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The Muppet Show, “Steve Martin”

Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

When I was 8, my father married a woman with two young sons. I hadn’t met any of them before my brother and I flew up for the wedding. I was nervous, but the night before our flight, I dreamed I walked into my dad’s house and found my future stepbrothers dancing around the living room to Steve Martin’s novelty single “King Tut.” We all embraced as soulmates. Anyone who liked Steve Martin was all right by me.

That was in 1979, and what I didn’t realize was that by then, nearly everybody liked Steve Martin—or at least everybody under the age of 30. When Martin appeared on The Muppet Show in 1977, he had just released his first album, Let’s Get Small, and was about to become the biggest comedy star in the United States. The Muppet Show, meanwhile, was in the middle of its second season, and was already one of the most popular syndicated shows on television. Both turns of events seemed improbable when the decade began.

In Martin’s memoir, Born Standing Up, he writes about how he developed his act throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s, in the theme parks and comedy clubs of California and Colorado, influenced by hippie culture, college philosophy classes, and intensive study of vaudeville. In one of Martin’s showbiz histories, he read about the “so bad it’s good” act—entertainers who’d sing and dance poorly on purpose, to energize the crowd—and he gradually began incorporating more mistakes and pointedly dopey punchlines into his usual routine of magic tricks, juggling, and observational humor. In Born Standing Up, he writes, “My act, having begun three years earlier as a conventional attempt to enter regular show business, was becoming a parody of comedy. I was an entertainer who was playing an entertainer, a not so good one.” By the mid-’70s, Martin had become a regular on TV comedy shows like The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live, and a phenomenon on the nightclub circuit, prompting Rolling Stone to rave, “This isn’t comedy; it’s campfire recreation for the bent at heart. It’s a laugh-along for loonies. Disneyland on acid.”

Jim Henson, meanwhile, started working in local television in Washington D.C. in 1955 as a teenage puppeteer, creating the five-minute kids’ show Sam And Friends. The program aired right before The Huntley-Brinkley Report, and drew significant numbers of adult viewers who appreciated the way Henson and his “Muppets” played around with and parodied television. Like Martin, the Muppets appeared on TV frequently throughout the ’60s and ’70s—including on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live—though Henson always had broader aspirations for his creations than TV executives were willing to allow. Henson made a mint turning out smart children’s entertainment and clever commercials (many of which gently mocked the whole notion of pitching products), but in his spare time, he trained himself to be a filmmaker by making avant-garde shorts, and he mapped out plans for elaborate fantasy epics and psychedelic “happenings” that no one would bankroll.

The Muppet Show can be read—loosely, mind you—as Henson’s commentary on his perceived place in show business circa 1976. He’d been trying to land a prime-time television series in the U.S. for years, with no luck, so when media mogul Lew Grade of Britain’s ATV offered Henson a chance to produce a Muppet series for the UK—to be syndicated around the world via ITC Entertainment—Henson came up with a meta variety show, in which Kermit The Frog and Rowlf The Dog and a plethora of new Muppet creations would toil away in obscurity, trying to impress an audience that either ignored, mocked, or underestimated them. Naturally, in the “slobs vs. snobs” showbiz environment of the ’70s, The Muppet Show became a massive hit.

On the episode Martin hosted, Kermit announces up top that the regular show has been cancelled because he forgot that they’re scheduled to hold auditions. So the regular cast comes out from backstage to gather in the theater and watch some new acts, like the trembly girl-and-frog act “Mary Louise & Friend” (which keeps getting yanked offstage by a jealous Miss Piggy, who doesn’t think the show needs any other girl-and-frog combo):

…and other oddballs, like a quartet of mice doing a can-can, the musical-minded Four Fazoos from the Planet Koozebane, the rarely successful human-cannonball act The Zucchini Brothers:

…and my personal favorite, Marvin Suggs and his singing food.

Even though the “audition” format differs from a typical episode, just about all these acts would fit on any given Muppet Show. Throughout the series’ five-year run, Henson and his team of writers and puppeteers romanticized the bizarre, trotting out characters with curious ideas about what constitutes entertainment, though always presenting them as game to perform, with as much gusto as they could muster. No wonder, then, that at the start of this episode, when Scooter knocks on the door to say “Fifteen seconds to curtain, Mr. Martin!” and finds the host practicing funny faces, Scooter says, “Gee, you’re going to feel right at home around here.”

Throughout the episode, Martin interrupts the auditions to perform some of his road-tested stand-up routines. He starts out with the “Balloon Animals” sketch…

…in which he tries making balloon animals without blowing up the balloons first. (He then blows up the balloons into abstract shapes, before getting attacked by an enormous balloon, in standard Muppet Show fashion.) 

But note Martin’s reaction at the start, when the Muppets cheer him on. He asks if they’ve seen this bit before, and when they say yes, he pretends to change his mind, saying, “I don’t like to repeat myself.” This demurral is actually part of the routine—it’s what allows him to skip the balloon-inflation—but it also speaks to an issue that Martin had in following years. Martin started out in the vanguard of “anti-comedy,” defying audience expectations in small clubs, but by the time he quit stand-up in 1981, he was performing the same well-honed routines night after night in huge arenas to people who’d memorized every word. In Born Standing Up, he says he knew his time on the road was coming to an end when a woman walked up to him in Texas and asked, “Are you that Steve Martin thang?”

Just as The Muppet Show drew huge audiences by positioning itself as the scrappy, sloppy little program nobody liked, Steve Martin became a millionaire entertainer by sending up the entertainment business: revealing its smarminess, its clichés. On his Muppet Show episode, Martin pulls out one his earliest bits, “Ramblin’ Man,” which has him running through the corniest tactics for audience-goosing, but making them nonsensical, all while grinning like a fool. He has the elements of an actual show-stopping performance, but they’re either out of place, out of scale or off-pitch.

Again, though, a small moment in that sketch amuses me more than the content of the sketch itself. It’s when Martin asks how much it cost to get in, and there’s a cut to a medium-shot of the Muppets in their seats, where Fozzie Bear says, “Free.” The sound is mixed so that Fozzie sounds distant, as Fozzie-puppeteer Frank Oz actually was when the scene was shot. (According to Muppet lore, much of the crowd laughter and interaction in this episode happened in real time, just off-camera.) The perception of space between Martin and his Muppet audience adds a touch of verisimilitude that helps distinguish what Martin tried to do with his version of “so bad it’s good” entertainment from what the Muppets tried to with theirs. Martin liked everything to look as phony as possible; Jim Henson wanted everything more real.

That’s an odd goal for a puppet show to have—especially a puppet show with an almost Seussian sense of character design, and a central premise that’s frankly preposterous. (Not to be a spoilsport, and not that it matters in the slightest, but an actual “Muppet Show” like the one Kermit and company staged every week would be a logistical impossibility.) Yet take a second look at the way the Zucchini Brothers’ act is shot, and note the mix of close-ups and medium shots, and how the familiar visual grammar of television serves to make the characters’ floppy movements and gestures more believable. Or note this shot of Kermit and Gonzo talking at the front of the theater…

…which is taken from a low angle instead of straight-on—the way most puppet shows are shot—so the cameraman can capture more of the detail of the room.

Even the design of the theater says a lot about Henson’s vision for The Muppets. In the back-to-basics idealism of the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was a rage for the old-timey: turn-of-the-century motifs in theme restaurants and product-packaging, fashions influenced by the ’20s, low-budget crime movies set during the Depression, rock music with a “down home” flavor, and so on. Henson was very much in step with those times, both in his evocations of rural living in projects like the TV special Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, and his callbacks to vaudeville on The Muppet Show.

But Henson didn’t eschew the modern, either. The Muppet cast featured flashy rockers and disco studs right alongside the old coots like Sam The Eagle (who constantly complained about how everyone else on the show was “weird”). This episode, for example, has the crotchety hecklers Statler and Waldorf dancing in straw boaters:

…and Scooter sporting his usual neon green, metallic windbreaker:

One of the main reasons The Muppet Show was so broadly appealing was that from Henson on down, the creators of the show expressed acceptance as a core value. The old and the young, the square and the hip, were all equally welcome.

Yes, yes, I know… I’m probably taking this all a little too seriously. I’m becoming one of those guys who should be sporting everyone’s favorite Onion Store T-shirt: “I appreciate the Muppets on a much deeper level than you.” But you have to understand: I grew up so steeped in the Muppets and Steve Martin that it’s hard for me to be objective about them. I listened to my dad’s Steve Martin albums over and over when I visited him in the summers, and as late as my freshman year of college, I was still gathering with my friends in the lobby of our dorm every weekday afternoon to watch The Muppet Show. It’s sometimes hard for me to separate what made the Muppets and Martin so successful from what I felt about them as a kid. Because in the abstract, the idea of them becoming wildly popular—and enduringly so—by pretending to be awful? It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

In the case of the Muppets, cuteness was definitely a factor in their success. (Singing vegetables? C’mon, that’s adorable.) It also helped that not all the Muppets on The Muppet Show were meant to be talentless. Their songs were often sweet, and their jokes genuinely funny. Plus, Henson and company made each Muppet Show regular into a well-defined character, with strengths and weaknesses and neuroses, with details that felt personal. Maybe there’s a little of Henson’s own insecurities on display when Fozzie Bear sweats out each amateur act that takes the stage, worried that one of them—like the familiar-looking comedian Baskerville The Hound:

…will be funnier than he is.

Just prior to launching The Muppet Show, Henson suffered one of his most embarrassing professional failures, when the cast and writers of Saturday Night Live effectively had the Muppets booted in the show’s first season, complaining that their sketches—however racy and relevant Henson tried to make them—weren’t hip enough for the room. Steve Martin was also a controversial act in the offices of Saturday Night Live, at least before he hosted the show the first time. Producer Lorne Michaels reportedly didn’t think Martin’s act was funny, and was hesitant to yoke SNL’s fortunes to another stand-up who was already on TV all the time. But Martin drew big ratings, and SNL gave him the chance to show he could play different kinds of parts than just the version of “Steve Martin” he created for the stage. And ultimately, it wasn’t that hard for Martin to fit in with Saturday Night Live, because it was so blatantly obvious that his goofy persona was a put-on.

Or was it? If you compare Steve Martin doing his “happy feet” dance on SNL to Kermit singing “Happy Feet” on The Muppet Show, the former is clearly meant to look stupid, while the latter is sincerely joyous. But I think there was always some joy in Martin’s shtick too. He created a niche for himself in show business, one where he didn’t have to be exceptionally talented to perform for an appreciative crowd. And he threw himself into that role, full-force.

Martin’s Muppet Show appearance ends with him playing “Dueling Banjos” alongside a Muppet jug band. (And if you need evidence that the ’70s were a confused time, entertainment-wise, you won’t find any much stronger than this: an ostensible family show featuring a subversive stand-up comic playing the theme song from an R-rated movie known for its graphic violence and forced sodomy.) There’s no real joke here, per se. All the funny characters from earlier in the episode come back, and the song ends with a boffo effect as the Zucchini Brothers finally get their cannon to work. Mostly though, the scene is about Martin playing his banjo and having fun.

I’m sure it was that sense of fun that I responded to when I was still in single digits. Martin himself admits that he was cold and analytical when it came to prepping his act, but onstage, he always looked loose and affable. And though a lot of his jokes and anti-jokes would’ve been over my head back then, I could still tell he was being intentionally stupid, and I enjoyed the pure mischief of it, as kids are wont to do. (My own kids laugh at “wrong” humor all the time… even my son, who’s autistic and has trouble registering sarcasm.)

Also, to some extent Martin was honoring the showbiz conventions he was trashing. In Born Standing Up, Martin writes about what he learned from watching the grizzled old pros work the crowds at Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland, and he describes what it felt like when was a kid in Orange County, riding his bike over to the just-opened Magic Kingdom and sitting on the benches amid the fountains and landscaping. “Disneyland was my Versailles,” he says.

I know what he means. I remember the feeling of riding in the back seat of my grandparents’ car as we pulled into Nashville’s big theme park, Opryland, and saw the log flume and roller coasters rising behind the trees and flowers. And I remember working at Opryland as a teenager, and witnessing the petty backstage dramas at our various musical revues, which were the main attraction for grown-ups while their kids went on the rides. We had diva fits, and torrid romances, and fans who waited by the stage door to get autographs and talk with performers who might never have another paying job as a singer or dancer after they left Opryland. We weren’t big time, but what happened there mattered—at least in our little park’s version of show business.

So that’s what I think of now when I watch Gonzo dance with a block of cheese on The Muppet Show, or when I see the Steve Martin of 1977 doing his exaggerated MC voice and pretending he can juggle. They’re all laughing at the traditions of their business, but there’s love there too, and a spark of hope. They’re aligning themselves with the failures, and paying tribute to all those entertainers who lie to themselves so they can keep pursuing a dream. After all, as Martin puts it in his book, “There is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.”

Next time on A Very Special Episode: Northern Exposure, “Thanksgiving”