If there’s an enduring representation of The Muppets, it’s that of a band of outsiders. Even on their eponymous variety show, the characters are beholden to the whims of J.P. Gross, owner of the Muppet Theater and Scooter’s uncle. They’re a troupe of misfits, bound together by irrepressible spunk and the desire to entertain. It’s what helps capture the “Let’s put on a show” spirit of The Muppet Show, which was certainly informed by the real-life experiences of the Muppet performers, who’d bounced from gig to gig throughout the 1950s and ’60s. When it seemed like they’d found some kindred spirits in the creative braintrust at Saturday Night Live, the walls were still thrown up: The SNL writers famously detested writing for the “Land Of Gorch” characters that appeared on and off throughout that series’ first season. In Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s Live From New York, Alan Zweibel paints this horrifying portrait (one which is particularly horrifying if, like me, you regard the SNL writers’ room and the Muppets Inc. folks with almost equal amounts of respect):
“[…] I look in a corner of the room and there’s a guy I learned was Michael O’Donoghue. What was he doing, you ask? He had taken Big Bird, a stuffed toy of Big Bird, and the cord from the venetian blinds, and he wrapped the cord around Big Bird’s neck. He was lynching Big Bird. And that’s how we all felt about the Muppets.”
Zweibel goes on to express his displeasure with Henson dictating what type of dialogue fit the Gorch character Skred, replying “Oh, Skred wouldn’t say this.” Of course, there were probably countless times in other SNL writing sessions where Zweibel had to tell another writer that “Oh, Emily Litella wouldn’t say this,” but I digress—my point is that even when the Muppets had earned their place among the hippest crowd on television, they were looked upon with scorn and ridicule. (And yes, I realize Henson could be just as prickly as the O’Donoghues and the Zweibels of the world.) And I think that Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl, et al. found strength and inspiration in that type of thing. After all, the refrain of the “Rainbow Connection” doesn’t go “Someday we’ll find it / the rainbow connection / the lovers / the dreamers / and the people everybody like.”
The Muppet Show tapped into a rich vein of humor derived from outsiderness, and in this week’s episodes, we gain a deeper understanding of the main troupe's two most lovable losers: Gonzo The Great and Fozzie Bear. Even among outcasts, Gonzo and Fozzie feel the sting of others’ contempt: The audience at the Muppet Theater shows a great deal of enthusiasm at bringing Gonzo’s every attempt at high art to a quick end; Fozzie, meanwhile can’t do a single gig without running up against the jeers of his two greatest critics, Statler and Waldorf. Gonzo and Fozzie never require our sympathy for too long, as for all their artistic failings, they’re two of the most resilient performers to ever grace The Muppet Show’s stage. And besides, among Muppets, there’s always someone who’s more disliked than you. Statler and Waldorf might not think much of Fozzie’s humor, but nobody cares for Lew Zealand’s boomerang fish act. At least not within the universe of the show.
Episode 102: Connie Stevens
“With our very special guest star”: By the time she appeared in the second of the two Muppet Show pilots, Connie Stevens was already a star whose time had passed—Stevens belonged to the generation of post-Marilyn Monroe starlets who readily transitioned between stage and screen (both the big and small varieties) with the occasional stop in the recording studio. Sadly, she isn’t called upon to reprise her hit novelty single, “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb,” but her performance of Dion And The Belmonts “Teenager In Love” does call back to that time period. Stevens’ appearance is marked by a grin-and-bear-it roughness, as if she didn’t quite know what to do with the Muppets, and the Muppets didn’t quite know what to do with her. Thankfully, at this point, the interactions between the guests and the real stars of the show were limited to a few musical numbers and the Talk Spot.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: Mahna Mahna makes another indelible appearance in this episode, taking leave from bothering The Snowths to harsh Zoot’s buzz in “Sax And Violence.” The duet between the similarly scruffy and seemingly simpatico characters is a textbook case of Muppet misdirection, as the Electric Mayhem saxophonist begins the scene complaining about the music (“Forgive me, Charlie Parker—wherever you are!”) before being forced to defend the spotlight from Mahna Mahna’s tiny bell. In the end, only one can remain standing—and it’s the one whose instrument hides an alarming amount of firepower.
As if to show that Mahna Mahna, Zoot, and the rest of relatively newbies aren’t quite marquee names in their own rights, the episode features a rare crossover between The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, the type of world-colliding event usually reserved for major religious holidays and televised banquets held in Kermit’s honor. Their cameo begins in a typically teasing fashion—Bert frets about being on “a big TV variety show,” Ernie responds by removing Bert’s nose—and feels almost as if the pair is being re-contextualized as a vaudevillian comedy team. Soon enough, however, Bert’s in a hat and tails, hoofing about the stage with Stevens and singing “Some Enchanted Evening.” The Rodgers And Hammerstein number has received several takes from Muppet characters over the years—another, abruptly abbreviated version will turn up during Avery Schreiber’s mid-first season appearance—but nobody does it like ol’ Bert, who temporarily shelves his nerves to become a floppy-armed Fred Astaire. But Bert’s big dream can’t last forever, and when he asks Ernie if he’s just made a fool of himself, Ernie plainly replies, “Absolutely, Bert.” Bert can’t be allowed to walk around with an inflated ego; likewise, The Muppet Show can’t be allowed to seem like it holds such variety-show pablum in high regard.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: Connie Steven’s voice is perfectly suited for the cooing come-ons of “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb.” It is, however, much to thin for “Teenager In Love”—and despite the best, distracting work of full-body Muppet backing group The Mutations, it’s obvious she’s lip-syncing.
Stevens headlines the episode’s other low point, a dull reading of the Bacharach-David composition “(They Long To Be) Close To You.” There are some Muppet interruptions, but this is the type of non-chaotic, non-funny segment my younger, less professionally obligated self would fast forward right past.
“It’s time to play the music”: This episode goes heavy on the music, and it spans what you could’ve found on the radio dial at the time: There’s the aforementioned jazz instrumental, oldie-but-goodie, showtune, and soft-rock staple, but there’s also a throwback to Fats Waller via Leon Redbone (“Ain’t Misbehavin’,” sung in a temporarily twangy register by Floyd Pepper) and the Groucho Marx novelty “Lydia The Tattooed Lady.” It’s a variety show that’s still getting its legs, so it’s understandable that an early episode of The Muppet Show would take on so many musical numbers—but this also could’ve been Henson relying something which he knew worked for The Muppets. After all, some of the earliest staples in his repertoire were lip-synced routines to recordings by the likes of Stan Freberg, Spike Jones, and Louis Prima. (In other words, Stevens is in good company.)
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: Ignore the fact that neither Floyd nor Janice can move the fingers on their right hands, and the “Ain’t Misbehavin’” segment is an impressive display of Muppet musicianship. Dave Goelz really sells the illusion that Zoot is blowing into his saxophone, and Jerry Nelson greets the challenge of Floyd’s bass solo with arm movements that mimic the plucking motions of a real, live bassist. It’s not easy to make puppets look like they’re playing instruments—The Electric Mayhem and their performers just make it look that way.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Temporarily returning to Gonzo and Fozzie: The two cross paths throughout the running backstage plot in this episode, where Gonzo’s conversations about his beloved (though weathered) teddy bear are overheard by the bear comedian. We’re laying the groundwork for the type of performance anxieties that make me wish this Skottie Young drawing would come true.
Several characters are introduced in this episode—two of which will stick around, two of which won’t. The Swedish Chef and The Newsman each make brief appearances, but they leave an impression, as the former volleys meatballs with Statler and the latter suffers the first incident in a long series of abuse at the hands of visual puns. (The hotline punchline is so easy, yet so great.)
The pair that isn’t long for this world is Wayne And Wanda, duet partners with a Newsman-like knack for being taken out by their material. Coincidentally, that mistreatment by songs extends to the first-season DVD set, as music rights keep their first onstage appearance—performing a rained-out version of “Stormy Weather”—out of the next episode. Here, however, they’re undone by a Marx Brothers-esque switcheroo that’s probably the work of Jack Burns: When Stevens emerges from her dressing room, Wayne immediately reverses his protest of “Teenager In Love,” going from “Who cares about the Connie Stevens spot?” to “I can’t wait for the Connie Stevens spot” in little more than a comedic beat.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: Perhaps in testament to the episode’s relative tameness, Zoot’s “Sax And Violence” finale is the only example of Muppet-on-Muppet violence here.
Episode 103: Joel Grey
“With our very special guest star”: There’s still enough luster from Joel Grey’s 1973 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor win for Cabaret to light up this edition of The Muppet Show—though it’s his Tony Award-winning work in the stage version of the musical that really shines on the series’ third episode. Showtunes abound, and the glitz, glamour, and camp of The Great White Way comes to the Muppet Theater in a pair of Grey-led production numbers. I’m only guessing here, but the spangly tuxedo Grey dons for “Razzle Dazzle” was actually the least tacky outfit worn by a variety-show guest in 1976.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: Channeling the role that got him halfway to an EGOT, Grey does Cabaret’s “Wilkommen” with Muppet accompaniment, and it’s blocked in a way that realistically suggests that he never knows where the next line is coming from. His choreography is limited, but that’s probably because he’s surrounded on all sides by the puppeteers’ trenches.
Gonzo’s intrusion into the whispered verse of “Wilkommen” prefaces his later onstage interaction with Grey, where the latter consoles the former following his latest artistic failure. But what a failure it is: Sitting in the driver’s seat of a vintage car and cradling a mallet, Gonzo informs the audience that he will destroy the automobile to the tune of Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus,” then “eat the crank case a cappella.” If it’s not already apparent, the gag of these Gonzo segments is that they’re all setup; Gonzo gets in less than 10 whacks before the audience completely turns on him. It’s a perfect contrast to Fozzie’s running plotline, which involves the bear offering punchlines on any subject. Predictably, neither act is a hit, though Fozzie’s provides him with the rare thrill of defeating Statler and Waldorf. Sometimes, the spoils of victory are as small as the non-mocking laughter of two crotchety theater-goers.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: I’ve never been able to grasp what the episode’s opening number—a rendition of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum’s “Comedy Tonight” performed by various Muppet monsters and baddies—tries to do. It’s obviously going for a contrast between the subject of the song and the nefarious actions of the characters, but the joke just doesn’t land. Maybe if the arrangement was more foreboding?
“Comedy Tonight” shares an overactive laugh track with the episode’s U.K. Spot, an innocent bit of Orientalism entitled “Pachalafaka.” Sometimes it was necessary to make the audience sound like it was busting a gut at a Muppet Show routine—this one just feels like Henson and company were sweetening a dud.
“It’s time to play the music”: I’ve already touched on all the music from this episode, so let’s revisit a vaguely music-related segment here: “At The Dance,” The Muppet Show’s answer to Laugh-In’s “Joke Wall” and Hee Haw’s “Cornfield.” While The Newsman was the writers’ vessel for specific puns, it seems like “At The Dance” was a repository for any one-liner or visual gag that earned a chuckle from Henson, Burns, or Juhl. As such, there’s always more misses than hits in these segments, but this episode’s is more consistent than most: There’s the “I’m really stuck on you” exchange between the Green Frackle and his date, and the whole thing ends with George dancing Mildred into the chandelier. It’s never the best part of an episode, but “At The Dance” is certainly testament to The Muppet Show’s willingness to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks in these early goings. (As such, “At The Dance” recurred less and less as the show developed its own identity.)
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: Far from the ambitious, cast-encompassing intros that would appear from the second season onward, the first season of The Muppet Show reflects the show’s humble beginnings in its staging of the series’ theme song. The chorus lines that sing the opening two verses only feature four members, and the iconic archways are nowhere to be seen. Furthering that low-rent impression, there are puppets in the finale of the song who are rigged only to raise their arms. The effect is a bit disturbing, and echoed by the shots of the audience we see in this episode, where animated audience members mingle with seat-fillers who stay distressingly still.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Speaking of unsettling: Am I the only one who used to be frightened by Crazy Harry? You can blame it on the shifty eyes or the unhinged laugh, or something I just recently picked up on—he’s one of the few human Muppets with teeth. (Yes, obviously Dr. Teeth falls into that category as well, but he’s too funky to be scary.) Harry’s been a part of the Muppet orchestra since the series’ first episode, but it’s this one that introduces him to his true calling: pyrotechnics. His role is still largely musical, however, as his plunger box provides a sort of auxiliary percussion for “Comedy Tonight.”
A note on jokey casting: The dog who plays Dr. Watson to Rowlf’s Sherlock Holmes in “Sherlock Holmes And The Case Of The Disappearing Clues” is named Baskerville The Hound. Coincidental nomenclature aside, he wasn’t designed specifically for the sketch: He’d previously sidekicked for Rowlf in a series of Purina Dog Chow commercials.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: Crazy Harry sets off three explosions during “Comedy Tonight”; Meanwhile, big, mean, eating machine Gorgon Heap puts the “disappearing clues” in “Sherlock Holmes And The Disappering Clues”—before putting Miss Piggy and Baskerville in his stomach. [Statler and Waldorf voices] You know how Holmes solves the case? By a simple process of digestion. Ohhohohohohohoho. [/Statler and Waldorf voices].