Twenty nine years have not aged the Muppets at all and with Disney’s purchase of the Jim Henson Workshop, no episodes will be broken from others, and full season sets, beginning with this first one, are a great boon for Muppet fans.
The Muppet Show started simply on a soundstage in England after Lord Lew Grade had commissioned 24 episodes from Jim Henson and creative cohorts. No American network could meddle in the proceedings and the program benefited from a 7:30 p.m. time slot on CBS stations, a time when the affiliates were allowed to screen their own programming, where countless ones decided on the Muppet Show for that slot. This work of comedic and puppet artistry has an appeal that lies in rising above pop cultural topics of the day, mainly because whatever was in the news wasn’t valid for “The Muppet Show” anyway. One episode took a week to do and usually wasn’t aired until months later. But more than that, a variety show of this type had never been imagined before. In fact, the original pitch reel for the Muppets Show on the fourth disc mentioned “Laugh-In” executive producer, George Schlatter, pairing with Henson on this project, which never came to pass. Besides, Henson already had his own able-minded stable of people to help him bring this to life. Henson may have been the name most associated with the Muppets, but he couldn’t very well perform every single character or even create them to their fullest extent, and that’s why Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Jerry Juhl, and Richard Hunt are as much talented for their work on the show as Henson was in getting this on the air. These characters are great! You get to know them bit by bit through each episode and by and large, favorites start to emerge. These aren’t favorites that are forgotten once an episode ends. There’s allegiance to these characters.
For example, Waldorf & Statler are two personal favorites because they’re critics and hecklers. Their age makes me hope that I’m that old and still watching movies, but perhaps not in the shticky manner they engage in when talking either about what just happened or when they heckle Fozzie Bear constantly when he’s on stage. The pyrotechnic-loving Crazy Harry also is a favorite not because of the explosions, but because he makes no bones about who he is. Same goes for Animal, who’s direct and honest with whoever he encounters, especially with that wild look gleaming in his eyes. And the Swedish Chef, bumbling and fumbling, but he’s doing what he likes, no matter how frustrating.
Season one is scattershot, because this isn’t something done easily. Characters need to be explored, and skits either work or they don’t. There’s no ready-made work here, especially when it comes to Henson puppeteering. Some stalwarts of this first run include “At the Dance”, a nod to Laugh-In’s joke wall, where various Muppet characters dance around and converse with their partner. The most enjoyable bit is when Animal is on the dance floor, shouting, “One…two….three….dip!” and literally slams his partner down to the floor. Musical performances are commonplace with a variety of guest stars as well as the Muppets, and the show truly establishes itself in an episode featuring Lena Horne in an affecting performance of “I’ve Got a Name”, which is the best of the season not only because of Horne’s voice, but because she looks like she’s really enjoying the experience, and not grandstanding a bit Paul Williams, who would be associated with the Muppets for years to come, is an early guest star and sings “Old Fashioned Love Song” while sitting near a radio which pops open and out come two Muppet likenesses of himself to provide the chorus. He’s relaxed in his appearances, showing a love for the Muppets just as much as Henson and all the others who worked week through week to bring full, satisfying, funny, and memorable shows to the public. Here was where Miss Piggy first let her feelings be known about Kermit and try to convince him as such, though he didn’t take to it often this first season. Here was Gonzo, establishing himself not only as a “whatever”, but a unique figure in the pantheon of Muppets. The Muppets never had trouble with connecting with the world public. Their eyes didn’t move (not until season two at least when Gonzo was given working eyelids), but that didn’t matter. Jim Henson made sure that the mouths of the Muppets, no matter that they just moved up and down, at least seemed to speak the scripted words.
Between the sketches, the laughs, the throw-away jokes, the gags, there’s so much to love here. It’s not like going back twenty-nine years to watch it. Even though some of the editing and camerawork recall the ‘70s, it’s as if the show was airing today. Even its other guest stars still have that level of anticipation. Not one to skip episodes on the DVDs of good TV shows, even when reviewing them, it was nearly hard to wait for the Vincent Price, Phyllis Diller, and Harvey Korman episodes. The last disc has episodes with Ethel Merman and Mummenschanz (a mask and mime theater group from Switzerland), whom are still different from anything you’d see today. Just wait until season two’s DVD release. Julie Andrews, Peter Sellers, Zero Mostel, Don Knotts, George Burns, Bernadette Peters, Bob Hope, Petula Clark, John Cleese, Lou Rawls, Steve Martin and Elton John are part of that season. Disney had better not make us wait too long.
The history of the first season is expertly covered with “Muppet Morsels” trivia tracks that negate the need for audio commentaries or documentaries, at least until the middle of the set when information is repeated simply to fill time and bad jokes are made, such as in the Ben Vereen episode where the track notes Rowlf the Dog’s favorite composers, but mentions them as “Poochini” and “Woofgang Amadeus Mozart”. That really cheapens the Muppets as well as Rowlf because these characters were real enough back then and still are today. Respect them as they are. The original pitch reel that Jim Henson used to try to convince the networks of the value of the Muppets is also here, where Henson pokes fun at pitch reels, with a newscaster character shouting about this not being a very subtle pitch. The first pilot, “Sex and Violence” which starred Nigel the Conductor as host, puts the Muppets through a much faster pace with skits established and then re-approached as the episode continues, and likely scrapped for that same reason, confusion for audiences. It doesn’t have the same warmth or charm as the series, but the prototype for the “At the Dance” skits is in here, as well as the wit that would pervade the series, inherent in the preparations for the “Seven Deadly Sins” pageant. It’s a smart wit, accessible to every kind of person and personality watching it. The set ends with a promotional gag reel for season one. Whether these were used as actual commercials or were just jokes during the filming of the commercials is not certain, but Fozzie is there bothering Kermit and there’s a host of other jokes too. It’s all great fun that will still work for young and old today, especially those not yet fully exposed to the Muppets. They should be.