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January 26, 2018

The Muppet Show: 40 Years Later – Rudolf Nureyev

Filed under: Feature,Reviews — Tags: , — Julia Gaskill @ 11:48 am

Original Air Date: January 23, 1978

It’s always a treat with The Muppet Show when you get a bit of an obscure guest star. What’s more, one whose specialty isn’t either singing or comedy.

Not to call ballet star Rudolf Nureyev obscure, but I feel like in this day-and-age, unless you happen to be a big dance buff, you might not know who the man was. Nonetheless, his episode – the thirteenth in The Muppet Show’s second season – ends up being a delight from start to finish.

One of the things I love most about this episode is how there’s an overarching plot that basically affects every single backstage segment, song, and sketch (save for the song “Something’s Missing”, the UK Spot, which in no way ties in with the rest of the episode). I don’t know why, but I love it when Muppet Show episodes have a story element that touches basically every single scene and gag. Sure, I adore the random variety that we, the viewing audience, are given most of the time, but there’s something so fun about the follow-through of a dedicated story arc.

The episode’s story is straight forward enough: Rudolf Nureyev is coming to guest star on The Muppet Show, and Sam is freaking out. He’s decked the backstage area with frills and flowers, forced everyone into a tuxedo, and demanded all the onstage bits be classy and cultured. All of the acts try their best to follow Sam’s orders, but as per usual with the Muppets, they fall far short from the mark. Rowlf plays a gentle piano solo, only to have Fozzie destroy a candelabra on top the instrument with a blowtorch. Veterinarian’s Hospital classes their sketch up with a whole lot of Shakespearean puns, adding to the overall silliness and detracting from any serious art. Miss Piggy and Link Hogthrob perform an opera duet, only to have it turn into an upstaging contest. Even the Electric Mayhem attempt to get in on the action when playing Boccherini’s ‘Minuet in A Major,’ but eventually lose their cool and start – what else? – rocking out.

On top of watching the humorous acts play out poorly, there’s also the perk of having a great guest star. Rudolf Nureyev doesn’t have too many interactions with the Muppets outside of his acts, but seeing him be pushed out of the backstage area by Sam and then later squabbling with the bald eagle in the dressing room is a definite highlight. (Side note: Sam is really at his best in this episode. I’ve always found, despite being a one-note character, when Sam is used right he’s absolutely fantastic.)

Nureyev gets to wow the audience with both his ballet and tap dancing skills, while also embedding a whole lot of humor into each segment. The ‘Swine Lake’ dance is a classic, and his commitment to the comedy truly sells the bit. While the tap dancing number perhaps is less funny, it’s nonetheless impressive and a nice flourish to end the episode on.

I will say, there is a stand out sketch in this episode. I don’t know about you, but when I think of the Nureyev episode of The Muppet Show, besides ‘Swine Lake,’ one sketch never fails to come to mind:

And look, I know. I know it would be so on brand for me to now launch into a rant about how messed up the song ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ is, how dated the lyrics are, and how it shouldn’t be played. Heck, I managed to turn my last Muppet Show review into an essay on body positivity. So I won’t put you all through another rant. Just know that any song that contains the phrase “What’s the sense in hurting my pride?” in order to keep a woman from leaving a man’s residence is scummy as all get out.

THAT SAID, since I’ve always seen ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ as a scuzzy song, perhaps that’s why this rendition has always been perfect to me.

Piggy is, through and through, the definition of sleazy in this number. She brings all the slime of the lyrics to the forefront. Miss Piggy spends the entire song chasing Nureyev around a sauna, both clad solely in towels. His discomfort is obvious from the get-go, but that doesn’t stop Piggy from working every angle. Before the song even begins they exchange this banter:

Piggy: If you’re warm, maybe you’re overdressed.
Nureyev: No, I’m fine.
Piggy: Well maybe I’m overdressed.

I doubt Jim Henson, when putting this episode together, was hoping to do a commentary on how messed up this song is and how it perpetrates a sexist viewpoint, but that’s really how it comes off. Yes, the number still manages to find plenty of humor (big thumbs up to Nureyev and Frank Oz), but it ends up emphasizing how sleazy these lyrics truly are. Sure, this sketch is more than a bit absurd (again, see: man being chased around a sauna by a pig), but Miss Piggy’s ‘I-get-what-I-want’ attitude fits a little too perfectly in the concept of this song.

Whether you view it as commentary on the unsavoriness of the song or just a funny sketch (or maybe even both), this number does not disappoint.

I will say, on a final note, that Nureyev really is a great guest star. He’s talented in his field of dance, he riffs really well with Piggy, Sam, and the Ballerina Pig, and he seems to be having a great time throughout the episode. His only real downfall is that … well … he can’t sing. Granted, this isn’t much of a problem for ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside,’ because the humor and scenario are grand enough that a quality singing voice isn’t entirely necessary. But he doesn’t really have the musical chops to pull off ‘Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails.’ The Muppets chime in during the second half of the song, but I can’t help but wish that maybe the Muppets did more of the heavy lifting with the singing and left Nureyev to the dancing.

Best Joke: Just the overall gag of Sam being so intensely invested in Nureyev’s arrival, only to then shoo him out of the backstage without realizing it’s him. Although, to be frank, this episode has so many wonderful jokes that work. Piggy and Link upstaging one another, Rowlf’s bad Shakespeare puns (“Zounds!” “Zounds what?” “Zounds terrible!”), even Robin’s hat being way too big for him.

Lamest Joke: Scooter coming into the dressing room during the cold open, seeing Nureyev hasn’t arrived yet, and then telling the camera, “Uh-huh. I knew he was too smart to show up.” Cold opens tend to contain my least favorite jokes; they always feel like low hanging fruit.

MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): I am pleased as punch to give this episode’s MVM to none other than Sam the Eagle. There’s so much joy in watching him fret and fuss the entire episode, only in the end to realize that Nureyev is just as strange as all the weirdos Sam’s surrounded by on a daily basis. It’s not often we get to see Sam lose his cool on this scale, and when we do it’s always well worth it.

Coolest Puppetry Effect: I’m sure the effect behind it is fairly simple, but Gonzo’s stint in this episode’s theme song is a balloon being blown up all the way as he plays the trumpet.

First Appearance of…: Ballerina Pig “gracefully” dancing alongside Nureyev in ‘Swine Lake.’ Which also means that we get an appearance from …

Rare Muppet Performer Appearance: … Graham Fletcher! The person behind (inside of?) Ballerina Pig!

Musical Highlight: What with Nureyev not being the best singer, I’m gonna give it to the Electric Mayhem attempting to do a nice, quiet composition, only to then lose all control and start rocking out, as is their nature.

Most Classic Moment: ‘Swine Lake.’ The imagery of Nureyev tossing Ballerina Pig across the stage is far too ingrained in the Muppets’ history to not be considered classic.

Should-Be-Classic Moment: Rowlf and Fozzie’s piano bit. Such a simple gag, but in not overplaying it there’s so much humor to be found.

Adultiest Content: The entire rendition of ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside.’ Particularly when Piggy goes so far as to pull Nureyev’s towel off in the very end.

One More Thing…: Originally Nureyev wanted to dance ‘Swine Lake’ with Piggy, but for obvious reasons (i.e. filming her lower half would be a bit of a pickle) the crew decided that wouldn’t be possible. To compromise, Nureyev got to do a musical number with Miss Piggy, and Ballerina Pig was created to fill the comedy/ballet bit.

Okay, One More Thing: According to the Muppet Wiki, this episode is seen as a “key moment in season two, and in the entire history of the Muppets.” Since Nureyev was a world famous ballet dancer, his appearance on the show garnered a lot of attention and drew in a wider audience. This was when the show began to gain ground, and the producers never had trouble booking guest stars following this episode.

Click here to freak out with Sam the Eagle over on the ToughPigs forum!

by Julia Gaskill



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