The Muppet Show 1.10: “Harvey Korman”

"Good grief, the comedian's a bear!"

“Good grief, the comedian’s a bear!”

Now, I’m not saying that Korman is the best Muppet Show guest nor the best example of this. As much as I love him in other places such as The Carol Burnett Show and in Mel Brooks films, he isn’t given the best material to work with here, and, just as with Buzzi, I can’t help but lament that his appearance wasn’t later in the run of the show, when they generally made better use of their guests. But I do think that his appearance potentially opened up new avenues for the Muppets in exploring different sorts of human guests, not all of whom fit the song-and-dance archetype from before. At the same time, his lack of participation in any musical sketches makes him feel even odder a fit than he would have otherwise. Later on, I feel the writers likely would have put him in at least one regardless of his talent levels in those regards, as the wrongness of him being in one could have created even better comedy. His appearance also would have most likely been in a more coherent episode that actually held together scene-to-scene with backstage material and actual plot, but the show is clearly still very much in its developmental stages.


On the plus side, the show makes at least one triumphant leap forward in this episode in regards not only to Fozzie but to its approach to comedy overall with a classic bit that is both the funniest, most successful sketch featured on the show up to this point, and the moment that, according to Jerry Juhl, the writers finally found Fozzie as a character. A two-hander scene for Fozzie and Kermit and one that really sets up their friendship for the first time beyond boss/employee, it’s the first Fozzie comedy routine that includes no interruption from Statler and Waldorf, which alone indicates how funny it is, and is an important step towards making it clear to the home audience that Fozzie isn’t always simply a victim or a talentless hack–he actually is naturally funny; it’s just that it usually happens when he isn’t trying to be.


The gist of the sketch is that Fozzie pulls Kermit on stage to help him with his act, asking him to recite the line, “Good grief, the comedian’s a bear!” when Fozzie says the word, “hear,” which seems all fine and easy, but it sets off a series of misunderstandings (reminiscent of Abbot and Costello’s classic “Who’s On First?” bit) due to the fact that Fozzie never specified which “hear” or “here” it would be, and so as Fozzie tries to deliver his joke, Kermit keeps saying the phrase at the wrong moment, leading to greater and greater frustration between the two of them, as they lose their patience and repeatedly snap at each other, the scene reaching heights of hilarity unmatched by any previous Muppet Show moment.


Robin is "Halfway Down the Stairs".

Robin is “Halfway Down the Stairs”.

And the real magic at work here is that, even though the ultimate punchline to Fozzie’s joke is just as lame as any of Fozzie’s gags, the two have worked themselves into such a comedic frenzy by that point that even it becomes funny. Because unlike every earlier Fozzie scene, it isn’t focused on him being a bad comedian or being obsequious to Kermit. The fact that he’s so passionate about his craft that he snaps at Kermit, who for the first time feels like a friend on equal footing to him rather than his boss, opens up both characters in whole new ways. Also, it’s arguably the first Muppet sketch overall where the bad pun punchline ends up being a red herring rather than the main focus of the gag, which is instead entirely character-based. It’s one of the few scenes at this point on par with the classic era of The Muppet Show, and it hints at such amazing things to come.


Another brilliant moment occurs at the end of the episode, featuring the show’s ability to sometimes unexpectedly slow down for a quiet, lovely few seconds. Making his first appearance since The Frog Prince, Kermit’s nephew, Robin (although their familial relationship won’t be revealed until the next season), sits on a staircase and sings A. A. Milne’s charming song, “Halfway Down the Stairs”. He doesn’t dance or hop around, instead remaining mostly still, the camera moving slowly, no zany flourishes to be found here, and yet he sings with such pure, gentle heart that it is utterly captivating, demonstrating Robin’s mix of sweetness with just a touch of melancholy. And what might be most remarkable about this performance is that, when it was released as a single in the UK, it hit #7 on the pop charts. That’s regular pop charts, not children’s music or soundtracks. Even at this early stage, people were starting to connect with The Muppet Show and realize that there was something really special here.


Other moments of note:


–The episode opens in an extremely Muppety way that’s anarchic while it also immediately subverts expectation. Kermit announces that he wants to start things on a “high note,” at which point a trumpet appears to his right, blowing directly into his surprised face. The camera then cuts to Statler and Waldorf, the former saying, “Better than opening with a bang!” And a second later who should appear behind him but Crazy Harry, asking, “Did somebody say bang?!” Of course, we expect him to set off an explosion, particularly since we just saw Kermit practically attacked by a trumpet blast. And, yet, NO! Instead, Statler manages to punch Harry, knocking him out before he has a chance! It’s great because it’s both anti-climactic to not hear the expected explosion, yet at the same time the lack of it indicates that we should always keep on our toes with The Muppet Show. There’s no way to guess what will happen.

–And, anyway, the anti-climax issue is solved immediately afterwards during the Electric Mayhem’s number–a song they first performed in The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence, which includes lines about exploding atom bombs in your heart, and is punctuated by repeated explosions all around them!

–In my Ruth Buzzi episode post, I spoke about how Animal was the first Electric Mayhem member to start to get fleshed out, and that trend continues here. As soon as his number is over, Kermit holds a one-on-one chat with him to introduce him to the audience–a great little bit that has an amazing twist on Animal’s usual calling-out of a simple phrase. At one point, Kermit asks Animal if he loves his drums more than food, and he responds, “They are food! Eat drums, eat cymbals!” Kermit replies, “How cym-bolic!” to which Animal yells, “BAD PUN!” Later on in the episode, Animal is again the highlight of an Electric Mayhem number–a jam session that has no vocals other than Animal, who repeatedly calls out, “JAM! JAM!” throughout.

Veterinarian's Hospital

Veterinarian’s Hospital

–This episode also sees the debut of one of my favorite recurring sketches, the soap opera parody Veterinarian’s Hospital, in which Rowlf plays the inept, pun-happy Doctor Bob (“who’s gone to the dogs!”), assisted by Nurse Piggy and Nurse Janice. Now, this first installment–in which a patient explodes due to a bad case of hiccoughs–is not the greatest example of the sketch, partly because both Piggy and Janice’s are voiced by the “wrong” people, and partly because it just isn’t very funny, but I’m certainly glad they managed to see the potential in keeping this sketch around, as it gets a lot better.

–There’s also a nice twist on the typical Wayne and Wanda number here, because instead of an uncontrollable outside force ruining their song, here Wayne deliberately trips up Wanda. She is trying to sing Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You,” but before she can finish the first verse, Wayne actually kicks her off-stage! Is there trouble brewing in Paradise? I would love to read a tell-all book on their relationship.


And so, there we have it, structurally the weakest Muppet Show yet, but it’s clearly a good sign of the show’s overall potential and quality at this point that even this one is full of excellence, a lot of which will be returned to and improved on as the show continues to develop and grow.


Next time: Rita Moreno!


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