For all the carefully crafted illusions that make up the Muppet universe, Jim Henson was never shy about pulling back the curtains on his film and television work. That desire to let the viewer in on his secrets can be seen as far back as the 1968 TV special The Muppets On Puppets, and it extended to the end of Henson’s life—and beyond.
In 1992, two years after Henson’s death, Nickelodeon debuted “Secrets Of The Muppets” one of the three “lost” episodes of The Jim Henson Hour, an anthology series that ran on NBC for nine weeks in the spring and summer of 1989. The hour-long special focuses on a transitional era for The Muppets—the endpoint of which their creator wouldn’t live to see. Amid all the demonstrations of mechanical Creature Shop critters and a dissection of MuppeTelevision’s computer-generated Waldo C. Graphic, Henson takes time to explain lo-fi tricks like Gonzo’s editing-assisted ability to answer a phone.
By receiving its delayed debut on the place where kids rule, “Secrets Of The Muppets” introduced the members of its young audience to tools of the film- and television-making trade like tape edits and chroma-key effects. Memorably, in the special’s first segment, Henson displays the dramatic drawbacks of wearing a blue tie while working against a blue screen—thereby explaining how the horse in the Bob Hope episode of The Muppet Show moves his gangly legs.
Hilariously, “Secrets Of The Muppets” counters any potential “You’re ruining the magic!” arguments from viewers by putting those arguments in the mouths of the MuppeTelevision cast. It’s a uniquely Muppet approach to the topic, and one that helps preserve the illusion, all the while giving Henson’s demonstration an additional sense of fun. Then again, for tinkerers like Henson and those who carry on his legacy, learning how things work is half of the fun.
Episode 221: Bob Hope
“With our special guest star”: The last of the old-guard showbiz giants to play The Muppet Show during its the second season, Bob Hope was also the busiest: Hope’s limited time on The Muppet Theater’s stage truly was the result of a packed schedule. In turn, the show makes the most of whenever Hope is onscreen, filling the frame with the buzz of Italian daredevils, Japanese pole vaulters, and a frog playing straight man to Hope’s lively zingers. When his agenda finally opens wide enough, The Muppets see the opportunity to stick Hope on the back of a smart-talking horse, a segment which recalls his string of Road To… films—were Bing Crosby Hope’s mount in addition to his comedic foil.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: The true stars of the half-hour, however, are the episode’s pacing and sequencing. It’s a realization of the frantic energy the Sex And Violence pilot abandons after its first act, aided by the number of familiar segments The Muppet Show can now throw to in the blink of an eye: Muppet Labs, The Swedish Chef, etc. In that regard, Episode 221 is built like a traditional sketch show; Muppet Newsflash and Rowlf receive two quick appearances apiece, garnering enough laughs in their first two beats to not require the satisfying conclusion of a third. And while the scenes with Hope threaten to overwhelm the senses, the episode knows when to ease off the accelerator, too, deploying calmer sequences like “For What It’s Worth” and “Don’t Fence Me In.”
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: This is another pitch-perfect installment from the second season—even a potentially dull U.K. Spot is salvaged by its inventive staging, mounting a medley of old-time music and folk songs in a homey living room set.
“It’s time to play the music”: Buffalo Springfield’s reflective 1967 single “For What It’s Worth” has a tortured history. Its open-ended, Stephen Stills-penned lyrics are frequently and incorrectly ascribed to the events of the Vietnam War or the Kent State massacre (Stills was actually moved to write the song following the Sunset Strip curfew riots), while use of its iconic, pealing guitar refrain as a sonic counterpoint to ’60s upheaval lapsed into cliché well before it turned up in Forrest Gump. So The Muppet Show’s repurposing of the song as an anti-hunting anthem is legitimately refreshing—even with its revised, on-the-nose lyrics. Jerry Nelson’s performance is one of his best Muppet Show vocals, an understated plea that does more work for the message than a hundred PETA publicity stunts.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: Hope’s horse—which picked up the nickname “Paul Revere” thanks to a third-season rendition of Guys And Dolls’ “Fugue For Tinhorns”—is an ingenious piece of Muppet craftsmanship. Its operators are masked by chroma key, with Nelson operating the head from the puppet’s left side. The design of the horse is a lot of fun, too, with a hide the color of a Kraft Dinner and New Balance sneakers in place of horse shoes. (It’s the dual pairs of tube socks that really sell the character for me, though.)
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Fitting for an episode with so much action around its edges, the backstage runner finds Animal looking to diversify his interests with a flurry of new hobbies including alligator-wrestling and overhand bowling. Giving the runner to Animal is like putting jet fuel in the episode’s engine, and the shooting gallery-like bowling sequence is a visual gag well-suited for the backstage set—and a convenient foreshadowing of the character’s final pastime: hunting with a rocket launcher.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: Before the show exercises its right to arm Animal, Crazy Harry gives a repeat performance of the coda to Episode 218’s theme song.
Episode 222: Teresa Brewer
“With our special guest star”: Prolific vocalist Teresa Brewer conducted a career in two acts: The first as a prolific vocalist committing hundreds of songs to tape in the pre-rock era, the second as a sought-after jazz singer. Appropriately, her presence is put to dual purposes on The Muppet Show, where Brewer covers herself, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Leadbelly while also providing a contrast to Miss Piggy’s curiously diminishing self-esteem. In the closing number, Brewer’s big, bright voice is applied to her signature tune, “Music! Music! Music!,” the staging of which—Brewer sings the song on a giant jukebox set surrounded by Whatnot sock-hoppers—makes the unfortunate implication that Brewer was more clockwork performer than artist, cranking out bright melodies for the right price.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: “It’s the old ‘girl, swing, monster’ bit again. They tried to sneak it past us.” This kernel of inspired silliness, spoken by Waldorf, says a lot of what we’ve come to expect from The Muppet Show, all the while verifying that he and Statler aren’t just peddlers of empty snark—they’re paying attention to what they’re tearing down. The rest of the routine has a wonderful way of breaking from the series’ conventions, as the show’s greatest critics insert themselves into the scene one more time, and Brewer repeatedly fails to get through a single verse of “Spinning Wheel.” With the failure of her second attempt, a promise is made for one, final blunder/abuse of Sweetums, a promise fulfilled with gravitational gusto—and hopefully a minimal amount of injury to Richard Hunt.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: Weight is a sensitive topic, even when the weight being discussed belongs to a character made of foam rubber and felt. As such, there’s a mean-spirited edge to Kermit and Scooter’s cracks about Piggy’s weight that is out-of-character for the series. Having Kermit call Piggy “fat stuff” reaches a level of nastiness above and beyond Statler and Waldorf’s usual routine—at least the pig gives the frog his just deserts (or rather “desserts”) after that dig.
“It’s time to play the music”: There are lots of musical interruptions in this episode: Before Brewer’s stymied stab at “Spinning Wheel,” a group of overeager frogs halts Scooter at the first chorus of “At The Hop.” Unlike frustrated Muppet Show singers Brewer, Wayne, Wanda, or Link Hogthrob, however, Scooter opts for a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach, abandoning the song to jump around with his amphibious collaborators. As our friends at Sesame Street would remind us, that’s cooperation!
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: Some Muppets require an editing bay to do something as simple as answer the phone; the astounding happenings in Muppet Labs, on the other hand, often require little more than practical effects. The Electric Nose Warmer makes Beaker’s whole head steam up—an effect seemingly achieved by placing dry ice in the puppet’s hair. Bunsen Honeydew’s vibrating glasses at the end of the scene are produced by an even simpler method: The violent shaking of Dave Goelz’s arm.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: It’s rare for The Muppet Show to spend so much time on an aspect of a character’s personality that isn’t tied 100 percent to performing on The Muppet Show—which is why the “Piggy’s diet” plot isn’t a total loss. It’s an indication that the character has a life outside the context of the show-within-the-show, an important distinction that needed to be made before Piggy and her co-stars transitioned from television to film. (Spotlight moments like this likely contributed to her status as the show’s breakout character.) While the tone of the jokes about Piggy’s weight is off-voice, those jokes lead to an important step for The Muppet Show.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: Episode 222 is all near misses on this front: The confection of Dr. Teeth’s affection in “Cheesecake” eludes the good doctor and his monster chorus; later, Crazy Harry is denied a second chance to leave his mark on Brewer’s book of autographs.