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July 21, 2016

Throw It Back Thursday: Big Bird on Soul Man

Filed under: Commentary,Feature — Tags: — Joe Hennes @ 12:23 pm

soulman5We’re pretty used to seeing celebrities pop up on Sesame Street, but it’s much more rare to see a Muppet make an appearance on another TV show.  So when it happens, there’s a bit of expectation on our part that the cameo will be worthwhile.  A few notable examples include the Muppet-centric episodes of Scrubs, @midnight, Portlandia, and even a weird show called The Funniest Joke I Ever Heard.  Adding Muppets to other shows is always an improvement.

In 1998, Dan Aykroyd starred as Reverend Mike in a short-lived sitcom called Soul Man.  From the title (and from the proximity to the release of Blues Brothers 2000, which premiered just four days before the episode we’re about to discuss), you might think that this might be a show about Aykroyd being some sort of supercool musician with the ability to quip just as hard as he rocks.  And man, you’d be dead wrong.  It’s also not an ’80s comedy about a white guy in blackface, which is definitely a thing that should not exist. Instead, it’s about a widowed priest with four kids who thinks he’s cool (I’m talking about Aykroyd, not the character), but he’s really not.  Soul Man, a spin-off of Home Improvement, doesn’t have one genuine laugh, and it feels so dated, I retroactively feel bad for the actors involved.

Seen above: Reverend Fonzie

Seen above: Reverend Fonzie

The show filmed at Kaufman Astoria Studios, just a floor or two away from Sesame Street.  So when sweeps month came around, it was pretty easy to convince Big Bird to hop on the elevator for a few minutes on screen.  And that’s exactly what happened, as Big Bird made what amounted to a couple of very brief cameos on a forgotten Dan Aykroyd sitcom.

The episode also features a special appearance by John Goodman as Stan Hamel (also referred to as “Stan the Man” and “Big Stan”, because a one-off character definitely needs at least three names), an old army buddy of Rev. Mike’s.  (By the way, Goodman appeared to help boost ratings for sweeps, but Big Bird stole all the press.  Ha!)  Stan comes bearing the gift of two tickets to see The Rolling Stones, but oh no! Rev. Mike already promised his youngest kid that they’d go see some clown at a pizzeria or something!  Both of those things are completely forgotten when the kid asks to see Big Bird conduct the orchestra instead, which is understandable, but the laziest of time-wasted writing.  Sgt. Big Stan the Man says he can get them in, promises are made, and because this is a lazy ’90s sitcom, there’s no way they’re getting in.  The grown-ups will have some sort of wacky hijinks while the kids stay out of the way off-screen, they’ll have a heartfelt lesson, and then Big Bird will show up as promised by the ad taken out in TV Guide.


Not the ad in question, but close enough.

Boy, that sure was a lot of synopsis before we actually got to Big Bird!  And it’s true, Big Bird doesn’t appear until there are only four minutes left to go in the episode.  While trying to sneak into the venue, Rev. Mike apparently falls on Big Bird, who was busy rehearsing for the show.  Mike brings Big Bird outside to meet his kids, have a pretty awkward exchange, and then deus ex machina their way into the show, which we never get to see.  John Goodman (who had appeared on Sesame Street just a few years earlier) makes himself scarce, which is a shame, because he would’ve been much more natural with Big Bird than Dan Aykroyd, who rambles on in front of the Bird with worse comic timing than I thought the censors would allow on network TV back then.

Rev. Mike reveals that he’s a big Big Bird fan (which is not evidenced at all earlier in the episode, despite the fact that he knows he’s going to a Big Bird event), and dominates the Bird’s attention.  He tells Big Bird that he loved that time he went fishing for Wolfgang the Seal (deep cut, Padre!), he always believed him when he said Mr. Snuffleupagus was real, and he digs that alphabet song.  And then Big Bird tells him to STFU, because he wants to talk to the kids, who are way closer to his key demographic than Mike.

So, this raises an interesting question.  In the world of Soul Man, is Big Bird real?  Rev. Mike stumbles on Big Bird as he’s rehearsing for the show, so either Caroll Spinney was in full costume ready to go on stage, or the giant Bird was waving his baton around waiting for a holy man with a receding hairline to fall through his window.  Then Rev. Mike flips out over being in a room with a celebrity, so he’s either overly excited over seeing the puppet (which, let’s be honest, we would all do the same) or he is totally cool with standing next to a giant talking bird with a personality that has been stalled at the emotional age of 6.

As Big Bird exits, he does get one kinda okay moment.  As he turns his head to say goodbye while still walking forward, he knocks his head on the top of the door frame.  It’s a cute bit of puppetry, especially as Caroll Spinney seems to stumble and spin in surprise.


It’s a tiny bit of physical comedy that we don’t often get to see from Big Bird these days.  But what makes that moment worthwhile is his reaction to Rev. Mike and Stan’s “Watch your head,” as he lowers his eyes for a slow burn.  It’s not much, but it’s a low highlight from a mediocre 22 minutes of television.


During the credits tag, Rev. Mike’s protege Reverend Todd Tucker (played by Anthony Clark) finds himself temporarily standing guard at the stage door as Big Bird returns from his break. (What was he doing? Grabbing a quick smoke?)  Tucker doesn’t recognize Big Bird right away (despite being, y’know, a big bird), but once he does, they break into a duet of “ABC-DEF-GHI”, which is actually kinda cute.  And then in typical sitcom fashion, he refuses to let Big Bird back in because his name isn’t on the list.

*laugh track*

*credits roll*

*stay tuned for Empty Nest*

Was Soul Man a waste of Big Bird?  Nah, he survived the experience just fine.  Was it a wasted opportunity?  Most definitely, especially since Big Bird is only in about two minutes of the episode.  I appreciate both Aykroyd and Goodman as comedic actors, and if they were at their best, it would be amazing to see them riff with the Bird.  Unfortunately, all Big Bird could do was show up and remind us what quality TV should be.  Just three months after Big Bird’s appearance, Soul Man was canceled, because not even a Muppet can save a sinking ship.

And now, because you’ve been so patient, you can watch the entire Soul Man episode featuring Big Bird and John Goodman, titled “The Stan Plan”.  Be prepared for lame late-90s sitcom awfulness, and feel free to skip ahead to the 16-minute mark if you’re only interested in Big Bird.  Enjoy!  Or don’t!

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by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com

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