Laugh it Up, Fuzzball: Star Wars as Sit-com
Obi-Wan Kenobi senses the destruction of Alderaan as “a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” Most Star Wars fans have, thirty-three years after the film’s original release, become so used to Lucas’ persistent tinkering that the news of a greenlit sit-com based on the saga is liable to set millions of eyes rolling and heads shaking, rather than any more traumatic upset. We’ve already dealt with Jar Jar Binks, Greedo shooting first, CGI muppetry in Jabba’s court, and Hayden Christensen’s insertion at the end of Return of the Jedi. Just as Lucas has rewritten earlier versions of the original trilogy out of continuity, retconned the history of the series’ development and claimed that the most recent Special Editions are the way he always planned it back in the mid-Seventies, so fans who prefer the Star Wars they grew up with have learned to cherish their own favoured version, defend their own personal canon and ignore Lucas’ twenty-first century add-ons.
But while comedy and Star Wars are uneasy companions, it may be worth giving this latest venture a chance. Certainly, there’s an unfortunate series of precedents, dating right back to the Star Wars Holiday Special of 1978; presumably watching Chewbacca’s wife Mallatobuck struggling to keep up with three-armed transvestite TV chef Gormaanda’s recipe for Bantha Surprise was meant to be funny, but as Family Guy actor Ralph Garman put it, the show is “so bad that it actually comes around to good again, but passes it right up.” This strain of broad slapstick was thankfully absent from both Star Wars and its sequel, but it creeps into Return of the Jedi with the introduction of belching monsters in the first half, followed by Ewoks squealing on speeder bikes and hitting themselves on the head with slingshots. These worrying hints of what Lucas finds amusing were confirmed by the late-90s Special Editions, which enhanced Mos Eisley with background details of droids hitting each other and Jawas falling over, and then of course by The Phantom Menace, which rebooted the war-torn galaxy as a kiddy paradise of fairground rides and poo-poo jokes.
On the other hand, there are charming, unforced and downplayed moments of comedy in the original trilogy, and for the most part they emerge naturally from a sense of character and chemistry. When Threepio prissily scolds a sulky, whining R2 – “No, I don’t think he likes you at all. No, I don’t like you either” – the lines are loaded with history, suggesting a long-suffering but loving relationship with echoes of Laurel and Hardy, Bert and Ernie or Will & Grace (or Will and Jack). The quick-fire repartee between Han and Leia – “You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought” – and Han and Chewbacca – “Keep your distance, but don’t look like you’re trying to keep your distance… I don’t know, fly casual” – are reminiscent of Tracy and Hepburn, but also Niles, Frasier and Daphne. These are moments based on clever scripting, sharp performance, a warm, witty understanding between the actors; and crucially, they’re also a comedy based on situation.
Two further aspects of the forthcoming Star Wars sit-com point to “promising”. Firstly, Lucas – a stubborn child-man whose sense of quality control long ago went awol – has farmed out the project to Seth Green and Matt Senreich of Robot Chicken, rather than attempting it himself. Secondly, Green summarises the show’s approach as an exploration of the “normal, mundane, everyday problems” in the “dense and rich” Star Wars story-world. That is, the sit-com takes as its starting point the “ramshackle, rickety” diegesis that, true to Umberto Eco’s definition of a cult film, made the original Star Wars so appealing to its fans. It was the first film’s “used universe”, its sense of grubbiness, of battered history and busy-ness, where every object (from blue milk to Solo’s military trousers) had a story to tell and every shot held a multitude of minor characters, each with his or her own narrative, that inspired thirty-three years of spin-offs, both official and amateur. It inspired the Expanded Universe paperbacks such as Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina, and it inspired my games with the mini-action figures of Hammerhead and Walrus Man. The same sense of a rich, dense world – the notion that we were only dropping in and getting some of the story – informs affectionate spoofs, again both official and fan-made, like Family Guy: Blue Harvest and Kevin Rubio’s Troops. Robot Chicken’s Star Wars sketches are just more sophisticated versions of the primitive parodies from 1990s British series The Adam and Joe Show; and those, in turn, are only slightly more polished than the Super-8 films I made with my action figures in the early 80s.
I looked up the existing Robot Chicken shorts with trepidation, prepared to roll my eyes, shake my head and write the sit-com off as another misguided Lucasfilm venture, safely barricaded away from my own nostalgic sense of Star Wars. What struck me most was the care and commitment behind the project. Not just the gags, which reassuringly are based on situation, character and the spirit of what-if, an exploration of the story corners we didn’t see – just how pissed was Palpatine when he realised the Death Star was destroyed by teenagers? How awkward was that meal between Han, Boba Fett, Lando and Vader? – but the close attention to detail. I’ve not only watched the cantina and carbon-freezing chamber scenes countless times; I’ve recreated them on film with miniatures. The composition, the lighting, the dialogue and the editing are all deeply embedded in my fanboy unconscious. I know how hard it is to capture the orange glow and rising smoke of Bespin’s industrial heart; I know the precise timing of the opening Cantina montage. Robot Chicken subverts and twists them, of course, but before it plays with those scenes, it recreates them close to perfect. Like the best parody, it’s based on genuine understanding, diligent study and a whole lot of love.