The Muppets’ flair for the comedically absurd has its roots in multiple sources: Sam And Friends borrowed liberally from the catalogues of Stan Freberg and Spike Jones; the characters’ skill with snappy wordplay falls somewhere between The Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks; the unsustainable anarchy of The Muppet Show: Sex And Violence has a precursor in the stream-of-consciousness flow of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. These debts are frequently acknowledged in Muppet productions, be it in Freberg popping by Sam And Friends to demand credit for the records played on the program, or Muppet Show bookings like alpha Python John Cleese or his predecessors in British silliness, The Goon Show alumni Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan.
Cleese’s personal sensibilities mesh so well with The Muppets, it’s a shame he’s the only Monty Python member to collaborate with the characters. (Though Terry Jones did write the first draft of the Labyrinth script, so Cleese isn’t the end of the Henson-Python connection.) At least Jim Henson got more than a great episode of The Muppet Show out of Cleese: The actor also turned in a splendid cameo in The Great Muppet Caper, playing the male half of the oblivious upper-crust couple whose home Miss Piggy passes off as her own.
In lieu of working with Cleese or his Python companions, the Sesame Street writers up and invented their own Flying Circus analogue in the early 1990s: Monty, an off-kilter, stiff-upper-lip type seemingly modeled after Cleese’s character from the “Ministry Of Silly Walks” sketch. He’s a fascinating bit player, a foil for straight-shooter Prairie Dawn used as a vehicle for teaching basic lessons in logic. In a neighborhood that’s home to single-minded monsters and an 8-foot-tall bird, it’s no easy feat portraying the guy in the sensible bowler hat as the most ridiculous of the bunch. But just as Monty Python’s Flying Circus did for high-school nerds and collegiate stoners in the ’70s (and Episode 223 of The Muppet Show did for their younger siblings), Monty taught the preschoolers of the ’90s the proper venues for the silly and the absurd.
Episode 223: John Cleese
“With our special guest star”: Like many installments of The Muppet Show’s second season, Episode 223 doesn’t break new ground for the series—it does, however, set a standard for future episodes to follow. John Cleese isn’t The Muppets’ first reluctant guest—that honor goes to Harvey Korman—but he’s the ideal reluctant guest, owing to a gift with comedic belligerence matched only by Bob Odenkirk. Cleese’s prickly persona does much of the heavy lifting on this hilarious Muppet Show, but his gifts as a writer are on display as well: As legend has it, the guest star gave an assist to Jerry Juhl on the episode’s fourth-wall-destroying script, which also has a splendid sense of anticipation and payoff. (The way Pigs In Space veers from space opera to kitchen-sink drama has the mark of Cleese all over it.) More than any other second-season guest, John Cleese truly bent The Muppet Show to serve his talents.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: Wherever there are greatest-hits montages of Jim Henson’s television work, Cleese’s closing number—which is, in true Monty Pythonesque style, more of an anti-number—will be there. It’s a marvel of opposing forces coming together to make something extremely funny, with the incrementally displeased Cleese thrust into performances of increasing complexity. While negotiation is often the death of comedy, the tug-of-war between guest and host here succeeds because the momentum only moves in one direction; Cleese’s protestations do nothing to slow the scene, which pushes toward “The Impossible Dream” no matter what. Then again, what else would you suspect from one of the guys who struck comedic gold with Python’s “The Argument Sketch.”
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: Gonzo’s elongated right arm—the result of a cannonball-catching act gone awry—provides the basis for some of Episode 223’s most inspired silliness. However, it also gives rise to a flimsy runner that operates as if it’s made of spare parts from season one. Fozzie and Floyd’s running commentary on Gonzo’s affliction are by-the-numbers recurring jokes that don’t rise to the level of the half-hour’s stronger material.
“It’s time to play the music”: Most Muppet Show bands are overshadowed by Dr. Teeth And The Electric Mayhem, but Lubbock Lou And His Jughuggers at least put up a fight when it comes to challenging the good doctor and crew for the title of the series’ premier musical act. It helps that the members of the Jughuggers are given a touch of personality—with minimal speaking parts to boot. Take Bubba, the musician who puts the “jug” in “Jughuggers”: The character’s design—hair covering his eyes, beard down to his chest—position Bubba as the “quiet one” of the group. As such, when he opens his mouth on “Somebody Stole My Gal” and reveals himself as the source of the Jughugger’s vocal low end, it’s to extreme comedic effect.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: The humor in Kermit’s interview with the Koozebanian Spooble is secondary to the effects in the segment, a neat variation on the old Floating Face. Rather than being controlled by multiple wires, however, the Spooble is made of a flexible fabric and superimposed onto a jar of pink liquid—making it all the more easy for the Spooble to “be drunk on television” by the end of the segment.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: The duo of Robin and Sweetums dates back to the Tales From Muppetland special The Frog Prince, and they make a dynamic duo—if only for their disparity in height. Their Mutt And Jeff -like appearance presented a challenge in staging “Two Lost Souls,” one which required some creative camera angles and the camouflaging of Jerry Nelson behind a massive throne and/or his hulking duet partner.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: Crazy Harry provides the fire power and the Spooble represents for Muppet cuisine, but Episode 223 also features a wonderfully Pythonesque cut the image of Cleese’s agent meeting his demise in the maw of Mean Mama.
Episode 224: Cloris Leachman
“With our special guest star”: An all-pig takeover of The Muppet Theater elbows Cloris Leachman to the margins of her Muppet Show guest shot. If this is a result of limited availability on Leachman’s part, the pigs are a brilliant solution: Dop-pork-gängers of Kermit, Fozzie, The Swedish Chef, and The Newsman occupy the space Leachman can’t with a number of zippy segments akin to those in the Bob Hope episode. Too bad this concept wasn’t saved for an episode with a less-interesting, less-versatile performer than Leachman.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: This half-hour provides an alternate-universe version of The Muppet Show in more than one way: Fozzie Pig and The Swedish Pig are winning sight gags that also provide the Muppet performers to take on characters they usually don’t play. (Save for the porcine newscaster, who Jim Henson gives a gruff voice pitched at the intersection of Rowlf and Dr. Teeth.) It’s an entertaining opportunity for self-parody, one the performers attack with a playful, last-day-of-school puckishness.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: Yet, when the show is reclaimed from the pigs, some of the wind is knocked out of its sails. The episode ends on a lumpy desert-island sketch/musical-number hybrid that never quite commits to either half of the equation. If their operetta medley with Leachman is any indication, the pigs had a better number in them.
“It’s time to play the music”: A rousing rendition of “That’s Entertainment” kicks things off while planting the revolution’s flag in the top of the episode (after they capture Kermit and shove him in the boiler room with Fozzie and Gonzo, of course). The show tune is an ingenious choice, a bright, flashy Broadway standard boldly declaring the pig’s pretenses toward mounting a half-hour worthy of The Muppet Show name. It’s a name that doesn’t have a whole lot of respect attached to it, of course, so some simple choreography, sparkly sets, and a classic showbiz anthem are good enough. That’ll do, pigs—that’ll do.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: If there was a reason this episode was pushed to the end of the second season’s production order, it certainly wasn’t a deficit in the puppet-construction budget: While most of the pig impostors are simply existing pig heads placed on other characters’ bodies, Kermit The Pig and Fozzie Pig were made from scratch and (as far as i can tell) never used again. The pile of foam rubber that makes up the Pigs In Space antagonist Chopped Liver, meanwhile, would take multiple roles outside the bridge of the Swine Trek, most notably as a member of Alice Cooper’s backing band The Vile Bunch in season three.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Miss Piggy has a defining moment in the boiler room with Kermit and his fellow captives. Torn between the frog she loves and losing a role in a sketch she typically hates (Pigs In Space), Piggy leaves Kermit for the stage. (But only after Frank Oz takes adds some tension to the decision with a spectacularly pregnant pause.) This is an undeniable declaration of Piggy’s priorities: Stardom first, loyalty second.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: We miss an introduction to Hog Wild Harry; elsewhere, the banana goes missing goes missing from the ranks of the Singing Food between the cold open and Vegetarian’s Hospital, which can only mean Leachman ate it.