The Muppets were made for TV. It just took TV 20 or so years to get ready for The Muppets. They’d been local favorites, staples of the talk- and variety-show circuits, and some of the earliest stars of American public television. But until Jim Henson convinced British producer Lew Grade—who’d previously made a transatlantic smash out of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s Supermarionation series—to take a flier on his furry, funny, and frantic creations, the Muppets had never had a show to call their own. When the curtain went up on The Muppet Show in the fall of 1976, it represented a new pinnacle for the unique blend of state-of-the-art puppetry, practical special effects, anarchic humor, song-and-dance numbers, and underlying sincerity that Henson had forged across countless projects alongside indispensable collaborators like Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl, and Don Sahlin.
The amount of time that passed between the beginning of Henson’s original, Washington, D.C.-area series, Sam And Friends, and The Muppet Show’s premiere is roughly equal to how long it’s been since The Muppet Show could be regularly seen on TV. Multiple Muppet shows and Muppet movies have been made during this period, and individual segments have been circulated, remixed, and meme’d online, but the series that made it all possible has largely been unavailable. That’s one reason why it was such a big deal when Disney+ announced that it would be adding The Muppet Show to its library of Muppet projects on February 19. Another reason: It’s a towering, timeless television achievement, and if for some reason you disagree, we recommend spending two minutes with “The Leprechaun Brothers.”
Keeping all that in mind, it’d be understandable if you needed a refresher course on the variety show that launched Kermit The Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, The Great Gonzo, and friends into the pop cultural firmament (and sometimes into the literal firmament). For that, The A.V. Club has put together this list of five essential episodes to watch when The Muppet Show crash-lands on Disney+. These write-ups reflect the episodes as they appear in their broadcast and/or home-video edits; while some of the musical segments discussed might not be streaming, the majority of The Muppet Show’s 120 episodes will be coming to Disney+ uncut.
You’ve got to hand it to a Muppet Show guest who can bust up the joint as well as the Muppets can. Rita Moreno bookends her EGOT-clinching episode with two such segments: a slapstick rendition of a Parisian Apache dance where she absolutely wrecks her partner (played alternately by a costumed hoofer and a man-sized rag doll), and a closing number where a pair of hidden crash cymbals are the only things keeping Animal from bringing the simmer of “Fever” to a full percussive boil. (“I love silly humor, and that was about as silly as you can get,” Moreno told The New Yorker in 2018.) The repertory cast does its damnedest to keep up with her demolition act, with The Swedish Chef bringing ballistics to the breakfast table and Frank Oz introducing the tuneful sadism of “the beloved” Marvin Suggs And His Muppaphone. There’s no upstaging a dynamo like Rita Moreno—though, if you’re the lovable ogre Sweetums, you can always try your hand at carrying Rita Moreno upstage. [Erik Adams]
The Muppet Show and Steve Martin’s approach to stand-up were cut from the same cloth: exuberantly silly send-ups of showbiz cheese that also embrace and elevate that cheese. Or dance with it, as Gonzo does amid a steady stream of not-ready-for-primetime auditions that Kermit mistakenly scheduled on the same night as Martin’s episode. The novel setup becomes a showcase for the creative versatility of the cast and crew, the big production numbers and high-concept sketches temporarily relieved by rapid-fire blackout gags, some throwbacks to the more abstract routines that were Henson’s calling card in the ’60s, and selections from Martin’s act circa Let’s Get Small. It’s The Muppet Show turned inside out: The cast are in the audience, devoted hecklers Statler and Waldorf are onstage, and the insecurities prodded by characters gunning for Kermit’s, Fozzie’s, and Piggy’s jobs are matched by the guest star in his “excuuuuuuuuuuse meeeeee”-spouting, parody-of-a-smarmy-entertainer-that’s-genuinely-entertaining prime. [Erik Adams]
The “No More Mr. Nice Guy” singer made a perfect complement to The Muppet Show’s own monsters. Cooper worried at first that he was too edgy for the show, then quickly changed his mind when he learned that Vincent Price had already guest-starred. “I never had so much fun in my life,” he said later, recalling that he soon started treating the Muppets like actual people: “Kermit and I got along very well. We were fast friends.” The production went all out for three inspired Cooper musical numbers: “Welcome To My Nightmare,” featuring Cooper in vampire mode and Muppets weaving in and out as ghostly apparitions disappearing from the screen; a sweet rendition of “You And Me” with an enchanted duet partner; and a rebellious “School’s Out” dance line of menacing full-bodied Muppets. But even the non-guest-star sketches hold up, like Professor Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker debuting a quickly terrifying “germ enlarger,” or Kermit’s nephew Robin performing “Over The Rainbow,” counteracting all of Cooper’s demonic energy. At one point, Kermit just turns to the camera and says, “Weird show”—but it’s weird in the best possible way. [Gwen Ihnat]
No corner of the Muppet Theatre is off-limits for story- or joke-telling. Dressing-room tiffs spill out onto the stage, and a Fozzie Bear comedy spot isn’t complete without feedback from Statler and Waldorf. The old cranks in the box seats lead a minor rebellion in this episode, with an ad hoc scoring system that rallies boisterous jeers for any act that isn’t Motown singing sensation Diana Ross. Ross looks to be having the time of her life telling bad jokes and dancing to “Love Hangover” with the tallest Muppets ever built, but it’s what’s offscreen that really makes this episode. The objections are so hilariously boisterous and instant that Fozzie barely gets through his “Hi ya, hi ya, hi ya” before he’s back in the wings; the booing renders Beaker’s nonsensical rendition of “Feelings” into (appropriately) an emotional roller coaster that only Animal has the strength to slow. That’s the magic of The Muppet Show at work: It could even make fake audience noises feel alive and electrifying. [Erik Adams]
The Muppet Show won its final Emmy (for writing) for this exemplary effort with comedy legend Carol Burnett, proving that even as it neared its end, the show was bound to go out on top. No stranger to variety shows, Burnett gamely plays herself, but against type, as an attention-grabbing diva who just wants to perform her “Lonely Asparagus” sketch (the costume alone is to die for). But her guest appearance is nearly overtaken by an overwhelming Muppet dance marathon that takes place not only on the stage (making its way into “Pigs In Space”), but also backstage and even into the balcony thanks to Statler and Waldorf. Burnett’s scenery-chewing histrionics are delightful, as she’s bequeathed Animal as a dance partner (watch out for that dip) and eventually schemes to end the marathon by weaponizing the Leif Garrett hit “I Was Made For Dancin.’” Steered by a leading lady who knows how to stand out in a hectic, overpacked crowd, the chaos of the marathon only serves to highlight The Muppet Show’s one-of-a-kind brand of comic mania. [Gwen Ihnat]