The Muppet Show: “Episode 118: Phyllis Diller”/“Episode 119: Vincent Price”

The Muppet Show: “Episode 118: Phyllis Diller”/“Episode 119: Vincent Price”

In the summer of 1971, Jim Henson, John Lovelady, Jerry Nelson, and Frank Oz traded the studio environs of Sesame Street for the International Hotel in Las Vegas. Amid the glitz, glamour, and gambling of Sin City, Henson hoped to further prove that, though his puppet creations were starring in one of the most popular, most talked about children’s shows in television history, The Muppets were by no means “kid’s stuff” exclusively. The Jim Henson Company’s Red Book blog does a fine job detailing this desire in its entry about that Vegas sabbatical; Michael Davis’ comprehensive Street Gang: The Complete History Of Sesame Street also chronicles the main creative conflict of Henson’s career, summing it up in one devastating conversation between the puppeteer and Sesame Street major domo Joan Ganz Cooney.

Henson then asked a question for which there was no answer. “Why did you have to be so successful?”

The remark wasn’t meant as ironic flattery; he was being sincere. The question hung in the air a moment before he completed the thought. “I am now living my worst nightmare.”

By all accounts, Henson was prone to mood swings like this, hardly immune to the emotional peaks and valleys caused by a fragile performer’s ego—even when a puppet stood between that ego and the camera. But the interviews cited by the Red Book betray a more upbeat Henson, one who went to the Nevada desert with a chip on his shoulder but nonetheless stayed confident in his and his collaborators’ ability to wow adult audiences. It helped that the show that brought them there—a variety revue starring Nancy Sinatra—featured some of the Muppet crew’s finest material and most eye-popping creatures. Sinatra duetted with the big, blue behemoth Thog; an amphibian chorus rendered “When The Frogs Go Marching In;” the show even kicked off with a version of “Mahna Mahna” modified to include contributions from the marquee act. The running order also included one of Henson’s more elliptical Muppet pieces, “Buggy Mugger,” previously presented on TV as “Scrap Flyapp,” and ultimately brought to The Muppet Show as “Hugga Wugga.”

Watching The Muppet Show version of the sketch, it’s easy to see why Henson chose it for the Vegas revue: The sketch is vaguely psychedelic, lightly violent, and broadly entertaining. (Who can’t enjoy hard-edged, nonsensical scatting battling against a willowy old standard like “You Are My Sunshine?”) But it never strains to be explicitly “adult” as, say, recent Henson Company efforts like Puppet Up! or Stuffed And Unstrung—both of which can be seen as reactions to the success of Avenue Q, but I digress. “Hugga Wugga” hits the “family” sweet spot that Davis describes in Street Gang as the main target of Henson’s efforts. It was this aim which drove Henson to Vegas, and it was this aim which made him chafe every time Ed Sullivan threw to a Muppets segment with “And for the kiddies out there… ” Of course, when Henson installed himself—in the form of his most recognizable proxy—as the host of his own show, he wouldn’t have to put up with such condescension. (Though that inner conflict/critic still found a voice through one of the old coots in the box seats.)

Episode 118: Phyllis Diller

“With our special guest star”: With a pre-established history of interacting with talking dogs and wisecracking monsters, comedian Phyllis Diller is a game guest on The Muppet Show. But she’s also off her game here. As if the episode is unfolding in real time, she seems to get more and more loose with each passing segment. Her banter with Rowlf during the first act of the show is soggy, but she manages to make something out of the same kind of self-deprecating material in her Talk Spot with Fozzie. Diller still seems a touch out of place by the closing number—a purposely “nails on a chalkboard” version of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”—but the sketch plays to Diller’s strengths without requiring her to engage too directly with the Muppet ensemble. Perhaps if The Muppets were working with a cartoon or Animagic version of Diller it’d be a different story.

“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: There’s plenty of praise for the content of “Hugga Wugga” above, so let us take a moment to praise how well it’s staged here. Like “Mahna Mahna,” Henson and company had a lot of time to fine tune the sketch before it came to The Muppet Show, time to retool the blocking, the characters, and the effects. It’s a masterful use of the TV screen—so simply achieved with the aid of artificial fog—and while the smoke blasts throughout aren’t as effective as most classic Muppet sketches, the punchline ranks high with those of “Sax And Violence” and “Java.”

“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: Maybe experienced stand-up Diller was thrown off by the lack of a live audience in Elstree Studios. Maybe she and Henson were never able to sync up with one anothers’ comedic rhythms. Maybe she was just destined to be a solo act. Either way, it’s a good thing the comedy team of Diller And The Dog makes its one and only appearance in this episode, trading a string of “you think you’ve got it bad” one-liners that never comes together.

“It’s time to play the music”: The Gogolala Jubilee Jugband puts in its most manic performance here, stomping its feet to and racing through the lyrics of “Mississippi Mud.” It’s not only charmingly frenetic—it’s also technically complicated, as the mud-squishing choreography appears to require an additional puppeteer to work each characters’ feet. (I do not envy the Muppet intern who had to clean the puppets after this segment—assuming they were put back into rotation rather than being thrown out.)

“It’s time to raise the curtain”: Perhaps sensing that The Muppets were going to have to do most of the heavy lifting for this episode, there’s a lot of fun/innovative staging and puppet work in addition to what’s been previously mentioned. Even the Diller-Rowlf spot show some flashes of inspiration through its use of depth of field, particularly through the two Whatnot characters stationed right in front of the camera at the scene’s start. There’s also a really simple, really funny gag introduced by way of the newly discovered trap door in the stage of The Muppet Theater, a joke that requires little more than a string suspended from the top of the frame—and the suspension of disbelief necessary to accept that the characters are being lowered by gravity, rather than their puppeteers.

“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: The runner, wherein Hilda tries out Diller’s tips on looking younger, is a coincidentally sad comment on the character herself. Just as the cast and crew of the show-within-the-show take her presence for granted here, her presence on The Muppet Show was entirely diminished after the first season.

“It all ends in one of two ways”: A pair of explosions to make up for the not-quite-incendiary last “bang” of “Hugga Wugga”: Crazy Harry’s at the end of the theme song, and Bunsen’s exploding necktie at the end of Muppet Labs. The latter segment is another home run for Muppet Labs, one that succeeds on the basis of the question “Which object on the puppet with be the next to blow up?”

Episode 119: Vincent Price

“With our special guest star”: Horror icon Vincent Price is the first Muppet Show guest to have an episode entirely catered to his sensibilities—namely “the strange, the weird, and the scary.” Accustomed to being among the fantastical and bizarre, Price is a hammy natural with The Muppets, camping it up enough to goose the adults without getting too scary for the kids. Though, as previously stated in this Inventory on unexpected TV scares, the Price-induced sight of a fanged Kermit still sends a tiny shiver down my spine.

“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: The “furniture turning into monsters” edition of Muppet News Flash is a watershed moment for the recurring segment—and not just because this is the first, truly funny News Flash. It’s the first News Flash to pick up on the thread of the “hotline” scene in the Connie Stevens episode, thus marking the Newsman’s full comedic potential as a perpetual victim of his own reporting. The scene also merits notice for the cutaway of a Whatnot being terrorized by his own home furnishings, the individual reveals of each deadly in-home terror being a successively great showcase of puppet construction.

“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: The “House Of Horror” sketch is a good premise beset by a logical error and a bad sound mix. In terms of the former, Gonzo and Fozzie identify the castle they’ve rented as a “summer cottage” before Uncle Deadly’s punchline reveals that the scene takes place on New Year’s Eve; in terms of the latter, the echo applied to the characters’ voices renders some jokes entirely unintelligible. (Price’s “hideously deformed monster” is named Toto, though, from Uncle Deadly and Fozzie, it sounds like “Hoto.”) There’s also a bad dub in the DVD version of the sketch, where “Guy Lombardo” (referencing a member of The Royal Canadians, whose version of “Auld Lang Syne” became the New Year’s standard) is replaced by the more universally recognizable (because, you know, he did the music for the show) “Jack Parnell.”

“It’s time to play the music”: The season-one DVD set really sullies an ace first-season episode: Music-rights wrestling prevents the inclusion of a Price-led “You’ve Got A Friend,” a song whose performance rights are somehow more tangled than those of “I’m Looking Through You”—a goddamn Beatles song, for crying out loud. Price puts an eerie spin on Carole King’s light-rock ode to camaraderie and loyalty, really leaning into the lyrics “And take your soul if you let them / Oh yeah, but don’t you let ’em.” It encompasses the spirit (nailed it) of the episode, and without it, an excellent installment of The Muppet Show ends instead with the Talking Houses. Oh, the indignity.

“It’s time to raise the curtain”: Behemoth’s implied massive size comes in handy for “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” as his girth is required to hide both Richard Hunt and Jim Henson. Hunt appears to be working Behemoth’s mouth and left hand, while Henson handles the character’s right hand—along with his duet partner, Shakey Sanchez. The segment is staged and filmed like The Muppets’ old Ed Sullivan appearances, which precludes any camera trickery in the moments when Shakey is off of Henson’s hand. Hunt throws in some nice distractions in that section of the performance, however, shoving his hand in Shakey’s mouth as if to stifle Behemoth’s sniveling meal.

“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Due to the supernatural nature of the episode, several characters—the unnamed ghosts, for example, or Thudge McGurk (who’s just Miss Kitty with additional features) are introduced here—and never heard from again. Price’s presence also prompts the first appearance of Muppet grotesquerie Uncle Deadly, who’ll receive a full backstory next week.

“It all ends in one of two ways”: Three scenes end with one character eating another—Behemoth finally keeping Shakey down; Gorgon Heap concluding the Panel Discussion by gobbling Kermit; the pair of deaths-by-monster-furniture in the News Flash. Of course, any scene featuring Price fits this distinction, given the amount of scenery he chews up during his time on the show.

Next week: Highs and lows with Valerie Harper and Twiggy.

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