“Last week I was dancing with Natalia Makarova. Today I’m in a steam room with a lady pig.”—Rudolf Nureyev, The Muppet Show
One of the greatest struggles in getting The Muppet Show off the ground involved finding noteworthy talent willing to spend a few days talking (and singing and dancing) with the animals (and monsters and weirdos). Lew Grade and Jim Henson relied on personal connections and showbiz acquaintances to fill out the guest roster for the series’ first season, but, as the story goes, it became increasingly easier to book guests after renowned ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev accepted an invitation to appear in the thirteenth-produced episode of The Muppet Show’s second season.
It’s difficult to track down the origin of this particular factoid; the one direct source I’m aware of is Christopher Finch’s coffee-table book/Henson biography Jim Henson: The Works, which makes a brief mention of the buzz Nureyev’s booking generated—and the interest that followed it. Of course, it’s a piece of Muppet trivia that’s been repeated so often, it’s become an accepted truth. It helps that it’s a great story, even if there isn’t a lot to it: The Muppet Show received its greatest publicity push not from a showbiz icon like George Burns or a white-hot comedic talent like Steve Martin, but rather an internationally recognized dancer. (Given The Muppet Show’s global appeal, I’m guessing the fact that you don’t need to speak English to appreciate the comedy of “Swine Lake” factored into the episode’s increased visibility.)
The legend of Nureyev’s Muppet Show appearance would be nothing without a great half-hour of TV to back it up: Episode 213 plays up the inherently bizarre scenario of a highbrow figure like Nureyev visiting The Muppets at every turn, having him show up to the gig in his street clothes and casting the guest in decidedly unpretentious (and downright campy) numbers like his spin through “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Miss Piggy. In the end, the effect of Nureyev’s guest shot has less to do with him “elevating” The Muppet Show, and more to do with The Muppet Show rising to meet Nureyev in its own, inimitable way. I imagine a lot of previously skeptical viewers tuned in with Sam The Eagle-like expectations for the episode, and were hopefully enlightened enough to be tickled by the way The Muppet Show refused to be the puppet show propped up by the visiting dignitary of class and culture.
Episode 213: Rudolf Nureyev
“With our special guest star”: Rudolf Nureyev is the type of Muppet Show guest who’s so evidently having a good time on the show that some of the lacking elements of his performance can be excused. For instance, there’s a tentativeness to his line readings and vocals on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “Top Hat, White Tie And Tails”—though that can be chalked up to Nureyev’s being a ballet dancer who spoke English as a second language. But he gets tremendous support from all aspects of the episode—everything’s tailored to his appearance, down to the floral arrangements and opera glasses backstage—and even the most off-kilter moments of the episode are elevated by the sheer strangeness of his booking.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: The episode’s most sturdy bridge between the highbrow and the lowbrow occurs during “Swine Lake,” a pas de deux from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake that quickly turns slapstick with the appearance of Rudolf Nureyev’s porcine partner. (He’d requested a dance with Miss Piggy, but as that proved impossible to stage, a full-body Muppet was created as a replacement.) Nureyev gets a chance to display the talents that got him the gig, but it’s his face that truly nails the comedy of the piece; his grimaces at the Ballerina Pig express as much as his dancing. Those close-up moments lessen the strain of what must’ve been a physically trying segment, what with all the cuts required for the high tosses and the few measures where the pig puppet—sans performer Graham Fletcher—is tied to Nureyev’s feet.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: If there’s one way to increase the creep quotient of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” it’s setting it in a steam room. Rudolf Nureyev and Miss Piggy’s duet on the most predatory song to become a Yuletide standard is this episode’s semi-subversive camp moment, but the way that Piggy nearly disrobes the guest star sets my skin crawling. It’s not bad by any measure—it’s just hard to watch.
“It’s time to play the music”: We’ve seen The Electric Mayhem attempt to restrain itself in previous episodes, but if Chopin couldn’t get the band to stifle its need to rock in Episode 202, Luigi Boccherini’s “Minuet In A Minor” ain’t going to do it either. Sam’s call for dignity (actually followed, for once) allowed The Muppet Show writers to pair a few classical numbers with undignified gags: In addition to Boccherini and Tchaikovsky, Mozart is undone by proud stage hogs Miss Piggy and Link Hogthrob, while Fozzie blow torches Debussy in an attempt to add some further class to Rowlf’s run through “Clair De Lune.” It’s an old, easy joke, but each segment presents its own spin on it.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: In an episode with a minimal amount of flash, a majority of the camera tricks and playful puppet construction are channeled through a single segment: the UK Spot “Something’s Missing.” But even the set dressing—with its headless bust and spout-less teapot—and Jerry Nelson’s half-complete Whatnot are underplayed, used in service of a droll Paul Tracey song given surprising depth by Nelson’s vocals.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Sam The Eagle’s not just a pompous scold—as seen in Episode 213, he’s also a poseur. That’s a fun angle for the character to play, and Frank Oz throws additional misplaced pride behind Sam’s declaration that Rudolf Nureyev is the eagle’s “favorite opera singer.” Of course, he can’t even identify Nureyev by sight, and Sam has his bubble burst for the second time in one night after Kermit informs him that the “hippie” he’s just chased out the door is in fact the guest star. Sam’s entire outlook is summarized in his response to finding out that Nureyev is a dancer by trade, not a vocalist: a resigned “Culture is culture.”
“It all ends in one of two ways”: In the only aspect of the episode that goes entirely in accordance to Sam’s wishes, no one blows up or is eaten while Rudolf Nureyev is on the premises.
Episode 214: Elton John
“With our special guest star”: If the audience at The Muppet Theater sounds noticeably screechier in Episode 214, it’s because Elton John is the first legitimate rock star to visit The Muppet Show. Contemporary pop icons would frequent the show in subsequent seasons (a benefit of the “Nureyev effect,” perhaps?), but John’s appearance merits an over-the-top response from The Muppets, largely in the form of countless Muppet-sized interpretations of the singer-songwriter’s garish onstage wardrobe. John gives them plenty of outfits to copy, and his emergence from beneath a bouquet of multicolored feathers at the top of “Crocodile Rock” makes a hell of an impression.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: For a segment that would eventually become one of the show’s signatures, the early editions of Pigs In Space are unfortunately one-note. (They largely revolve around variations on “Hey, Piggy, you’re a lady—do this lady thing,” which is a funny way of injecting a women’s lib edge into a family program, but I digress.) This half-hour boasts the first truly essential Pigs In Space sketch, one which realizes the segment’s full potential. The central joke involves deglamorizing space travel (a science-fiction theme that found its acme two years later thanks to Alien), but the “endless sameness of eternal space” is interrupted briefly by the episode’s recurring gag: The Swedish Chef’s attempt to capture a runaway chicken. It’s a display of the segment’s two greatest strengths, pairing wacky sci-fi parody with the vast comedic prospects of letting the rest of the show spill over onto the bridge of the Swine Trek.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: Here’s one for the IMDB “goofs”: The purple Whatnot that backs Kermit and Fozzie on “Any Old Iron” arrives on camera missing its left pupil. Kudos to Louise Gold for distracting from the character’s nonconformity whenever possible—even pulling it out of the shot a few times—but it’s still noticeable. There apparently wasn’t enough time to re-shoot the number, which proves what little precedence the UK Spots were given by The Muppet Show’s shooting schedules.
“It’s time to play the music”: How good was Elton John’s run of singles between his self-titled 1970 LP and 1974’s Caribou? So good they made for an unassailable 10-track greatest-hits compilation released in the wake of Caribou—and those 10 tracks don’t even include “Tiny Dancer” or “Levon.” Three Elton John’s Greatest Hits tracks get a workout on The Muppet Show: the aforementioned, reptile-assisted “Crocodile Rock”; an abbreviated “Bennie And The Jets” (performed at the behest of Scooter and J.P. Grosse); and a straightforward, spine-tingling “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” However, it’s a song released closer to John’s Muppet Show appearance (and his self-imposed exile from live performances) that makes the biggest impact: the Motown-by-way-of-the-disco duet “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” That’s all thanks to Miss Piggy, of course, whose voice lacks the sweetness of Kiki Dee’s—though she makes up for it in her utter devotion to her singing partner.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: The punchline of the cold open—“It’s great to be here. Even my lunch likes me”—presented the show’s puppet builders and special-effects crew with a unique challenge: How do you make a beverage show its appreciation for Elton John? The solution is simple and ingenious, apparently achieved by blowing a bunch of air through a glass of strawberry milk while the rest of the meal blathers away.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Scooter is the show’s resident representative of 1970s youths, so he’s an obvious choice for the character who’s most excited about having Elton John on the show. Richard Hunt and the writers give an honest, authentic feel to Scooter’s enthusiasm for John, even during his hyperbolic introduction of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Contrast that with, say, Debbie Harry’s appearance in season five, where the attempts to integrate punk culture into the episode feel more like The Muppet Show racing to catch up with the zeitgeist. Here, it’s right at home—and unafraid to shout an unintelligible version of “Bennie And The Jets” at the guest star (a fantastic gag, considering how unintelligible the real deal is).
“It all ends in one of two ways”: In true Muppet Show fashion, the crocodile chorus threatens to tear Elton John feather from feather at the end of “Crocodile Rock.” Kermit, in response: “How many times have I told you: Never eat the guest star at the beginning of the show?”