After months of ballyhoo, parody trailers, and press conferences helmed by a frog, The Muppets opens nationwide in the United States tomorrow. The movie represents a tremendous risk on the part of The Walt Disney Company, which has sunk millions of dollars into reminding the world that the Muppets exist—something it didn’t appear particularly interested in when Buena Vista Home Entertainment issued the first three seasons of The Muppet Show on DVD in mid-’00s. Of course, those DVDs were a reminder of the property’s past; The Muppets represents the future of the characters, a future which, if the box-office returns are healthy enough, could lead to further Muppet movies and a full-blown Muppet revival. The residual effects of the film are already paying off: Though the Jim Henson Company no longer owns the rights to the stars of The Muppets, the heat being generated by the film undoubtedly pushed NBC to buy the Henson Company’s latest series, The New Nabors—the title of which is, in the most extreme of coincidences, an homage to the guest star one of this week’s episodes of The Muppet Show.
It’s difficult to gauge how a generation raised without reruns of The Muppet Show or new theatrical Muppet releases will react to The Muppets, just as it’s difficult to ascertain how the television audiences of the 1970s reacted to The Muppet Show’s first handful of episodes. The way the show was produced and packaged, there’s no way the shifts and tweaks we’ll see throughout this initial season were made based on any sort of audience feedback. Rather, it had to be incredibly sharp artistic instinct which, for example, pushed Miss Piggy to the forefront of episode 107. This shows a remarkable amount of savvy from the show’s small writing staff, and an almost unparalleled confidence in their characters and performers. If I have any high hopes for The Muppets, it’s that screenwriters Jason Segel and Nick Stoller and director James Bobin (and, ultimately, the suits at Disney) showed the same trust in the groundwork laid by these episodes. Well, maybe not the Jim Nabors one, but we can blame most of its shortcomings on Jack Burns, right?
Episode 106: Jim Nabors
“With our special guest star”: Begin the thawing of our complaints against Jim Nabors! Actually, this mediocre and generally out-of-character episode isn’t Nabors’ fault—it’s the fault of his public image, which was largely shaped by the seven years he spent playing lovable country bumpkin Gomer Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show and its spin-off, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. As such, the entire episode takes on a cornpone air, which wasn’t much of a stretch for Nabors or Jack Burns, the latter of whom served as head writer for Hee Haw before taking on similar duties at The Muppet Show. Nonetheless, the emphasis is on the “corn” here, with plenty of barnyard wordplay and Gomer-isms littered throughout the episode. The best episodes of The Muppet Show saw their guests reshaping themselves to fit the show—Nabors’ appearance goes too far in the other direction.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: I’m saving the discussion of the episode’s best aspect for “It’s time to meet The Muppets,” so—let’s talk about Fozzie, Statler, and Waldorf, who have begun to establish a very funny rhythm, one which the first season of The Muppet Show eventually drives into the ground. Nonetheless, I like their give-and-take here, and in a rare victory for the bear, he leaves the old coots in stitches. Naturally, they chalk the laughter up to senility, but if Statler and Waldorf conceded this early into the game, one of the Muppets’ greatest rivalries would’ve sacrificed most of its friction.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: The Talk Spot makes mention of Nabors’ other claim to fame—his unexpectedly rich singing voice—but the DVD version of this episode is missing the only showcase for that voice, “Gone With The Wind.” That’s more a demerit to the owners of the song’s publishing rights than to the episode itself, however; in light of their stinginess, here’s a YouTube version of the segment:
How hard does the episode lean on fond remembrances of Gomer Pyle? Nabors plays at least two variations on the character—one in the Muppet News Flash, the other in the security guard sketch—and then ends on a Gomer-fied version of “Thank God I’m A Country Boy.” All that, and he never once says “Shazam!”—though there are multiple instances of the character’s other catchphrase, “Well, go-o-olly!”
“It’s time to play the music”: Dr. Teeth opens the episode with a take on “Money”—though it’s the Stan Freberg-Ruby Raskin song by that name, not the Janie Bradford-Berry Gordy composition made famous by Barrett Strong. It’s the type of novelty recording that Henson revisited several times, with the Muppet Wiki citing no less than four renditions preceding Dr. Teeth’s take. The increasingly deranged lyrics do most of the heavy lifting in the segment, though it gets a great punchline when the good doctor reveals that his piano has a slot-machine arm, which promptly dumps that filthy lucre and lovin’ germs all over the Muppets’ proud representation of rock ’n’ roll excess.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: The episode’s most technically impressive number is also missing from the DVD release: The Danceros, a last-minute addition to the lineup made at the insistence of Scooter’s theater-owning uncle. Performed against a black velvet background by John Lovelady, it’s a neat example of a Muppet Show bait-and-switch, as the camera pans up to reveal that the four tap-dancing legs actually belong to a single, spider-like creature. Maybe my opinion of the episode would’ve improved if this and “Gone With The Wind” were included in the running order.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Here’s a drawback of watching these episodes in production order: We’ve been getting acquainted with Scooter since the Juliet Prowse episode, but it’s only now that he’s making his grand entrance as a nepotistic hire of theater owner J.P. Grosse. Scooter is largely positioned as a nuisance throughout the first season, with his frequently referenced family connections putting him in a position of power over nearly everyone on the show. That makes it difficult to fully enjoy the character in the early goings, but the “My uncle who owns this theater… ” material eventually falls away. As with most of the backstage staff at the show-within-the-show, Scooter’s presence should ostensibly make Kermit’s job easier—but for the benefit of The Muppet Show, it never does.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: I’m beginning to sense a pattern with the early episodes: The less explosions/eatings, the worse the episode. (Though the Rita Moreno episode only features one of each, so this theory is somewhat flawed.) The closest this installment gets to either of those endings is Dr. Teeth’s gestures toward munching on his “Money” props.
Episode 107: Florence Henderson
“With our special guest star”: During the same year that Sid and Marty Krofft filtered The Brady Bunch through the kaleidoscopic lens of a TV variety show, the lovely lady of the Brady household also starred in her own episode of The Muppet Show. Florence Henderson’s background in musical theater serves her well here, as she contributes a pair of passable musical numbers and forms the third point in Miss Piggy’s imagined love triangle between herself, Henderson, and Kermit. Henderson’s bright, wholesome persona is the type that maps perfectly onto The Muppet Show, though she doesn’t make a huge impact outside of her scenes with Piggy and Kermit—in re-watching the episode, I kept confusing it with Julie Andrews’ second-season appearance on the show. Here’s an easy way to distinguish between the two: Only one of those episodes features the guest in an atrocious tie-dyed gown, and that’s Henderson’s.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: Kermit’s telling a little white lie in the episode’s visit to the Planet Koozebane: This is the second time the rare “Galley-oh-hoop-hoop” was seen by a television audience, following a version staged for The Muppets Valentine Show pilot. I recall the Valentine Show cut running longer and a tiny bit racier, but the segment still delivers the goods here, what with the playful design of the Koozebanian creatures and Kermit’s color commentary being echoed in the Koozebanians’ hoots and hollers. For the benefit of those who haven’t seen it, don’t give away the ending—it’s one of the only two the Muppets have.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: If this were a later episode of the series, the hole in the stage created by The Bouncing Borcellino Brothers would’ve wreaked havoc on the remainder of the episode’s segments—unfortunately, that development goes, er, un-developed here. At least the porcine acrobats continue to butt in on the rest of the show, eventually crushing the Panel Discussion under the weight of their faulty “El Pyramido” act.
“It’s time to play the music”: Despite being the episode’s U.K. spot, Rowlf’s musical interpretation of the A.A. Milne poem “Cottleston Pie” ended up on Arista Record’s The Muppet Show LP—which probably caused some confusion among American viewers. There’s something about Rowlf being a childhood fan of Winnie The Pooh that tickles me, and I imagine that this segment is an instance of Jim Henson talking directly through the character. After all, what else was Henson’s life but a never-ending walk through The Hundred Acre Wood? Fittingly, Frank Oz performed the song (in the voice of Bert) at Henson’s memorial service in 1990. (PS Looking for a good cry this afternoon? Here’s a the medley of Muppet performers singing Henson’s favorite songs at that service. “Cottleston Pie” begins at the 6:57 mark.)
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: This episode features a great use of the backstage area’s multi-tiered setup, utilized in a brief gag where Kermit yells at several of his charges to “knock it off”—and, eventually, “knock it off with the knockin’-it-offs!” It helps create the illusion that that Muppets really are putting on a sizable production—while also showing just how much Kermit has to corral in order to get that production off the ground every week.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Miss Piggy spent the entire first season of The Muppet Show without a permanent performer, yet it’s episodes like this one which eventually contributed to her becoming the series’ breakout star. Her scenes with Henderson and Kermit resonate throughout nearly every one of the character’s subsequent appearances: She’s short-tempered, starved for attention, and mad about the frog. The characterization of Piggy would grow more complex as the years passed, but if there isn’t at least one moment in The Muppets where she blows her stack and gives someone a “pork chop” then the movie has bigger problems than Fozzie’s fart shoes.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: In the interest of maintaining the mystery of the Koozebane segment, let’s skip this section for this episode.