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Rowlf on "Our Place"

Rowlf on “Our Place”

In the summer of 1967, Rowlf was enlisted by Ed Sullivan (again underlining in what high esteem Sullivan held Jim and the Muppets) for yet his next big assignment, as the emcee to a new variety show produced by Sullivan’s production company to air just that one summer–from July 2nd till September 3rd–while most of the rest of TV was on hiatus/in reruns. Along with Rowlf, Our Place also featured an adorably square musical group, The Doodletown Pipers–who would sing overly earnest covers of pop hits–along with the comedy team of Burns and Schreiber, namely Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber, the first of whom would go on to be the head writer on the first season of The Muppet Show, and the second of whom would appear in an episode that first year.


I was able to find just a single episode, from July 23rd, 1967, guest starring comedian Dick Shawn. If only it had been the first episode, which featured a duet between Rowlf and Carol Burnett! Other episodes apparently also featured some of the earliest examples of Rowlf playing the piano (other than, I assume, the bit in which he played jazz on The Jimmy Dean Show). This one is an interesting curiosity, particularly to see just how very, very, very 60s it is, from the fashions to the dance styles to the song choices. “Feelin’ Groovy,” indeed! Rowlf’s bits are also interesting to see but not nearly as fresh or funny as his material with Jimmy Dean. The basic gist of the episode’s throughline is that too many balloons have been delivered to the studio and the off-stage boss demands that Rowlf get rid of them, and so Rowlf appears numerous times throughout the hour, trying to off-load them in various ways. Naturally, at one point, he ends up with even more balloons than he did before, when a guy asks him to hold 100 for him for a day until he can surprise his girlfriend with them later.


"Evening at the Pops"

“Evening at the Pops”

The most notable aspect of the whole episode is probably a scene in which a balloon orchestra, conduction by a balloon conductor, plays “The Blue Danube,” each one popping in time to the music, until one balloon deflates slowly, instead of making the appropriate noise and so the conductor sacrifices himself for the final bang. Muppet obsessives such as myself should recognize this scene, as it was later recreated on The Muppet Show (I may not have mentioned this before, but I love that with The Muppet Show, besides introducing new, now much beloved characters, Jim was basically able to present a Greatest Hits of his career).


But overall, this certainly feels more like completist viewing than necessary viewing. Rowlf is entertaining, well, because he’s Rowlf, but he has no one to bounce off with here on the same level as his old friend, Jimmy, and with him here often left by himself, dealing with his boss via the phone or interacting with the practically affectless young actors, the magic is significantly reduced–though, again, I’m sure I’d be singing a very different tune had I seen an episode such as the Carol Burnett one. Though it is significant to note that most of the people here actually pronounce “Rowlf” correctly, rather than as “Ralph,” as Jimmy Dean did! At the very least, the episode ends on a high note, with Rowlf singing a brief duet of “Two Different Worlds” with one of the lady Doodletown Players and soon afterwards taking off in a hot air balloon. You can watch the entire episode, divided into 6 pieces on YouTube: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, and Part 6.


Switching tracks, next we have a quick little commercial (one of two) the Muppets did for Tastee Freez, in which a boss at an ice cream shop introduces a delicious-looking Tastee Freez that is apparently so irresistible that one of his workers, apparently named Homer, devours it before any customer can get to it:



And with that, we’re now in 1968–the year that Muppets, Inc. officially became Henson Associates, or HA!–with Jim and Co. filming a short comedic industrial film for Flying A Dealers, who represented American Oil, about an adorable yet inept robot named ESSO–Electronic Service Station Operator, for short–intended to help fully automate the gas station experience but who ends up making things much worse than a human could have, this set-up of a robot or technology royally messing up being a recurring theme for Henson, from the malfunctioning robot who tried to assert his dominance over man but then needed to be wound up in Robot to the coffee machine in Coffee Break Machine whose only defense mechanism is blowing itself up–after a proto-Cookie Monster had already devoured it. And this one is probably the funniest so far, with the robot first trying to fill the radiator with gasoline, later flooding the entire car with it, and finally tipping it completely on its side, a cheerful expression on his face and lilt to his Kermity voice all the while.


One might think from all of these flawed technology scenarios that Jim was a huge luddite but he was actually fascinated by technology his entire life and was always eager to explore its potential uses often years before other people. He just also found the idea of malfunctioning technology funny. Frank Oz referred to Jim’s comedy style as “affectionate anarchy,” and having something he loved also be shown to have potential deep flaws that perhaps a manufacturer would want people to ignore is right in his comedic wheelhouse. Also, I can imagine that, as a humanist, he did harbor some worries about machines being used to replace humans and so he was able to poke fun at that idea in places like this:


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