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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