The Muppet Show 1.15: ‘Candice Bergen’

No more logs on the fire.

No more logs on the fire.

There are many feminism wins throughout the episode. Piggy punches Fozzie at one point for repeatedly antagonising her frog. Candice rebels against a chauvinist hillbilly husband, flipping a highly sexist old number, ‘Put Another Log on the Fire’ on its head, the full-body Muppet singing orders to his wife, until she finally has had enough of his BS, tearing off her frontier-era garb, complete with bonnet, to reveal a t-shirt with the female symbol and blue jeans and feathered hair, tossing his things into the fireplace, trashing the place, aiming a rifle at him, throwing a bucket on his head, and finally marching out the door! As previously mentioned, her Talk Spot focuses on her prodigious photography talents, and later, she subverts typical standards of feminine beauty by crossing her eyes and making funny faces whilst playing the part of a model in an art class.

 

This clever musical number, ‘Look at That Face’, then goes on to make a statement about everyone’s various perceptions of beauty by having each student in the class, rather than painting what they see in front of them, instead paint a figure who either looks like them or what they’re most interested in: Gonzo gives her a long, droopy nose like his; Piggy paints a glamourous lady pig; Bunsen Honeydew paints an exceedingly geometric blueprint; Animal just makes a Pollocky mess of paint, until the teacher corrects him. ‘I told you to paint her!’ Which Animal then proceeds to do…literally, applying the brush to Candice and covering her in paint.

 

All in all, another episode made up of good moments but which fails to become a cohesive whole. We see more of Candice than we have some previous guest stars but always in the context of an on-stage scene, and while some attempt is made at a thematic link of feminism throughout her sketches, as well as in that one early Piggy scene, that element doesn’t appear whatsoever in the backstage (for-lack-of-a-better-word) ‘story’.

 

And while it is nice to see a Muppet Show episode addressing feminism, it also feels reductive from a modern standpoint to make Candice’s character on the show entirely revolve around this one point. During Jack Burns’s tenure as head writer of The Muppet Show, the scripts usually focused more on (often lame) jokes than character, and it seems typical of this more lazy approach that he seems to have done no research on Candice Bergen as a person and instead just zeroed in on one fact about her, stretching it into fodder for an entire episode. A woman who wants to be treated like a full human–what a concept! On the plus side, however, at least it’s never the butt of the joke. But it seems odd that they squandered the opportunity to feature even a single mention of Bergen’s puppet background. Jerry Juhl, who wrote many of the Muppets’ earlier material and would go on to take over from Burns as head writer in season 2 and onwards (and would later write the screenplays for numerous Muppet films and take on the role of head writer on Fraggle Rock), would have likely made much better use of her status as heir of puppet royalty.

 

Other odds and ends:

 

Kermit strikes a pose.

Kermit strikes a pose.

–It’s also rather unfortunate that an episode that so often pays lip service to feminism also features a number of jokes in the Debate Sketch that feature women putting other women down, namely Mildred attacking Piggy with a plethora of gags about her weight. Candice’s character, Clara Cartwell, who has written a book called Europe on $50 a Day (which retails for $5000), argues that ‘travel is the most broadening experience you can have,’ to which Mildred replies that Piggy never travels ‘and she’s broader than any of us’!

–With that said, there is some fun and unexpected flirtation between Candice and Sam the Eagle, of all Muppets, in this sketch! At the end, she even asks if he’ll be busy later. It’s also amusing that this is precluded by some surprisingly queer humour. ‘Clara’ jokes that she had a friend so uncultured, she thought Marcello Mastroianni was an Italian soup. Sam replies, ‘You mean it isn’t…?’, a reminder that Sam isn’t nearly as worldly as the image he projects. ‘I have been to restaurants where I ordered Marcello Mastroianni, and I’ve gotten it’, he declares. Bemused, she asks what he got. ‘A swarthy, good-looking man sitting in a bowl.’ Ok, the joke doesn’t quite work, since why would he confuse that for a soup? But it’s an amusingly gay punchline. And a moment later, Clara asks him what he gets when he orders ‘a Russian dressing…Rudolf Nureyev putting on his tights?!’, bursting into laughter at her pun. Nureyev was a world-famous gay Russian ballet dancer who, incidentally, would later appear on The Muppet Show himself in Season 2.

–The episode also features what might be my favourite Veterinarian’s Hospital sketch so far, with the huge, orange Behemoth as Dr. Bob’s unfortunate patient. After being told Behemoth is here for stomachache, Dr. Bob hits him in the stomach with a mallet, thinking that he was hoping to get one. But the best part is when he checks the poor monster’s sore throat, only to declare that he has a frog in it. A moment later, Dr. Bob ‘cures’ him…by pulling Kermit out of him, our flustered frog yelling, ‘Really funny! Let’s see if this dumb doctor sketch gets on this show again!’ Besides being very funny, it’s another one of those moments that plays with the reality of the show’s world. Does Behemoth actually have a stomachache? Is Rowlf actually hitting him, or is this all ‘acted’ and ‘scripted’? At the same time, Kermit seems genuinely annoyed to have wound up in Behemoth’s throat. You can picture Rowlf and the others having conscriped him into the scene against his will before the curtain rose, just for the sake of the punchline.

Dr. Bob finds a frog in Behemoth's throat.

Dr. Bob finds a frog in Behemoth’s throat.

–This is actually a pretty great episode for Rowlf. He also gets a terrific UK spot, which, again, might be my favourite Rowlf-playing-the-piano bit so far. He plays Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ upbeat number, ‘It’s Not Where You Start’ at a normal tempo, only for Scooter to tell him that he sang the song too quickly and they need to fill some time. So he sings it again, but much faster, as he only has a minute to fit it in. But Scooter’s back again to tell him they still have 20 seconds to fill, forcing Rowlf to play the entire thing at super speed, practically collapsing into heap by the end. This short sequence is particularly wonderful for the masterful verisimilitude of Jim Henson’s performance–at no point are you not completely convinced that Rowlf is actually playing the piano and that he is working himself into exhaustion (the latter is probably true of Jim too; his energy here is incredible). At the same time, it’s a great character piece for Rowlf, demonstrating his canine desire to please and accommodating nature, as well as his consummate professionalism, even under ridiculous circumstances. Even Kermit likely couldn’t have gotten through this ordeal without being flustered. Rowlf is given an insane challenge, rises to the occasion, and succeeds, even if only by the skin of his teeth.

–This scene is also yet another early example of the nepotism that scored Scooter the gofer job being referenced, as well as the power he manages to exert because of that status. Scooter convinces Rowlf to sing the song a third time by telling him it’s his Muppet-Theatre-owning uncle’s favourite song.

 

Next time: Avery Schreiber.

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