By its nature as a place of populist entertainment, the British music hall readily dismantled the separation between performer and audience member. Many of the most popular songs performed in such venues were composed with audience participation in mind: The onstage vocalist would handle the verses, then encourage the audience to sing along with the chorus. By way of acknowledging music hall’s influence on The Muppet Show, several second-season segments follow this custom; for instance, episode 211’s Statler-and-Waldorf-assisted opening number, “My Old Man (Said Follow The Van).”
Yet, I have to wonder if these sing-alongs were also meant to create a pseudo-camaraderie among The Muppet Show’s at-home viewers. The Muppets flourished thanks to the advances of the small screen, but the affinity the show’s writers and performers feel for older, live forms of entertainment is felt through lively energy and throwback setting of The Muppet Show. If that’s the case, however, there’d still be a barrier between the performers and the audience even if The Muppet Show was an actual stage show: The Muppets themselves. For all the holes Jim Henson and crew poked through the fourth wall, they’d never really connect directly with their fans, because there’d always be a few pounds of foam rubber and fabric getting in the way.
Of course, the Muppet characters provided their own outlets for bringing viewers into the action: As the Nintendo Entertainment System was poised to pick up 8 additional bits of processing power (thus becoming “super”), The Muppets, along with the Sesame Street cast, were licensed to the View-Master Ideal Group to be the co-stars (alongside their future corporate cousins at Disney) of View-Master Interactive Vision, the toy conglomerate’s own, VHS-based entry into the home-gaming console wars. The Interactive-Vision experience is, to put it mildly, unpredictable: Each game is a video cassette with multiple soundtracks, and the choices made by the gamer with the system’s hilariously crude controller (five colored buttons and a giant joystick—it looks not unlike a renegade Ghostbusters prop) determine which lines the characters speak. But that only works if the VCR and the console are properly synced, a finicky process that grows all the more frustrating when it comes to the minigames projected over the Muppet footage at various intervals in the tape. The fleetingly reactive experience is akin to playing a circuit-bent version of Mario Paint while an episode of The Muppet Show plays in the background.
The actual Muppet work saves these games from being wholly ephemeral. The dialogue in Muppet Madness and Muppet Studios Presents: You’re The Director is as sharp and zippy as any other Muppet project (even when it’s being piped in from the console, and therefore sounds like it was recorded through a tin can). And, really, who can be bothered by the unresponsive controls when a measured lack of control is what makes The Muppets fun in the first place? The Interactive-Vision afforded the chance to truly hop through the TV screen and be a part of the chaos, which is more than can be said of contemporaneous “interactive” projects like Hey, You’re As Funny As Fozzie Bear. (Not to speak ill of that particular video release; its rudimentary lessons on performance are conjured during every Friday morning’s Who Won TV? shoot.) In a way, the spirit of the music hall perpetuated by The Muppet Show lived on through the console. Turns out its easier to get a roomful of people to sing “And don’t dilly dally on the way” than it is to deflect pixelated anchovies from The Swedish Chef’s pizza, though.
Episode 211: Dom DeLuise
“With our special guest star”: Though its star proves both a worthy foil for the Muppet monsters and Miss Piggy, the Dom DeLuise episode of The Muppet Show nearly comes off as anonymous. That could be a symptom of watching the episodes of the second season in production order: DeLuise’s appearance comes after Zero Mostel’s similarly jovial and creature-filled guest-shot; its best sketch, “Sheppard’s Institute Of Animal Protection,” bears a striking resemblance to Don Knotts’ “Beast Of The Week”; the half-hour also comes in the middle of a three-episode run starring comic actors who look as at-home in The Muppet Theater as they do in the films of Mel Brooks. (Not that anyone’s in danger of confusing DeLuise with Madeline Kahn or Bernadette Peters—but still.) Viewed on its own, however, DeLuise’s episode is of the broadly humorous, “this show is going to kill its guest star” variety, and the star’s habit of being perpetually amused with himself helps him fit with the surroundings all the more.
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: The aforementioned “Sheppard’s Institute Of Animal Protection” is a template for comedic escalation. Each monster in DeLuise’s “care” has a tic that can be exaggerated for multiple beats—the funniest revolving around Doglion and the musical charms that soothe the savage beast—and DeLuise nails the part of the increasingly exasperated straight man. The final minutes are insanely noisy, but that’s just what happens when you through an animated performer like DeLuise to the monsters.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: The show’s in the process of tweaking and reformatting the blackout gags it uses to transition between longer scenes; the writers show a tremendous confidence in Statler and Waldorf and the reinvented Muppet News Flash sequences, but the brief drum solos from Animal never reach that level of in-and-out humor. Animal’s all about short bursts of destructive energy, so sticking him behind the drums is limiting.
“It’s time to play the music”: Dr. Teeth And The Electric Mayhem use their spot on the show to debut their first original composition since teaming up with The Muppet Orchestra to blast through “Fugue For Frog.” “Don’t Blame The Dynamite”—written by occasional Sesame Street songwriter Donald George “Sam” Beaulieu—plays like a decent countercultural novelty tune (it’d make for a goofy rock block with Frank Zappa’s “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”), and features Janice’s most righteous guitar solo to date.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: The Whac-A-Mole-style staging for DeLuise’s visit to the Planet Koozebane accounts for a lot of great visual gags, as when the Earthling loses his walkie-talkie to a Merdlidop, only to watch as the entire pink-and-fuzzy population emerges from its holes with replicas of the device. However, nothing tops the Looney Tunes-esque sight of DeLuise’s “hand” being pulled from one hole to another—a simple trick achieved by one of the Muppeteers down in the trenches.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Miss Piggy’s rising star in the real world is met with a humorous twist in Episode 211, as the rapturous response to “My Old Man (Said Follow The Van)” turns out to be the work of Scooter and his apparently deep pockets. Piggy’s notoriety outside of The Muppet Show could very well outshine that of the guests at the series’ peak popularity, so it make sense that the writers would want to knock her down a peg—all the while providing themselves a way to vary up Veterinarian’s Hospital once more.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: Or it all ends in no ways—traditional “eat or explode” conclusions would’ve been overkill given DeLuise’s amplified presence.
Episode 212: Bernadette Peters
“With our special guest star”: Something that occurred to me (and possibly only me) while watching Episode 212: What with her dual film/recording career, solid comedic timing, and way with a cutesy affectation, Bernadette Peters was something of a Zooey Deschanel (with stronger, Broadway-trained pipes, of course) for the 1970s. And just as contemporary America’s favorite animated Pintrest board would make an excellent guest of that updated Muppet Show that should happen but probably never will, Peters is a natural at interacting with and supporting the Muppets. Another thing that occurred to me (and possibly only me) while watching Episode 212: If she were more of a naturalistic performer/physical match for the role, Peters could’ve played Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter. This is, of course, solely based on Peter’s Muppet Show rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Apple Jack”—though she’d never be able to play Parton, because that’s a part Parton would just play herself, right?
“The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational”: Sam The Eagle’s reading of “The Ant And The Grasshopper” is a highlight-reel-worthy snapshot of the character’s expanded second-season role. He, expectedly, projects a personal, pro-ant bias (“the lazy, pleasure-loving grasshopper sang and danced with appalling abandon”) on the fable—only to have his feathers ruffled by the “lazy” insect’s ingenuity (“the grasshopper drove his sports car to florida”) and the untimely demise of his favored character. The puppet-show-within-a-puppet-show is a nice touch, but the segment truly cooks because of the way it plays with Sam’s preconceived notions.
“It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show”: Casting Uncle Deadly as the “Sheik Of Araby” is an inspired use of the character, but the song makes for the type of UK Spot that could be cut from the proceedings without doing any damage to the episode as a whole. Also: Muppet boobs are always creepy, and the way the belly dancer thrusts hers around threatens to push things into Let My Puppets Come/Meet The Feebles territory.
“It’s time to play the music”: When Muppet Show music consultant Larry Grossman brought one of his own songs—the Snoopy!!! The Musical selection “Just One Person”—to Episode 212, he couldn’t have expected it to become one of the most enduring entries in the Muppet songbook. Following Jim Henson’s death, the song was adopted as a paean to the Muppet creator: it makes a heart-swelling appearance in The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, while the version of the song mounted at Henson’s memorial service is the other YouTube link that will make you cry at your desk this afternoon. But before all that, it was the song Bernadette Peters uses to lift Robin’s spirits, a showier take than either Henson tribute that speaks to the worth of every human being, no matter how big or small their contribution to society.
“It’s time to raise the curtain”: Sound design is absolutely critical to Muppet Labs segments, particularly the one seen in Episode 212: The bubbling of the Bunsonium, the “pop” as Beaker removes his hair, the eventual deflation of Beaker’s head—none of the sketch’s punchlines would land without a good sound effect. As capable as The Muppet Show was at matching instrumental sounds to the movement of Muppet musicians, it was also great at supporting talky segments like Muppet Labs with aural flourishes that maintain the show’s dynamism.
“It’s time to meet The Muppets”: Robin’s biography receives added information in this episode—according to Muppet Wiki, this is the first time he’s referred to as Kermit’s nephew—while the character is fleshed out as a wannabe performer whose eyes are too big for his stomach. After Peters persuades Robin not to run away—a plot point the writers could’ve held until the end of the episode, but wisely deploy earlier to set up what comes next—the little guy sets his sights on belting “They Call The Wind Maria.” The Muppet Show could use a Lucy type who just wants to be in the shoooooooooow, and Robin capably fills that role.
“It all ends in one of two ways”: After The Swedish Chef’s chicken lays a bomb instead of an egg, we hear Kermit ask, “Okay, is he all right?” It’s the first indication that it might hurt to blow up as often as The Muppets do.