The Muppet Show 1.13: “Bruce Forsyth”

A bird hits on Bruce.

A bird hits on Bruce.

Text.

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The Muppet Show 1.12: “Peter Ustinov”

Peter Ustinov and Fozzie crack jokes.

Peter Ustinov and Fozzie crack jokes.

The Peter Ustinov episode of The Muppet Show is a perfect example of how, no matter how iconic and storied the guest star, whenever the Muppets failed to incorporate them into any musical numbers, the show usually suffered, particularly in the first season, when the writers made up for non-singing guests’ lack of singing by featuring them in additional comedy sketches, which, at this point, usually felt creaky and forced, since they were the epitome of the show trying to behave like any other variety show, which it was always so clearly begging not to be.

 

Later on, this could be mitigated by the generally-more-natural backstage scenes in which the guest would take part, often as the focal point of the story, but at this point, a non-singing guest feels more like something they

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The Muppet Show 1.11: “Lena Horne”

Lena Horne consoles Gonzo.

Lena Horne consoles Gonzo.

Growing up, my only real point of reference for Lena Horne was that she was a celebrity who appeared on Sesame Street, but in her relatively brief scenes, she exuded a warm, gentle glow that, even at a young age, made me sense that she was one of those people who really got the Muppets. She and they seemed to fit together so naturally that I remember her spots on the show more vividly than most other famous people who popped up there.

 

By comparison, her Muppet Show episode doesn’t feel nearly as iconic, and that’s almost entirely due to the writing and presentation. The show still hasn’t fully figured out how to best feature and utilize its guest stars consistently. There are some terrific moments that demonstrate just why she was such a beloved performer, as well as such a wonderful friend to the Muppets (she, in fact, believed in them so much that she agreed to do the show, even though she rarely did TV and her people advised against it early on, assuming it would flop), but they seem to happen–more often that not–practically in spite of the episode and its overall creative decisions.

 

The strangest example of this is in her otherwise beautiful first number, “I Got a Name,” a lovely, gentle, and passionate song that she performs on a train station set, Muppy sitting by her, his head in her lap, and a chorus behind her made up of Fozzie, Gonzo, and numerous Season-1-only Muppets: Hilda, George, Mildred, and the Guru. But what could have been a classic Muppet moment is marred by the fact that Horne never makes eye contact with any of the Muppets during the song other than maybe a quick glance down at Muppy. She can’t. Again, they’re all standing behind her, and the staging never has her turn around. I can’t for the life of me imagine who thought this was a good idea. Isn’t interacting with the Muppets the whole point of being on The Muppet Show?!

 

And it isn’t as if she isn’t comfortable with them, as some guests have seemed to be. In addition to her Sesame Street appearances, including her lovely, gentle song with Grover, she also has a lovely, gentle, one-on-one song with Gonzo later on in this episode, “I’m Glad There is You,” in which she attempts to boost his confidence after he’s booed off the stage yet again–a number which stands out due to her warmth and kindness, and for the human connection she makes with Gonzo. It also happens to be the first song on The Muppet Show to be performed “backstage,” in which someone bursts into song a la musical theatre, rather than performed diegetically on stage for an audience (the laugh/applause track the only thing breaking the “reality” of the scene), and Horne is a perfect choice for this first example of this, because it truly feels that she is so full of love for Gonzo, she can’t express it any other way than through spontaneous song. And near the end of the episode, she and a bunch of the other Muppets sing a full-hearted rendition of Sesame Street‘s (which she calls her favorite show) famous “Sing!”

 

She also has a cute little scene in which Fozzie interrupts Kermit’s Talk Spot with her, because he’s tired of Kermit getting to hog all the time with the celebrity guests, but then, in the course of talking to Horne, reveals that he doesn’t know what Lena Horne looks like. He claims to be a huge fan of Horne’s but then is surprised to learn from Kermit she’s on this week! In other words, he doesn’t know who he’s talking to. “This week?! Wow, I don’t want to miss that. Are you gonna stick around and see her?” he asks Horne. She responds, “I might just do that,” and then when he asks her name, she claims that it’s Doris Day. “Cute. Cute name,” he replies, clearly never having heard that one, either! Horne is having the time of her life here, not only being a good sport but also being truly delighted by the Muppety madness around her.

 

Fozzie meets "Doris Day".

Fozzie meets “Doris Day”.

And yet, overall, the episode just doesn’t seem to utilize her well. As previously mentioned, one number, which could have been great, is effectively wasted on managing to isolate her on a stage full of Muppets. Her next appearance, on a Muppet Newsflash, is wasted by just not being very funny or clever. She plays a woman on a seaweed-only diet who “twice a day…find[s] myself going in and out with the tide.” And then her remaining scenes, while nice, are all completely unrelated to each other. While the backstage plot is at least about Lena Horne–in that it’s about the fact that Kermit cuts Piggy’s number from that week’s show so as not to embarrass her when she goes on to sing after the great Horne, but then allows Piggy to believe that it’s the other way around, to spare her feelings, until Scooter accidentally reveals the truth, causing a classic Piggy meltdown/karate-chop extravaganza–she doesn’t directly take part in it, unless you count the curtain call, in which she tells Kermit that she heard Piggy rehearsing backstage and thinks she has a lovely voice. It seems like a huge missed opportunity to not have had a Piggy/Lena confrontation. It could have been terrific to see someone with such a gentle persona get in a squabble with her, and to play more against type, as they did with Florence Henderson.

 

And it seems particularly odd that, in the first episode in which they realized that they could do a backstage number, it didn’t occur to them to actually link that number to the rest of the “plot” in any way. Instead, it’s just yet another sketch in a series of sketches, which, as I’ve said before, was the major reason that, in its first season, The Muppet Show was, surprisingly, a fairly traditional ’70s variety show, at least in overall format. And the sad thing is that means that even the most luminous of the first season guests often got short shrift.

 

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The Muppet Show 1.09: “Charles Aznavour”

Piggy succumbs to Charles' charms.

Piggy succumbs to Charles’ charms.

In previous posts, I spoke of how, in the first season, before The Muppet Show became a massive hit and celebrity guest stars were banging down the doors to appear, the show paid host to a number of lower-tier stars who were friends of the producers, doing them favors. Well, given that the singer, Charles Aznavour, who Kermit calls an “international star,” seems to have only been truly famous in his home country, France, I’m going to assume that he was one of those people. He’s an adequate Muppet Show guest–nothing truly electrifying, even in his musical numbers, but he does a good-enough job of not drawing attention away from the real stars, The Muppets, and, more importantly, provides an excellent avenue for the show to truly begin to explore Piggy’s fascination with all things French.

 

In the Florence Henderson episode, for the first of countless times, Piggy used one of the only French words she truly knows–namely (and fittingly) “Moi”. In later episodes, she’ll claim to actually understand French, in order to seem more cultured, while actually knowing little-to-none. In this second instance, however, she doesn’t actively claim to know it but does experience extreme, helpless arousal at Charles Aznavour whispering it in her ear. She erotically sighs and gasps for breath (oh, look, another example of adult-oriented Muppet humor!), as he demonstrates for Kermit how speaking French always gets the ladies going, and sometimes even more so when they don’t know what he’s actually saying, for in fact, the “deeply passionate” words he’s whispering to Piggy are actually, “Your oil filter has a leak…” and the telephone number for the Paris garbage dump.

 

Now, that isn’t to say that Piggy, at this point in her life, isn’t pretending to understand the language. One could easily assume that she expects that it goes without saying. It’s also possible that she’s worried about directly making that claim to a Frenchman. Later on, in the fifth season, her worst fears are realized when flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal expects her to be able to carry on a fluent conversation with him. Putting that aside, however, following up on that one brief “moi,” this interaction helps cement one of Piggy’s most crucial character elements, not to mention carrying through with her outrageous flirting with male guest stars (established in the Jim Nabors episode), despite her demands that Kermit not do the same with other women. It also has a nice payoff in which Aznavour actually falls for Piggy, Kermit quips that “one man’s poison is another man’s bacon!,” and Piggy returns and rightfully karate chops the frog. “Barbarian,” she calls him, as she marches off.

 

Aznavour and Mildred dance in "The Old Fashioned Way".

Aznavour and Mildred dance in “The Old Fashioned Way”.

Other than that, Aznavour really only does his two musical numbers–the first a song of his called “The Old-Fashioned Way,” which makes for a rather dull ballroom dance with Mildred and a number of creepy full-bodied human Muppets (cut from the DVD due to music rights but available to watch here), the second, the classic “Inch Worm” by Frank Loesser, from the Danny Kaye movie musical, Hans Christian Andersen, a sweet song but not a remarkable rendition, other than the appearance of a cute little Muppet worm who looks like he could be Oscar’s worm, Smiley’s, cousin–and a cute bit where Hilda serves him a loaf of bread that she claims to be French bread, and he tells her it isn’t but is proven wrong when the bread opens it mouth and speaks French in a perfect accent. At least there’s one Muppet he can converse with in his native tongue!

 

Meanwhile, as per usual, the episode’s “plot” has nothing to do with the guest, and is woefully underdeveloped. On the plus side, it actually springs from an interesting place. After not being on stage for a “couple of shows,” Gonzo goes to Kermit to ask why he hasn’t been featured. In actuality, by this point, it’s been more than a couple, as the last time he’s even spoken was in the Joel Grey episode, which was about 7 weeks ago, at least going by production order (to be fair, since the episodes aired in a completely different order, it’s possible there wasn’t as long a gap between Gonzo appearances at least on some of the stations; on the other hand, the gap could have been even bigger for some, as each syndicated network chose its own order!), but it’s fascinating to see the writers actually basically acknowledging, in a meta way, that they don’t have any idea what to do with Gonzo. Kermit tells him his act isn’t working, which is true both on the show and the show-within-the-show.

 

Unfortunately, however, the opportunity to develop that into an interesting plot, perhaps in which Gonzo actually figures out how to recalibrate his act, doesn’t happen here. Instead, Scooter attempts to take Gonzo under his wing, acting as his new manager, but because he’s Scooter, his ideas are just as terrible as Gonzo’s, and Gonzo just ends up with yet more variations on his typical bad performance art ideas up to this point–firstly, breaking rocks with a mallet while yelling, “Art! Art! Art! Art!” and later coming out in drag (in many ways, Gonzo is the queerest Muppet; in a later episode, he will even fall in love with Big Bird!). By the end, Scooter quits as his manager, after he presents Gonzo with the “standard 50-page managerial contract” and Gonzo eats it. At the very least, Kermit is able to sneak in a funny and surprisingly off-color joke in response: “Well, let’s hope the contract’s not binding!”

 

Gonzo tries drag.

Gonzo tries drag.

But, really, the reason that Gonzo doesn’t fix his act here is that the writers clearly still haven’t realized themselves how to accomplish that. In my post on the Connie Stevens episode, I explained how, at the beginning, Fozzie and Gonzo were both depicted as different sorts of sad sack. Well, over the course of the next 9 weeks, the writers evolved Fozzie quite a bit. If he’s not at this point yet fully himself, he’s much further along. On the other hand, Gonzo, if anything, seems to have regressed, having been neglected for a number of weeks and now returning an even sadder sack than before. Now not only does he no longer have a guaranteed regular spot on the show but the writers have given him a new negative feature: they’ve made him dumber. Practically every scene he gets in this episode features some variation on the joke that Gonzo isn’t particularly intelligent and takes everything too literally. Admittedly, there is some funny stuff here, such as this pretty amazing exchange:

 

KERMIT: …I can give you my ear for a moment.

GONZO: What would I do with your ear?

KERMIT: Van Gogh impressions.

(GONZO doesn’t get it…Later…)

GONZO: I don’t play for the masses! I’m an artist!

KERMIT: Then you should’ve gotten my Van Gogh joke.

 

And there’s also some funny stuff in the debate sketch, in which he keeps taking a string of various idioms in a row completely literally, but the problem is that–as I discussed in the Florence Henderson debate sketch–it entirely sacrifices character for humor. Gonzo is made to be less intelligent not because it’s organic to his character but because it scores some easy laughs, and as I’ve said before, this was a negative effect of Jack Burns, the head writer of the time, being a veteran variety show writer but not a character writer. Furthermore, a lot of his comedy was extremely creaky by that point and more suited to the Vaudeville era. Of course, the Muppets would use deliberately lame humor later, as well, but more often than not, there was more of a knowing wink by that point, and it wasn’t just wall-to-wall groaners, as it often was in the first season. It will be interesting to see if Gonzo does end up improving before the second season, when he’ll be the daredevil performer we know and love, or if he ends up being shelved again until that point, since I don’t recall.

 

Other moments of note:

 

–One of the episode’s best moments is its rendition of West Side Story‘s “I Feel Pretty,” a perfect Muppety switcheroo reinterpretation of a classic song, which I would probably discuss in greater depth…except I already did, as it’s an exact recreation of a bit the Muppets did on Julie on Sesame Street 3 years earlier!

She feels pretty.

She feels pretty.

–This episode features the first time that Frank Oz plays Nurse Piggy in a Veterinarians Hospital sketch! Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly notable one other than that, but that alone is pretty major. In fact, the only time Richard Hunt plays Piggy in this entire episode is her quick line in At the Dance, indicating that Oz’s version of her is definitely taking the spotlight by this point. All of Piggy’s real character stuff is going to him, as is now even most of the side bits.

–This week also marks the first time that a guest star doesn’t appear in the debate sketch, as well as the first time that Sam the Eagle actually gets to take part in a sketch, versus simply introducing Wayne and Wanda. He spends the majority of the time being beleagured by Gonzo’s stupidity.

–Although Fozzie doesn’t really get the upper hand in his comedy sketch this week, as not only do Statler and Waldorf heckle him but they actually take over his act all together, he does get a bit of karmic justice when the two old codgers accidentally begin to heckle each other! And thus the circle of life is complete.

 

Next time: Lena Horne!

 

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The Muppet Show 1.08: “Paul Williams”

Paul Williams isn't even the tallest person on The Muppet Show!

Paul Williams isn’t even the tallest person on The Muppet Show!

Remarkably, the Paul Williams episode of The Muppet Show received an Emmy nomination for Best Writing on a Variety Show. Unfortunately, the reason I find it remarkable is that it is easily the most poorly written episode up to this point with a higher-than-usual number of jokes that completely fail to land–for example, the Newsman sketch this week features an “important, breaking story” about a retired shoe salesman, played by Williams, whose telephone rang but, when he picked it up, discovered that the caller had hung up, likely an attempt to satirize the media’s propensity for overhyping minor stories, but that doesn’t make it actually, well, funny–hardly any narrative structure holding it together, and an obsession with the guest star’s diminuitive stature as the sole source of humor surrounding his appearance.

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The Muppet Show 1.07: “Florence Henderson”

Piggy swoons for her Kermie.

Piggy swoons for her Kermie.

The Florence Henderson episode of The Muppet Show features two key and related firsts for the series: (1) the first time that Frank Oz plays Miss Piggy for the entire half hour, never once trading off the part with Richard Hunt, and (2) the first time that an episode’s plot directly involves the guest star, not counting the Harvey Korman episode, whose “plot” was simply made up of two scenes in which he was dressed as a chicken, so I really don’t count it.

 

As plots go, this one isn’t much to write home about, either–Piggy catches Kermit “wooing” Florence Henderson and gets jealous–and would hardly have registered a blip on the radar later in the show, but this early, it is a significant development in the Kermit/Piggy romance saga, being the first

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The Muppet Show 1.06: “Jim Nabors”

Piggy has a thing for Jim

Piggy has a thing for Jim

The Jim Nabors episode of The Muppet Show is a rather weak one, even by first season standards. Although a pleasant-enough guest, Nabors fails to really connect with the Muppets on screen, more often than not feeling like he’s acting alongside rather than really with them. You’d think someone who played as colorful a character as the classic country rube Gomer Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show and then on his own show would be a natural, cartoonish fit for the Muppets, but he never really seems fully comfortable with them, which is ironic given that, in the Talk Spot, he claims that he feels right at home with all the barn animals around, as he grew up on a farm. Maybe it’s just anthropomorphic ones he’s having trouble wrapping his head around.

 

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