In order for The Muppet Show to move forward in its second season, it must also reach backward. In this week’s episodes, we see some of The Muppet Show’s more direct homages to its precursors in the vaudeville and music hall traditions. They’re not emptily nostalgic gestures toward the past—at least when Milton “Mr. Television” Berle isn’t leaning on Rowlf’s piano—but rather sincere acknowledgements of the performers and forms that paved the way for, say, The Great Gonzo and his amazing dancing chicken.
The higher profile of the series’ second season meant it could actually book some of those performers on the show, icons of stage, radio, and screen like Berle, Edgar Bergen, George Burns, and Bob Hope. The admiration for these guests is palpable and infectious (just try not to well up when Fozzie Bear finally summons the nerve to approach his hero Berle)—but never sycophantic. Because while The Muppet Show knows its roots, it’s never afraid to razz those roots—or, you know, run ’em through the Statler-and-Waldorf ringer.
Episode 203: Milton Berle
“With our special guest star”: Just as Jim Henson re-imagined puppetry for the television age, Milton Berle had a major hand in bringing the comedy honed in vaudeville and burlesque halls to the small screen. His contributions to the medium are given largely reverent treatment here—“Largely” because he takes a beating from Stalter and Waldorf—but there was clearly a lot of respect for Berle in The Muppet Show writers’ room. The writers channel that respect through Fozzie’s fawning runner, and in spite of Berle’s pompous onscreen persona, that admiration comes across natural and charming.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: Statler and Waldorf are allowed to be considerably meaner to the guest stars than they are to Fozzie Bear—and they tear into Berle in this episode. Uncle Miltie’s ego may precede him, but The Muppets can (hilariously) reduce even the biggest stars to the state Berle is in when Gonzo asks “Can I help you out?” A perfectly paced, well-written exchange, Berle’s comedy spot is also the first time Statler and Waldorf are truly laugh-out-loud funny; it helps when they bring out the sharper cutlery.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: Berle was banned from Saturday Night Live after an infamous appearance in 1979. Rumor has it was his syrupy rendition of “September Song” (and the pre-arranged standing ovation that followed) that did him in—but The Muppet Show is more indulgent of Berle’s sentimental streak. (It probably helps that Berle’s dick saw less of Elstree Studios than it would of 30 Rockefeller Plaza a few years later.) That doesn’t mean the mawkishness of his spoken-word verses on “The Entertainer” are any more tolerable, though. There’s a nostalgic vibe hovering around Berle for the whole episode, but this is the only point where the proceedings tip into outright, “good ol’ days” pandering.
“It’s time to play the music”: Miss Piggy’s subsequent run through that old Scott Joplin rag, however, plays things just right. Inverting the forthrightness Mr. Television gives the song, Piggy goes over the top (and then some) with it, with Frank Oz putting the character through ridiculous paces like playing Rowlf’s piano with the back of her head. Quoth the dog: “She’s a born ham.”
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: The simple staging of the monster-filled “Ugly Song” is given some added pizazz through the simplest of Muppet tricks: When the segment needs to transition into the next verse, Oz’s crocodile or Jim Henson’s warthog gobbles down the camera—which then pulls out of Mean Mama’s mouth.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: “Pigs In Space” doesn’t stick the landing on its first time out—the punchline with Gonzo’s motorcyle is weak; Dr. Strangepork needs to lose a few marbles—but it’s awfully nice to see Link Hogthrob show up. Link’s an underrated Henson character, a prima donna whose voice was apparently a variation on the tone his puppeteer affected when undertaking fatherly duties. He’s well-suited as the William Shatner stand-in on the Swine Trek, and with such a high regard for himself, it’s only appropriate he makes his Muppet Show debut in the same episode as Milton Berle.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: The eat-edit is utilized three times during “Ugly Song”—the last time, fittingly, at the end of the segment.
Episode 204: Rich Little
“With our special guest star”: The Muppet Show does a lot to accommodate Rich Little’s impressionist schtick—and even if you don’t find his “man of many voices” stylings funny, it’s cool to see the stage door of The Muppet Theater in that press-conference segment, right? Little’s talents are paradoxically freeing and limiting for the show, as they allow for the illusion of many “guests” in a single episode—but those guests are confined to recreations of their most recognizable scenes, sayings, and attributes. While Little’s Muppet impressions are the flimsiest in his tool belt, the segment where he mimics Fozzie, Kermit, Statler, and Piggy at least has an air of unpredictability.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: After spending much of the episode auditioning hopefuls for his new dancing-chicken act, Gonzo brings the pick of the farmyard, Lolita, to the stage for a masterpiece of Muppet anti-humor. At this point, there’s no expectation for a Gonzo act to be successful, but this one fails in spectacular fashion, with the chicken standing stock-still while the cameras cut from one dynamic angle to another—as if Lolita is actually dancing. Kudos to Dave Goelz, who improvises nicely alongside the hen, underlining Lolita’s immobility with Gonzo’s newly articulated eyelids—and, at one point, hilariously nodding the puppet’s head just out of the shot, so all you can see is his nose moving in and out of the frame.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: Gonzo’s non-spectacle is a necessary contrast to the big production number that concludes the episode, where Little—as Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Maurice Chevalier—reenacts famous musical moments with Muppet accompaniment. It’s the apotheosis of the impressionist’s “Hey, remember this?” stylings—impressive, but only entertaining if you discount, say, Kelly’s eventual season-five appearance on The Muppet Show.
“It’s time to play the music”: The song “Glow Worm” may be incidental to the classic “Inchworm” sketch—it wasn’t always the musical accompaniment to the segment—but its carefree melody is essential to the big surprise that comes after the third worm arrives at Lenny The Lizard’s side. (I assume Lenny is subbed in for Kermit due to the change in the frog’s disposition between “Inchworm”’s 1960s variety-circuit performances and the debut of this episode.) It’s a simple choice, but a wise one.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: Several never-before-seen corners of The Muppet Theater are glanced in this episode, including the stage door and the prop room. The latter necessitates some raised staging to put Gonzo on the same surface as the auditioning chickens, a style of staging that’s utilized later for the UK Spot, “The Boy In The Gallery.” In a gorgeous shot that plays up the grande old accoutrements of the theater, Piggy, Rowlf, and the whole stage and orchestra pit are captured in a wide shot. It’s a bird’s-eye view achieved through the type of staging illusions that’ll eventually allow The Muppets to break out of the theater and into the real world in The Muppet Show.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: We get a good, long look at the new Gonzo in this episode—and in addition to the cosmetic work he received between seasons, there’s a noticeable difference in his attitude. Gonzo’s default setting in the first season was one of condescension and spleen; but when his chicken-dancing routine goes south in Episode 204, the character is ecstatic. He’s more relatable and funny in this mode, and on his way toward joining the upper ranks of the Muppet troupe.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: Crazy Harry turns up to make a wonderfully anarchic, patiently escalated mess of “Chanson D’Amour,” then sticks around to bring At The Dance to a close. In an episode that fills out some missing architectural details about The Muppet Theater, Harry illustrates the quickest way out of the ballroom: “Through the roof!”