Adjectives like “inventive” and “imaginative” are frequently associated with Jim Henson, but he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for being pragmatic as well. Henson’s was a rare mix of creative talent and business savvy, and in his early days, the need to satisfy his muse wasn’t the only impulse driving his work.
Take, for instance, the fact that Henson initially took up puppetry just to get a television gig. Sure, he’d been influenced by the radio work of master ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, but it’s the arrival of the Henson family’s first television, not a particularly memorable Charlie McCarthy routine, that Henson later called the biggest event of his adolescence. Of course, Henson’s interest in the works of Bergen, Burr Tillstrom, and Bil and Cora Baird would lead him to invest more and more of his energy into puppeteering, and as he worked toward adapting the ancient art form for the emerging medium of television, he studied its history and attended conferences and festivals for puppeteers—events that eventually put him into contact with future colleagues like Frank Oz and Caroll Spinney.
But in terms of reaching new audiences and advancing the art of puppetry, however, such events had a limited influence. Not so with Henson’s preferred medium. A year before he was approached by the Children’s Television Workshop to help teach basic counting and reading skills through public television, Henson, Oz, Jerry Juhl, and Don Sahlin used the fledging National Entertainment Television network (the precursor to PBS) as a platform for puppetry appreciation on a grand scale—and to put in a few less-than-subtle plugs for The Muppets.
Produced in 1968 by the NET affiliate in Hershey, Pennsylvania, The Muppets On Puppets is a curious mixture of history lesson, product demonstration, and how-to program. It’s an intermittently entertaining hour of television that offers a glimpse at a different approach to The Muppets’ educational side, and a forerunner to the 1985 miniseries Jim Henson Presents The World Of Puppetry. While it’s not one of the most thrilling pieces of archival Muppet video, The Muppets On Puppets is noteworthy for the way it exposes certain aspects of the Muppet creative process: The brief history of puppetry shows different puppet-building elements that Muppets, Inc. eventually incorporated into its own designs; a brief fairytale sketch is followed by behind-the-scenes footage that shows what’s going on below the frame during any given Muppet performance; a segment on puppet construction and performance with Henson, Oz, and Sahlin displays the versatility of Sahlin’s designs and breadth of Henson’s vocal range. And for all its dry recitations of puppet history and step-by-step guides to building puppets at home, the special is still imbued with the anarchic spirit of a traditional Muppet production, as seen in the destructive cameos by the full-costume monster Splurge.
Three additional specials along the lines of The Muppets On Puppets were eventually produced for NET; there’s a 15-minute excerpt from The Muppets Make Puppets currently streaming on YouTube. A spin-off, The World Of The Muppets, was proposed in 1970, but never came to fruition. By then, of course, The Muppets were appearing daily on NET thanks to Sesame Street. Not that this distracted Henson from his interest in exposing a mass audience to different forms of puppetry. In fact, when The Muppets secured their first worldwide stage, he even found a way to (somewhat awkwardly) display the talents of one of The World Of Puppetry’s future stars. Not bad for a performer who picked up puppeteering as a means to an end.
Episode 122: Ethel Merman
“With our special guest star”: Two years shy of 70 (and three years shy of releasing The Ethel Merman Disco Album), legendary Broadway performer Ethel Merman treads the boards of The Muppet Theater very, very lightly. This is the Broadway dynamo years past her prime, and while she’s flexing her vocal muscles all over the episode, she does so mostly while sitting down. By this point in her career, she’d earn the right to take a load off, but it’s somewhat dispiriting to see her do so much musical heavy lifting while barely engaging physically with The Muppets. Perhaps she was conserving energy for her Airplane! cameo?
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: Emboldened by his hot-tempered, short-statured agent Irving Bizarre (Jerry Nelson making the most out of a silk top hat and a tiny pair of shoes), Fozzie goes out to knock the audience dead—but instead drives them from their seats. Stand-up comedy’s a difficult game, and more popular comics than Fozzie have completely lost their shit and alienated the audience. The difference between, say, the average onstage meltdown and Fozzie’s is that Fozzie’s is actually funny.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: I appreciate the artistry and humor of Richard Bradshaw’s shadow puppets. Jim Henson obviously did to, affording Bradshaw a guest shot here and a full episode The World Of Puppetry. But the misadventures of Bradshaw’s ostrich, mouse, and hippopotamus disrupt the flow of this episode—and they feel incomplete without a third beat. Later episodes of The Muppet Show would provide better showcases for different forms of puppetry—as it’s utilized here, Bradshaw’s sketch seems like its beamed in from a different variety show.
“It’s time to play the music”: “Java” is the last “classic” Muppet sketch to be re-staged for the first season. Unlike “Mahna Mahna” or “Hugga Wugga,” the musical element of the sketch is strictly instrumental, and the puppet choreography is such a delightful translation of trumpeter Al Hirt’s alternately slinky and jaunty reading of the Allen Toussaint composition. Of course, the way The Muppet Show arrangement apes Hirt’s bombastic playing, it’s no surprise the sketch ends the way it does. But even if you’ve seen it dozens of times, it never fails to amuse.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: In a more elegant use of chroma key than that seen in last week’s “Dance,” Statler and Waldorf look on in rapt amazement as Miss Mousey emerges from Waldorf’s tea cup during “Don’t Sugar Me.” It’s a pretty good job considering Henson and Richard Hunt are just directing their characters’ attentions at thin air.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: It’s a shame this episode marks the only appearance of Irving Bizarre. He’s a fun bit player and a vessel well-suited for showbiz satire. (And a good prompt for Merman’s signature number, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” to boot.) Though his run on The Muppet Show was cut short, the memory of Bizarre lives on thanks to this recent Threadless T-shirt design.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: “Java”—and The Muppets’ reputation for pyrotechnics in general—preps Merman to expect an exploding bouquet from Miss Piggy. The pig, however, is the only one with the short fuse.
Episode 123: Kaye Ballard
“With our special guest star”: In light of Valerie Harper’s appearance from last week, it’s a bummer the rest of season one doesn’t integrate its guest stars into the proceedings as well as Episode 120. I imagine actress/vocalist/one-time Spike Jones associate Kaye Ballard would’ve thrown herself into her episode’s “orchestra on strike” runner with gusto—but that subplot manages to overshadow the guest star. The musicians’ revolt is temporarily halted for Ballard’s closing number, which turns into a diva-off with Miss Piggy. Unfortunately, she’s too affable a presence to be a suitable sparring partner for Frank Oz’s prize swine.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: However, the protest over the “embarrassingly square” nature of The Muppet Show’s theme song is the kind of runner that might overshadow even the most game of guests. Starting with Floyd sowing the seeds of discontent and ending with a solo version of the theme played by Rowlf, the beats of the musicians’ strike are meted out perfectly, and there’s never a sense that the writers are simply leaning on easy jokes about anti-establishment types. It helps that many of the behind-the-scenes figures at The Muppet Show were themselves integrity-worshiping creatives, which doesn’t necessarily gibe with some of the more old-fashioned aspects of the show. This is just one way to work out that cognitive dissonance without forcing anyone to “beat feet.”
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: “Life Gets Teejus, Don’t It” is not without its charms—I’m a big fan of any segment that gives work to the expertly sculpted Muppet hound Rover Joe—but it’s also just a literal translation of an old novelty record. Not the biggest stretch of the imagination.
“It’s time to play the music”: Floyd’s new theme song, “Fugue For Frog,” is a killer Frank Zappa parody that, for all its atonal blurting, sounds pretty good. (This is not to be read as an endorsement of Frank Zappa.)
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: Frank Oz is the most gifted pure puppeteer among the core Muppet performers—for further reference, check out his Muppets On Puppets sketch, “The Sunday Painter”—and he’s particularly proficient with gangly puppets like Animal and the Country Trio bassist. Half the rollicking energy of the trio’s “In The Summertime” comes from Oz’s character bouncing around in the background.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Floyd Pepper’s role on The Muppet Show is nowhere near as prominent as it would’ve been if the show followed in the mold of the Sex And Violence pilot. He’s a constant presence in the pilot’s conference room, though he’s there mostly to act as the blissed-out foil to Sam The Eagle and Floyd’s future musical nemesis, Nigel. Episode 123 gives Floyd more shading, with his many backstage appearances affording use of the character’s funniest, counterculture-indebted characteristic: His R. Crumb-inspired “Keep On Truckin’” strut.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: With Crazy Harry assumedly taking part in the strike, explosions are limited to the episode’s opening. Let’s just assume this repeated gong gag is Harry’s way of airing his grievances with the theme song.
The next two weeks: On Jan. 31, the avant-garde miming of Mummenschanz brings the first season of The Muppet Show to an appropriately bizarre conclusion. A week later, we’ll take a pre-hiatus look show as it could’ve been, through the lens of The Muppet Show: Sex And Violence and The Muppets Valentine Show.