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Arts & Entertainment

After 45 Years, Richardson Documentarian Brings the ‘Star Wars Holiday Special’ Back to Life

Jeremy Coon’s new documentary about the obscure and reviled 1978 variety show, A Disturbance in the Force, will premiere on Friday at SXSW in Austin.
By Todd Jorgenson |
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The late 1970s was a time when stormtroopers and jazz hands intersected on network television. September Club

On a scale of 1 to 10, Jeremy Coon puts his Star Wars fandom at about an 8 — just below cosplay, he figures.

The Richardson native is especially fond of the original trilogy. He has collected more than his share of action figures and memorabilia, and has started introducing his young children to the franchise.

Then there’s the notorious abomination known as the “Star Wars Holiday Special,” which he first experienced on a bootleg VHS tape about 20 years ago.

“I watched like 30 minutes and couldn’t take it. I thought it was fake,” said Coon, best known as producer and editor of the breakout 2004 comedy Napoleon Dynamite. “It was an inside joke among people who knew about it.”

The two-hour variety special aired just once on CBS, in November 1978, between the release of the first two films in the series. The bizarre collection of sketches features established stars such as Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Diahann Carroll, and Harvey Korman interacting with characters from the movie. It’s never been made publicly available, and George Lucas has essentially disowned it.

As much as he cringed, Coon also was fascinated. His quest for answers resulted in A Disturbance in the Force, his new comic documentary set to premiere this week at SXSW in Austin.

“We had all these questions,” Coon said. “No one has ever pulled it all in and done a deep dive. Everything you wanted to know, we’ve done as much as we can to pack it in this movie.”

Coon partnered with co-director Steve Kozak, whose father was Bob Hope’s agent and had plenty of connections from the era. They interviewed some of the show’s collaborators as well as pop-culture experts, from Bruce Vilanch to Donny Osmond to Seth Green to the late Gilbert Gottfried.

Coon said the goal was investigating more than ripping it to shreds, which involved more than four years of tracking down seemingly every archival soundbite or piece of footage that referenced the show.

“A lot of it was just YouTube and going down rabbit holes. I spent days going through links on fan sites, getting our arms around everything we possibly could,” he said. “Making this movie even 20 years ago would have been way more difficult.”

Coon also wanted to explore the cheesiness of the special within the context of the television landscape in the late 1970s, when networks pushed one-off variety shows as a cost-efficient method of filling holes in their primetime schedules.

“Either you grew up in the 70s, and we’re taking you back to reminisce about that time, when it was just simpler and weirder, or you have no clue what was going on,” Coon said. “The context was important to understand why this happened. There’s a lot of urban myths.”

Coon, who graduated from Berkner High School in 1997 before attending BYU. His first documentary was Raiders: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, which debuted as SXSW in 2015. The thematic similarities in his follow-up are coincidental, Coon said. But he hopes A Disturbance in the Force will likewise generate positive buzz and a potential distribution deal, while introducing a new generation to a rarely seen footnote in the Star Wars legacy.

“Some people love it, and more power to them, but it’s work to get through the 90-something minutes,” Coon said. “I don’t find it so bad that it’s good. It’s so bad that it’s interesting.”

Author

Todd Jorgenson

Todd Jorgenson

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