Of the many differences between The Muppet Show and its 1975 pilot, The Muppet Show: Sex And Violence, the most pronounced is a sense of structure. Sex And Violence proudly touts the way it cuts from segment to segment with no warning; “you’ll get used to it,” Nigel tells his date (and the audience) during an At The Dance interlude. The frantic pace of the pilot eventually lets up, but it still leaves the impression that a series made in the mold of Sex And Violence would be a complete mess, a random assemblage of scenes that never nails the free-associative sweet spot of a series like Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
The first season of The Muppet Show, on the other hand, is strictly regimented. And while that may be a letdown in light of Sex And Violence’s freewheeling promise, the format established by each episode of the first season (“At The Dance goes here; Veterinarian’s Hospital goes here; Talk Spot goes here… ”) gave The Muppet Show writers confines in which to play for the second season. Without some of the more staid moments of the first season, there’s no norm to fire a cannonball through the way Episode 206 does under the guiding hand of Fozzie Bear. And without the straightforward presentation of every Swedish Chef segment before the one in Episode 205, there’s no excitement to the way the show cuts between the Chef’s blunderbuss-aided salad preparation, Statler and Waldorf’s box, and Kermit’s pleading with Scooter and J.P. Grosse. In the second of next week’s episodes, we’ll see Steve Martin lend a hand to one of the series’ finest subversions of its audience’s expectations. Until then, enjoy a pair of enjoyable, less-experimental visits to The Muppet Theater, where the floorboards may be old and creaky—but they’ll still surprise you with the way they collapse.
Episode 205: Judy Collins
“With our special guest star”: Judy Collins is as much a musical archivist as a singer-songwriter, and she digs through a few centuries of music for the selections she brings to The Muppet Show. She may be limited in how she interacts onstage with The Muppets, but she’s not limited in repertoire—her musical performances here include traditionals, children’s songs, and show tunes. Collins is well-integrated into the fray, however, with Statler varying the pace of “I Know An Old Lady” by joining Collins in a call-and-response routine; elsewhere, she meets Muppet representations of the creatures she describes in the old English folk tune “Leather-Winged Bat.”
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: If you’ve already seen The Muppet Show’s take on “I Know An Old Lady,” there’s an incredible comedic tension to Collins’ performance. If you haven’t, just know that its length only makes that tension more enjoyable. Statler’s participation adds a clever distraction from the increasing girth of the song’s shadow-puppet subject—but in the end, it’s all about Jerry Nelson’s deranged portrayal of the voracious old bat.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: Collins had a hit with the Stephen Sondheim standard “Send In The Clowns” in the 1970s, and the version she presents here is emotionally stirring to a degree rarely struck by Muppet Show guests. Too bad it also has those ridiculous clowns messing around in the background, a variety-show touch brings out the sap in the song.
“It’s time to play the music”: The one non-Collins musical number in Episode 205 is Link Hogthrob’s brief run at “I Talk To The Trees.” From this segment, it would appear that Link is being primed to be a replacement for Wayne and Wanda. His song ends just as one of their season-one duets would: With a thematic element of the song (in this case, the trees to which Link talks, which are performed/shook by Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, and Dave Goelz) rebelling against the performer. Without any buildup from Sam The Eagle, however, this type of ending proves more unexpected.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: There’s a heightened degree of difficulty to torching a piece of paper while it’s still in The Newsman’s hands—in terms of special effects and editing. It’s a one-take gag, one where the wire that’s attached to The Newsman’s flammable copy can’t be obscured by a quick cut. And that’s why you can see the wire pulled quickly out of frame in the final version of Episode 205.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: The owner of The Muppet Theater, J.P. Grosse, has merited mention in past episodes, but he makes his first onscreen appearance here, menacing Kermit with a threat to tear down the theater and replace it with a junkyard. (Suffice it to say, Gonzo is thrilled at this prospect.) Grosse’s performer, Jerry Nelson, is on record as saying the character worked better as a concept rather than an onscreen presence, and I agree. His attitude and design are better suited for Sex And Violence, and while he eventually gets to play improbable suitor to Miss Piggy in this episode, he’s too domineering to make an effective connection to any of the regular cast members. Predictably, Grosse will only visit the theater two more times in The Muppet Show’s run.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: Collins states in the cold open that she’s ready for anything—though she’s not ready for the Crazy Harry explosion prompted by that declaration, nor does she seem prepared for the Mr. Creosote-style end met by the old woman who swallowed a fly.
Episode 206: Nancy Walker
“With our special guest star”: Nancy Walker’s television daughter, Valerie Harper, pointed the way toward The Muppet Show’s second season in Episode 120. Here, the actress best known as Ida Morgenstern gets caught up in the spillover between The Muppet Theater’s onstage presentations and backstage chaos, guesting on a half-hour where Kermit takes a sick day and trusts Fozzie to run the show. When the bear inevitably bungles, Walker is prevailed upon to tap into the maternal instincts displayed in her other television work, giving Fozzie one of the many pep talks that keep the character from climbing into his Studebaker and moving right along from show business. She’s more at home in their zany diner sketch from earlier in the episode, but it’s a sweet moment, nonetheless.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: Fozzie’s ineptitude leads to a big-time showbiz gaffe: Veterinarian’s Hospital and At The Dance take the stage at the same time. This is the type of continuity-based segment that requires the setup of the whole first season to succeed—if you don’t know the essential rhythms of these recurring sketches, you can’t guess at how well they mesh together. However, I suppose the juxtaposition of the production design—At The Dance’s signature chandeliers are dropped into Veterinarian’s Hopsital’s operating room—and the basic premise are strong enough to win with newbies as well. After all, you don’t have to know that both segments rely on the same type of setup-punchline wordplay to laugh at the image of ballroom dancers cutting in to a surgery.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: Relying on The Muppet Show’s rapidly filling aviary, the bird sketch from the middle of the episode presents a fun twist on “For The Birds” (“Whaddaya Say?” “Oh boy!”) from Sex And Violence. But it also has that lingering Whatnot human in the chair, who’s only there to offer stiff reaction shots and provide the sketch with an ending. Compared with Fozzie and Walker’s lunch-time tangle with the Luncheon Counter Monster, it’s a piece of scenic work whose cast could use some trimming. (Or maybe my irritation with the sketch is based on a lingering fear of Harvey Korman’s chicken suit from Episode 110 bursting through my living room wall and trapping me in a cage.)
“It’s time to play the music”: The tiny flake that gets the show’s unstoppable snowball rolling is a uniquely Muppet Show approach to an R&B instrumental: “Night Train,” as accompanied by Crazy Harry on an artillery target range. The musical cannon is an unwieldy precursor to Harry’s “Explodaphone” from season three, but it gets the job done: Those big percussion blasts at the end of “Night Train”’s main vamp can only get bigger if they have some extra firepower behind them. Meanwhile, the destruction they cause gets things started on the right, disorderly foot.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: The traditional Muppet construction method calls for the cloth on the outside of a character to be drawn as tightly as possible to the body of that character. Berlington Bertie, who sings “My Old Dutch” in this episode’s UK Spot, was built with a different approach, the wrinkles around his eyes and neck created by a looser fit of cloth to face. It’s a neat trick, and it reads incredibly well on camera.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: I get the sense that Jerry Juhl and the rest of the writing staff were at a loss as to what to do with Sam The Eagle in these early season-two episodes. With the departure of the one Muppet Show act that earned his approval (Wayne and Wanda) and the disappearance of the Panel Discussion, the show’s resident censor takes up the role of pundit, delivering screeds against the show and general nudity in Episodes 205 and 206, respectively. It’s a welcome showcase for a under-utilizied member of the troupe, but Sam works better in smaller doses. Even so, the way Frank Oz slowly and embarrassedly moves Sam out of frame after the eagle discovers his own covert nudity is hilarious.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: “Night Train” hits everything but its intended target—including a prop airplane, fake greenery, and a piece of the wall near Statler and Waldorf’s box—though it doesn’t manage to sink The Muppet Show, either.