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February 2, 2018

The Muppet Show: 40 Years Later – Judy Collins

Filed under: Feature,Reviews — Tags: , — Anthony Strand @ 12:42 pm

Original air date: January 30, 1978

In the cold opener to this episode, folk singer Judy Collins says she’s “ready for anything.” But she’s shocked when Crazy Harry pops up to do one of his signature explosions. Crazy Harry cackles “You weren’t ready for that!” This raises the question – why wasn’t she ready? This is bog-standard Muppet Show stuff. The answer is that Judy Collins is used to Sesame Street, and no one blows anything up on Sesame Street.

In the mid-to-late 70s, Collins was a fixture on Sesame Street, appearing often enough that she was more of a recurring character than a celebrity guest star. She brings a lot of that spirit to her appearance here. The episode feels like a hybrid between Jim Henson’s two biggest hit shows, which is something we never quite got anywhere else.

Outside of that opener and the good nights, Judy Collins never appears backstage or in a comedy piece. She’s here only to sing, which makes her presence feel a lot like a series of Sesame Street inserts happening in between the unrelated backstage story. That could be a problem, but here it works marvelously.

Collins does four songs, and the first three would all feel right at home on Sesame Street. The opening number is “Leatherwing Bat,” where she interacts with several forest creatures, learning what sounds they make and what activities they do. It’s a lovely song that does a great job of exposing urban children to animals found in nature, which was presumably its curricular goal.

Her next two songs are both classic children’s songs, starting with “I Know an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly” using cutout-style puppetry to show the old lady’s expanding stomach as she swallows various animals. She’s performed by Jerry Nelson, who cackles with glee every verse, even when singing “I guess I’ll die!” It’s a weird, unexpected performance from him, and it really makes the song move beyond its simple educational value. What could be more Sesame Street than that?

Later Collins performs “Do-Re-Mi” with Rowlf on dueling pianos. Before they get into the actual song, she helpfully explains that she’s doing finger exercises to warm up her hands. This might be the most Sesame Street-esque moment of the entire show, as that show often features musicians talking about preparation and technique. The song itself is simple, straightforward, and lovely.

The Sesame Street influence affects other parts of the show as well. Link Hogthrob’s brief solo number – “I Talk to the Trees” – is very reminiscent of Guy Smiley’s “I’ll Love You in Springtime.” I freely admit that this might be entirely in my head – the two share identical singing voices – but every time this sketch comes on, I expect it to be that Guy Smiley number. Somehow this makes it even funnier when the trees get up and leave after two lines.

Immediately after that, Kermit interviews (and is imitated by) a Koozebanian Phoob, who evolves to look like Kermit so he won’t be eaten. We’ve seen Kermit in his reporter gear on The Muppet Show before in the original Koozebane sketch, but there he was more of a narrator, doing play-by-play as the aliens mated. This is a person-to-person interview, which makes it feel so much more like a Sesame Street News Flash.

Judy Collins returns for the closing number, and this is where the episode falls apart. She sings Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” while some dancers with Muppet-y masks on dance in the background. That’s a great song, but this sketch doesn’t feel at all like The Muppet Show *or* Sesame Street. It’s a boring arrangement that could have been on any variety show, and the dancers are not Muppets in any way (I can wear a mask too, but that doesn’t make me Fozzie Bear). It’s a depressing end to an episode that was doing so well up to that point.

The real tragedy is that Collins had already done the perfect Muppet Show closing number on Sesame Street a few years earlier. “The Fisherman Song” is one of my all-time favorite numbers done by a guest star with Muppets. The song is catchy, the Muppets get in some good dumb jokes, and Collins seems like she’s having a blast. Most importantly, like any good closing number, it sends the audience off with a joyful smile.

So here’s my advice: Watch the first 22 minutes of this episode, pause it to watch “The Fisherman Song” and then go back to watch the ending. That true Muppet Show/Sesame Street hybrid is the best possible version of this episode. You’ll thank me, I promise!

Best Joke: The Swedish Chef makes tossed salad by throwing a head of lettuce into the air and shooting it with a musket. That’s fine, but then he throws a cabbage in the air and it comes down as brussels sprouts. *That* is amazing.

Lamest Joke:
Statler: “You know, when I see that Judy Collins, I’m glad I left my wife!”
Waldorf: “You left your wife?”
Statler: “Yeah, I left her at home!”

UGH.

Most Classic Moment: Pigs in Space where Link won’t let Piggy (“a woman”) perform the mid-course correction maneuver even though she studied it for 11 years. He does it himself and, of course, gets it wrong. This sketch was later remade as the 2016 Presidential election.

Should-Be-Classic Moment: Sam the Eagle interviews Statler while Waldorf hangs onto the side of the balcony, having just fallen out. UK sketches are often weird, but they usually aren’t character moments like this. It’s bizarre, hilarious, and a great insight into all three characters. Muppet fans should talk about it all the time.

Missed Opportunity: Put that sweet, sweet “Fisherman Song” at the end, duh!

Obscure Character Watch: Another great thing about “Leatherwing Bat”: Zelda Rose’s singing owl is back, baby!

First Appearance Of…: J. P. Grosse – the theater owner and Scooter’s uncle – who shows up and threatens to demolish the theater. Jerry Nelson is terrific as the ruthless Grosse, but treating the Muppet Theater as a real place with real concerns never quite works for me.

MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): I’m going to give it to Piggy, who makes the most of her relatively brief time. She gets hilariously mad at Kermit during the opening, and she’s the standout of the Pigs in Space sketch. Most importantly, she gets the best moment of the backstage plot with her failed attempt to come on to J. P. Grosse.

Musical Highlight: I can’t stress enough how gorgeous “Leatherwing Bat” is. The music has an ethereal quality that makes it feel like something out of a high-fantasy concept album, and the vocals from Collins, Dave Goelz, and Jerry Nelson take it to another level. One of my favorite songs all season.

Coolest Puppetry Effect: The Newsman’s copy spontaneously sets on fire and burns up his hand. Not puppetry, perhaps, but still a pretty cool effect.

Adultiest Content: In my version that includes “The Fisherman Song,” it’s definitely the line “they seem to know the ocean like a man knows a woman.” The fishermen are also said to be “drinking beer and laughing.” In the actual show, not much, which means that an actual Sesame Street sketch has considerably more adult content than this entire episode.

One More Thing: J. P. Grosse’s voice is an imitation of character actor Eugene Pallette, and Jerry Nelson would use it again for Pa Gorg on Fraggle Rock a few years later.

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by Anthony Strand – Anthony@ToughPigs.com



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