The Muppet Show 1.11: “Lena Horne”

Lena "sings a song" with her friends.

Lena “sings a song” with her friends.

Now, it may seem that my major complaint is that the guest star isn’t being focused on enough, but that isn’t really the issue. One of the great things about The Muppet Show was that the human of the week was never the host of the show. That was always Kermit. The real stars were the Muppets. No matter how famous you were, you were there to support them, never the other way around. The Muppets always got more screentime than the humans, and that’s the way it should be. However, in later seasons, the celebs tended to be used in such a way that they didn’t feel like they were being kept in their own mostly-on-stage bubbles, segregated from the main plots. Although they were still used sparingly so as to not steal the spotlight, the show made sure that those appearances counted, and they did that by making those scenes crucial to the story of the week.


Conversely, in the first season, it sometimes feels like the guest star was just making a few cameo appearances in a show they were otherwise barely in. Later on, every element was a part of a larger whole, but here, even a great star like Lena Horne doesn’t make enough of an impact, and that’s due to how the episode presents her. Without a strong structure in place, even her best moments don’t stand out enough, and none feel as indelible as her spots on Sesame Street. What we have here is good, but with better writing, it could have been great.


Some other points of note:


–There’s a terrific, super Muppety little moment when Kermit calls for “Miss Horne” to come on stage and instead gets Miss Horn, an anthropomorphic lady horn (as in the instrument) with blonde hair.

–I’m also in love with the scene in which Kermit tells Piggy, in no uncertain terms, that he’s such a busy frog that there is no room for romance in his life at the present time, in order to let her down easy. In response, Piggy has a diva meltdown, culminating in some Shakespeare: “I am crushed! I am destroyed! My life has no meaning! It is over! The sun will never shine on this pig! Death, death, where is thy sting?” At which point, Kermit interrupts her, asking, “Piggy, aren’t you overdoing it a little bit?” and she actually stops dead in her tracks, replies, “Well, maybe–” and just leaves, the rare (only?) time that Piggy gets so caught off guard in the middle of a melodramatic moment that she actually ceases!

It reminded me a bit of Kermit and Piggy’s meta fight in The Great Muppet Caper, however there she takes his criticism of her “performance” being too over-the-top seriously. Which is arguably more in character, but there’s something disarmingly funny about how swiftly she cuts it out here. And one could also argue that that’s because there’s no insult to her in this scene. From her POV, he didn’t even reject her per se but simply said he didn’t have the time–something which she could easily rationalize as making him fair game later when he does.

–In the Charles Aznavour episode, during the “At the Dance” sequence, Mildred asked George if he liked Kipling (as in Rudyard, author of The Jungle Book), and he responded, “I don’t know. I’ve never Kippled.” Which is a very old joke, but “cute” (to echo one of the season’s recurring gags, which Fozzie and Lena also took up in this episode). In this week’s “At the Dance,” it’s actually followed up on with a funny twist. Here, Mildred asks him, “Do you like circuses?” When he replies in the affirmative, she says, “Then you must like Ringling!” His reply: “I don’t know. I’ve never Ringled!” Which is a neat bit of continuity that I’m not sure how many people noticed. Also, I would just like to note that, once again, the only time that Richard Hunt plays Piggy in the episode is in this sequence. Frank Oz has fully taken her over by this point when it comes to significant character work.

–The Swedish Chef has a wonderful bit in this episode, in which he’s attempting to make spaghetti, but, instead, the spaghetti tries to escape the plate by shuffling away, the Chef grabs it and puts it back, it tries to make another break for it, he grabs it again, and then finally it jumps off the plate, wraps itself around his neck and starts to strangle him! In addition to being hilarious, the spaghetti itself is a fantastic puppet. It’s constructed in such a way that, at the start, you would just think it was a disconnected pile of pasta. There are even some loose strands to sell the illusion. It’s only once it starts to move that you realize it’s a puppet and that it has to be connected somewhere, although even with that, it’s hard to make out how/where. An excellent example of an innovative yet simple/effective Henson puppet that makes for a terrific gag.

Animal finds Lena's key.

Animal finds Lena’s key.

–The one Lena Horne scene I haven’t mentioned before now is one in which Horne can’t get into the dressing room and asks Animal to find her key. In response, he hits her foot with a mallet, and she scream/sings in pain and surprise. Animal replies, “B-flat!” Although it doesn’t really show us a different side of Horne as some of the better Muppet Show episodes do with their guest stars, there’s something fun and a little dangerous and rule-breaking about seeing Animal attack such a sweet guest, hinting at what might have been if they’d been bolder and had more fun with her image throughout.

–During the curtain call, after Kermit agrees to give Piggy a singing spot next week, as per Horne’s advice, Piggy appears out of the blue and assaults him with kisses, leaving him incapable of signing off the show, and so Hilda does it! Which is the first time that Kermit isn’t the one to bid us all adieu!


And with that, I once again bid you all adieu for now. Next time: Peter Ustinov!


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