July 30, 2012

The Muppets Take Montréal (or, The Lovers, the Hosers, and Me)

Filed under: Feature,Reports — Tags: — Matthew Soberman @ 9:57 am

UPDATE: At the request of “Just for Laughs”, we have removed the images and behind-the-scenes video from this article.  But you can still see new official photos (courtesy of photographer Eric Myre) and the official video teaser in the article below. We apologize for any confusion.

For what used to be a rarity to be experienced by a scant number every few years, it’s amazing to think that that this past Thursday was the second time this year that the Muppets have performed live in front of an audience. For those not yet in the know, the Muppets hosted an All-Star Comedy Gala at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montréal, Canada. From what I’ve gathered, performing at the festival in the premier venue, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, is a huge honor only given out to five or six acts per year. Walking into the theater, I knew I was in the right place. The stage was draped with a familiar red curtain with gold accents, with the video screens around the stage matching, making it feel very similar to the Muppet Theater. (Perhaps Tex Richman actually did kick them out, and they’ve been taking their show in the road?) The show began with a montage celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, featuring clips from past performances, including ones by Craig Ferguson, Jim Carrey, Lily Tomlin, Jon Stewart, and Bob Newhart, as well as Muppet Show/Muppets Tonight guest stars Whoopi Goldberg, Don Rickles, Steve Martin and John Cleese. Then, after an unusual opening act involving someone dancing around the theater to Prince and the Revolution’s “Let’s Go Crazy” while throwing Just for Laughs giveaways into the audience, the president of the festival, Andy Nulman, came out to make a few announcements, including that wrestling legend Mick Foley was in the audience, which met with a round of applause. At least he didn’t rough up Rizzo for COVNET. However, the biggest announcement was that the show was being taped for television, which meant to “please disregard the man under Kermit.” As a diehard Muppet fan, there was no way I was going to disregard that man. Seeing the Muppets live is a rare treat; seeing the Muppets with Muppeteers in full view is an opportunity that comes once in a lifetime. For me, that alone was worth the price of admission.

As soon as Nulman exited the stage, Kermit popped his head out of the curtain, introducing the gala, and the iconic Muppet Show theme began, complete with the gang in a replica of the Muppet Theater arches. But there was something different about it. In lieu of their normal lyrics, Statler and Waldorf (in one of the theater’s boxes) sang, “Why did we choose to come here? / I don’t like this at all. / It’s like a kind of torture / to be in Montréal.” From the get-go, it was clear that there were going to be a lot of local references. The references continued with the introduction to the opening number, where Sam the Eagle declared that the Muppets must be gracious, respectful, and patronizing to their host nation of Canada, leading into a hilarious musical number, supposedly penned by Sam, called “Canada Is,” featuring quite a few misconceptions that could only be made by the all-American eagle, such as Canada being “200 miles long,” “a town in New Hampshire,” “the capital of Narnia,” “where we get our ginger ale,” and being “owned by Michael J. Fox.” The song, with its heartfelt misconceptions, was certainly up to Muppet standards, and got a lot of laughs.

Next, Kermit spoke of their special guests, Cirque du Soleil! But according to Scooter, “Cirque” and “Soleil” cancelled, leaving just “Du,” portrayed by Sweetums in an ersatz circus outfit shouting “Duh!” But before Kermit can call Luc Fromage to see if Cirque du So Lamé is available, Gonzo arrives on stage to announce his act, “Cirque du Poulet,” consisting of Camilla and the rest of his entourage of chickens. When Kermit asks where the chickens are, Gonzo explains that a man promised them a spa day at a Swiss chalet. (I warned you there was going to be a lot of Canadian references.) Before Kermit helped Gonzo franticly search for the missing poultry, he introduced the first stand-up comedian, John Heffron. This was probably my only complaint about the show. Perhaps after seeing Jim Henson’s Musical World, I was spoiled, but it felt that the comedians got more stage time than the Muppets. The comedians were certainly funny, but it just felt like each Muppet sketch was just a lead-in to the next comedian. I would much rather have seen the Muppets be the focal point of the show. Every time they had the audience floored, they led to another comedian. It almost felt as if they were the opening act. But since both the Muppets and the comics were fantastic, I wasn’t as upset by it as I could’ve been.

After Heffron finished his set, Kermit spoke of his love of Montréal’s cuisine, particularly “the all-you-can-eat buffet at the insect exhibit of the Biodome.” Of course, the talk of food led right to a demonstration by the Swedish Chef, who made the Quebecois classic dish, poutine. As potato chunks went flying, gravy was lathered on, and a cow’s worth of cheese curds were sprinkled on top, the crowd was hysterical. Then the Chef decided to have a taste, and immediately began to have a heart attack, and the audience howled with laughter, while Lew Zealand arrived onstage revived our favorite Scandinavian cook with a defibrillator. And in true Muppet fashion, Lew decided to zap the Chef a few more times than necessary. Even though the Muppets are always clever and witty, sometimes it’s the physical gags that get the biggest laughs. For the record, I did have poutine during my visit to Montréal, but the worst I felt was bloated, which was not pretty.

This then led into probably my favorite comic of the night, Australia’s Adam Hills, who devoted half of his set to the Swedish Chef, whose wooden spoon he recovered and quickly put into his jacket pocket. Apparently, in Australia, people wondered if the Swedish people talked like the Swedish Chef, but when he lived in Sweden for a year, and when he watched The Muppet Show, the character was known as the Norwegian Chef, and the Swedish people wondered if the Norwegians spoke in Jim Henson’s beloved accent. Meanwhile, in Norway, the Chef retained his Swedish nationality, so when Swedes and Norwegians imitated the Chef to each other, they believed that the show’s portrayal was right. At the end of his set, the Chef came out, demanded his spoon back, and then proceeded to whack Hills over the head with it before graciously letting Hills keep it with a hearty hug. That Swedish Chef’s one heck of a Muppet, isn’t he?

The next interlude was brief, consisting of a dialogue between Kermit, Floyd, and Animal. Believe it or not, Animal is a big comedy fan, as you could tell by his monotone “ha ha ha.” (Or perhaps he was promoting the festival’s website.) Kermit asked Animal what his favorite part of a joke was, which led to the verbal and physical response of “PUNCHLINE!” knocking Kermit to the ground. Floyd commented, “I guess it’s not easy being black and blue, either,” a nod to one of Kermit’s most favorite songs. Floyd then introduced Animal’s favorite comedian, Tommy Johnagin.

At this point in the show, I began to wonder where a certain Muppet was, someone who certainly would fit right into this fashionable, French-speaking city. And no sooner did I think that than lo and behold, Miss Piggy made her grand entrance, carried in on a sedan chair by several Canadian Mounties (as if Miss Piggy could make her presence known in Canada any other way). Knowing that Quebec was where Celine Dion got her break, and that Montréal was “where divas are made,” she and Kermit then began to sing the Captain and Tennille hit “Muskrat Love” amongst a backdrop of a romantic rustic cabin in the Canadian Rockies, but abruptly stops when Kermit gets to the line “nibblin’ on bacon, chewin’ on cheese.” Despite Kermit’s explanation that he was referencing Canadian bacon for the audience, Miss Piggy was incensed, and the scene ended with a trademark karate chop with Kermit “crashing” into one of the cabin’s windows. This scene was particularly interesting to see, as the audio was prerecorded, but the dialogue was live. In addition, seeing Miss Piggy perform her karate chop was interesting, as it took incredible coordination between Eric Jacobson and Piggy’s right-hand performer for the scene, Matt Vogel, to execute the move. This was definitely one of the benefits of being able to see the performers. Then came comedian number quatre, Montréal’s own Caroline Rhea! Yes, that Caroline Rhea, who performed as Gilda the Great, a friend of the Amazing Mumford in the Sesame Street direct-to-video release A Magical Halloween Adventure! A guest star with a genuine Muppet connection! This certainly tickled me pink, though I was probably one of the few in the audience with a cursory knowledge of Sesame Street videos. She admitted that she had been a long-time Muppet fan, having used the chorus of “The Rainbow Connection” as her senior quote in her high school yearbook. Silly me, I just used a quote by Walt Disney, whose media empire would eventually acquire Kermit and friends, so I guess I kept it in the family.

Next, the newest Muppet took to the stage: Walter! He was there to introduce his comedic idol, making his debut at Just for Laughs, the one and only (thankfully) Fozzie Bear! He came out with his trademark “wocka wocka,” and then said, “and if you’re thinking, ‘good grief, the comedian’s a bear,’ no he’s-a not! He’s a-wearing a neck-a-tie!” Of course, all I was thinking was, “when did he say ‘hear?’” Fozzie went through some standard (bad) jokes, but the audience was laughing all the same. Hearing the heckling from Statler and Waldorf, Fozzie decided to change his course of action, deciding to do some Canadian-themed jokes, such as, “What province produces the best musicians? Mani-tuba!” For this crowd, I guess he had that joke Winnipegged. Jet it? (Wocka wocka.) Statler and Waldorf then made an observation that they wished they were like Abraham Lincoln, who didn’t have to sit through the whole show. Showing their age, after the audience groaned, they said, “too soon?” This led into the next comedian, Pete Zedlacher, who did a very funny bit about Germanic Christmas traditions like Sinterklaas and a personal favorite, Krampus.

The next bit would take a little time to set up, though as the audience saw the scientific equipment being set up, we knew that it would be worth the wait. To keep us entertained, Rowlf made an appearance, and said “you can call me Phil, because that’s apparently what I’m here to do.” (I guess that joke doesn’t translate as well into print.) He then went into an old Muppet Show favorite, “I Never Harmed an Onion.” I may have been the only person in the audience singing along with it, but sing I did, awkward stares be damned. Personally, I applaud Bill Barretta for performing this song, given that Rowlf hasn’t sung it since he was performed by Jim Henson. But the stage was set, and it was time to pay a visit to Muppet Labs. This time, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew’s latest invention was the “French-Canadian Culture Immerser,” and of course the (questionably) willing participant was Beaker, who always seems to get a huge round of applause. Even though he’s always abused, he must know the audience loves him. That must be comforting when you’re staring down an arsenal of freshly sharpened bananas. Anyhow, Beaker steps into the machine, and Bunsen enters his name, nationality, and age (which seems to surprise Bunsen about how old he is). But Bunsen forgets to enter Beaker’s weight, and out steps a seven-foot tall Beaker, played by crowd favorite Youppi, the mascot of hockey’s Montréal Canadiens (and formerly baseball’s Montréal Expos). This was one of my favorite parts of the night, as Youppi was created by Acme Mascots, Inc., founded by Bonnie Erickson, a former Henson employee known for designing characters such as Miss Piggy, Statler and Waldorf, and the Newsman. Having a large knowledge of Muppet history, it was particularly sweet to see Youppi share the stage with his step-brothers and sisters for one night. Then, the set needed to be carted offstage, so out came Rowlf to stall for time with his impressions of Donald Trump (performed by taking one of his big, floppy ears and placing it on top of his head), Donald Trump in the mirror (the same, using the other ear), and Donald Trump after a divorce (the first pose, but adding “that bitch! It’s okay, I’m a dog.”) Then, it was time for the final comedian of the night, Tom Papa, who did a bit on embellishing kids’ achievements, saying that “it’s not drum playing if you’re doing it with your head.” I have a feeling Animal would beg to differ. Or throw a drum at his head.

We then came to the final bit of the night (or so we thought), Gonzo and Cirque du Poulet! Gonzo (wearing his daredevil outfit from the most recent movie), explained his act, consisting of chickens stuffed in barrels with gunpowder, designed to shoot them into the second level of the theater. But timing was of the essence, and any false move could turn this show into dinner theatre. So as Gonzo made his countdown, he said that this act would be “dynamite,” which prompted an appearance by Crazy Harry, who did his thing and blew up the barrels, leaving some very charred (and irritated) chickens. Never failing to see the bright side, Gonzo took one look at the situation and said, “Camilla looks great with a tan!” Kermit then gave an uncharacteristically quick goodnight and left the stage. But not all of the Muppets would accept this ending. Pepe then took the stage and said that the Muppets should always end with a musical number, and took it upon himself to sing a song “he wrote in 1976 with his good friend Paul Williams.” I didn’t quite know the song, but it seemed like a very botched version of the theme to The Love Boat. As Pepe sang, a set was rolled out onstage, and Kermit and the rest of the Muppets came out to sing a song Kermit sang in 1979, written by his good friend Paul Williams: the unofficial Muppet anthem, “The Rainbow Connection.” (I think if they hadn’t sung this, a riot may have broken out. Started by me.) Kermit began the song with the normal lyrics, and then passed it on to Miss Piggy, who sang in some very strange French, the only word I knew was “croissant.” (I wonder: if croissants were mentioned in the original song, would it have won the Academy Award?) She quickly switched back to English, and the stage erupted in a bright rainbow of colors, as the audience sang along. Like I said, it may as well be the official anthem of the Muppets. And as the show came to a close, the Muppeteers came out of the set for a bow, joined by the comedians and Youppi, with Steve Whitmire stuck performing Kermit, since he couldn’t get him out until a cover was put over him. And with that, the show ended, leaving an audience very happy.

For my final thought on the show, I’ll give full disclosure: I was not having the best of days before this show. I had just one day to explore Montréal, and I overslept (my hotel room was extremely uncomfortable, so it was a shock that I was able to sleep at all). I had to wait forty minutes to take a tour of the city’s Olympic Stadium. I had to wait half an hour on a line for a Star Wars exhibit at the Montréal Science Center, only to find out that the next available entry time was four hours away. I wanted to eat lunch at a restaurant located in the Bell Centre, only to find that it was only open for people who had tickets to that night’s Coldplay concert. And because the Star Wars exhibit took forever due to crowding, I had ten minutes to scarf down dinner before the show, which was eaten from a food truck outside the theater. (Thankfully, the Just for Laughs festival is a big deal in Montréal, so every food truck in the city was at the Place des Arts complex.) This also prevented me from meeting Ceris, a fellow ToughPig who was also at the show. This all made me a very grumpy person. But there is something about the Muppets that, no matter how bad a day I’m having, makes me the happiest person in the world. That show was just so funny and had the right combination of classic material that I walked out with a smile on my face that’s usually only reserved for lottery winners and Olympic gold medalists. Being a bit of a Canada-phile, I was able to get most of the local jokes. Being able to see the Muppeteers performing with my own eyes was incredible. Eric Jacobson contorted his face to match every character he performed (and there are quite a lot). Bill Barretta’s quick wit helped to keep the audience entertained as elaborate set pieces were slowly rolled onstage. Steve Whitmire’s heartfelt performance made sure the attention was always on Kermit and not him. They and the rest of the Muppeteers are extremely talented individuals who rarely get the recognition they deserve. And the best part is that as long as the audience loves the Muppets, they don’t mind. With the public’s renewed interest in the Muppets, and rumors emerging that there may be a big engagement on the way, I can only hope that there are even more opportunities to see the Muppets away from my television very soon.

UPDATE: Check out this mini-compilation from the official (and hopefully, upcoming) video!

Click here to say it all over again in French on le ToughPigs forum!

by Matthew Soberman



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