Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts

Liquid Nostalgia #23

The Muppet Show: A Look Back

 

Do you know why I really love doing these articles? Sure, the trip down memory lane and celebrating nostalgic shows, games and movies is one, but it's also this: a lot of these shows and so forth are things we will never see again. At least on the level they once were. A show like Jim Henson's iconic The Muppet Show would never fly today. Of course, sketch comedy itself is a bit of a dwindling art, but a sketch comedy show with a new guest every week and with puppets? Simply wouldn't happen, not when you have reality TV, right?

That's one reason why I scheduled The Muppet Show: puppets in general are a fantastic artform that had their heyday and, truth be told, I think most would love for them to have a heyday again. If you ask anyone if they'd want to see a show like The Muppet Show come back, most would either say "yes" or kind of shrug it off with an apprehensive "yes." I don't think anybody would say "no."

But that's the way things are. We can assume a show like this would exist once more as it did in the 1970s, or repeated through the 1980s which is when I caught it, but a studio or network would see it as a dated concept - as dated as the entire "show for all ages" concept as a whole. That's sad. That's incredibly sad. Things made for entertainment now fall into three categories: young, tween (often mis-named"mature") and adult. There's no place for The Muppet Show anymore.

So let's celebrate it! I found The Muppet Show, first, after seeing the movies when I was a kid. Then it played on repeats on a daily basis on television as a grew up. I would spend time in my grandparent's den after school and watch stuff like this, or the 1960s Batman show and Loony Tunes - things far from the decade I grew up in but timeless in their entertainment value and iconic pop culture statuses. The sketches were always full of life and energy, and the use of guest stars, as though they're strange aliens visiting a Muppet planet, was brilliantly done. It was full of life and music and eclectic personalities that any person, young or old, could identify with.

Note the "old" part there, actually. I recently started watching the show again, now twenty or so years later, and there's just as much there for adults as children and teenagers. It literally was a show for everyone and I'm not rewatching it now merely for nostalgia, but because it's some damn good comedy writing period. It never falls to pandering, it certainly never goes low-brow, and is as intelligently written and executed as any sitcom or comedic show today that might win a dozen or so Emmys for their effort. What's that? Oh, that's right...it was nominated and won a ton of awards during its five years. It WON Emmys, it WON BAFTAs, it WON Peabody awards back in the day. You see...that's when people were so much more accepting to this notion of an all-ages sketch comedy show and would recognize great comedy writing on its own merits. I would put the comedic writing of The Muppet Show against the best sitcoms before or since, and especially against any sketch comedy that, today, often miss the point of what a fun and vivacious sketch show is meant to be. Well, Henson knew. The man knew better than most - keeping things simple, brief and easy to take in for an audience and focusing on wonderful characters. The comedy writes itself based on that concept alone. 

Ah, sorry about that. Like many, I'm quite fond of this show, but let's take a moment and look at how it came to be...I'll continue the rant a little later.


 

A Brief History of The Muppet Show

 

-After years working for Sesame Street, Muppet creator Jim Henson wanted to create a show that would appeal to all ages. One reason being to prove it could be done, the other to, in the long term, show that "puppetry" isn't something that should so easily be classified as "children's entertainment."

-Henson rallied his troops from Sesame Street, notably Frank Oz who he would have a lasting partnership with, and began developing a concept for The Muppet Show.

-Henson's first attempt was the creation of two "pilots" but neither helped sell or launch the show. Rather, CBS approached him with a different offer: make the show syndicated. Henson was not a big fan of the syndication idea and rejected it. Instead, he took a deal with Lew Grade of ATV in the UK. The show was entirely produced out of ATV Studios in England and with the deal it would show on all ITV stations in the UK and would be sold in syndication to other countries (including the US). Allegedly, there's even an old (and note unproven) tale of the Henson group smuggling drugs to the UK in their Muppets. 

-The show ran for five seasons from 1976 to 1981 and produced 122 total episodes including the original two pilots (note the full UK versions of the show never aired in the US initially and were cut to allow for commercials). It was nominated for 21 Emmys during its run, winning 4 including Outstanding Comedy-Variety, Outstanding Directing and Outstanding Writing. As it was a UK production as well, it also garnered nominations and wins with BAFTA as well, including Most Original Program/Series. It won its Peabody in1979

-For the run of The Muppet Show, each episode had a guest celebrity and no celebrity appeared twice. Some of the biggest stars of the time, such as Roger Moore or Christopher Reeve and classic comedians made appearances as well, such as Milton Berle, Don Knotts, Peter Sellers and Bob Hope as well as musicians such as Elton John, Alice Cooper and John Denver.

-From the show, films were imminent. Eight Muppet-Show related features were made (not including the Sesame Street films) as well as spin-off shows with the familiar cast including the animated Muppet Babies, the short-lived Jim Henson Hour program and a number of television specials - some of the most famous being the John Denver Christmas Special.

-The final episode was aired in March and June of 1981 in the UK and US respectively starring a then world-famous Roger Moore. Henson had desired to move away from the show and pursue other projects making season five the final season of the show.


 

Top Ten Favorite Muppets

 Everyone has their own favorite Muppets from the show. Usually you can have a solid three or four then just fill in the rest - those three or four can feel like your closest friends in some cases (even if they're crotchety old men). So here's ten that I've always been a fan of on the show (and through the movies as well).


10: Rizzo

(Perf: Steve Whitmire)

Of course I love sarcasm, and of course I love Rizzo as a result. The guy is just sharp, witty and his skits with the likes of Gonzo (he and Gonzo make a great duo come later in the films) are just fantastic. Rizzo is a pretty latecomer in the Muppet world, not showing up until the show's fourth season, but he really made his name past the show itself in the movies. Going back, you can see early Rizzo really having a blast in some scenes with other Muppets, and he ends up getting the best out of them a they have a pretty unique little guy to play off of.


9: Beaker

(Perf: Richard Hunt/Steve Whitmire)

The lab assistant that is really more an unintentional guinea pig. Beaker is actually a bit of a tragic guy, and I think that's why I love him so much. Yeah, it's actually really, really sad to see all the crap that befalls him being Honeydew's assistant, but it's funny at the same time and makes you end up loving him even more.

As you know, Beaker says no words. Just a lot of meeps and so forth with large eyes darting every which way, usually in pain or fear of pain. I love this kind of homage to a silent-era comedian. His expression and body language tells the story completely...and he's just a puppet at that. A fun Muppet through and through and always one I looked forward to seeing.


8: Dr. Teeth

(Perf: Jim Henson)

Now this is one I can't quite explain my liking of. I think it boils down to his look - the hat, orange hair and neck beard and crazy smile - and that he's the leader of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem which I generally like as a whole band in the first place.  

His design was inspired by jazz pianists and Elton John, and you can see that easily with the very colorful attire Teeth would wear. I also love that he's like this strange leader of an insane carnival, taking us on a weird trip along the way. We aren't sure about him at first, then the music starts and he takes on the weird trip anyways. I certainly liked how he was handled in the films, especially the first one, but it's bittersweet as Dr. Teeth has pretty much been nonexistent since Henson's death.

7: Muppet Newsman

(Perf: Jim Henson)

Boy, did I have a hard time finding a decent pic of the Muppet Newsman. In this particular case of why I like the Muppet, it's not so much the Muppet itself as it is his skits and all the things that end up happening to him as he reported the news.

I really don't have much to say here. I'm a sucker for fake news and funny anchors and our resident Muppet incarnation is pretty unique. Sure there's your Weekend Updates from the 70s also, and Kentucky Fried Movie in 1977 certainly, but the Muppet version is...we...distinctly Muppet. I just love the guy and the entire bit.


6: Gonzo

(Perf: Dave Goelz)

In a cast of crazy characters, you need some to show the opposite side of the spectrum. You had the everyman, like Kermit (or even Rowlf to an extent) but you needed someone to reel back the insanity even more. That's where Gonzo comes in. He's funny, sure, but it's a different kind of funny. He often had "plans" or "big ideas" that rarely worked and would often speak about his rather tragic past and sense of loneliness.

That doesn't mean he was depressing, no. He was one-of-a-kind and he loved that. Gonzo promoted the notion of "being yourself" but that didn't stop him from often talking about the search for yourself in the first place and how difficult it could be. Gonzo, especially in the films, offered "perspective" I found. The movies really expanded this notion, and really took the friendship between he and Kermit to a new level - but he always was out there, staring at the stars or asking the big questions. Gonzo is a risky Muppet, for sure. If misued, he could ruin a scene or sketch. That never happened, though, thanks to just some smart writing and a well-rounded character to begin with.  


5: Rowlf

(Perf: Jim Henson)

The awesome pianist that is Rowlf the Dog is my favorite for one major reason: he has my favorite voice of all the Muppets. As I was doing research, it turns out that Rwolf is actually considered the second Muppet, created way back in 1962 for a Jimmy Dean commercial (at least, Muppets that we know today, Kermit is still the first). I guess his personality, seemingly a bit wiser, and his voice, older and a tad raspier, fits that idea. Henson really shows his amazing talent with his voice with Rowlf too, because he sounds so uniquely different than just about every other Muppet he voiced. Plus he's just smooth, cool, and having him with a piano all the time added a lot of character to the guy. 


4: Kermit

(Perf: Jim Henson, Steve Whitmire)

Kermit is our "everyman" here. His personality doesn't lean too far in either direction, and as a result he's just a really nice guy wanting to do the right thing and keep his show under control. Of course, that's easier said than done, especially if there's a lady pig about, but you know what? The guy usually pulled it off in the end. He was the leader, and everyone knew him and called him a friend. Hmmm...kinda like us in the audience, no?

But Kermit did his own thing also. He was the singer of it all, and though it didn't appear until the first Muppet movie as the show was still on the air, the "Rainbow Connection" is one of the finest songs written and his singing it so passionately very touching.


3: The Swedish Chef

(Perf: Jim Henson)

According to Brian Henson, the story goes that Jim Henson enjoyed listening to a tape called "How to speak Mock Swedish." He would then speak in a feaux-Swedish accent in the kitchen when putting things together, then it hit him: let's make a character. Born was the incomprehensible and potentially homicidal Swedish Chef - a flurry of energy, insanity and a hell of a funny voice.

The chef wasn't so much a cook as much as he thought he was a cook, in the same way Fozzie thinks he's a comedian or the Newsman thinks he's an anchor. He would soon discover the things he wanted to cook, really don't want to be cooked and it usually ended up in a kind battle and, eventually ending with a "bork bork bork." Simple, straight to the point, lively and just a lot of fun.


2: Statler and Waldorf

(Perf: Richard Hunt, Jerry Nelson, Jim Henson, Dave Goelz)

You can't have one without the other, Statler and Waldorf and their self-aware one-liners for The Muppet Show, punchlines after punchlines and brief scene drops were probably my favorite part of the entire show. The Statler and Waldorf balcony bits were the glue that really held the show together, well next to Kermit of course, allowing for great transitions and the show being rather humble with itself in the process.

A lot of performers have played the duo over the years, even recently with an online series, but their personalities are timeless and have always been the same. They're two small roles but are as famous as the big stars like Kermit and Fozzie easily. They would always note when something wasn't funny, didn't work or wasn't half bad.

Oh, that's right...they're all bad.


1: Fozzie Bear

(Perf: Frank Oz)

And then there's Fozzie, our resident failing comedian bear (it seems the Muppets all try their hands at something and seem to not quite grasp it). Like Gonzo or Beaker, Fozzie is a pretty sympathetic character. He tries, bless him, but he just can't get a break in his pad stand up jokes and flat punchlines. Fozzie, though, was always in the middle of the show, usually put together with Kermit, and despite all his failures he still remained positive and helpful to the other Muppets.

I think I like Fozzie the most because, in a way, it wasn't all about him. He made the other Muppets around him that much better and rarely drew attention to himself outside of the moments of his stand up and heckling. That's why I like Rolph a lot too, another Muppet Fozzie was often with, and the sense of him being a part of something bigger, the show itself, and feeling as though he's a best friend you can rely on.

Besides, look at him. He's just a happy guy and that picture there even says "I'm number one!? Really!?" 


 

You can really tell a lot from a person based on who their favorite Muppets are (even the Sesame Street ones to a degree). From my list, I can tell I certainly love the sarcasm of the likes of Rizzo and our elderly balcony Muppets or the Muppets that try really hard at things but usually just can't get it right, like the Newsanchor never able to tell the news, Fozzie's inability to tell a good joke or Beaker's inability to live a happy life (poor guy). I tend to like the more musical-oriented ones too (I didn't even get Animal or my favorite Muppet sax player, Zoot on the list).

But all in all, let me ask this: is there a Muppet to not like? I mean, these guys here are just fantastic. I might prefer some over the others, but I certainly don't dislike those others as well. The way Henson and company used them allowed them to always be there around us and with us as they interacted with each other and, after a while, you can't imagine the show or movies missing any of these characters. You want to see them all in some form because you know they all belong.

And as such, we belonged to The Muppet Show. They invited us into their theatre and we watched them try their best to put on a show with their guests. It all goes to Hell along the way, but always ends up well and certainly entertaining. Like I said, a show like this would never fly today...oh, I don't mean with Muppets...I mean being an actual entertaining sketch show for once. I don't see even an eighth of such energy and creativity in a lot of sketch comedy today that The Muppet Show as able to generate in five seasons. But that's why they're close to our hearts, I suppose. We see that, appreciate it, and are most certainly thankful to have enjoyed it - even moreso in a time when comedy quality can be questionable and the entire world of a sketch comedy show for television a fading concept. Give thanks to The Muppet Show, folks. It represents something we most certainly took for granted at the time and even more certainly wish we had once more.

 


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