With apologies to Blue Harvest (in reality Return of the Jedi, née Revenge of the Jedi), I would argue that the tagline “Horror Beyond Imagination” actually applies to another, far lesser known Warwick Davis production. And I was the one who experienced the horror. Allow me to explain.
It was May of 2008 and I was in the midst of directing Behind the Force: Experience The Clone Wars for Star Wars Weekends at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at the Walt Disney World Resort (if I really put my mind to it, I’m confident I could squeeze a few more trademarked names into that sentence). Our host that year was Warwick Davis, with whom I’m assuming you’re all familiar. If you’re not, he played Wicket the Ewok in Return of the Jedi, which is one of those Star Wars pictures you keep hearing so much about. One of Warwick’s many duties was to host the Stars of the Saga talk show, in which he would interview two Star Wars celebrities live onstage at the Premier Theater. Are you with me so far?
We were getting to the end of our run and Warwick (or Sir Warwick Davis, as he appears in my cell phone) was looking to do something special to liven things up at the very end of the show. Warwick thought it might be fun to end one show with Ewok Gospel, Andrew Zilch’s hysterical tribute video featuring a cameo by Mr. Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian for any of you who are not Star Wars fans yet somehow navigated yourselves to this site and then inexplicably kept reading). But how?
Enter Tony Giordano, one of the other show directors of the event as well as one of my closest friends. Well, Tony thought it would be terrific fun to stage a Q&A at the end of the show (something we didn’t typically do) and have a plant in the audience ask an inflammatory question that denigrated the Ewoks in front of Warwick and an audience of adoring fans. Warwick would then demonstrate just how much the world actually loves the furry Endor dwellers by rolling Ewok Gospel and leading the audience in a sing-along, complete with a surprise appearance by a troupe of adorable children in cardboard Wicket masks as well as some, you know, actual Ewoks. But who would be stupid enough to get up in front of hundreds of hardcore Star Wars fans and take a swipe at Warwick Davis, who is literally one of the kindest, sweetest people on the face of the planet? Yep, you guessed it, me.
After all, Tony couldn’t do it because he was directing Stars of the Saga that year and needed to focus on, you know, directing and stuff. At least that’s what he told me. And our celebrity guests that week, Jake “Now this is Podracing” Lloyd and Dave Filoni, supervising director of the upcoming feature film and animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, weren’t about to insult an intergalactic treasure for the sake of a potentially misguided gag. So that left me. What the heck, I thought, I used to do stand-up and it might be fun to get up in front of a crowd again and perform a very different kind of gag. Yeah, fun. I apparently forgot that Han said, “Here’s where the fun begins” during an attack by Imperial forces.
I got with Warwick and ran through my initial “question” as well as the follow-up banter that we thought would nicely set up Ewok Gospel. Warwick asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this and I said, “Absolutely! After all, how bad could it possibly be?” How bad, indeed.
I took a seat down in the front of the house, having changed out of my Star Wars Weekends staff shirt into “civilian” attire so no one would suspect me. I enjoyed the show along with the rest of the audience, but started to get a little nervous as we approached the end of the show and our fateful Q&A. I even started to sweat. Now I sweat like Zero Mostel taking a steam on a good day, so you can imagine how I was schvitzing at the thought of running afoul of the crowd that was currently eating out of Warwick’s hand. But it was too late to abort this particular mission and I knew I had to suck it up for the sake of the laughs that would inevitably come. Right?
It was time for the Q&A. An operations attendant “selected” me to ask a question and I proceeded to the end of the aisle, where I had to sweat out the legit questions ahead of me as I would obviously being going last. Man, my heart was racing. I thought I could detect Filoni smirking at me from the stage and shaking his head ever so slightly, clearly because he had a much better idea of what lay ahead than I did. Finally, it was my turn.
“You have a question, sir?” Warwick asked, beaming at me with a good-natured smile, the little weasel.
“Yeah. I got a question.” I responded petulantly.
“Yes?” Warwick replied.
“What’s with the Ewoks?” I asked.
“Er, what’s with the Ewoks?” Warwick asked.
“They RUINED Jedi!” I declared.
Now this is when things started to go south. “OH!!” I heard someone in the back of the theater cry out.
“They were supposed to be Wookiees,” I declared. “But then George made them little teddy bears just so he could sell more toys!”
I knew that would get them because it was already a sore subject amongst Star Wars fans, and here I was leveling the charge at lovable little Wicket himself! But we were past the point of no return and I had to strap myself in for the jump to hyperspace. I saw Filoni lower his head and shake it slowly, likely trying to keep from laughing or avert his eyes from any bloodshed.
Now I don’t want to mix metaphors here — what with the inter-franchise rivalry and all — but what happened next felt a lot like that computer simulation of the Genesis Effect blazing across the surface of a barren planet in The Wrath of Khan. Only in this scenario I was the barren planet and the Genesis Effect was pure, unadulterated hatred, all hurtling toward the small of my back. Actors are probably much better equipped to handle this sort of thing, but I’m not an actor. Like I said, I used to do stand-up, and if anything, we’re even more sensitive to the slightest negative vibe from an audience, let along the aforementioned pure hatred coming my way.
I clenched my teeth and waited for Warwick to take over, knowing my role in this horror show was essentially over. He started pontificating about how there’s one in every crowd, he’s used to this sort of thing, etc. I have to admit I almost lost it when Warwick declared that I had “soured the atmosphere” with my inflammatory remarks. The only thing that kept me from breaking up like Harvey Korman on The Carol Burnett Show was the abject fear that an enraged fan was about to bludgeon me with a turkey leg.
But I had played my part well. Warwick was now perfectly positioned to refute my charges and lecture me about how much the world actually loves the long-suffering Ewoks, an affection perhaps best expressed…in song. Cue Ewok Gospel. I remained at the mic, still sweating, as the lights went down even lower and the music video came up on the theater’s screens. And Andrew Zilch began to sing his ode to the Ewoks.
Little by little, it began to dawn on the audience that it was all a gag, and by the time old Billy Dee came on the screen, all kinds of suave, and the little kids and our “live” Ewoks entered the house, the audience was singing and laughing along with Warwick and his merry band of pranksters. Although I’m still convinced that there was any number of people in the audience who still weren’t quite sure about me. I’m pretty convincing at “souring the atmosphere,” I have to admit.
At long last the seemingly impromptu production number was over and the lights came back up. Warwick turned his attention back to me, a smile of smug satisfaction on his Willowy face. “Er, does that answer your question?” He asked.
“Yes, yes it does,” I replied. I then pumped one fist twice in the air: “Yub nub.”
Warwick went on to wrap up the show to the usual out-of-control cheers and applause, and the audience began to file out of the theater. I got my name tag on at .5 past lightspeed, just in case there was any lingering doubt that I was in on the joke. I smiled and nodded at the passing guests, most of whom smiled back or even applauded me. One guy — perhaps he of “OH!!” fame — came right up to me, shook my hand and said, “Man, you did a great job — I really, really hated you!”
Um, thank you?
Now before you think this magical moment has been lost in the mists of time, a benevolent stranger known only as “MookieMovies” was kind of enough to capture it on video…and post it on YouTube. He begins rolling just in time for you to experience that bloodcurdling “OH!!” I’m including the link here, if for no other reason than you’ll be able to see that I’m not exaggerating in the slightest. The good news is that now that my cover has been irrevocably blown, Warwick will have to find another collaborator the next time he wants to punk his audience.
Only for you, Sir Warwick Davis, only for you.
Jason Surrell is an author, screenwriter, and senior show writer at Walt Disney Imagineering. Follow him on Twitter at @2Manhattans.