A thread-bare group of vaudeville throwbacks struggle against the odds—and each other—to produce a half-hour variety show featuring a different guest every week. Amongst the chaos, explosions, and near catastrophic violence, the performers embody the very battle-cry, “The show must go on!”
This, of course, doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the amazing and ground-breaking television series, “The Muppet Show”. Running for five seasons, from 1976 to 1981, “The Muppet Show” was a weekly exercise in madness and mayhem perpetrated by anamorphic creatures, animals, and pseudo-humans. Kermit the Frog was the ringleader of the gang of lunacy, with his top acts consisting of a superstar diva pig, an insecure bear comedian, and a “whatever” that went from failed performance artist to masochistic daredevil. Frogs, bears, pigs, rats, sheep, rabbits and monsters strut their stuff in wacky, pun-laden comedy sketches and shockingly elaborate musical numbers. Things exploded. Things ate other things. Penguins were hurled into the air. It was brilliant!
After years of doing guest spots on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Jimmy Dean Show”, and achieving great success in public television with “Sesame Street”, Jim Henson spent nearly five years trying to convince network television that audiences were ready for an adult variety show consisting nearly entirely of puppetry, visionary performer Jim Henson finally had to go overseas to realize his dream. Thanks to producer Sir. Lew Grade and his ITC network, “The Muppet Show” took life and made its way back to the States in 1976.
“The Muppet Show” was never anything short of unique, even when celebrating popular music. While most people see the Muppets as a quaint mainstay of family entertainment, this first set of DVDs will remind fans just how subversive some of the humor could be. For one thing, Henson wears the “puppetry” angle on his sleeve (if you’ll pardon the pun), and will occasionally call attention to the mechanics—during one segment, Kermit is seen drinking milk through a straw, slowly draining the clear glass of the liquid, and, in mid-gulp, stops and addresses the audience, “Think about this one for a minute, folks.”
Yet, at the same time, the puppets themselves were utterly and believably alive. So alive that crew members would forget and, for example, hold up cue cards for the puppets to read, rather than the puppeteers sequestered beneath the stage. And the relationships between the characters evolved over subsequent episodes. While there were no ongoing storylines, Kermit’s initial disinterest in Piggy would become a tug-of-war, Fozzie’s failed comedian persona would become something sweeter—the genesis of these can all be seen in these first episodes.
Since its first airing, “The Muppet Show” has been unavailable in any form other than either hastily-edited “Best Of” collections. For the first time, thanks to Disney’s Buena Vista Home Video, the first ultra-rare season can be seen nearly complete (five musical numbers were cut from episodes due to rights issues). For the first time in over a decade, the original openings have been restored. In later seasons, the Muppets would dance around a series of arches; in season 1, they rose in tiers and Gonzo struck a gong (with varying degrees failure) located in the “O”. This opening had been excised from all TV prints.
If that weren’t enough incentive, perhaps the gorgeous look of the restoration would give collectors the proper incentive. We’re talking about nearly thirty-year-old video-tape here looking as clean and bright—or better—as the original broadcasts. Capping that off are a few extras like the original pilot, “Sex and Violence”, which is even more madcap and insane than the whole of the first season (to say nothing of bizarre and experimental), as well as Henson’s original pitch to CBS (in which a Muppet pitchman swears that the heads of CBS will be made rich beyond their wildest dreams and their names will become household words like “basin” or “toilet”!)—though this too is missing it’s irreverent punchline, in which Kermit peers out from behind the CBS eye and mutters, “What the hell was that?” (presumably cut to avoid payment to CBS for use of the logo).
The final innovation is the “Muppet Morsel” feature, which enables pop-up trivia to appear throughout the episodes. Though occasionally misspelled and formatted, these little info scrawls are amazingly, well, informative, as it talks about the history of the show, the characters (Kermit was not the original host for the show; Miss Piggy’s full name is “Miss Piggy Lee”—a play on Peggy Lee—but this information was only ever mentioned on one show!), insight from the performers, and original air dates.
Some fans have been understandably put-out by the cuts made to the episodes, fearing that they may never obtain an uncut set. While this is a possibility, the fact that the entire season is now available in any format is a wonderful gift.
The ironic thing about “The Muppet Show” is that for five seasons, it was spot-on. Brilliant, innovative, and as insane as any Chuck Jones Warner Brothers Cartoon. But in the successive years, Henson was never able to make the lightning strike again. None of the subsequent movies or series—from “The Jim Henson Hour” to “Muppets Tonight” (which comes the closest), The Muppets have never recaptured the remarkable magic generated with the first series.
Buena Vista has made it known that they intend to release all five seasons intact over the next few years, and it’s my hope, at least, that they keep that promise. Of course, that will all hinge on the sales of these first few sets. Should that not come to fruition, fans will at least have this first set. As many of the performers have noted over the years, “The Muppet Show” was made for “children of all ages”, and it’s nearly impossible to watch these episodes without a goofy grin on your face—unless you utterly lack a sense of humor, or a belief in magic.