There’s always been a crucial connection between The Muppets and music. Before any Muppet even spoke in his or her own voice, they sang in those of other people: The earliest installments of Sam And Friends featured that show’s stable of characters lip-syncing to pop hits of the day, a motif which would continue through the end of Sam And Friends’s five-year run. There’s something about the expressiveness of these characters that lends themselves to music, a facet Jim Henson and his collaborators would continue to improve and elaborate upon on through The Muppet Show’s 1976 debut and beyond. When a member of The Electric Mayhem or The Gogolala Jug Band picks up an instrument, we know they’re not actually playing it (or that the instrument isn’t actually an instrument) but the combination of puppet design and the performers’ techniques trick our brains into thinking they are.
It takes a certain type of song to make for a great Muppet musical moment—in the Sam And Friends days, that usually meant novelty recordings by Spike Jones or Stan Freberg. But as the characters evolved and their world grew, Henson and company found songwriters who were capable of writing original material that matched the characters’ mixture of warmth, humor, and barely contained chaos: Joe Raposo gave the Sesame Street Muppets “Bein’ Green” and “C Is For Cookie”; more recently, Flight Of The Conchords’ Bret McKenzie lent the talents of New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk-parody band to The Muppets. In the first of this week’s Muppet Show episodes, the characters have their first encounter with a songwriter who’ll figure prominently into their musical future: Paul Williams. And, to paraphrase Kermit, I promise not to make any jokes about how Williams and this week’s other guest, Charles Aznavour, make good Muppet complements because of their small stature. Instead, we’ll leave that up to the Muppets themselves.
Episode 108: Paul Williams
“With our special guest star”: Paul Williams is a celebrity of a distinctly 1970s vintage. Not only because he wrote some of the decade’s most enduring chart hits—among them “An Old Fashioned Love Song” and “Sad Song (That Used To Be Our Song),” heard here—but also because his career trajectory was one rarely seen outside of the decade when fellow professional-songwriters-turned-superstars like Carole King and Randy Newman rose to prominence. (In the case of Williams and Newman, this involved the intervention of Three Dog Night.) Williams showed considerable chops on the variety-show circuit throughout the ’70s, and his meeting with The Muppets seems predestined because of it. He stops short of performing a Sinatra standard in full Planet Of The Apes drag during his appearance on The Muppet Show, though he’s more than sporting about the many, many jokes made at the expense of his height and looks. His Muppet-like mug is the source of Kermit’s introduction to the episode, which comes a few segments before a pair of felt-and-fur lookalikes join Williams for “An Old Fashioned Love Song.” The gag is hit too hard, too often, but it obviously didn’t bother Williams any—he’d go on to collaborate with Jim Henson on the immortal Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas before penning the songs for (and making a fantastic cameo appearance in) The Muppet Movie.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: Though the show has yet to start integrating the guest stars into the backstage hijinks, this episode shows an increased interest in mixing what goes on behind-the-scenes and on the stage of The Muppet Theater. (Yes, we learned last week that the show’s setting is also known as The Benny Vandergast Memorial Theater, but The Muppets has $41.5 million that says it’s officially The Muppet Theater now.) Scooter and Fozzie’s fretting over “the old telephone bit” is a great example of this definitive element in its earliest stages: We see the routine from conception to performance, with Fozzie’s rehearsal (“I am a telephone pole. I am made of solid wood. I am a telephone pole.”) sprinkled throughout. It’s an inspired dissection of all the preparation that can go into a single comedic routine, with Fozzie resorting to near-Method techniques to deliver the punchline of what amounts to be an extremely long Polish joke. Given the amount of prep time that Muppet projects traditionally require (or, in Jack Burns’ case, the frustration of working several hours on a joke that lasts 10 seconds), this is almost certainly a bit of showbiz commentary direct from the writers’ room.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: A standby of the show that is still scrambling for footing at this point is the Muppet Newsflash. The various ills which would befall the Newsman throughout the show’s run are one of the few examples of “blackout”-style sketch comedy that really worked for The Muppet Show—unfortunately, in these early goings, the Newsflash segments are often stretched beyond the limits of their potential by “remote” interviews with the guest stars. Williams’ performance as a simpleton perplexed by a phone call where no one’s on the other line is fine, but the joke is flimsy. Not that this is an especially good outing for quick, pun-based gags: “At The Dance” features one of that recurring segment’s weakest punchlines, where Animal asks his date if she wants to go on a “trip.” The fact that we’re only a few episodes away from one of my favorite “At The Dance” jokes—featured in the Peter Ustinov episode—is keeping me from dismissing my past enjoyment of the segment as youthful folly.
“It’s time to play the music”: “An Old Fashioned Love Song” is one of my favorite musical segments of The Muppet Show’s first season, a classic of the FM era playfully staged and spared the corny excesses of the typical Jack Parnell arrangements. (Though, upon further consideration, the Muppet Williamses look more like Muppet Mitch Hedbergs.) The songs chosen for Williams to perform are telling of how good a fit he is with The Muppets: Both “An Old Fashioned Love Song” and “Sad Song (That Used To Be Our Song)” take a self-aware approach to songwriting and pop fandom which gibes with the fourth-wall-busting aspects of The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: “Sad Song (That Used To Be Our Song)” doesn’t fare as well as Williams’ first number—it’s more statically staged, and it’s a bit flat for a closer—but it is at least a fun example of longtime Muppet director Peter Harris using the TV screen’s full depth of field. There might not be much movement going on in the frame, but the image has layers, beginning with Rowlf in the foreground, Animal in the background, and Williams and his Muppet chorus in between. A more stirring example of this comes during the “A Poem With Rowlf” segment, where dog and frame are slowly overwhelmed with characters noisily and literally interpreting the imagery of Rowlf’s poem “Silence.” (I like to imagine that Animal being wheeled in from stage right served as the inspiration for Chris Frantz’s similar entrance in Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense.)
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: This episode marks the debut of Muppet Labs, where Dr. Bunsen Honeydew demonstrates the first of many backfiring inventions to come, the All-Purpose Tenderizer. Like so much about The Muppet Show, Honeydew is still a work in progress at this point, having yet to be paired with his faithful assistant/unwilling test subject, Beaker. The role of the Muppet Labs segments on the show-within-the-show is never really clear—Why does Kermit consistently cede airtime to the lab? Are the products tested within funding the show?—but they’re almost always good, a consistent source of chaos which helped Honeydew survive the mass culling of the cast that occurred between the first and second seasons.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: The sketch between Williams (as a travel agent) and Beautiful Day Monster (as an inordinately thrifty tourist) skips the Henson School of Endings for the practices of Monty Python: The blue guy is flattened by a 5,000-pound weight and tossed out of the frame like a frisbee. The “carpet with facial features” version of the character won’t go to waste, either, as it’s given a blonde wig and cast in “At The Dance” during the Charles Aznavour episode.
Episode 109: Charles Aznavour
“With our special guest star”: The DVD edit of this episode makes something of a non-entity of guest Charles Aznavour, with the French vocalist receiving only one showcase for his rich crooning: The Frank Loesser tune “The Inch Worm.” (Not to be confused with the similarly named Muppet sketch set to “Glow Worm” which takes its Muppet Show bow in the second season.) The segment that’s cut, “The Old Fashioned Way,” isn’t all that remarkable, and what is seen here makes Aznavour out to be a kindler, gentler alternative to Serge Gainsbourg. If Gainsbourg was the dirty old uncle of 20th century French pop, than Aznavour is its kindly, paternal figure—and as much as I’d love to see Gainsbourg whisper incredibly inappropriate nothings to Miss Piggy, Aznavour is probably a better fit for The Muppet Show.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: Coming immediately after the mostly stellar Williams episode, Aznavour’s half-hour feels like an also-ran. Though I distinctly remember the unsettling “I Feel Pretty” segment—which makes up for the eighth episode’s loss of the comparable “All Of Me”—from the show’s days on TNT, it feels like this one wasn’t in heavy rotation in those old cable-syndication packages. Still, there’s decent installments of “Veterinarian’s Hospital” and another continuing stooooooooory—that of Fozzie versus Statler and Waldorf—but neither hit the heights of which either segment is capable. I do love the first beat of Scooter and Gonzo’s runner, where the “rock act” newly minted manager Scooter has conceived for his client involves Gonzo hammering a prop boulder and yelling “Art!” There’s an un-ironic version of this performance piece currently installed at a converted warehouse space near you.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: A new rule of thumb for guest spots: If the majority of the Muppet action comes courtesy of an insect, you can skip it. “The Inch Worm” is a heart-warming number, but it’s mind-numbingly repetitive—and it’s less visually stimulating than the blazer Aznavour wears during the episode’s closing.
“It’s time to play the music”: The Gogolala Jubilee Jugband puts in back-to-back performances this week, following up its gig backing Williams on “An Old Fashioned Love Song” with a ripping rendition of “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On The Bedpost Overnight).” It’s an obvious choice for a U.K. Spot, seeing as the song rose to its greatest prominence during Great Britain’s curious, pre-rock obsession with skiffle. Like a lot of the novelty records adapted by Henson and crew, this one seems tailor-made for The Muppet Show, with room enough between the verses and chorus for the band members to squeeze in the Fozzie-style one-liner “How do you drive a baby buggy?”
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: Has anyone out there ever seen a behind-the-scenes shot of Fozzie interacting with Statler and Waldorf? I’ve always wondered if their box was really as far away from the stage as it appears, or if that’s just a great in-camera trick.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: The theater’s wardrobe woman, Hilda, would be pushed to the background after The Muppet Show’s first season, but she’s pitched as an essential member of the cast in these early episodes. Not only does she participate in Scooter and Gonzo’s backstage plot here, but she’s also a guest during the Panel Discussion, acting as Sam The Eagle’s back-up voice of reason in a discourse that’s undone several times by Gonzo’s literalness. That casting explains why Hilda faded away as the show went on: With Sam frequently befuddled by the “weirdness” unfolding around him, who needs those lines repeated in a vaguely Eastern-European accent?
“It all ends in one of two ways”: Nothing blown up, nothing eaten—though, in an insanely dark turn for “Veterinarian’s Hospital,” Doctor Bob’s patient dies on the operating table.
Next week: Harvey Korman gets put in a chicken costume; Miss Piggy gets bumped in favor of Lena Horne.