At the end of November 2011, Walt Disney Pictures will release The Muppets, the first feature-length theatrical film starring Jim Henson’s felt-and-fur creations since 1999’s Muppets From Space. And while films based on existing media franchises are pretty much the only sure thing in Hollywood these days, The Muppets faces a challenge its predecessors didn’t: Winning over potential audience members who grew up in an era where Kermit The Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and Gonzo The Great weren’t constant presences in popular culture. Oh, sure, they’ve starred in the occasional viral video and made-for-TV movie in recent years (and their educational brethren on Sesame Street still own a significant piece of the public-television landscape) but it’s been decades since the characters enjoyed the notoriety which followed in the wake of The Muppet Show. Of course, that type of notoriety is difficult to follow up: At its peak, The Muppet Show was watched by more than 235 million people in 106 countries.
Of course, at the time of its debut, The Muppet Show faced a similar challenge to that of The Muppets. In September of 1976, Jim Henson and The Muppets already had a long-standing relationship with TV, encompassing the 1955-1961 series Sam And Friends, irreverent ad campaigns, countless variety-show appearances, and several failed pilots. But the characters had never been able to carve out a place of their own on the TV dial. The arrival of Sesame Street in 1969 helped Henson and his associates gain a foothold in the industry and a steady paycheck, but that wasn’t really their show—the Children’s Television Workshop would forever be in charge of the street. Several chances at a primetime home for The Muppets—The Tales Of The Tinkerdee, the “Tales From Muppetland” specials, even an adaptation of funny-page mainstay The Wizard Of Id—came and went before they finally caught the attention of British TV producer Lew Grade. Through a combination of wit, heart, dazzling puppetry, plenty of fake explosions, and the transatlantic cooperation of CBS and Grade’s U.K. network ATV, The Muppet Show raised the curtains, lit the lights, and began the original quest for “Muppet domination.”
It would be some time before The Muppet Show took the form of what Time once called the “most popular television entertainment on earth,” naturally. The episode under consideration this week—the first of two pilot episodes financed by Grade—has a considerable number of lumps. But traces of the inspired chaos that would follow are evident: For example, Kermit’s frustration with the demands of prima donna pup Muppy or the “explosive” (if you can’t stomach puns, you’re reading reviews of the wrong TV show) finale of the “Cowboy Time” sketch. We’ll get into those—and other points of commentary—below.
(In light of the variety-show structure of The Muppet Show, these reviews will eschew the traditional, essay-style TV Club format for a format that better reflects the many elements at play in any given episode of the series. Those elements—as reflected through the the following headings—are as follows:
“With our very special guest star”: Discussing the episode’s guest, how the episode was tailored to their talents, and how well they interact with the stars of the show.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: The best moments of the episode.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: Channeling our inner Statler And Waldorf to discuss what parts of the episode don’t work.
“It’s time to play the music”: Discussing the episode’s musical numbers.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: While the heart of The Muppet Show is its characters, the series is also something of a technical marvel. Here’s where we’ll get all nerdy about puppets and special effects and such.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Discussing the new characters introduced in an episode and/or the development of previously established characters.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: Based on Jim Henson’s wry observation that all Muppet scenes end in either a character being eaten or something blowing up, here’s where we’ll track how many times per episode someone is eaten or blown up.)
Episode 101: Juliet Prowse
“With our very special guest star”: Dancer Juliet Prowse is the first of many highbrow acts to grace the stage of The Muppet Theater—but in these early goings of the series, the Muppets can’t quite bring her to their level of zaniness. She’s a sport during the “Talk Spot” and backstage scenes, but a bit stiff when called upon to directly address the camera or deliver a punchline. As such, she appears most comfortable during her dance sequence scored to Scott Joplin’s “Solace,” where her graceful, fluid movements are mirrored by a team of lime-green gazelles.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational”: While this week’s episode was the first to be produced for The Muppet Show, it was among the last to air in the show’s initial syndication package. Nonetheless, Henson wasn’t hedging any bets in terms of sequencing the Prowse episode: The very first segment, “Mahna Mahna,” is a stone-cold Muppets classic. Previously staged for Sesame Street and The Ed Sullivan Show, “Mahna Mahna” was somewhat road-tested by this point, but this is the definitive version. And while it doesn’t star any of the core cast of The Muppet Show, it’s certainly one of the series’ defining segments, the subject of frequent reprises in the Muppets universe and popular culture at large. (I’ve always thought of its use in the first episode of The Office’s second series as a neat acknowledgment of The Muppet Show’s ties to British television.) Its utilization of depth of field is a classic example of Henson coloring wildly within the lines of the TV screen; the segment also sets the pattern for the countless Muppet sketches and musical performances where an unhinged supporting character does everything she or he can to upstage the rest of the ensemble.
Speaking of which, Miss Piggy does just that in the episode’s closing number, where The Muppet Glee Club performs “Temptation.” By the time this episode first aired, viewers were doubtlessly used to the fame-hungry pig’s desire to be front-and-center, but in terms of establishing that desire, it doesn’t get much apparent than the way in which Piggy (at the hands of both Richard Hunt and her eventual full-time performer Frank Oz, who’d share the character all through the first season) shoves her way through the throng of frogs, chickens, and other pigs to steal the spotlight and woo Kermit. Thus are born the two motivations that continue drive Miss Piggy: The quest for stardom and the need for recognition from her froggy beau.
I’m also a big fan of the “Cowboy Time” sketch, if only for the shocking reveal that Fozzie’s pickles can actually shoot bullets. If, as the saying goes, comedy equals surprise, then the sight of sparks igniting from the bear’s green, bumpy sidearms—which directly follows a series of mocking jokes from the saloon patrons—is comedy of the highest order.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: The Muppet Show would eventually evolve its running backstage plots into an element as crucial to the series as the variety acts themselves—and while they lack for a certain polish and pizzazz, you can see that starting to happen with the Kermit-Scooter-Muppy scenes in this episode. Still, the beats of the plot are too redundant, and the fact that the song Scooter intends to perform with the dog is actually called “Simon Smith And His Amazing Dancing Bear” more or less telegraphs the conclusion from the start.
After its first season, the series would more or less jettison the “Talk Spot” and blackout segments with guests in favor of more organically integrated human-Muppet interaction. I get a distinctly Laugh-In vibe from the blackout between Prowse and Zoot presented here, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—but I prefer to watch The Muppet Show play around within variety-show conventions, rather than adhere strictly to them.
“It’s time to play the music”: “You And I And George” is another musical leftover from the Muppets’ days on the variety circuit, originally performed by Rowlf on a 1966 episode of The Mike Douglas Show. It’s a cute, shaggy dog story of a song, to which Rowlf gives a particularly Liberace-esque reading here. This is the “U.K. Spot” for the episode—created to fill the space created by the abbreviated commercial breaks on British television—but it doesn’t feel extraneous (or alien to American eyes and ears) as other U.K. Spots tend to.
I had no idea the ode to hucksterism and/or profitable animal cruelty “Simon Smith And His Amazing Dancing Bear” was a Randy Newman song until a picked up a used copy of Newman’s 1972 album Sail Away last summer. Jack Parnell and his orchestra really layer some cheese on the top of the song in this episode, a characteristic Newman wouldn’t take on himself until the later Pixar movies. But while I do prefer Newman’s take to Scooter’s, I still like to picture Fozzie twirling around and showing off his soft-shoe skills whenever I queue up Sail Away on the turntable.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: The “Solace” segment is inadvertently psychedelic in a way that’s unique to variety-show segments from the 1970s. There’s one particularly hypnotic portion—where the gazelles leap frog over one another—that would make a great, 1990s-era screensaver.
These early episodes are treated somewhat as a showcase for Henson and his puppeteers to show off some of the tricks and techniques they’d honed in the years leading up to The Muppet Show. The gazelles—performed by puppeteers dressed in black against a black background—are an obvious example of that, as is the moment early in the show where we catch Kermit drinking milk through a straw. “Think about this, friends,” he cheekily suggests. Henson would be less brazen about jokes like this in future episodes—but for a throwaway gag, it’s a pretty strong statement of purpose. This is a fun little family show, but it’s intended to blow your mind every once in a while.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Scooter and Fozzie may be the only characters we get a good, long glimpse of in this episode who hadn’t been introduced in earlier Muppet projects. Kermit was around since Henson’s Sam And Friends days; Rowlf followed soon after, playing sidekick to country star/future sausage magnate Jimmy Dean on the latter’s eponymous, country-fried variety show. But for all the characters following up on appearances in The Great Santa Claus Switch and the 1975 pilot The Muppet Show: Sex And Violence, it’s this episode where their personalities really begin to develop. Statler And Waldorf appear almost fully formed in the guise of the series’ built-in critics; Gonzo The Great, meanwhile, will require a few more episodes to become more than a riff on avant garde aesthetes. And we’ll have to wait until next week to be treated to the stand-up comedy stylings of Fozzie Bear, who giggles his way through his joke during the theme song. (We’ll talk about that theme song, and the way it differs from the more familiar take presented in later seasons, next week.)
“It all ends in one of two ways”: No one slides down the furry gullet of anyone else in this episode, but Gonzo’s gong mallet blows up in his face and Fozzie brings “Cowboy Time” to a close with an exploding apple—after which Statler’s cigar goes out with a “bang.” Given his and Waldorf’s role within the show, this naturally occurs after Waldorf criticizes The Muppets’ for their love of explosions.
Next week: We begin covering two episodes a week, as Episode 102 brings us a brush with bleach-blonde visage of Connie Stevens (and more importantly, a visit from The Swedish Chef) and Episode 103 bids “Willkommen” to Joel Grey.