In the first of this week’s episodes of The Muppet Show, we glimpse what will become one of the series’ strongest (and most enduring) recurring themes: The reluctant guest star. We’ll see the prime example of this in John Cleese’s second-season appearance on the show, but it’s the late Harvey Korman who introduces the concept that the show-within-The Muppet Show isn’t necessarily the top priority for the stars of the day.
It’s an incredibly self-deprecating note for the series to hit, but it’s also one that hits the variety-show format right where it lives. Even today, a guest appearance on a variety show is most often used as a promotional tool; it’s the rare occasion that a Saturday Night Live host comes to 30 Rock without a new movie, TV show, or album to hock. Since the production cycle on The Muppet Show was longer than other programs of its ilk, the series was untethered from such topical/tacky concerns. Its writers were therefore free to turn out scripts that didn’t require the guests to smile through their song-and-dance routines. If the star-of-the-week was particularly gifted with comedic surliness, then they could be comedically surly on The Muppet Show, without concerns about box-office receipts or Nielsen ratings getting in the way of the humor. It’s a brilliant method of poking holes in the genial showbiz façade, one which receives a big ol’ nod during the third act of The Muppets. Sometimes the characters just need to dress visitors to The Muppet Theater in feathers to win them over to the Muppet way of doing things—other, more dire circumstances (like those presented in The Muppets) call for more persuasive techniques. Also, a few feet of rope.
Episode 110: Harvey Korman
“With our special guest star”: Of course, as a castmember on both The Danny Kaye Show and The Carol Burnett Show, Harvey Korman had been on the other side of the guest-regular player equation many times. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that he’s channeling the spirits of many secretly uncooperative guests past on The Muppet Show, though his non-compliance comes from a very basic place: As Korman tells Kermit during the Talk Spot, he feels like a “token person” among The Muppets. The show’s ensemble calms this anxiety through a unique immersion therapy (with eerie echoes of Tod Browning’s Freaks), and Korman spends the rest of his time in The Muppet Theater in a chicken suit. His temporary transformation takes Korman out of the final third of the episode, but before his rendition of Muppet Like Me, Burnett’s “luminous second banana” finds a pair of foils in Miss Piggy and the surprisingly amenable behemoth Thog. In a foreshadowing of the Talk Spot, both Muppets get the upper hand on their guest.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: That scene with Thog, “Maurice The Magnificent,” presents a showcase for Korman’s gifts with physical humor and blowhard indignation, casting the actor as a animal tamer who isn’t too far removed from Korman’s Blazing Saddles character, Hedley Lamarr. It’s not particularly surprising when Thog turns out to be a more gentle beast than Maurice claims, but the real humor of the scene is found in the ludicrous paces he puts his “master” through, requiring several stammering covers from Korman—as well as some brief ballroom dancing.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: One bit of grouchy Korman that doesn’t land: His backstage blackout with Rowlf and Muppy. Was Korman a noted environmentalist, or is this just an excuse to slip a “pissing dog” joke into the middle of the show?
“It’s time to play the music”: The Electric Mayhem begins easing into its role as The Muppet Show’s house band here, earning a pair of musical performances—one played for laughs, the other played for show. The first, “Love Ya To Death,” is a Joe Raposo composition left over from the Sex And Violence pilot, with enough explosive metaphors and flashy pyrotechnics to account for both the “sex” and the “violence.” Yet, for all the mayhem with the Mayhem, the distinction for the episode’s most notable music number goes to Robin The Frog. Before being cast as Kermit’s wonderstruck nephew, the little green guy gets a touching solo spot with what would become his signature song, “Halfway Down The Stairs.” It’s a sweet, melancholy little ditty with lyrics by A.A. Milne, establishing Robin’s as one of the most insecure Muppets a whole season before the full formation of the character’s identity. The song itself would land in the U.K. Top 10 in 1977, an early example of The Muppet Show’s greater impact on pop culture.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: The Electric Mayhem’s second segment—a Derek Scott instrumental entitled “Sweet Tooth Jam”—accounts for more of a “Look what we can do!” segment, with the members of the band flailing about most expressively. I have to wonder if that’s the natural energy of the performance, or if the footage wasn’t sped up a bit in the editing room. If not, it’s just another one of those moments to marvel at the abilities of the Muppet performers, and wonder about the physical toll of working on the show.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: As a testament to his abundant charisma—and maybe sensing the show was onto something with “Fever” from the Rita Moreno episode—Animal gives a Talk Spot-style interview to Kermit following “Love Ya To Death.” If “Fever” hadn’t completely established Animal as a bit of loose cannon, this segment certainly finishes the job, with Animal’s answers to Kermit rendered in head-butts to his snare drum and shouts of “Eat drums! Eat cymbals!” The unfettered id of The Muppet Show ensemble, Animal is an irreplaceable element of the series’ controlled chaos—as he demonstrates for Kermit by paradiddling on the frog at the mere suggestion of another drummer joining the cast.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: Crazy Harry is prevented from starting the show with a “bang,” though that’s not the case elsewhere: The stage-clearing punctuation of “Love Ya To Death” and Veterinarian’s Hospital (which veers into Tom And Jerry levels of comedic violence this week, between Dr. Bob’s anesthetic mallet, Nurse Piggy’s stabby exuberance, and the exploding patient) makes up for the lack of fire power in recent weeks.
Episode 111: Lena Horne
“With our special guest star”: Lena Horne puts in the requisite “I’m a big fan” sweet talk during her Talk Spot segment, but she’s one of the few guests from the first season of The Muppet Show who can legitimately back that claim up. The late vocalist (Is this the first week of this feature where both episodes’ guests have gone onto to that Big Dressing Room in the Sky?) lent her brassy vocals to a pair of Sesame Street episodes in 1973 and ’75. She’s familiar with the characters, but her episode follows the mold of previous first-season appearances by actress-vocalists (with the exception of Moreno’s standout installment): Lots of singing, limited interaction with The Muppets, and a subplot involving the series’ resident diva, Miss Piggy. It’s an average episode featuring a remarkable talent, one whose familiarity with Henson productions would’ve been better served perhaps by the looser structure of later seasons.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: From “the real show is behind the show” department: The Miss Piggy runner—where she and Kermit tussle over a cut song—is a crucial bit of development for the character’s relationship with her froggy amore as well as further refinement of the series’ dual nature. Horne’s too classy for a showdown with Piggy (the writers would save that particular conceit for Raquel Welch’s third-season episode), but no amount of decorum could ever keep a scorned Piggy from karate-chopping her way across the backstage area.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: Horne’s two big musical numbers—“I Got A Name” and Raposo’s “Sing”—suffer from my least favorite of Muppet Show stagings: A stationary singer backed by a hovering chorus of Muppets. While it’s dismissive to suggest that The Muppets are only good for kinetic routines like “Love Ya To Death,” it also seems like a waste to just stick a handful of characters in the background while the guest star sings her heart out. But hey, either “I Got A Name” or “Sing” is preferable to “Elusive Butterfly,” right?
“It’s time to play the music”: Zoot and Rowlf’s U.K. spot requires a bit of research to really sink in: They’re playing the theme from Love Story, the Ryan O’Neal-Ali MacGraw tearjerker from 1970 (based on the novel of the same name). Rowlf’s crying because the movie ends in the most infuriatingly, manipulatively tragic way possible—not that any of that means his tears aren’t earned.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: The opening number, “Rag Mop,” pares The Muppets down to an elementary level: Minimal facial features and a mouth mechanism. The segment makes the most of the minimal character design (something The Ragg Mopps share with the spaghetti which attacks the Swedish Chef later in the show) and choreography, and from the looks of this behind-the-scenes shot from Muppet Wiki, it was blast to shoot.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Miss Piggy is obviously the biggest beneficiary of the character redesigns which occurred between seasons one and two, but I’d argue that Gonzo’s facelift during the offseason was a similarly big boon to the character. His hangdog woefulness actually helps Gonzo out in this episode, however, as Dave Goelz’s stuffy-nosed vocals really sell the disappointment of being booed off stage. There are better Gonzo moments to come, but this is one that’s specific to this version of the character.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: The Blue Frackle’s combustible temper brings At The Dance to an abrupt halt, blowing the character’s head clean off. In fact, he blows up real good!
Next week: Peter Ustinov induces some childhood trauma before Bruce Forsyth ruins Fozzie’s scheme to get back at Statler and Waldorf.