Como and Carson

The Reindeer sing for snow.

The Reindeer sing for snow.

I’ve been mentioning the Muppets’ many, many variety show appearances ever since my third post here, and I’m happy to report that we’ve finally come to an era for which I was finally able to get some footage to watch (other than the “Glow Worm” sketch and the stuff from The Jimmy Dean Show, the latter of which feels a bit different, given Rowlf was a weekly fixture)! Both of these first two bits were filmed in December of 1965, and both are awesome, rare finds for Henson fans.

 

The first is from the 20th and was a sketch filmed for Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall and is easily one of my favorite things I’ve seen so far in this blogging journey. You can watch it here. In short, it’s about Santa’s reindeer getting ready for the upcoming Christmas season. It begins with Dasher (voiced by Jim, using a Rowlfish inflection) marching on stage, followed by Dancer, Donner, Prancer, and Blitzen, in a military roll-call line-up and instantly wins my heart when Blitzen kiddingly announces himself as “Ringo,” getting a big laugh from the audience. One of the things I’ve always loved about the Muppets is seeing now-famous moments of pop culture history appearing in the form of then-timely jokes, and to see it appear long before the Muppet era we’re used to seeing is very exciting. It’s also just nifty to consider the fact that, at the time, they couldn’t possibly have known that the Beatles’ staying power would be such that the joke would still be understandable/funny 40 years later.

 

And the jokes keep flying from there, with more lame/clever/amazing/sometimes-all-these-things-at-once puns than you can shake a sock puppet at–fitting given these reindeer basically are sock puppets, very simple in design, yet with the classically distinctively expressive Muppet eyes that help truly give them the spark of life. As the sketch proceeds, we learn that Santa is facing a serious problem: it hasn’t snowed yet and without snow, the reindeer and won’t have the magic they need to fly the toys to all of the children on Christmas Eve. This is “snow joke!” one of them mockingly says. Later on, another tells Dasher that they may not have snow but they have “snoo”. And he stops himself just as he’s saying “What’s snoo–?” but not too soon for them to respond, “What’s snoo with you?!” The reason these Muppet pun gags work so well is because a lot of them were ancient groaners even back then, but Jim and his co-performers have the characters deliver them with such an open-hearted, self-deprecating spirit that they go all the way around to being funny again.

 

Jim, May, and Perry Como

Jim, May, and Perry Como

Then, the reindeer hit upon the idea of doing a snow dance to call down the snow, just like “Indian” rain dances. Now, this is the point where things get a tad culturally insensitive from today’s perspective, with the reindeer mimicking a Native American tribal ritual, but this bit is thankfully brief and restrained and entirely sans any of the reindeer trying to put on an “Indian” accent or speaking like Tonto or anything like that. And it also has a terrific comedic pay-off, for as it turns out their “snow dance” backfires. Instead of snowing, it does indeed rain! “That’s to be expected,” one of them says. “We are reindeer!” which is easily the smartest pun in the whole bit. It practically threw me off-guard with how clever it was. It’s the sort of joke that’s so obvious in retrospect but which actually surprises in the moment with how it plays off and twists the action.

 

So they decide to try again and harder this time, and this time around, LEAVES FALL! “We’re getting closer!” they say. Their dances are basically fast-forwarding through the seasons, which is pretty brilliant. Then finally, in another great punchline, they get one solitary snowflake to drop before the sky finally opens up with snow. All in all, a simple but very imaginative and funny sketch that foreshadows what would be a classic Muppet formula–one character trying to basically put a show together, while the craziness of the others keeps threatening to derail it, that chaos ultimately being the source of the bulk of the humor, and with wacky renditions of beloved songs thrown in for good measure.

 

After the sketch is over, there’s also a great moment where Perry Como comes on stage and asks to meet the reindeer’s choreographer, and out comes a little girl Muppet, May Taylor, who is actually the Stretchel puppet from the Shrinkel and Stretchel ads repurposed for this role. And she soon afterwards brings out the Muppets’ creator, a very 1960s-dapper Jim Henson, who pops up from behind the stage and shyly responds to Como’s compliments until May explains, “That’s why we don’t have him up very often. Some people should be behind the scenes,” which is such a funny acknowledgment of the fact that Jim was a quiet, shy sort who was most at ease in front of an audience when he was talking through a puppet on his arm, while at the same time being meta because, of course, Jim himself had written these lines for her to say. And you can watch the entire thing here.

 

"Let Me In"

“Let Me In”

And the second clip I watched is from the 1965 New Year’s Eve episode of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. This seems to have been one of the Muppets’ earlier appearances on the show after Carson took over from Jack Paar in 1962. It stars an Anything Muppet (the official designation for unnamed, one-off Muppet characters) drunkenly standing and swaying outside a door, while repeatedly knocking and singing a song called “Let Me In,” which sounds like one of the old, mostly forgotten songs Jim would often dust off and give new life to on The Muppet Show, although I unfortunately wasn’t able to find any information on it.

 

This is a terrific example of Jim’s mastery of puppetry, and how he could bring even a relatively simple character like this to life often with just a few deft touches and details. The way he shakes a little bit from his inebriated state, the realistic motions as he gulps down his drink, the fact that when he takes a swig from his bottle, it’s revealed to not be an empty prop but full of actual liquid that humorously drips out of his mouth in small rivulets, which at once acknowledges that he’s a puppet who doesn’t have an actual throat for the drink to go down while also at the same time enhancing the visual effect of his drunkenness. In other words, he’s so out of it that he isn’t even aiming the alcohol into his mouth correctly.

 

In many ways, the magic here is that his existence feels so convincingly straightforward, you might not even notice the complexity of the accomplishment. Because while Jim makes the character’s physical actions funny, there’s also a sad undercurrent here. You actually do come to feel a bit of this lonely man’s isolation and pain, even admist the humorous repetitiveness of the song’s lyrics and the man’s repeated, desperate, unanswered knocks on the door. There is a bittersweet edge here that feels emotionally deeper than most of the Muppet stuff we’ve seen previously, and this mixture of tones is something that Jim will use to great effect in certain later Muppet numbers. And because, although he loved chaotic humor, Jim was primarily a humanist, he ultimately rewards this hoboish character with a happy ending. In the last, lovely moment, the door does indeed open up, and in a nifty twist, while the lyrics might have indicated that he was a spurned lover, it turns out that there are actually New Year’s celebrations going on inside to which a human friend with a party hat welcomes him in, with open arms. You can see the number here.

 

And tomorrow, get ready for lots and lots and lots more commercials!

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