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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Muppets Tonight gave Prince his first real chance to be funny

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With Lifetime debuting The Unauthorized Full House Story, we take a look at some favorites from the TGIF era.


Muppets Tonight, “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince” (season two, episode one; originally aired 09/13/1997)

The amount of media attention given to the impending arrival of Netflix’s Fuller House makes it easy to forget that there’s actually a second group of characters from a former TGIF program that’s about to get another chance at the small screen. Granted, their Friday night run was brief—astoundingly so, really, when you combine their general profile with those of the guest stars they were getting—but with The Muppets coming to ABC this fall, The A.V. Club would be remiss if we didn’t remind people about the last time Kermit and company had a weekly spot on ABC’s primetime schedule.

A semi-offspring of NBC’s 1989 series The Jim Henson Hour—specifically, the recurring “MuppeTelevision” segments—Muppets Tonight followed approximately the same format as The Muppet Show, but it was set within the studios of TV station KMUP rather than a theater, and instead of Kermit serving as emcee, his duties fell to a dreadlock-sporting character named Clifford (performed by Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash).

The roll call of celebs popping up on the series’ first season could’ve passed for the average talk show producer’s list of must-get guests in 1996: Garth Brooks, Sandra Bullock, Cindy Crawford, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Michelle Pfeiffer were just some of the familiar faces who turned up, with more notable names waiting in the wings for season two. Amazingly, though, the network didn’t give the series a second season: ABC aired its 10th and final episode of Muppets Tonight on July 14, 1996.

Unfortunately, having been contracted for two seasons, executive producer Brian Henson had already gone straight into working on the show’s sophomore year, but the Disney Channel stepped in, ordering nine new episodes to accompany the three that Henson had already completed. No season-two installment has gone on to achieve more immortality than the premiere, which brought the funk in the form of the artist then known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. When His Royal Badness freaked out Jess and Nick during his 2014 appearance on New Girl, younger viewers may have been surprised by his willingness to poke fun at himself. But he demonstrated that ability within the first few seconds of his Muppets Tonight, reacting to the security guard—Bobo The Bear—asking for his name by breaking the fourth wall, looking into the camera, and saying with a smile, “This is going to be fun.”

And it is fun. That’s the perfect adjective to describe the moment when the Muppets greet their guest by serenading him with “Delirious,” but it also aptly sums up the flashback segment where we’re purportedly introduced to The Purple One’s very first appearance on a Muppet show, a (fictional) Hee Haw parody called Hoo Haw which places him in a cornfield and has him delivering bad jokes while wearing overalls and a straw hat. Beyond the outright comedy, though, there’s also a surprisingly lovely sequence involving the song “Starfish And Coffee” which harkens back to some of the more artsier moments of the original Muppet Show.

The mystery of why ABC viewers didn’t latch onto Muppets Tonight remains unsolved, and it seems even more strange when you consider that the series arrived on the schedule only a month after Muppet Treasure Island made over $30 million at the box office. But given that the first episode to air after the network canceled the series has gone on to be the best-remembered installment of its entire run, at least The Muppets got the last laugh—and with a new series premiering on ABC in September, it’s fair to say that they’re still laughing even now.

Availability: “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince” can be viewed in three parts on YouTube.