The Muppets proved to be successful pitchmen/women/creatures during the 1960s, but Jim Henson was just as good at selling himself as he was at selling bacon, soda pop, toys, and aerosol laundry products. The Muppet Show, for instance, was famously presented to CBS (whose network affiliates would eventually air the series) via a brief “pitch reel” that provided a glimpse at the proposed series’ comedic sensibilities—all the while promising that the show would make gobs of money for the Tiffany Network execs who greenlit it.
A decade before they made hyperbolic promises about a series that could attract an audience of kids, parents, and “freaky, long-haired, cynical hippies,” Henson and his Muppets, Inc. associates took similarly unorthodox paths toward introducing sales representatives in the pre-packaged food industry to their new felt-and-foam colleagues. The “meeting films” Muppets, Inc. produced for reps from Wilson’s Meats and La Choy are some of the funniest, weirdest pieces of video to be pulled from the Muppet archives in the post-YouTube era. In typical Muppets fashion, the films take a dry sales pitch and dress it up in experimental techniques, building faux-documentaries around fictionalized “behind the scenes” footage that portrays Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl, Don Sahlin, and others as rambunctious, devil-may-care creative types spending corporate cash on booze, women, dangerous pyrotechnics, and insurance claims stemming from those dangerous pyrotechnics. While the Muppet sequences from these films are examples of Henson’s zippy humor and swift editing style, the documentaries foreshadow the behind-the-scenes elements with which The Muppet Show began to experiment in Episode 120.
Jim Henson’s willingness to experiment and bend pre-established forms to his imaginative will wasn’t limited to his television work; in fact, it just might’ve been his strongest sales technique.
Episode 120: Valerie Harper
“With our special guest star”: Before she was Mary Richards’ best friend, Mary Tyler Moore Show/Rhoda star Valerie Harper was a chorus girl on Broadway. That bit of personal history gibes with The Muppet Show’s “Let’s put on a show!” atmosphere—and builds a fun, showbiz sandbox in which this episode can play. Having sabotaged the episode’s previously scheduled opening act, Bertha Beasley And Her Galloping Geese, Harper shows up to The Muppet Theater to scratch an old song-and-dance itch. But since she’s not “officially” the guest star of the episode, she spends much of her screen time hanging out backstage, interacting with The Muppets in scenic, non-sketch scenarios. (Is this the first episode to use a guest on the dressing room set?) These types of scenes, of course, will become the bread-and-butter of The Muppet Show from its second season on, and its absolutely wonderful to watch the show find its footing with such a talented, funny guest on hand. All that, and she causes Statler to unleash a ridiculous plant-based plague on the whole backstage area.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: The team of Sam The Eagle and Rowlf The Dog isn’t a meeting of polar opposites as, say, Sam The Eagle and Animal might be, but the two characters certainly bring differing sensibilities to their reading of Gilbert And Sullivan’s “Tit-Willow.” Not that clashing personalities are necessary to make this one of Sam’s defining comedic moments; simply making the show’s proud standard-bearer of decorum and decency utter the syllable “tit” is enough to achieve that. A big hats off to Frank Oz for his performance in the segment, seeing as it’s so difficult to pull of this kind of humorous reluctance without appearing dismissive of the material.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: Speaking of which: I’m no great fan of any Muppet News Flash where The Newsman refuses to deliver a story or is stopped by a non-absurd obstacle. “Datelind: Oh… sorry” probably sounded funny in the writers’ room, but the gag bails on the most basic facet of The Newsman’s personality: his commitment to presenting the story, no matter how ridiculous or potentially dangerous it is.
“It’s time to play the music”: Following in line with Harper’s ties to the Great White Way, there’s a theatrical bent to most of the episode’s musical numbers, with the exception of the Leiber And Stoller oldie “Searchin’.” An R&B hit for The Coasters in the late ’50s, The Muppet Show picks up and runs (back and forth, back and forth, and back and forth again) with the sleuthing undercurrent of the song’s lyrics, casting Floyd as a pursuant crooner backed by a pair of quasi-creepy Whatnot detectives. (Those red eyes are never less than quasi-creepy.) Just as the song gets plenty of mileage from the simple pleasures of Jerry Leiber’s playful lyrics and Mike Stoller’s insistent melody, the segment makes great use of a no-frills set, camera movement, and the fact that Mary Louise can pop in and out of frame with the greatest of ease.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: The backstage set is already a stage, so why not use it for Harper’s “Broadway Baby” routine? There’s a moment near the end of the song where the camera pulls back almost far enough to reveal that, yes, we are watching characters on a soundstage, but it’s a moment where artificiality serves the theme of the proceedings.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Having been granted access to the stage during the At The Dance segment of Episode 118, Statler ventures forth from the box to present Harper, the object of his sudden affections, with a voracious African berry bush. The move temporarily reconfigures one of the show’s most essential pairings, and that’s echoed throughout the episode: The aforementioned Sam-Rowlf team-up; Statler mixing it up with fellow curmudgeon George The Janitor; Kermit growing impatient with Statler, a character messing things up who’s not on the frog’s payroll for once. In an episode that plays with the format, The Muppet Show also tests the strength of some previously untested dynamics. (Best bang for the episode’s buck? Dr. Teeth and Mildred during At The Dance, where the latter hilariously addresses the former as “Dr. Tooth.”)
“It all ends in one of two ways”: Before Harper’s arrival, the show goes through some cold open-esque motions, concluding with a confirmation that, yes, every time George turns around, “theres’s somebody blowing his top.”
Episode 121: Twiggy
“With our special guest star”: Appearing on The Muppet Show as she made her first major foray into pop music, British model/actress/vocalist Twiggy (née Lesley Hornby) seems like an odd choice to play Kay Starr to the Hillbilly Singer’s Tennessee Ernie Ford—until you factor in her pair of 1976 pop/country LPs Twiggy and Please Get My Name Right. “The Face of 1966” was always a bigger deal in her home country than anywhere else (in fact, in the German version of this episode, her first musical number was subbed out for an appearance by Deutschland’s own Mary Roos), and Twiggy is ultimately overshadowed in the English-language cut of her episode by another, less attractive presence.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: Episode 121 monkeys with The Muppet Show format to a less successful degree than its immediate predecessor, tacking weird framing devices to the first two Twiggy segments. The second of those segments, “The King’s Breakfast,” would be just fine without its accompanying introduction (Twiggy reading the poems of A.A. Milne to Gonzo and Muppy), as a fantastically staged fairytale scene (with a cameo from a Sesame Street cow and monarchs of Muppet specials past) isn’t out of the realm of Muppet Show possibilities. It’s still good, lyrical fun nonetheless.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: Of course, the press-conference which leads to Twiggy’s rendition of The Beatles’ “In My Life” was necessary to get some Muppet action into the segment, what with director Peter Harris’ baffling decision to shoot the rest of the performance in tight, tight closeup (allowing enough room for superimposed shots from Twiggy’s modeling days, of course). It’s a move borrowed from the visual vocabulary of traditional variety shows that doesn’t fit the needs of this particular variety show.
“It’s time to play the music”: Has anyone done a variation on St. Sander’s brilliant “Shreds” videos with footage of Rowlf playing the piano? Because “Minuet In G Minor” is already halfway to the “virtuosic musician drops the ball” joke of those clips. Further challenge to the makers of future viral videos: Try dubbing the notes Rowlf is actually playing over the video of “Minuet In G Minor.”
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: The early Muppet Show depended on black velvet and bunraku-style puppetry to obscure puppeteers for numbers like Valerie Harper’s appearance with The Clodhopppers—and Episode 121’s “Dance” is a good example of why. It just looks better and more professional than chroma key—though “Dance” clearly calls for a more psychedelic, chroma key-necessitating color palette. Nonetheless, the feathery characters of the segment look much better and livelier against a dark background.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Until Uncle Deadly came to the rescue at the end of 2011’s The Muppets, Jerry Nelson’s reptilian tribute to legendary Hollywood ham John Carradine was one of the Muppet ensemble’s greatest unsung characters. If I had to guess why the character never played a bigger role beyond his scattered appearances on The Muppet Show, I’d say it’s because he’s pretty terrifying. A perfect meeting of characterization and character design (helmed by master Muppet designer Michael K. Frith) Uncle Deadly is a lot of good, creepy fun—once you can move beyond the images of him skulking around the episode which gives the character his name. And besides, his haunting of The Muppet Theater is motivated by every performer’s basic desire: He just wants the audience to love him. And after saving said theater in The Muppets, maybe he’ll finally receive the admiration he deserves.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: What does “The Phantom of The Muppet Show” actually manage to halt? Any segment that would’ve ended in an explosion or one character eating another.