The Muppets Valentine Show/The Muppet Show: Sex And Violence (originally aired 1/30/1974 and 3/19/1975)
In considering the pre-Muppet Show pilots The Muppet Show: Sex And Violence and The Muppets Valentine Show, it’s important to consider that neither directly resulted in The Muppet Show. All three projects were based in the same idea—a television variety show hosted by The Muppets—and Jim Henson eventually used the pilots as prototypes that could be stripped for parts once he finally received a series order from Lord Lew Grade and ITV, but make no mistake: Sex And Violence and The Muppets Valentine Show are not The Muppet Show.
Sure, strands that lead to the series’ first season and beyond are abundant. The Koozebanian Mating Ritual receives a test run in The Muppets Valentine Show before making a return appearance in the Florence Henderson episode of The Muppet Show. Yes, Sex And Violence’s Return To Beneath The Planet Of The Pigs is an obvious precursor to “Pigs In Space.” Even something as insignificant and eventually discarded as the Mt. Rushmore segments in Sex And Violence have a Muppet Show analog in the hated Talking Houses. (Mt. Rushmore manages to be way funnier than all the Houses segments combined, based on the simple fact that each president is given a personality.) But the fact remains: If The Muppet Show had gone to series in the form presented by either pilot, we wouldn’t still be talking about the series some three-plus decades later.
Sex And Violence is, in fact, a lot of fun for the first 10 minutes or so. But the rapid, free-associative pace set in those opening scenes can’t and won’t be maintained for a full half-hour, eventually slowing to a crawl as the recurring segments reach their third beats and the control-room characters—Nigel, Floyd Pepper, and Sam The Eagle—receive the participants for the climactic “Seven Deadly Sins Pageant.” The fact that the show is so overbooked that the sniveling, lizard-like Nigel has to cut the pageant short is played for laughs, but his bailing on the gag also comes across as Henson and company throwing up their hands in defeat. They tried to play things daring, topical, and slightly edgy, but they’re a few ingredients short of The Muppet Show’s winning formula.
The Muppets Valentine Show, by contrast, plays things too safely. Part of that can be blamed on the subject matter: The Muppets are the only pop-culture property that could sell something as nakedly earnest as “The Rainbow Connection,” but The Muppets Valentine Show leans to heavily into its sentimentality. There are leavening doses of chaos throughout—the Koozebanians help shake things up, as does Crazy Harry, who’s addressed here by his original, Don Sahlin-inspired moniker, “Crazy Donald”—but as a whole, the pilot is limited by its focus on all things pink, purple, and heart-shaped. At least it doesn’t lose sight of how well-suited for human interaction The Muppets are, even when those Muppets are future bit players like George The Janitor, Mildred, and Droop. Mia Farrow’s featured spots account for the pilot’s drippiest moments, but she also prompts its appropriately zany closing number, which is dedicated to the love between a janitor and his mop. (Another thing going against The Muppets Valentine Show: There’s no real show here. It works fine as the first entry in a potential string of holiday-related specials, but it’s too beholden to its theme to establish the characters and their world to be a successful entry point to a weekly series.)
There’s also the sense from both pilots that Henson wanted to use these primetime showcases to do something entirely new. There are winks and nods toward past Muppet projects—Rowlf’s cameo in Sex And Violence’s proto-At The Dance, for instance, or Bert and Ernie’s sudden appearance at the end of The Muppets Valentine Show—but the emphasis is placed on testing newer characters and methods of presenting them. For every element of Sex And Violence that would eventually carry over to The Muppet Show—The Electric Mayhem as house band, the “backstage” dynamic of the control room, Sam’s role as the program’s stuffy guardian of morals and ethics—there are two or three elements that flat out don’t work. Sex And Violence is a puppet-based sketch show which ping-pongs between segments with Monty Python-esque verve, and the chutzpah required to mount such a production is admirable. But it’s wonderfully ironic that creaky vaudeville traditions, not experiments in the television form, would ultimately shape The Muppet Show.
It’s also tickling that both The Muppets Valentine Show and Sex And Violence work so hard to establish Wally and Nigel as suitable focal point for a Muppet series, while the best-suited and most resilient of Henson’s creations hangs in the background. Kermit The Frog headlines a pair of segments in The Muppets Valentine Show, but he’s merely a member of the ensemble, with the same responsibility for driving the action as Mildred or George. It’s difficult to imagine Jerry Juhl applying the “Frog 99, Chaos 98” analogy to either Wally or Nigel—Wally is written and portrayed too hip and above it all to invest in the Valentine’s proceedings the way Kermit does in The Muppet Show; Nigel, on the other hand, is critically lacking in spine. Both pilots present a robust cast of characters, but they’re without a leader. You know, the kind of leader who could weather being eaten, blown up, and reciting the alphabet with a rowdy toddler who insists “Cookie Monster” is the letter between “R” and “S.” It’s easy to overlook Kermit while watching all the zaniness of The Muppet Show unfold around him, but The Muppets Valentine Show and Sex And Violence drive home his role as The Muppets’ linchpin. Remove his flappable-but-strong-willed presence, and everything falls into felt-and-fur shambles. It’d fascinating to watch, but it’d be less satisfying than what The Muppet Show eventually became—exactly like Sex And Violence.
Ultimately, The Muppets Valentine Show and Sex And Violence are more of a piece with the various bits of Henson ephemera we’ve discussed as we made our way through the first season of The Muppet Show. Neither is an essential part of the Muppet oeuvre—they’re more artifact than art, evolutionary steps toward a television work that has outlived many of those responsible for it. While the series took most of its first season to find its footing, those 24 episodes display the holes Henson and his collaborators filled between Sex And Violence’s one-off airing and The Muppet Show’s debut. In some ways, it’s frustrating to watch these pilots and notice spots where the pace could’ve been slackened or increased; where adjustments of tone would’ve allowed a joke to land; where a steady flipper would’ve righted the ship. Thankfully, there are five seasons of The Muppet Show to dissipate that frustration. In the words of Kermit The Frog: “Yaaaaaaaaaay!”