The Muppet Show was, in some ways, the culmination of years of creative and career toiling by puppeteer Jim Henson. Other highs would follow, including some notable feature-films (from The Muppet Movie to Labyrinth) featuring work by what came to be known as the Jim Henson Creature Shop, but The Muppet Show gave Henson the weekly opportunity to spend his plentiful goodwill on a huge stable of characters, production numbers seemingly limited only by the imagination, a collection of astoundingly talented friends and colleagues, and an equally happy audience comprised of children of all ages.
Henson's 1955 series Sam and Friends was a training ground for his "Muppets," lively foam and felt characters with an absurdist streak of humor. The Muppets caught the attention of variety and talk shows looking for a little more novelty, and soon the Muppets were cropping up on The Jimmy Dean Show and with Steve Allen and Jack Paar (later, the Muppets regularly appeared in the inaugural season of Saturday Night Live). The Muppets settled and grew under the wing of the Children's Television Workshop, which produced Sesame Street for PBS, beginning in 1969.
That show featured Kermit the Frog, a Henson alter ego that dated back to Sam and Friends (hence the 50th Anniversary of Kermit heralded on this box set), and after years of hitting the pavement, Henson secured the support of infamous London TV producer Lord Lew Grade. The Muppet Show would premiere in 1976 and prove to be an international success, but its first season proved to be a hard sell to the celebrities pursued as guest stars. Once the show was a hit, of course, The Muppet Show (like Batman before it) became the hip place to hang out on screen.
The uninitiated might be surprised at the breadth of this uniquely colorful variety show, which emphasized sketch comedy and silly production numbers, but also explored more delicate tones of song, dance, and mime. In the series' first episode, Juliet Prowse performs a ballet—complemented by graceful, understated Muppets—to Scott Joplin's "Solace." Gentle, patiently staged songs by Kermit (Joe Raposo's "Bein' Green") and Jerry Nelson's Robin (A.A. Milne's "Halfway Down the Stairs") touchingly evoke the inner space of children; in fact, the latter soared to number 7 on the UK pop charts!
If traditional high culture and artful mood pieces are the medicine, the "spoonful of sugar" (okay, the ladle of sugar) is the show's comic vaudeville. The fretful but simply adorable Kermit hosts from a lived-in theater, where he lures talented guest stars to perform amid strange, scrappy Muppet acts (the balcony is the province of two elderly hecklers named Statler and Waldorf). Henson remounts old novelty songs ("I'm My Own Grandpa") and head writer Jack Burns (abetted by preeminent Muppet writer Jerry Juhl) orchestrates corny puns, non-sequitur sight gags, and old-fashioned routines, exemplified by the "Good grief, the comedian's a bear" sketch worked to perfection by Kermit and hopelessly bad comic Fozzie the Bear in Episode 10 (guest star: Harvey Korman).
The guest stars make a particularly unusual grab-bag in season one, but it's a far-from-embarrassing group, including Lena Horne, Joel Grey, Rita Moreno, Peter Ustinov, Phyllis Diller, Vincent Price, Ethel Merman, and Candice Bergen. Bruce Forsyth couldn't have meant much to audiences outside of England, though he acquits himself as well as can be expected, whereas Connie Stevens and Florence Henderson are the worst things about their respective production numbers. Trouble booking guests may have had a silver lining, allowing funkier choices like French chanteur Charles Aznavour and diminutive pop singer Paul Williams, who went on to co-write the music for The Muppet Movie.
For production ease, musical numbers were canned, and a laugh track (arguably necessary but sometimes undeniably intrusive) is present, but the word is still "performance," with live-to-tape genius by the Muppeteers. Like The Simpsons, The Muppet Show rotates gags—in its opening sequence (a Fozzie joke and Gonzo's doomed attempt to strike the gong-like "O" in the show's logo) and end credits (a Statler and Waldorf kiss-off)—and can exploit an extended family of characters. Some of those characters, most notably Miss Piggy, visibly and audibly take shape over the course of the season (Piggy, once traded by Muppeteers Richard Hunt and Frank Oz, becomes a star in Oz's hands).
Gonzo (Dave Goelz) is the unplaceably strange creature who does bizarre performance art; Scooter (Hunt) is the eager-beaver gofer whose uncle owns the theater (and don't forget it); Rowlf the Dog and Dr. Teeth (both Henson) are eccentric piano players; Sam the American Eagle (Oz, who also played Fozzie) promotes the wholesome song stylings of Wayne and Wanda (Hunt and Eren Ozker), whose numbers are always brusquely aborted. More than a dozen other significant characters debut in the inaugural season, though not all of them would stick (George the Janitor, Hilda the Wardrobe Lady, we hardly knew ye...).
Though I was blissfully unaware as a child, Laugh-In was an obvious influence on The Muppet Show with its frequent "blackout" sketches and casual absurdism. But while Laugh-In is a dated relic, the Muppet characters spring eternal. No one who as ever seen the Swedish Chef attacked by his own dishes will ever forget him (perfomed by Henson, with Oz's real hands on view to do the cooking). Surely Spanish sadist Marvin Suggs and his amazing Muppaphone (fuzzy heads that yelp in tonal agony when struck by Suggs' mallets) will haunt dreams for decades to come (once you see this, try to hear "Lady of Spain" without laughing).
Regular sketches like Muppet News, "At the Dance," and the hilariously pun-ridden soap spoof "Veterinarian's Hospital" prove their value over the course of the season. The first season also provided the ace material for the best-selling Muppet Show album: Gonzo eating a rubber tire to "Flight of the Bumblebee," Scooter and Fozzie adapting Randy Newman's "Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear," Zoot and Rowlf performing the indescribable piano-and-sax duet "Sax and Violence," Kermit's rendition of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," and so on.
Henson's death in 1990 struck a blow to the world and to the company he built, but his wonderfully weird world—edgy but all charm—tenaciously endures. Muppet illusions are complete, which makes supreme children's entertainment; likewise, the groaning humor can reduce grown adults to fits of laughter. I don't want to know the person who can't enjoy "Mahna Mahna," the novelty number staged by Henson to feature a fuzzy-vested beatnik croaking "Mahna mahna" and two pink alien cows singing "Doo doo doo doo doo" backup. If you're ever feeling overwhelmed, take two "mahna"s and call me in the morning.
Buena Vista Home Entertainment has my personal gratitude for treating my beloved childhood show with respect, but there's an unfortunate asterisk to that statement (more on this in a moment). The remastering of The Muppet Show makes the nearly 30-year-old show look and sound as good as ever, with no visual or aural distractions, or detractions, to the material. Better yet, Buena Vista has seen fit to include several valuable extras to this four-disc set, which presents all 24 episodes of Season One in production order.
I believe everyone should buy this set, but it is not definitive, and one can only hope that future seasons will be complete (and that this one will eventually be reissued fully intact). While its true that the "UK Spots" that were not aired in the show's American broadcasts are included in these edits, five of the 24 episodes have suffered brief cuts, undoubtedly for legal issues or copyright demands deemed too costly to be met. Unfortunately, these sorts of edits are all too common on DVD, as music rights holders often hold their material hostage by demanding exhorbitant fees. That said, studio lawyers may be overly skittsih in some cases, and studios should not give up on pricy material, even if it means raising the cost of the season sets.
Episode 3 ("Joel Grey") is bereft of Wayne and Wanda's "Stormy Weather" (and the subsequent comments of Statler & Waldorf), as well as a Muppet News-flash; Episode 6 ("Jim Nabors") loses a "Gone With The Wind" number and its Statler & Waldorf chaser, as well as all of the footage of "The Danceros" (intro, number, and backstage—apparently, these cuts resulted in a partial shuffling of the show's remaining segments); Episode 8 ("Paul Williams") lacks the monster-sung "All of Me" and its intro; Episode 9 ("Charles Aznavour") is missing the guest's rendition of "The Old Fashioned Way," with Mildred (and its intro and Statler & Waldorf commentary); and Episode 19 ("Vincent Price") loses the closing number, "You've Got A Friend", performed by Price and a chorus of monsters (gone also is the number's intro). [Note: if you can get your hands on the out-of-print Time-Life disc—Volume 5 of Best of The Muppet Show—you'll get the intact Price episode.]
Also, the original pitch reel has lost its final scene with Kermit. In the last minute, Kermit should be seen standing in front of a CBS logo. He looks into the camera and asks, "What the hell was that?"
Putting the unpleasantness aside, each episode features a scrupulously detailed trivia track called "Muppet Morsels," accessible through the menu or the "Subtitle" button. In lieu of commentary, the trivia tracks provide a wealth of useless information, whether it's the production and airdates, background on the guest star, or the tidbit that the backup Muppets in the "Mahna Mahna" song are called "Snowths." When a number represents a variant of an earlier or later Muppet segment ("Bein' Green," for example—perfomed earlier on Sesame Street and on a later season of The Muppet Show), the Muppet Morsels pop up to detail the history.
Disc One begins with theatrical and video trailers, but one can choose to skip past them to the menu, which features new Statler & Waldorf gags as a greeting and an admonishment if you wait too long to make a selection.
Disc Four contains the lion's share of bonus features. Chief among them is "Sex and Violence" (25:23), one of two unaired pilots (the first, "The Muppets Valentine Show," with Mia Farrow, isn't included in this set). "Sex and Violence" proves to be positively surreal, hewing closer to Monty Python than Laugh-In. The pilot begins with imposing, stacked letters reading "SEX AND VIOLENCE." The announcer intones, "Ladies and gentleman, presenting the end of Sex and Violence on television," prompting Crazy Harry to blow up the letters.
"Well, you see, this show jumps from place to place—you'll get used to it," explains the host, a balding functionary called Nigel (in the next pilot, Nigel became the bandleader). Instead of backstage at a vaudeville theater, Nigel chills in the show's "nerve center," mostly with Sam the Eagle and Floyd. A channel-switching motif cuts from tangled wrestlers to a cooking show called "Järnvägskorsning," with the Swedish chef subtitled in Chinese. Instead of the row of houses common to Season One, "Sex and Violence" cuts a few times to Mount Rushmore, which tells bad jokes (George Washington is slow on the uptake).
Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem play a number, "At the Dance" appears in an embryonic form (with Ernie, in drag, and Bert making cameo appearances), and we see Statler & Waldorf in their quiet den, humorously established by a clock softly ticking. The arrival of a talking cash register representing Avarice heralds the show's ostensible "plot": a "Seven Deadly Sins" pageant. Weird, wild stuff—a curious look at how The Muppet Show could have been a lot less sweet and a lot more challenging (note that the featured writer is Marshall Brickman, Woody Allen's co-writer in the 1970s).
Disc Four also includes "The Original Muppet Pitch Reel" (2:51), a tongue-in-cheek presentation to potential investors that invokes the blessing of God to make cash hand over fist. The pitchman, performed by Henson, also hypes the meeting of minds between Henson and George Schlatter—this partnership ultimately failed to gel. The reel is another wonderful glimpse into Muppet history, unfortunately marred by an unnecessary edit. Something called "Season 1 Promo Gag Reel" (1:46) is actually some TV Spots stitched together and not a blooper reel, as the title would suggest—still, a cool inclusion.
It's a shame—though not terribly surprising, given the breadth of content—that The Muppet Show should suffer from cuts. One can only hope that future releases will be complete, and that interviews will be produced (and/or collected) to mine the knowledge of Muppet performers living and dead. For now, we shouldn't look this gift frog in the mouth.
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