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November 11, 2016

The Muppet Show: 40 Years Later – Peter Ustinov

Filed under: Feature,Reviews — Tags: , , — Julia Gaskill @ 11:58 am

ustinov-6Original air date: November 8, 1976

Hi-ho, Julia the ToughPigs Correspondent here, and welcome to another exciting edition of our ongoing series wherein we review the entirety of The Muppet Show! *insert flailing Kermit arms here*

Last week I had the pleasure of reviewing the Lena Horne episode of The Muppet Show, which I raved about and adored. This week, I took on episode twelve of season one: Peter Ustinov.

In preparation for writing this piece, I watched Ustinov’s episode two times through (as it’s been a few years since I’ve last seen it). On my first watch, this episode felt a bit bland in comparison to Horne’s. It just wasn’t doing as much for me. However, in my second viewing, I realized it’s still a pretty darn good episode. I mean, when it comes down to it, both episodes do a magnificent job of highlighting their guest stars’ talents, even when those guest stars have a very different set of skills. Lena Horne, like a great many of the guest stars on The Muppet Show, excelled in singing, and thus had a number of songs to showcase her talents throughout her episode.

ustinov-4With Ustinov, you have a classically-trained actor, and how do you highlight an actor? Give him plenty of characters and impersonations to work with, and that’s precisely what we’re given in this episode. There are four segments heavily featuring Ustinov: Muppet Labs, his post-Dickensian economics gag, Muppet Newsflash, and a Panel Discussion. In these scenes, Ustinov takes on an array of characters, voices, and impressions. Not every joke lands, but you have to admit that he’s a pro.

The highlight of these segments is his bit with Fozzie, wherein Sam introduces them as a university lecturing duo, talking about the dull topic of post-Dickensian economics. Of course, the subject matter really has very little to do with economics, it’s just the set up for the punchline (spoiler!): “a Benny shaved is a Benny urned.” What makes this segment is Ustinov’s brash delivery, and how well he and Fozzie play off of one another. He’s clearly having a good time setting this joke up and having fun with the bear along the way. It helps that Ustinov is likeable and gets on well with his Muppet costars in all his scenes (much better than he got on with Miss Piggy in his very brief cameo in The Great Muppet Caper).

ustinov-8My least favorite of Ustinov’s segments is his Muppet Labs bit where he plays a robotic politician. While the impressions are obvious –  Nixon, Churchill, Mao, etc. – they do date the episode. Ustinov is certainly talented, as his accents are all on point, but in this day and age a white guy taking on a middle eastern or a Chinese accent isn’t quite as acceptable as it was at the time this episode was filmed. So, while I kinda get why this might’ve been seen as okay in 1976, it still makes me cringe – just a little.

Outside of Ustinov’s guest feature, we still have an array of funny, well done sketches, songs, and gags. The episode kicks off with “An Evening at the Pops”, which highlights Jim’s love of trying out different puppetry tricks (the balloon head popping at the very end of the song). It’s a short, simple piece, but still a good gag. Then we have an At the Dance and Wayne & Wanda, which are fun as always.

ustinov-1Two of the songs that we get in the middle of the episode are nice parallels of each other. First, we get “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.” There’s no real gag to this song, besides perhaps Piggy’s over-the-top performance. It’s just the Muppets grouping up, singing together, having a good time, and presenting the audience with a nice rendition of this song. Then we get “You Do Something to Me,” which is the complete opposite of the prior. The entire purpose of the song is a gag, with Svengali continually changing his assistant’s body. This one isn’t so much to highlight the song, but to make a fun gag out of the lyrics.

We’d be remiss to overlook the backstage plot line of this episode, as it culminates in the most iconic moment of the entire episode (and one of the most classic songs of the show’s run). Throughout the episode, we see Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Hilda, and Scooter come up to Kermit, gushing over their admiration of Peter Ustinov. Kermit ultimately feels jealous, but who can blame the frog? His friends and coworkers continually bash their fearless green leader when comparing him with Ustinov. It’s kind of rough watching the frog deal with so much flack, but it’s not all for nothing. After all, it makes Kermit realize that it’s not easy being…

Well. The song says it all, folks.

Best Joke: I’m personally a big fan of Ustinov delivering the line: “I’ve just been talking to your show’s writer. He’s a man of many talents. Wears more than one hat.” He is, of course, talking about the hat rack referenced earlier in the episode. The fact that the joke was set up at the beginning and then comes full circle at the end really synches it.  The part that makes this joke classic: The Hatrack is listed in the credits.

Worst Joke: The climax of the discussion panel, the Primal Scream theory, doesn’t do much for me. Honestly, a lot of the jokes in the Discussion Panel fall flat.  I can see why this segment didn’t make it to season 2.

ustinov-2MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): It’s gotta go to Kermit in this one. He spends the entire time having his closest friends and coworkers continually dismiss and insult him. He puts up with so much in this episode. But that’s okay because…

Most Classic Moment: …Kermit has the most iconic moment of this entire episode with “Bein’ Green.” Obviously!

Should-Be-Classic Moment: Peter and Fozzie talking about post-Dickensian economics.  Borscht-belt comedy at its finest!

First Appearance Of: This was the first and only appearance of Cynthia Birdley.

Obscure Character Watch: Again, we give it to Cynthia Birdley.

Rare Muppet Performer Appearance: This episode is one of only two to showcase puppeteer Cynthia Adler, who performed in this episode the assistant singing “You Do Something To Me” and (you guessed it) Cynthia Birdley.

Most Dated Joke: The robotic politician is basically Ustinov’s chance to portray politicians like Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon, Mao Zedong, etc. While they are historic figures that most people probably know, they do date the show.

Adultiest Content: “You don’t wear any pants.” “Let’s see him get away with that on television.”

ustinov-9One More Thing: This was the first episode not to feature a Talk Spot between Kermit and the guest star. This is probably because Kermit spends the entire episode being jealous of Ustinov right until the very end, so to have them chat in the middle of the episode would ruin that story arc. However, it’s also worth noting that there are photos of a Talk Spot with Kermit and Ustinov (with a bonus appearance by the top of Jim Henson’s head), so chances are they did record one but then decided the episode worked better without it.

Okay, One More Thing: Fozzie and Scooter taking those long pauses, looking at Kermit, and delivering deadpan to him “I was wrong” are my two favorite parts of the entire episode. Especially when Fozzie does it – I always guffaw out loud.


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by Julia Gaskill – Julia@ToughPigs.com

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