political stuff or heaviness. It’s just a fun look at the past.”
LP: Lastly, do you have any particular way you personally celebrate Life Day?
Kozak: “No, because it was all kind of new to me as of last year. No, I don’t, but I do have six boys, one of which is named Lucas, and we do watch a lot of Star Wars stuff on May the 4th. So we do that, [but] we haven’t pushed it to November 17th. It’s a really busy time of year, with Thanksgiving coming up and the holidays. I live in Utah, so the weather’s a nightmare.”
Coon: “Not yet. Oddly enough, the last four years it’s always been pushing stuff out about the film. It’s like the film’s holiday. But this year fortunately, most of the work’s done, so maybe I can actually do something fun. Maybe we’ll show up at a screening or something. We have a couple of screenings on the 17th that we might do a surprise for and show up.”
A Disturbance In the Force has upcoming screenings at Alamo Drafthouse, and will be released on VOD and Blu-ray on December 5th. The audio version of this interview is featured in this week’s new episode of Laughing Place’s Star Wars podcast “Who’s the Bossk?”