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October 19, 2016

The Muppet Show: 40 Years Later – Joel Grey

Filed under: Feature,Reviews — Tags: , , — Matt Wilkie @ 11:32 am

grey2Original air date: October 18, 1976

Ladies and Gentlemen! Mesdames et Messieurs! Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome back to The Muppet Show! With our special guest, Mr. Joel Grey! And what a show it is. But first, some history.

Most television comedies use either a three-act or four-act structure, depending on how many commercial breaks they need, or don’t need if they’re on a streaming service. A five-act structure is usually resigned to t.v. dramas, but is more common in plays and most famously in Shakespearean works. The Muppet Show didn’t much lend itself to an “act” format, given its variety show format. One could argue that the backstage bits that would come later in the show’s run serve as a running plot and were broken down into acts, and I’d probably agree, but this early on I wouldn’t really say that Fozzie working out his “Jokes On Any Subject” bit is a plot so much as it is a setup for the punchline of Fozzie performing on stage later. So in lieu of a show in five acts, I’m going to give you a review in five hats. And in keeping with the madcap, zany nature of the Muppets, I’m going to jump around. So please, hold onto your hats!

hatThe Third Hat

The first and most obvious hat to talk about is Joel Grey’s hat. Now of course we don’t need to, because his hat can talk about itself. But since I couldn’t reach the hat for an interview I’ll carry on. In a short segment which in sketch comedy terms is called a “blackout” – because it’s a quick gag followed by the screen quickly cutting away, usually to black – Joel asks Gonzo if he wants to “go for a spin,” which leads to a discussion of how phrases like the previous one shouldn’t be taken literally, such as talking through one’s hat. And then Joel’s hat says it can talk for itself. And this is a great example of a nonsensical non-sequitur that had become a staple for the Muppets. These crazy scenarios could only happen with them, and this show is slowly becoming the kind of place to showcase the wacky things that can only happen here at the Muppet Theatre. This exchange is even punctuated by Joel saying that he’s going bananas – and as if we couldn’t guess, a banana shows up to deliver the last punchline. Audiences are learning about the way Muppets work on a grand scale and how they have a cartoon sensibility but are even better than cartoons – you can’t hug Bugs Bunny, after all. It’s notable that this was the first proper episode of The Muppet Show, with the previous two episodes produced (Juliet Prowse and Connie Stevens) acting more as pilots. That’s why this one feels so much like it’s finding its footing, including Fozzie’s as-yet-undeveloped voice, and an extra verse in the theme song which then gave a tease of the kind of stuff you’d see later – in this case, the Muppet monsters and ruffians singing “Comedy Tonight.” As with many of the episodes we’ve already reviewed, and will review for season one, the Muppets are not yet what they find be, and going on that journey will be a joy.

grey7The First and Fourth Hats

As Henson and Company’s finesse in comedy absurdity was being fine-tuned, it’s puppetry work still had some kinks to work out. The Muppet Show ran on a very tight schedule, much tighter and stricter than television production nowadays. I’ve heard stories of the union worker turning the lights off on the group while they were trying to work well into the night to get a scene filmed. And even with all the overtime they’re willing to perform, as well as with CGI being used to wipe away any arm rods or accidental body part cameos, we still see a stray head of arm pop up into a scene all the time with puppet productions. So in that time of tight deadlines, there were cuts and edits that feel weird. During a Backstage bit, at one point Fozzie drops his hat. Like a pro, Frank plays it off as if intentional, but it’s pretty noticeably a mistake, and I have to wonder why they didn’t do another take on that scene. Hilda wasn’t getting any younger anyway. Or Fozzie, for that matter. Y’know, because puppets don’t age? Never mind.

grey8The same thing happens at one point with Baskerville. In my favorite inside baseball joke of the show, Baskerville the Dog, who is named after the Sherlock Holmes book “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” plays Watson to Rowlf’s Holmes. And that cracks me up so much every time I remember it. During the sketch, Baskville’s hat falls off, and just hangs off of his head with no comment. Again, I have to wonder why they didn’t just reshoot this take, since the scene was already filled with camera cutaways and no one would have known. But it stood, and is just as obvious as Fozzie’s mishap mishat, maybe more so.

(Not to be a nitpicker who’s taking any kind of glee in pointing out things on a decades-old show with a short shooting schedule, but this also happens to Gonzo’s bowtie at the end of the “Razzle Dazzle” number, but that’s a tie, not a hat, so who cares? We’re focusing on things that matter, like headwear.)

I bring these things up not to be curmudgeonly or to try to shame anyone involved at all. Quite the contrary. I kinda like that everyone involved was so much more concerned with the show as a whole that they didn’t take time out of their hectic schedules to make everything bright and polished and perfect – I think they made the best damn show they could and let the nicks on the varnish show if it might slow down their creative spirit.

Kaiser Bill, and his silly hat.

Kaiser Bill and his silly hat.

The Second Hat

This one is a little more abstract, as it’s not a hat that’s seen on screen, but a reference to one in a joke between Statler and Waldorf. As they often did, Statler and Waldorf complimented the guest star, which led to an argument about the only thing they’ve ever agreed on – that Kaiser Bill looks silly in a hat. But this actually works well for a few reasons. First, even though every screenwriting course will tell you to show, not tell, telling the audience that someone named Kaiser Bill looks ridiculous in a hat, and you get to imagine any kind of man with any kind of face wearing any kind of hat. And whatever you imagine, it’s gonna be hilarious! Try it! Isn’t it the funniest hat you’ve ever imagined?! Thanks, Muppets! And secondly, because Jim and Richard Hunt just sell it. They are rarely better than as Statler and Waldorf, playing off each other so well.

(Side note: I’d actually love to see a list of guest stars that Statler and Waldorf have insulted, because quite frankly I can’t think of any. Which is a testament to the Muppet writers’ niceness, I’m guessing influenced by Jim – we can make fun of ourselves and each other all we want, but our guests are guests here, and we want them here because they’re talented and we respect them, so let’s treat them with respect!)

grey9The Fifth Hat

After another failed attempt to win the audience over with a stunt, Gonzo is left distraught onstage. And then Joel Grey enters. And it’s weird.

This whole scene feels so disjointed to me. In the reality of the show, Gonzo’s stunt fails and everyone boo’s him. So Joel Grey sweeps in to pour sequins on the wound. He calls him talentless and disgusting, which works in that those are the lyrics to a song, and Gonzo is taking it in stride, but it feels so off-putting. They couldn’t have just let the curtains close and then have Joel sing the closing number? Or have Gonzo start the sketch off by asking for advice, no stunt failure involved, and then Joel sings the advice to him? Either option would make me feel better about the number being sung as an insult.

“But Matt? Where’s the hat?”

Oh it’s coming!

grey4When Joel offers Gonzo unprompted advice on his act, Gonzo asks if he should wear a top hat. Joel laughs at him and tells him that the problem is with the act itself. True, but mean. Then Joel does a lovely job of signing “Razzle Dazzle” from Chicago, wearing a top hat and … well, that’s my problem, there’s nothing else to his song and dance routine. It’s a blank background. The music is too low at times. There are some great camera effects that I’m sure were very cutting edge in 1976, but add nothing to the performance. I know it’s a variety show of the time, and maybe that’s how Sonny and Cher would’ve done it too, but I would’ve expected a much more elaborate set design for a song about flash and substance on a show starring Muppets. There aren’t even any Muppets in the same shot as Joel. I found it to be lacking, so the fact that this is supposed to be advice to Gonzo to be impressive makes it even … well, unimpressive.

grey1A Final Hat Tip

But let us not leave this episode on a downer note, because the thing is: I really like this one! So let me say why I liked this variety show episode so much – the variety of Muppets! If you made a show about the Muppets today (and let it be on the air for longer than one season mumble grumble), you might be inclined to only fill the screen with the most well-known Muppet character. But in its first season, the Muppets could use a whole menagerie of characters in all different scenes. The opening number is filled with so many strange, wonderful Muppet monsters and creatures! The “Willkommen” number has a cameo by Kermit with half of a line, but is mostly occupied by Gonzo, Mildred, Doctor Teeth, the Green Frackle, Zoot, Janice, Wayne, Wanda, Droop, Catgut, Baskerville, Muppy, a couple of lady pig dancers, a female Whatnot, and the puppet version of Jerry Nelson – only one of whom is a household name within the Muppets! Their infancy stage allowed them to use whatever character fit the mood, not focus on the marketing standpoint. It was a wild time in the Muppets’ lives, and I’m so glad we got to take a closer peek.

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Best Joke: Gonzo screaming “Stranger!” at Joel during “Willkommen” is a hands-down favorite.

Lamest Joke: Once again, Kermit’s top-of-the-show promise of a fantastic act followed up by saying basically “Psych, we don’t have that! We have a great guest star who is much better!” falls flat.

MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): Fozzie, for carrying a lackluster backstage plot and making it kind-of charming, in his own special way. Not a shining moment for ol’ Fozz, but he’s slowly evolving into his own in this episode.

Honorable Mention MVM: George the Janitor gets my oddball choice of MVM for the way he dances in the “At the Dance” scene cracking me up.

MVP (Most Valuable Puppeteer): Frank Oz, for three specific reasons: The aforementioned George’s dance moves; the ad lib of “Tough” during “Sherlock Holmes and the Disappearing Clues,” which could describe Baskerville’s texture or the level of difficulty it took to get the puppet in there; and even though it’s unconfirmed, I am 99% certain that it’s Frank as the dancer in the “Pachalafaka” number, and everything he does to try to upstage Jim is fried gold.

Should-Be-Classic Moment: No “Fever” or Muppaphones to speak of here, so what I feel should be a classic is Fozzie’s joke about two amoebas leaving a bar.

First Appearance of …: For our watching order, this is the first appearance of Hilda, who was the seamstress for the first season but mostly disappeared after her performer, Eren Ozker, did. I always felt that a seamstress in a theatre would be a very important and potentially interesting role, so I wish she had stuck around longer.

Obscure Character Watch: This is the first appearance of some other characters, but all very minor and obscure ones so I’ll list them here. First, Gorgon Heap! This version had ears instead of horns, so maybe that’s why you didn’t recognize him. I love a giant Muppet monster who can eat other characters. This was a direct predecessor of Big Mean Carl, with a more utility player persona.

And then there’s Lenny the Lizard! You know, Lenny the … Lizard? He auditioned to be the emcee in the Steve Martin episode? Never mind.

This is also the first introduction of Muppet bananas. Though many other Muppet foods may have been on the show before, bananas should be noted because they have so much … appeal! Never mind again.

One More Thing: The entire concept of the Talk Spot for this week is that Kermit gives away Joel’s entire backstory, then asks for him to tell them something about himself, which he obviously can’t now. This was genius and made me laugh.

Okay, One More Thing: According to notes and this episode’s credits, this is Jane Henson’s one known appearance as a puppeteer on The Muppet Show proper. As such, major kudos to Jane for her work here!

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by Matt Wilkie – Matt@ToughPigs.com



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