What will happen when we get to the point where we’ve seen everything Jim Henson ever created in his lifetime? In a world where an increasing percentage of “rare” and “long-lost” Muppet stuff is easy to find, are we doomed to become jaded and incapable of getting excited about anything?
I have no idea. But until then, it’s pretty cool when stuff like Puppetman, a sitcom pilot Jim Henson produced in 1987, surfaces online. It never got picked up as a series, although the episode did air once on the CBS Summer Playhouse, which was kind of like the late 20th century version of that thing Amazon is doing where they posted all their new pilots to decide which ones became series.
The show stars Fred Newman, a guy who’s had a pretty cool career — he wrote for Muppet Magazine, he was Skeeter on Doug, and sometimes he does the sound effects for A Prairie Home Companion. Newman plays Gary, a puppeteer for a local kids’ puppet show called Dragon Time, which is apparently always broadcast live. This leads to one of the funnier moments in the pilot, when Gary has to take his son to the hospital while wearing a full-bodied dragon puppet. His son, by the way, is a tiny moppet (not Muppet) named Zack who has had a limited, weekends-and-holidays-type relationship with Gary since Gary and Zack’s mom divorced. And by the way, Richard Hunt plays one of Gary’s puppeteer co-workers.
“Crikey!” the Muppet fan might say. “Those CBS guys were super-LAME for not making this show. A family sitcom produced by Jim Henson? About a puppeteer? Co-starring Richard Hunt? That would have been wicked cool!” And yet… would it have been? Well, WOULD IT?! The only way to find out is to watch it, of course, which you can now do on Daily Motion, thanks to user UnknownArchiveTV.
So what did you think? I bet you noticed right away the same thing I noticed: Puppetman is a remake of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. No, really. Consider the following common elements (and yes, I know 30 Rock has already been compared to MTM, but Puppetman came first, so there):
-An opening title sequence featuring the main character in a car. Mary Tyler Moore doesn’t puppeteer a dragon out the window or play the banjo, but is “Love is all around, no need to waste it” so far removed thematically from “Honk, honk/Cuckoo/AWOOGA?”
-The show follows the protagonist at work (at a job in television) and at home, in a city that starts with the letter M. (Minneapolis for Mary, Madison for Gary. Speaking of which…)
-Gary rhymes with Mary!
-Rita (the self-centered on-camera talent) is totally the Ted Baxter of Puppetman, and Del (the wisecracking guy with a receding hairline) is the Murray. Sadly, Gavin McLeod never got to use funny puppet voices when Murray insulted Ted.
-Mary Tyler Moore had Rhoda, who speaks with a New York accent. Puppetman has Gary’s son Zack, who speaks unintelligibly.
-The first/only episode of Puppetman was directed by Alan Rafkin, who directed three episodes of the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show!
I rest my case.
Unfortunately, Puppetman is no Mary Tyler Moore. The Ron Mueck-designed puppets are appealing, Richard Hunt brings his typical energy to the proceedings, and the father-son story is sweet, even if the denouement of Gary breaking through to Zack by talking to him as a dragon is a little sappy. And I’m sure it would have been cool for viewers to see the behind-the-scenes stuff like Gary and Del watching monitors as they perform. But there just aren’t that many laughs, and that’s a problem for a sitcom.
Of course, it’s just a pilot. Given time, it might have settled into a nice groove and become a pleasant family show. (Remember when there were family shows on network TV?) With more episodes, I imagine the writers would have defined the world of Dragon Time more sharply, and perhaps explored how the characters reflect the personalities of their puppeteers.
And at some point, if they really wanted to boost the ratings, they would have had to bring in the La Choy Dragon for a guest spot.
by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com