Part of the process of forming the basic framework of The Muppet Show involved running The Muppet Show: Sex And Violence and The Muppet Valentine Show through a variation of the Koozebanian Mating Ritual, ramming the two pilots-cum-one-off-specials into each other at full speed—with explosive results. Like the offspring created in that sketch, The Muppet Show isn’t a carbon copy of either of its parents, but it does bear some of their distinct traits. For instance, it got At The Dance and The Electric Mayhem from Sex And Violence; from The Muppet Valentine Show, it inherited an important angle that would eventually help sell the show to adult viewers: Guest stars.
Of course, a good variety show or sketch-comedy program should be able to succeed on the merits of its core cast; after all, no one looks back at the first season of Saturday Night Live and credits the show’s reshaping of the TV-comedy landscape to, say, Desi Arnaz and Anthony Perkins. (Then again, no one credits it to the season-one regulars from The Land Of Gorch, either.) A good guest star can take a variety show to the next level—witness Steve Martin’s work on both SNL and The Muppet Show—but if the talent that’s there every week is lacking, then the show has little hope for survival.
The Muppet Show is one of those variety series that endures thanks in large part to the bounty of talent pooled among its cast and crew—but the guests are still a critical ingredient in the show’s recipe. The guests don’t make or break any episodes of The Muppet Show (see this week’s installment with Lou Rawls) but the right or wrong match went a long way toward ensuring an episode that’s memorable for the right reasons (see the second of this week’s episodes). Henson and crew were the ones who were there to make sure The Muppet Show never collapsed under the weight of its concepts, characters, and ambitions, but it takes a certain type of onscreen human collaborator to make those concepts, characters, and ambitions really sing.
Episode 215: Lou Rawls
“With our special guest star”: There’s no denying that Lou Rawls possessed an insanely rich, soulful voice, the type that could imbue even the alphabet with a silky coolness. The strength of the man’s comedic chops and timing are more debatable, and the hesitant, wide-eyed take he gives to camera at the top of his Muppet Show episode doesn’t bode well for the rest of the half-hour. Rawls appears more relaxed elsewhere, but he’s obviously most comfortable in musical-performance mode, laying into the groove and letting the soul pour forth on numbers like the Gamble and Huff compositions “Groovy People” and “You’re The One.” When he’s integrated into the runner involving Fozzie’s roller skates, Rawls manages to score a big laugh—though it requires him to be little more than a streak across the screen.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: The way this episode plays, it’s as if the writers knew they’d be limited in the way they could utilize the guest star, and therefore churned out a prototypical Muppet Show that could stand on the main ensemble’s considerable strengths. There are several solid instances of signature segments—Muppet News Flash, Veterinarian’s Hospital, At The Dance, and Muppet Labs each make an appearance—with Dr. Bob and his associates putting in the episode’s funniest, most adventurous work. The sketch burns through its jokes—all revolving around the physicians “losing” their patient—before The Narrator butts in, the characters question him on his identity, and his answer initiates a second, swifter take on the scene. Given that Rowlf, Piggy, and Janice’s punchlines here all involve the ethereal, their interrogation of the narrator isn’t as emptily meta as it initially seems. It’s such a fun spin on the Veterinarian’s Hospital format that it wouldn’t matter if it was emptily meta—besides, Nelson’s narration is already so full of character, it was only a matter of time before it became a character.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: With its Talk Spot and the black-out-like scene between Rawls, Animal, and Floyd, this episode is also reminiscent of an installment from the first-season. The former segment is a more successful integration of the guest and his counterparts in The Electric Mayhem than the latter, which is a bit of character building for Animal with no jokes outside of the typical “Animal’s unhinged” material. The laid-back R&B star and the wild-child drummer make less suitable comedic partners than you’d expect.
“It’s time to play the music”: Here’s an improvement on a type of segment debuted at the top of the second season: Link Hogthrob’s version of “Sonny Boy” for a live piglet puts a humorous spin on the “Rowlf sings ‘What A Wonderful World’ to a real dog” segment from Episode 201. It’s not that I think The Muppets should never do anything that’s warm and sincere without being funny—I just think Link’s puffed-up persona makes him better suited for a spoonful of saccharine like this. (It doesn’t hurt that the persona also makes it funny… ) As a character, Rowlf would see right through this sentimental junk; Link would probably think it would earn him an Emmy nomination.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: When Rawls glides by during the outro, it provides insight into how Frank Oz and Fozzie move so smoothly through the background of Episode 215. Oz was either on some sort of track, or he was just tearing around the soundstage without moving his arms to and fro.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: It’s funny how something as small as Fozzie’s uncontrollable roller skates can threaten to derail an entire episode. It’s a testament to how well-established the main ensemble is at this point that a lot of the laughs in the recurring segments come from one thing being askew (or more askew than normal): For instance, Fozzie’s skates cause The Swedish Chef to take the stage early, and, as a result, the chef improvises a demonstration and grabs Robin to use as an entree. We know the show and the characters so well that we can tell the atypical show-within-the-show flubs from the typical ones.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: Rawls’ mellow vibe keeps the most abrupt Muppet endings at bay. Even when The Newsman succumbs to Mallarditis, the sound effect accompanying his transformation is a muted squeak, rather than the expected, noisy bang.
Episode 216: Cleo Laine
“With our special guest star”: The 16th episode of the second season also features a guest whose Muppet Show bits are tailored to her distinct voice (and little else): Jazz vocalist Cleo Laine. And what a voice it is, hitting startlingly high upper octaves during “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” before drawing inward to saunter through Bread’s misty-eyed “If.” (Laine’s a singer with all kinds of range, having earned Grammy nods in jazz, pop, and classical categories.) But she’s no mega-wattage star, and cedes some of her screentime here to puppeteer Bruce Schwartz, a McArthur “genius grant” recipient and master in the fine, unsettling art of bunraku.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: The episode’s best use of Laine comes in her duet with The Swedish Chef, which plays off the guest’s scatting skills while test-running a classic Muppet joke. With multiple nonsense-speaking characters and a music-licensing budget at the show’s disposal, “You’re Just In Love” isn’t the only recognizable melody rendered unintelligible by a Muppet Show cast member. (It’s not even the best one: My vote for that distinction goes to Beaker’s season-four attempt at rendering “Feelings.”) Nonetheless, it’s a great way to vary up The Swedish Chef formula and work Laine into a recurring spot on the show, and the buildup to the chef’s first, mock-Swedish verse is a great example of The Muppet Show playing with anticipation and expectation. It’s obvious from the start of the song that Irving Berlin won’t be the translator who finally decodes The Swedish Chef, but that doesn’t deflate the humor of the character replying to Laine’s romantic quandaries with a stream of gibberish.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: But when it comes to episode-ending notes, “You’re Just In Love” and Fozzie’s spontaneous phrenology act are just too light. Enter “If,” a slow dance with eternity visualized through a mini-romantic tragedy staged by Schwartz. It’s haunting, showy, artfully directed, and, ultimately, a complete tonal clash with the rest of the episode. (Schwartz’s talents are better served by season five’s “tribute to puppetry” episode, where he presents a gorgeous take on a Japanese ghost story that’s spooky for reasons unrelated to the Uncanny Valley.)
“It’s time to play the music”: Noël Coward’s “Mad Dogs And Englishmen” earns an on-the-wet-nose interpretation in the UK Spot, its various witticisms about foolhardy British imperialists put in the mouths of the show’s canine cast members. It’s hardly thinking outside the box, but the song’s zip and the between-verse gibberish call out for a Muppet Show staging. It’s the ideal kind of UK Spot: Short, to-the-point, and energetic—but you certainly wouldn’t miss it if you’re only familiar with the U.S.-broadcast version of Episode 216.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: Kermit shows off a previously unseen skill in the opening “limbo” number, as Jim Henson pulls the puppet’s head into the rest of its body, creating a “scrunching” effect that looks not unlike the frog was run over by a car. It makes me curious about how often the Muppeteers experiment with what the can convey through the flexibility of their characters between episodes—there’s a wonderful segment in the Kevin Clash documentary Being Elmo where Clash demonstrates the different emotions he can express by collapsing different parts of Elmo’s face.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: In a handful of silent onscreen appearances, Emily “Ma” Bear provides an additional source of anxiety for Fozzie. Jerry Nelson would make Emily a full-fledged character in a pair of subsequent Muppet TV productions—1987’s A Muppet Family Christmas and 1990’s The Muppets At Walt Disney World—but here she’s simply the motivation for wedging Fozzie into as many onstage segments as possible. Naturally, he overextends himself in his attempt to impress his mother, which at one points presents Frank Oz with the hilarious challenge of playing Fozzie while Fozzie plays Miss Piggy.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: The characters control their appetites and pyrotechnic tendencies here, too. Perhaps everyone is afraid of embarrassing themselves in front of Fozzie’s mom.