“Puns are the lowest and most groveling form of wit.”—John Dryden
“It’s my new act! Gonzo fiddles while George Burns!” “I like that joke. It’s a pleasure to hear something older than I am.”—Gonzo The Great and George Burns
Wordplay is essential to The Muppet Show’s sense of humor. It drives recurring like Veterinarian’s Hospital and At The Dance and forms the bedrock of Statler And Waldorf’s heckling. It’s an old-fashioned comedic device that sits well with Jim Henson’s vision for his characters’ breakout TV vehicle: Brushed off for years as being too weird and unsophisticated for primetime, The Muppet Show dressed (sometimes literally) Kermit The Frog and company in the rags of outdated, populist entertainments like vaudeville and music hall. And holding true to Dryden’s haughty, oft-paraphrased observation, puns and plays on words are essential to these art forms as well, be it in the punchlines of a vaudevillian comedy duos (or their radio and television successors: “Say good night, Dick.” “Good night, Dick!”) or an unexpected twist in the verses of a song like “The Pig Got Up And Slowly Walked Away,” performed by Fozzie Bear in the first of this week’s two Muppet Show episodes.
But the show has its own way of wringing sophistication from the unsophisticated. There’s a knowing element to the way Jerry Juhl and The Muppet Show writers deploy wordplay in this second season, often going for the dumbest, most obvious joke, but choosing to deploy it with a Max Brothers/Mel Brooks-style waggle of the eyebrows. There are countless variations on “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas” laced throughout The Muppet Show’s run, and the good ones—like the telephone gags in Episode 210’s episode of Veterinarian’s Hospital—have the strength to acknowledge their terribleness without apology. Above all, wordplay is fun—it has the “play” right in there—and much of the infectiousness of a good Muppet sketch is in the way you can tell the performers are enjoying themselves below the frame. So, sure, punning may not be the most noble way to get a laugh—but if you do it right, it’s the easiest way to share one.
Episode 209: Madeline Kahn
“With our special guest star”: The late Madeline Kahn is one of many Mel Brooks regulars (Brooks included) who effortlessly blended into the The Muppets’ world—so much so that she inspires a fiery passion in Gonzo, whose crush objects typically have feathers or a snout. She even fills in for a Muppet in the “Happy Girl Meets A Monster” sketch, an updated and upgraded take on one of Henson’s old Ed Sullivan Show routines. It’s also a treat to see a performer with such a gift for playing high-strung characters act so down-to-Earth in the backstage scenes. So many guests only play to one of their strengths on the show, but Kahn is allowed to display her full range here.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: Kahn’s fantastic, but all of her scenes are eclipsed by The Swedish Chef segment, which is one of the character’s weirdest, funniest Muppet Show moments. The Chef’s ingredients have fought back before, but none summoned backup as intimidating as the lobster banditos that save their crustacean kin from The Chef’s boiling pot. The segment escalates rapidly, and it’s all the funnier for providing no explanation as to why or how our Scandinavian cookie’s latest endeavor caused an international incident.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: One thing that still needs figuring out is Statler and Waldorf’s interjections during the theme song. They’re never the duo’s best material, and they totally derail the song’s momentum. Unfortunately, this problem won’t be solved until the old coots are given their own verse in season five.
“It’s time to play the music”: With two feet-centric musical numbers at the top of the show—“Happy Feet” and the curiously origin-less (maybe it’s an original?) “Feet”/“Forget Your Feet”—I’m going to go out on a limb and call this Quentin Tarantino’s favorite episode of The Muppet Show. (The attractive ’70s film actress at the episode’s center probably shores up that claim.) The latter number gets exaggeratedly physical, to a point that must’ve made a tongue-twisting song all the more difficult to sing. Kahn keeps her composure for the most part, though she has to stop and laugh (laughs which were assumedly re-created for the audio recording of her performance) a couple of times.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: There are two highlight-reel/greatest-hits-worthy segments in this episode: The Swedish Chef vs. The Lobster Banditos and Kermit’s rendition of “Happy Feet.” An aspect of “Happy Feet” that’s waved away by Jim Henson’s energetic puppetry: Neither Kermit’s legs nor his feet are shown while the frog is “tap dancing”—it’s all a suggestion by way of the Muppeteer’s hands. I’ve lavished praise on Frank Oz and Dave Goelz’s skills at manipulating their characters, but “Happy Feet” is the type of routine that serves as a reminder that Henson was the Muppet master.It’s a brilliant solo showcase for the performer and his onscreen alter ego, the latter of whom so rarely gets the chance to cut this loose.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Gonzo’s less of a sad sack in the second season, but he’s still loaded with pathos. His crush on Kahn is just another example of the character’s boundless enthusiasm leading to devastating disappointment—but for the first time, we get to see how deeply that disappointment affects Gonzo. Paul Tracey’s “Wishing Song” gives Dave Goelz a dry run for the Muppet Movie tearjerker “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday,” but Gonzo’s perked up in time for curtain call, signature “Whoosh!” and all.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: The best Muppet explosions catch characters in mid-sentence; there’s two such explosions in this episode: The flash that interrupts The Newsman in the middle of his report on exploding news anchors, which is followed by Doglion’s assault on the bird Kahn spots in “Happy Girl Meets A Monster.”
Episode 210: George Burns
“With our special guest star”: George Burns probably didn’t need to do The Muppet Show: In 1977, he was a well-established showbiz pro enjoying a surprising late-career surge thanks to high-profile film roles in The Sunshine Boys and Oh, God! Additionally, he was 81 years old at the time, well past the point any respectable person would be caught chatting with puppets. But Burns was a pro—and a game Muppet Show guest, too, albeit one who was allowed to do all his scenes either sitting down or standing by Rowlf’s piano. Burns’ onscreen presence is canny, but without pretense, and he extends the Muppets the same courtesy he would any other performing partners. In fact, he and Gonzo get into a back-and-forth patterned after the type of routines Burns did with his late wife Gracie Allen, to whom Burns gives a heartwarming acknowledgement—before Gonzo mistakes it for an allusion to Burns’ Sunshine Boys costar, Walter Matthau.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: The episode’s closing number is the type of “gather ’round the piano” segment that typically makes me break out in hives, but the dynamic between Burns and Gonzo elevates the medley of “It All Depends On You” and “You Made Me Love You.” While Burns conducts a call-and-response routine with his Muppet chorus, Gonzo drills a hole in the setup by routinely reciting the “I didn’t want to do it” refrain from the second song, his nose obviously deep in a crib sheet. The joke punctures the austerity of these types of setups, as does Burns’ affability in the conductor role.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: The Muppet Show’s hot streak continues to eschew flat punchlines and airless musical segments, so this category is once again proving to be a challenge. Here’s a nitpick: A couple of Gonzo-heavy episodes lead to an unfortunate lack of Fozzie Bear.
“It’s time to play the music”: The middle of the episode shines with a pair of numbers that call back to Burns and Allen’s radio days: “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” and “I Won’t Dance.” The segments showcase the series’ diverging interests: “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” is abbreviated in service of a season-one-style gag (the assembled crooners are chased from Track 29 by the titular train), whereas “I Won’t Dance” is a relationship-based scene that plays on Kermit and Miss Piggy’s game of romantic cat-and-mouse. They’re both well-paced and well-staged, but “I Won’t Dance” benefits from having a pre-established screwball couple step into the Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger roles.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”makes the most of what, for the purposes of this review, we’ll call “Fighting The Scarecrow.” Like Bus Driver Stu Benedict’s backgrounded rumble with a scarecrow in The Adventures Of Pete And Pete’s “Yellow Fever,” the “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” train is initially set so deep in the frame, you might not notice it until the characters do. It’s a great method for establishing a slow-burning visual joke.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: The Muppet Show’s experiment in introducing meddling, irritating characters follows up the arrival of J.P. Grosse with the first appearance of gossip columnist Fleet Scribbler. The concept of loosing a nosy reporter in the backstage area has a lot of comedic potential, and Fleet’s ability to twist any statement into an incriminating headline makes good on that potential. He’s not as outright adversarial as Grosse, either, but his needling presence—and the prickliness he inspires in the guest star—point toward the character’s early retirement. (At least he appears to have provided an early prototype for the Fraggles—or the color scheme for Mokey, at least.)
“It all ends in one of two ways”: The Luncheon Counter Monster takes the place of his partner in voraciousness, Cookie Monster, in the classic “Coffee Break Machine” sketch. The sketch provides a two-for-one Henson ending: After the monster has devoured the entire machine, he blows up.