Of the 24 guest stars featured during The Muppet Show’s second season, eight would eventually join The Muppets on the big screen: seven (Milton Berle, Edgar Bergen, Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn, Dom DeLuise, Bob Hope, and Cloris Leachman) in The Muppet Movie and one (John Cleese) in The Great Muppet Caper. I bring this up not only because that count includes both of this week’s guest stars—it’s also a sign of the clout The Muppet Show acquired in its second season that an old pro like Bergen and an-of-the-moment star like Martin would agree to spend so much time among the frogs, pigs, and monsters.
It’s also a sign that, for The Muppets’ unique voice and all the difficulties Jim Henson had in finding a regular television home for his characters, The Muppet Show earned those characters their place as peers with some of the most important figures of 20th century popular culture. The Muppet Show has its own, skewed take on the showbiz world, but it’s one that meshes nicely with that of Bergen, Martin, and the guests of the series’ other standout episodes. It was both of a piece with pop culture and operated within its own niche—an insider spoof on the vagaries of the entertainment industry that the whole family could enjoy. I’ve written before that The Muppets, as characters, operated best as outsiders, but if it wasn’t for various connections formed before or after The Muppet Show was in production, Kermit The Frog wouldn’t have appeared in movie theaters alongside Charlie McCarthy—or eventually share Charlie’s digs at the Smithsonian.
Episode 207: Edgar Bergen
“With our special guest star”: Even if Edgar Bergen hadn’t appeared in The Muppet Movie, Jim Henson would’ve likely dedicated the film to the ventriloquist’s memory. Since his days on the vaudeville circuit, Bergen essentially performed a one-man, two-puppet version of The Muppet Show, playing setup man to sardonic, pint-sized aristocrat Charlie McCarthy and his rural companion, the affable rube Mortimer Snerd. Henson and Bergen held each other’s work in high esteem, so it’s only natural that Bergen, Charlie, and Mortimer would make it to The Muppet Show. Episode 207 features some lighthearted jabs at Bergen’s technique—the illusion of ventriloquism tends to fall apart when the ventriloquist’s in a tight close-up—but those come from Charlie’s wooden lips. Otherwise, the guests are treated with the same type of reverence the show gave Milton Berle a few weeks back, rolling out the red carpet and the Lionel Bart show tunes to pay tribute to a performer who helped carve a space for The Muppets on TV and film.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: As the member of the Muppet troupe with the closest ties to vaudeville and burlesque, Fozzie Bear once more inspired by an old pro to add something new to his act. The bear uses his traditional comedy spot to debut his variation on Charlie McCarthy—a be-monocled bear named Chuckie—but gets stuck when the dummy doesn’t talk back. True to Frank Oz’s sunnier approach to the character in season two, Fozzie plugs right along, eventually shaking Chuckie to pieces when he won’t deliver the punchlines to Fozzie’s hoary setups. (The segment’s button: The dummy didn’t feel like talking because he wasn’t with a lady last night.) I love, love, love this refreshed take on Fozzie—he’s still flappable, but his faith in the act has more comedic mileage than any of the winging and discouragement he displayed in the first season. In other words, the bear’s no dummy.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: Both of this week’s episode are unimpeachable, so finding any faults amounts to nitpicking. On a technical level, acknowledging the fact that Bergen (for all his comedic abilities and skill at bringing Charlie and Mortimer to life) isn’t the most technically adept ventriloquist doesn’t distract from the fact that his lips are always moving. With a few episode’s experience in keeping puppeteers out of the shot, director Philip Casson does a good job of maintaining focus on the puppets when he can—but in the closing segment, it’s hard not to feel like the magic of Bergen’s act was communicated best on the radio or on stage. (You know, where it was harder to figure out why Charlie was chastising his creator for flapping his gums.)
“It’s time to play the music”: Here’s a chicken or the egg scenario: In early 1977, Ray Stevens—under the pseudonym The Henhouse Five Plus Too—entered the Billboard charts with a cover of “In The Mood,” one of the most obnoxious/stupidly genius novelty records in Stevens’ long, occasionally racist career. The joke of the recording, of course, is that the “instruments” are just Stevens clucking like a chicken to the tune of the Glenn Miller standard—an awful lot like how the Muppet chickens perform “Baby Face” in this episode. Is it possible Henson, Jerry Juhl, and company conceived of this segment before Stevens released his “In The Mood”? Maybe, but it doesn’t really matter—“Baby Face” has the advantage of visuals, including the rib-tickling sight of T.R. Rooster conducting the barnyard orchestra.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: “Time In A Bottle” is a poignant tune (made all the more poignant by the fact that it was a posthumous hit for singer-songwriter Jim Croce) whose spirits are lifted with a fun Muppet treatment in Episode 207. The scientist singing the song regresses in age through simple camera tricks, so it’s a combined effort by the puppet builders and Henson (whose vocals modulate with each variation of the scientist while still retaining the same basic, nasally qualities) to fully sell the transformation.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Before 2011’s The Muppets, Rowlf The Dog took on a reduced role in post-Henson Muppet projects, partially in tribute to his creator and partially because no one in the main stable of Muppeteers was right for the part. Rowlf is one of the most prominently featured characters on The Muppet Show, but even in the second season, his featured spots are scaled back from what they were during those heady Jimmy Dean Show days, when Rowlf was the star of Henson’s ensemble. Outside of Veterinarian’s Hospital, he’s mostly confined to solo segments like this half-hour’s “Show Me A Rose”—lightly comedic musical spots that gloss over the spark the character created in his previous puppet-human interactions. (I found his duet with Judy Collins last week refreshing for these reasons, but didn’t have the space to comment on it—so I’m doing so now.) It’s not like the characters that supersede him don’t deserve it—but Rowlf probably deserved better. (For what it’s worth, he does sing one of Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher’s catchiest numbers for The Muppet Movie, “I Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along”—though he has to share it with Kermit.)
“It all ends in one of two ways”: Charlie and Mortimer avoid the termites that have almost assuredly taken up residence somewhere in the Muppet Theater, leaving a pair of explosions—one from Gonzo’s trumpet, the other at the end of “Time In A Bottle”—to pick up the slack in this category.
Episode 208: Steve Martin
“With our special guest star”: This is a difficult statement to make without stepping on a few of Noel Murray’s toes, but: Steve Martin and The Muppets make a great pairing because theirs is a comedy of expectations. The Muppet Show regularly trots out acts that are destined to fail—yet, through a combination of gumption and great writing, are more charming and entertaining than any straightforward variety show act. Steve Martin’s standup persona worked on a similar level, tweaking tired showbiz tropes into a singular, sublimely silly body of work. Episode 208 is all about subverting expectations, with the format of the typical Muppet Show reconfigured as a series of “auditions,” supplemented by some well-honed bits from Martin’s road act. The beginning of the episode lowers the bar considerably—and then Martin and The Muppets soar over it, as if fired from the Zucchini Brothers’ cannon.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: Martin has stated a few reasons for leaving standup behind, one being his audience’s over-familiarity with the material. Of course, the more familiar with his stuff you are, the funnier its phoniness is, and none of Martin’s standup spots on The Muppet Show feel as run-through and fake as his “balloon animals” bit, a dumb party trick that once entertained thousands of people at a time. The intimate nature of the performance is enviable—here’s the premier standup of the day doing his best stuff for a handful of puppeteers, crew members, and stage hands—though, with the avenging “adult” balloon that puts a button on the segment, it’s not a strict translation of the original routine. And then there’s that intro, which gets me every damn time: “Sure he’s great, but can he make… balloon animals?” It’s all the better for having being posed to every hockey barn and amphitheater between the Pacific and Atlantic.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: If I was grading these episodes, this one would get the first “A.” For an episode where everything on stage is positioned as a dud (to some extent) none of them truly are.
“It’s time to play the music”: Marvin Suggs makes his triumphant return in Episode 208, leaving the Muppaphone at home to audition his “All-Food Glee Club.” This marks the first appearance of the talking foodstuffs who’ll recur throughout The Muppet Show’s run, so it’s funny to note that their origins are based in either the lyrics to “Yes, We Have No Bananas” or one of the culinary puns the writers placed between the song’s verses. And, naturally, the glee club’s vocals sounds good enough to eat.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: The “cancelled show” setup presents a unique dilemma to the series, as its laugh track is essential to creating the perception that there’s a live audience in The Muppet Theater. It would be too jarring to omit the laugh track, and it’d destroy the show’s reality to include one, so The Muppet Show team arrived at a simple solution: Let the cast provide the laughter. There are, nonetheless, conflicting reports about how much of that laughter was left in the final cut—according to Muppet Wiki, the volume of Richard Hunt’s laugh was so overpowering, it had to be dubbed over.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: The characters on The Muppet Show all suffer from a shared anxiety about being fired or replaced, and the auditions are a great way of mining those emotions for comedy. As Kermit tells a nervous Fozzie, “It’s very healthy to see what other people in your field are doing”—but the frog, the bear, and Miss Piggy each react negatively to acts that could threaten to fill their roles in future shows. Fozzie’s reaction to ersatz Muppet emcee Lenny The Lizard comes from a sarcastic side of the character I wish we could see more of: “Yeah, you really must feel enriched, Kermit.”
“It all ends in one of two ways”: In Episode 208, a Vaudevillian cane joins “eating” and “explosions” in the pantheon of abrupt Muppet Show endings (“rebellious scenery” has earned in its place there as well, I suppose), but The Flying Zucchini Brothers’ temperamental cannon lets off a final “bang” to close Martin’s take on “Dueling Banjos.”