The Muppet Show 1.13: “Bruce Forsyth”

A bird hits on Bruce.

A bird hits on Bruce.

With the Bruce Forsyth episode, we have yet another mostly lackluster celebrity appearance. This isn’t helped by the fact that, despite Kermit extolling his virtues and calling him a “one-man variety show,” his singing, dancing, and comedic stylings fail to impress–or at least fail to impress a modern eye. I don’t know much of Forsyth outside of this appearance (other than that, in his later years, he was accused of being racist numerous times, but I’m sure British viewers could enlighten me further) but at least here he seems to be of the breed of male song-and-dance entertainers of the mid-20th-century who never seem more than adequately talented when viewed today.


As with the Harvey Korman episode, a lot of the schtick here seems to play up how uncomfortable Forsyth is around the Muppets but without any of the genuine bite and zing of Korman’s performance, so instead of the force of nature we got with him, the episode is instead pervaded with the slightly unpleasant feeling of something just not gelling correctly. His discomfort, while scripted, seems to play as actual discomfort. Instead of letting loose with the Muppets, it feels as if he never really allows himself to be won over by the illusion. There’s a lot of mugging to the (non-existent) audience rather than engaging with the Muppets as believable people themselves.


This is particularly apparent in his dance number from Gypsy (“All I Need is the Girl”) in which an enormous Gawky Bird takes a liking to him and he tries to fend off her advances. The puppetry as she advances on her “prey” is astoundingly good but he doesn’t seem to have the comedic or acting chops to make his reactions feel genuinely funny or deliberate. And his singing and dancing aren’t anything to write home about.


The climax of the scene, however, still has a great, classical bit of Muppety subversion when the Gawky Bird and her sister back him into a birdcage, the birds turning the tables on the human, who takes refuge in something that is meant to lock birds in for the amusement of humans rather than keep humans safe from birds. But, again, that comes from the Muppets and their writers, not from anything Forsyth brings to the table.


He’s equally unimpressive in his Talk Spot with Kermit. Again, he exudes a rather unpleasant vibe that makes it seem like he either considers himself above the Muppets or just genuinely doeesn’t know how to react to them. To be fair, it doesn’t feature The Muppet Show‘s most sparkling writing, so there isn’t much to work with. It starts with him calling the show strange. “I’ll buy the fact that you’re a frog who can talk,” he says. “I’ll even buy the chicken who shares my dressing room…” at which point Kermit responds, “She’s not for sale,” having misinterpreted Bruce’s usage of “buy”.


Duck negotiations.

Duck negotiations.

But then things take a bizarre turn. Instead of correcting Kermit, Forsyth explains that doesn’t want to buy a chicken but he would lease a duck, at which point Kermit shows him that they do have a duck he could rent, and they start negotiating for how much it would cost. Kermit tells him a pig and two chickens. Forsyth responds that he has a pig but no rabbits. Does he have change for a rat? And so on and so forth.


While there is something strangely amusing about how far into knots the sketch twists itself to justify this pun and itself, it doesn’t really work, and ends on yet another unpleasant note: Piggy karate chops Forsyth for disrespecting pigs, and in response he sticks his fingers in her snout and chops her back, a bit of violence that feels uncomfortable to watch, particularly given the rather sexist tone that pervaded his previous song-and-dance number. Piggy may be a puppet but the optics are that of a larger male physically attacking a much smaller woman. Florence Henderson fighting Piggy was funny because not only was she also a woman but it was also so at odds with her clean-cut Brady persona. With Forsyth, there’s no contrast to his perceived personality. He seems like a bit of a jerk already, and so his behavior here just seems vicious and unfortunately gendered.


And, as with a lot of the episodes of this era–and this is a point I feel like I’ve made ad nauseum by now–the guest never appears backstage and is only tangentially related to its rudimentary plot, which is about Fozzie practicing to handle Statler and Waldorf’s heckling with stinging retorts of his own. But naturally, he isn’t very good at it, although there is a great moment where he responds to Kermit berating him (he’s asked him to help him practice) by simply taking out a rubber chicken and whacking him on the head with it. “Too subtle?” he asks. (Fozzie’s rubber chicken would later come to be one of the props most associated with him.) Ultimately, Kermit tells him he won’t have to worry about heckling tonight–because he’s given Fozzie’s comedy spot that night to Bruce Forsyth! Fozzie faints in agony.


Now, I’ve also spoken at length about how Fozzie too often comes across as a sad sack in the first season, and while most of his appearances in this episode do little to fix that issue, a positive step is made in the right direction during Forsyth’s comedy bit, which Fozzie mercifully interrupts. For a little while, Forsyth actually does perform a routine which, despite possibly taking up only a minute or less of screentime, seems to drag forever, being largely dated, cheesy, and unfunny. Even a few interruptions from Statler and Waldorf and his subsequent responses do little to break up the monotony…until Fozzie comes out in awe over how well Forsyth handled their rudeness. To clarify, Forsyth really didn’t handle it that well, but for the purpose of the narrative and Fozzie’s character, it’s easy to pretend he did. In fact, given that Fozzie’s taste in comedy usually ranges towards the creaky, his being so impressed with Forsyth’s rather tepid display is entirely in character.


But anyway, Forsyth encourages Fozzie that he has the ability to get Statler and Waldorf himself, as well, which, via his pep talk, Fozzie is finally able to do, to the point that the two old men eventually wave a white flag of surrender. Now, as per usual in this season, the writing isn’t good enough for us to fully believe that Fozzie’s not-so-great zingers should be impacting the old codgers quite as effectively as they do, but it’s also such a delight to see Fozzie become emboldened by his newfound ability to stand up for himself–“This is the happiest moment of my life!” he cries out–that it’s easy to forgive. Oz performs Fozzie in such a lovably enraptured state here, and it works beautifully. This then comedically culminates in the curtain call at the end of the episode, in which Fozzie is riding so high on his triumph that he becomes cocky–the bear just can’t stop himself!–even heckling Kermit, who finally has to threaten his job to provoke Fozzie into going back to his old, obsequious self.


Forsyth and Fozzie duet.

Forsyth and Fozzie duet.

And so ultimately this is a good episode for Fozzie. It’s good to see him really trying to overcome Statler and Waldorf’s taunts and even ultimately succeeding, and it’s even good to see him go a bit too far, before being reined back in. A confident Fozzie is a wonderful thing to see at this stage. The problem is that Fozzie is really doing all of the work, playing off of a guest star who never really sells that he’s an adequate mentor. And, again, his involvment in the plot, such as it is, doesn’t occur until its climax, and it’s all completely stagebound. This is probably a good thing when it comes to this episode, since I’m not sure if I could’ve taken much more of Forsyth, but it does bring the quality down a bunch of notches.


Speaking of which, Piggy gets her ultimate comeuppance against him for his assault in his final spot in the episode (not counting the bows) when he sings a duet with her at the piano–actually the first time that Piggy is the main Muppet singer along with a celebrity guest!–and she utterly upstages him, overshadowing his big finish with some outrageous scatting that firmly establishes her as one of the true major stars of The Muppet Show, not just in her own head, which is particularly cool for a character who is still technically being shared by two vocal performers (although by this point, Hunt’s version of her only appears once, in “At the Dance,” not in a scene with any legitimate character work).


Other things of note:


–Speaking of Piggy, the episode also features the Snerfs performing “In a Little Spanish Town,” a Muppet bit that was first seen on the British TV special, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, which was most significant for featuring Miss Piggy’s first-ever appearance. The Snerfs made their first appearances on Sesame Street and The Great Santa Claus Switch.

–The Muppets’ commitment to running gags continues in this episode’s “At the Dance,” as we get yet another two more iterations of the “Do you like Kipling?”/”I don’t know. I’ve never kippled!” joke! Mildred asks George if he likes duckling to which he replies that he never duckled, and even better, a male pig asks Hunt’s Piggy about her interest in American history, and when he brings up Franklin, she tells him that she’s never Frankled!

–This episode also has yet another fantastic installment of Veterinarian’s Hospital. A lot of the season 1 sketches built solely around deliberately lame gags fizzled out in later years, but Veterinarian’s Hospital would endure and I think a large part of that has to do with how enthusiastically Rowlf, Piggy, and Janice deliver their terrible lines, and how uproariously they laugh at their own jokes. There’s something infectious about it. And here, in particular, there’s actually a terrific rhythm to the hacky humor, which revolves around the group operating on a duck, which they keep incorrectly referring to as a chicken. Each time the duck corrects them with “Duck!” they misinterpret and physically duck. That is until Piggy notices the lamp on the ceiling is loose and about to fall and she yells, “Duck,” but Dr. Bob doesn’t believe her and so, while Piggy and Janice get out of the way, he gets hit on the head!

Then we get this fantastic exchange:

Dr. Bob fails to duck.

Dr. Bob fails to duck.

DR. BOB: What kind of doctor do you think I am?

DUCK: Quack!

DR. BOB: I should know better than to ask a chicken.

DUCK: (exasperated) DUCK!

And they all duck again! What’s so great about this sketch is that the puns fly so fast, loose, and effortlessly, and everyone’s reactions are so perfectly timed. In many ways, it’s the opposite of the earlier sketch with Kermit and Forsyth, which ironically revolved around the same duck! But whereas that one relied on a much more forced pun/scenario, this one flows beautifully and utilizes four “performers” all completely committed to selling it.


Next time: Sandy Duncan!!



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