Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Muppet Show: “Episode 116: Avery Schreiber” /“Episode 117: Ben Vereen”

Illustration for article titled The Muppet Show: “Episode 116: Avery Schreiber” /“Episode 117: Ben Vereen”

I’ve been dismissive of the corny TV variety shows that received their share of lumps and homages from The Muppet Show, and that’s a bit unfair. First, because without the played-out conventions and dubious star talent of these programs, there’d be fewer targets for those lumps and tributes. Secondly, those shows gave an early spotlight to Jim Henson and The Muppets. That includes some of the good-to-great examples of the format—Saturday Night Live, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show—as well as some series and one-off specials largely lost to the cathode-ray ether. For example, the 1967 summer-replacement show Our Place.

Our Place seems to be removed from most official histories of The Muppets. There’s no mention of it in Jim Henson: The Works, and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the Jim Henson Legacy uncovered surviving footage of the series, which filled in for The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS during The Summer Of Love. Given that place and time, there’s a distinctly flower-power, countercultural element to the examples from the show which have since made it to YouTube (this despite the scrubbed-clean versions of ’60s radio hits delivered by The Doodletown Pipers). The set is decorated like some middle-aged suit’s conception of the ideal hippie hangout (which now just looks like a T.G.I. Friday’s); the comedy team of Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber perform a Second City-style Theatre Of The Absurd send-up titled “The Man From Hostility;” and, like many countercultural experiences and happenings during the 1967, the proceedings feature a talking dog.

Rowlf’s big gig on Our Place follows his time as the sidekick on The Jimmy Dean Show, whose country-fried DNA is shared by Muppet Show regulars like The Gogolala Jubilee Jugband—though it’s also arguable those characters are a riff on the cornpone humor Hee Haw. Another connection between Our Place, Hee Haw, and The Muppet Show: Jack Burns, who starred alongside Rowlf on the first series before serving as head writer for both the second and the third. So when The Muppet Show delivers an elbow to the ribs of the variety-show format, it does so knowingly, with a good deal of history and experience behind it. Sure, The Muppet Show never courted a certain demographic as nakedly as Hee Haw or Our Place, but for all its self-aware wit and showbiz satires, it was still a variety show at heart. And if it wasn’t for corny variety shows like Our Place, the first season of The Muppet Show would be without a head writer—and the guest-star slot for Episode 116 would’ve been more difficult to fill.

Episode 116: Avery Schreiber

“With our special guest star”: Yes, Jack Burns’ former comedy partner was likely the easiest booking of the The Muppet Show’s first season. With his walrus-like mug and physical comedy skills, the comedian makes a natural fit for the show, too—he definitely slots into the “human Muppet” category of Muppet Show guests. The nepotistic nature of Schreiber’s appearance doesn’t go unmentioned, and he and Burns eventually get to conjure some of their old comedy-team magic through Fozzie’s comedy spot. Schreiber saves the routine with the old “banana in the ear” joke, a gag that (according to the segment, at least) never earned Burns’ approval. Statler and Waldorf’s reaction to the gag serves as a fantastic commentary on the subjectivity of comedy (Asked why they prefer Schreiber’s take on the banana in the ear to Fozzie’s, the old coots reply, “It’s his pace! His timing! His delivery! His ear!”) and also allows Schreiber to momentarily break the fourth wall: “You see, Jack—I told you it would work!”

“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: In an episode that finds The Muppet Show taking another lengthy stab at a scenic comedy sketch—the wonky “Sir Avery Of Macho And The Monster Of The Moors”—the best, funniest segment is one of the quickest. Bunsen Honeydew’s introduction of Muppet Labs’ new “solid-state gorilla detector” features a can’t-miss premise, a hilariously named gadget, and some spectacular production design. (Can we assume that Muppet designer extraordinaire Don Sahlin was behind Bunsen’s latest invention, which looks like the head of a robotic King Kong?) The script is fantastic as well, with the good Muppet doctor’s pride and self-satisfaction clouding the all-too-obvious fact that his lab is being destroyed by a raging primate. (“Yes, Muppet technology is wonderful!”) Muppet Labs still feels incomplete without the frantic cries of Richard Hunt’s Beeker, but Honeydew’s hubris carries these scenes nicely for the time being.

“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: Is this the first episode to feature rim shots during Veterinarian’s Hospital? And is it hopefully the last? I appreciate the little nod to Burns and Schreiber’s time in the night-club trenches, but the sound of rattling offscreen percussion is one too many acknowledgements of how bad Dr. Bob’s jokes are.


“It’s time to play the music”: While Animal goes a bit overboard during Veterinarian’s Hospital, the dread laugh track remains delightfully reserved during Dr. Teeth And The Electric Mayhem’s driving spin through the gentle old standard “Tenderly.” (Here’s a Nat King Cole version for comparing and contrasting) The laugh track would be right to go crazy during the song, though, because it’s a good joke—even if it’s one that’s been driven into the ground by ensuing decades of punk and metal acts turning in “ironic” covers of mainstream pop fare. But don’t blame Dr. Teeth for having his idea stolen by Me First And The Gimme Gimmes.

“It’s time to raise the curtain”: The museum sketch between Schreiber and Fozzie is more than just a display of the expressive, silent movie star-like qualities that earned Schreiber his extended gig as the face of Doritos in the ’70s. It’s also a welcome breather amid the typically manic Muppet Show milieu—a quiet, patient break from the madness unfolding elsewhere. Given how distinctive and entertaining The Muppets are even when they’re not talking, it’s no wonder the characters had a long side career as subjects of best-selling calendars and posters. 


“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Tracking Miss Piggy’s rising star: The show is now differentiating Frank Oz’s Piggy from Hunt’s by giving the anonymous male pig in At The Dance a different porcine companion. Coinciding with that move, Schreiber’s role as a faux-suitor for Piggy gives the show its first indication that the pig’s affection for Kermit isn’t a one-way thing. It’s still weird that a frog would be attracted to a pig, sure, but why split hairs when the results are this funny?

“It all ends in one of two ways”: The ever-voracious Gorgon Heap—who we’ll learn next week is “one of the world’s greatest eaters”—puts a toothsome exclamation point on Wayne And Wanda’s “Some Enchanted Evening.” The punchline, however, belongs to Wanda: “He said ‘meet,’ not ‘eat.’”


Episode 117: Ben Vereen

“With our special guest star”: When he came to The Muppet Theater, Ben Vereen was one year off from the biggest television role of his career—no, not the former half of detective duo Tenspeed And Brown Shoe, but Chicken George in the miniseries Roots. Of course, Alex Haley’s epic of African-American genealogy (nor Stephen J. Cannell’s mismatched pair of PIs) wouldn’t be great fodder for Muppet Show segments, so it’s a good thing Vereen appeared on the series when he was still known primarily as a star of the Great White Way. His two spotlight numbers each draw from a stage or screen musical—“Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago, followed by Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory’s “Pure Imagination”—and his fleet footwork is called upon for a rare guest-star appearance during the typically Muppet-centric opening segment. The show takes an appropriately theatrical bent for Vereen, though it’s his physical prowess that’s called upon for the more, ahem, explosive of the episode’s two runners.


“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: With Crazy Harry running amok in the onstage segments, the backstage segments concerning Fozzie’s run-in with a magical cabinet provide a counterbalance of low-key wackiness. It’s an intriguing choice—after all, the backstage area is where the truly bizarre aspects of The Muppet Show thrive—but it pays off huge dividends when Fozzie is forced to do his comedy spot from inside Marvel The Magician’s metal box. Fozzie’s hat—which escapes the box before the bear can—is placed on top of the temporary prison in a nice, subtle touch, but it’s Frank Oz’s performance that really sells the bit. Even though you can’t see his character, Oz still gives his all in the vocal department, which suggests he could’ve had a fruitful career as a voice actor had he never hooked up with Jim Henson. (Scanning Oz’s IMDB page, he’s only taken a few non-Muppet vocal gigs, the most prominent being the three-eyed Monsters, Inc. assistant Fungus. Just to piss off George Lucas, let’s keep pretending Oz performed Yoda as a puppet in all three Star Wars prequels.)

“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: We’ll only have to deal with the Talking Houses once more in the series’ run, but before that, they get in some astonishingly lazy wordplay here:

First house: “My uncle’s into poetry. He loves Edgar Guest.”

Second house: “Why?”

First house: “Why else? He’s a guesthouse.”

And this in spite of the fact that Guest’s poem “Home” is just sitting there, ripe for a more obscure but better crafted joke. Let’s just assume the writers were stretched incredibly thin by the task of thinking up prompts for Crazy Harry, and be thankful that the Houses only have one more groaner in store for us. (A groaner that I know will nonetheless delight a few of you readers, as it’s of the “Is he a house?” “No, a person!” variety.)


“It’s time to play the music”: I’d rank “Mr. Cellophane” among the series’ finest stage-to-screen adaptations, even with its minimal input from the Muppet performers. With his high-kicking choreography and Al Jolson affectations, Verene straight up owns the song, his sad-eyed delivery putting a personal stamp on one of Chicago’s signature numbers. There’s also something to be said about the way he manages to smoothly inject a few hilariously loose-limbed go-go moves into a song so explicitly tied to the tinkling sound of ragtime. Some 30-plus years later, Vereen remains a “Mr. Cellophane” for all seasons. 

“It’s time to raise the curtain”: The set for “Mr. Cellophane” makes extensive use of the massive confines of Elstree Studios—the employees of which were introduced to the internet at large via this delightful video tribute which recently made its way to YouTube [HT ZeppoMarxist]. The song is staged on a massive set resembling a hybrid of 123 Sesame Street, a Broadway production of West Side Story, and the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, its various stoops and porches providing cover for the Muppet performers and several platforms for the guest star’s dancing. It’s a simple theatrical trick, and one that looks spectacular on TV. 


“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Here’s a great quote on Crazy Harry from Muppet writer and producer Jim Lewis, in response to the character’s absence from more recent Muppet projects: “Crazy Harry is always punctuation, so the scene has to fit his personality and unique talent for blowing things up.” The character would be used similarly sparingly throughout the course of The Muppet Show, but he’s all over this episode—though only as punctuation. Given that Harry’s “talent” was a go-to form of punctuation for early Henson work, it’s only fitting for a Muppet Show character to be so singularly obsessed with blowing up everything in sight. Of course, there’s never any indication in this episode that his pyrotechnics have any malicious intent—like any character working behind the scenes at the theater, Crazy Harry simply wants to help put on a great show. He’s unknowingly disruptive, and therein lies the comedy. There, and the puns, too.

“It all ends in one of two ways”: This one’s all about the explosions: There are six onscreen, and a seventh which frees Fozzie from Marvel’s trick box.


Next week: Phyllis Diller toots her own horn, and Vincent Price gets spooky.