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May 1, 2017

The Muppet Show: 40 Years Later – Season One Review

Filed under: Commentary,Feature — Tags: , — ToughPigs Staff @ 1:09 pm

Over the past few months, the ToughPigs staff has been reviewing every episode of The Muppet Show (almost) exactly 40 years after their US premiere dates.  It’s been a super fun project, not just because we get to talk about these classic episodes, but because it’s been an enlightening experience revisiting a time when the Muppets were still figuring out what (and who) they were supposed to be.

To investigate more of our thoughts on the matter, we’ve gathered all of our Muppet Show reviewers here to share our thoughts on the season, including what worked, what didn’t work, and what the heck was up with Mummenschanz.

Okay, now that our reviews of season 1 are complete and we’ve had a chance to revisit some classic episodes, how do you think it holds up?

Matthew Soberman: Like the first season of many shows, you can tell the show needed some time to gel. There’s a lot of stuff there that didn’t stay in the show beyond the first season (The Talking Houses, the Wayne and Wanda sketches, Hilda as anything beyond a background character, etc.), and so it holds up the same as most first seasons. You can see the makings of what made The Muppet Show the smash hit, but there were some bumpy patches along the way.

Ryan Roe: It kind of feels like a different show than the rest of the series, but it’s not a bad show.  There are a lot of great jokes, songs, and sketches, including some recycled from the Muppets’ days doing variety show guest spots.  And yet, I can’t say we’d still be talking about The Muppet Show if it hadn’t evolved past the season 1 version of itself.

Joe Hennes: Well, thank goodness it got a second season.  Not that the first season is bad (on the contrary, I really love it), but it was missing that something extra.  Not quite “more dogs and frogs and bears and chickens and things”, but something cohesive.  The characters don’t quite feel like a family, and there’s too much disconnect between the stage and backstage antics.

Julia Gaskill: Season one really does have a couple of my all time favorite Muppet Show episodes but, like most shows, often the first season sort of allows for a show to find its footing. This season lays down the bones for what is to come, most definitely, but it’s also clear that Henson and his crew figured out what worked in these episodes, tinkered, and made it a much better, shinier show in the later seasons.

Matt Wilkie: No show really has it all figured out in their first season. (Well, maybe Cheers or The Good Place, but there are always exceptions to the rule.) And even then, the evolution of a show going into its second season usually exposes the cracks and works on patching them up. Is this a horrible season of television? Absolutely not! But it’s also not nearly as good as it’s going to be.

Anthony Strand: Since Matt mentioned The Good Place, I’ll compare season 1 to another show created by Michael Schur: Parks & Recreation. Like that show, this year of TMS suffers in comparison to the highs that came later, but also has charms of its own. I really enjoy the goofball, anything-for-a-joke vibe of season one. I’m glad the show evolved, but there’s something about how gleefully vaudevillian it is here that I find irresistible.

What was your favorite episode of the season?

Ryan: Everyone’s going to say Rita Moreno, so I’ll be different.  As I mentioned in my review, the Harvey Korman episode surprised me with how many great moments were in it.  I’ll go with that one!

Joe: Definitely Rita Moreno, which is one of my all-time faves. It has the debuts of a slew of fan favorite characters, an unforgettable running gag, the Country Trio, and the perfection that is “Fever”.

Evan G: I’m pretty sure it’s blasphemous to say anything other than Rita Moreno. But I guess in the race for second place, I’d have to go with Paul Williams.

Matthew S: My personal favorite would have to be Vincent Price’s episode. He’s charming and compliments the Muppets and their brand of humor so well. He genuinely looks like he’s having so much fun any time he’s on screen.

Anthony: I mentioned in my review of the Avery Schreiber episode that it’s my favorite of the season, but Vincent Price comes awfully close. I make a point to watch that one every Halloween.

Julia: Sandy Duncan and Paul Williams will be my favorite guest stars of season one forever and always, but after rewatching it a couple times and reviewing it for our ongoing series, I have a newfound appreciation and love for the Lena Horne episode.

Matt W: I’m gonna go with a top three because I can’t pick, and I love breaking the rules! Rita Moreno, Paul WIlliams, and Vincent Price. Line ‘em up back-to-back and you’ve got a killer hour of television.

Which episode just didn’t hold up for you?

Matt W: One word – Mummenschanz.

Anthony: Dumbenschanz, more like.

Matthew S: I’d have to pick the episode featuring Mummenschanz. In the history of The Muppet Show, there were guest stars whose personal performing style may not have directly lined up with the Muppets, but they usually found a happy medium that worked for everyone. Here, Mummenschanz come off as creepy, and tonally very different from the Muppets. “Distant cousins?” I think not.

Julia: I remember adoring the Peter Ustinov episode in the past, but when I rewatched it for my review it didn’t quite match up to my memories. There are several good moments in the episode and Ustinov has great chemistry with the characters, but it doesn’t really come together for me as a whole.

Ryan: Even some of the shakiest episodes have at least one all-time classic bit.  But I’ll go with Jim Nabors.  Nabors is a likable guest star, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything about the episode without consulting Muppet Wiki.

Joe: I guess I’d have to pick Kaye Ballard.  More like Kaye Blandard, ammiright???

Evan G: Just chiming in to say that Joe is wrong about Kaye Ballard. That episode is a lot of fun, even if the ending is a little rough.

Which character introduced in the first season made the biggest impact on you?

Matthew S: Well, since their debut in Episode 102, The Mutations have been emblematic of…I’m sorry, I can’t keep this joke up! To me, the character that made the biggest impact (and has made one of the biggest impact on the Muppets in general) would have to be Fozzie Bear. He could’ve easily been a stock “hapless comedian” character, but he became so much more. He plays beautifully off of Kermit. He’s not afraid to show off his insecurities. In fact, It could be argued that Fozzie was the most important character to be created specifically for The Muppet Show.

Ryan: Miss Piggy is probably the most accurate answer, but the version of Miss Piggy in season one is not quite there yet, so it has to be Fozzie.  After a rocky start as just a bear who tells bad jokes, he starts to become an essential character, a lovable, insecure, endlessly delightful bear who tells bad jokes.

Matt W: Fozzie Bear starts out as the character least likely to succeed, and through Frank Oz’s sheer dominance of characterization and amazing puppetry abilities ends up making him one of the most compelling characters in television history.

Evan G: The Electric Mayhem really hit the ground running in this season. They’re high energy and consistently hilarious. Season 1 Animal, who was a little more feral, holds up surprisingly well, and as I discussed in my review, Floyd is perfect from the get-go. Janice, of course, wouldn’t click until later in the show’s run when Richard Hunt would fully take over as her sole performer.

Julia: It’s a bit of a cop out on my part, since he’s literally always my first choice, but I have to go with Gonzo. Is he the same quirky, happy-go-lucky weirdo as in the later seasons? Absolutely not. Like Ryan says of Miss Piggy, Gonzo isn’t “quite there yet” throughout this season, but even so he still leaves an impact on me. He’s desperate to create his weird-as-all-get-out art and, sure, maybe he’s a bit more depressed and angry about it, but you’ve still got to admire him for his passion.

Anthony: Everybody’s talking about famous characters who are still around today, but I gotta give a shout-out to Vendaface. Vendaface has had the biggest impact on me because ever since we watched the Twiggy episode for Tough Pigs, my toddler has been asking to watch Vendaface, her new hero.

Joe: I’m just so grateful for all the minor characters who got the chance to shine, if just for a scene or two.  Uncle Deadly, Beautiful Day Monster, Behemoth, etc.  The Muppets wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without all those guys hanging out in the background singing close harmonies.

Of all the moments from the first season, which would you consider the most classic?

Ryan: It’s hard to quantify “classic.”  What makes one thing more classic than another thing?  But I’m going to swoop in here and say Fozzie’s “Good Grief, the Comedian’s a Bear” joke.  There’s a reason us Muppet geeks always point to it as a high point of the season.

Matthew S: “Mahna Mahna.” It’s got to be “Mahna Mahna,” right? That song has to be in the Muppet Essentials starter pack. And the song, as performed in the Juliet Prowse episode, has to be the most recognized version. Even though Sesame Street got it first, The Muppet Show did it best.

Julia: Gotta agree with Matt on this one. “Mahna Mahna” takes the cake.

Joe: Can I say “The Muppet Show Theme Song”? Because that’s the thing everyone hums to themselves when they think of the show.  The visuals may have changed pretty drastically between the first and second seasons, but that song is truly timeless.

Evan G: Most classic? I’m actually going to say “Simon Smith and His Dancing Bear.” I remember that vividly from the Muppet Show vinyl, and it’s such a great distillation of the Muppets’ vaudeville sensibilities.

Matt W: If I only showed someone who’d never seen Fozzie Bear one thing to distill everything about him into one sketch, it would be “Good Grief, the Comedian’s a Bear.” He’s so perfectly Fozzie here, and Kermit is in his element as well. Everything about it works beautifully.

Anthony: Another vote for “Good Grief, the Comedian’s a Bear” which is one of history’s most perfect comedy routines. My best friend and I performed it at a high school variety show, and even with our terrible performances and puppetry, it still got big laughs. You can’t mess up perfection.

What discarded element/character/thingy thing from the first season do you wish had stayed around?

Matthew S: I guess in a toss-up it would be the Wayne and Wanda sketches. While the characters would appear later in the show in various roles, the premise of a classic musical number, done up in extravagant fashion, going horribly wrong is still the best use of the characters.

Ryan: How crazy is it if I say Mildred?  We actually don’t see a lot of her, but I’ve always liked her design, and I think she could have been a nice supporting character if she had been developed further.  And it’s always fun to see her barely tolerating George in the “At the Dance” sketches.

Julia: Gonna have to go with Mildred and Hilda. There are so few female characters on The Muppet Show throughout the entire run, so the dropping of both these characters so early on has always bummed me out. They’re not stand out characters in any way, but having them continue onwards would have given the puppeteers more time to enhance their personalities and roles amongst the group.

Matt W: Eren Ozker. I feel like we only say a brief glimpse of what she could’ve brought to the Muppets, and it would’ve gone a long way to help with the boys’ club mentality many of us see.

Joe: The Talking Houses.  Yeah, they’re super dumb, but that’s what makes them fun.  I’d hope that if they stuck around, the writers would let them get a little meta, poking fun at the banality of these one-joke characters.  And yet, a part of me would hope that they’d never change, just making terrible house-related jokes for five seasons.

Anthony: Much like Joe, my wife would undoubtedly say the Talking Houses (her all-time favorite Muppets, probably). But for me, it’s gotta be Droop. That guy should have been a star. A depressed, grouchy, unhappy star.

Evan G: Imagine, if you will, a machine from which faces were vended. A Vendaface Machine, one might say. Imagine if that robot appeared in the most recent Muppets reboot as a makeup artist. Call me, Disney.

How well do you think the show was working its guest stars into the proceedings at this early stage?  Which guest stars worked the best (or not-so-best) with the Muppets?

Julia: In this season, I feel like guest stars have their designated appearances: during their two-three acts / numbers, their Talk Spot with Kermit (and occasionally one extra Muppet), a bit role in a gag, and that’s sort of it. We don’t see much interaction with the guest stars and  Muppets off stage, and they really only get to bond in their Talk Spots. This changes over the years, obviously, and in turn makes for a better show. I think Lena Horne does an absolutely phenomenal job interacting with the characters when she’s given a chance. It probably helps that she gets to sing “I’m Glad There Is You”, which is sort of an act for her, but it also shows her interacting wonderfully with Gonzo.

Matt W: Oh man, this is so poorly done in season one, and so well done in subsequent seasons, that that’s probably the main contributing factor in making this the show it will become. People like Vincent Price and Paul Williams are naturals at it, and so many guest stars going forward will be great in their own ways, that it’s the difference between a guest appearance and a guest star.

Anthony: Of all the changes the show made in season 2, maybe the most brilliant was the dressing room cold openers before the theme song. That small change established the guest stars as being in the Muppets’ world, and I missed it so much rewatching these episodes. In general, the guest stars here always feel like they’re performing on a TV variety show. Later on, it felt more like they were just hanging out. The biggest exception to this is Sandy Duncan, who seems like she can barely contain her joy.

Evan G: Honestly, there really is a strong line between the show’s comedy bits and its attempts at serious spotlights for the guest stars’ talents where the puppets just have nothing to do. One works and one doesn’t, and it’s pretty clear which is which. Nowhere is this dichotomy more apparent than in the Florence Henderson episode. “Happy Together” is one of my favorite Muppet things ever because of how well Henderson works with the Muppet monsters when she lets herself have fun, but in “Elusive Butterfly,” neither Henderson nor the Muppeteers really had a clear plan for interaction.

Matthew S: The first season has the feel of a work-in-progress. There feels like there was some trepidation as to when to let the guest star shine and when to let the Muppets do their stuff. Going forward, I think the show would eventually find its rhythm and have the guest stars incorporated more into the backstage stories. As for the best and worst guest stars, as I said before, Vincent Price just loves being part of the show, and Paul Williams also feels like he “got” the Muppets (well, well enough to keep working with them even decades later). I also need to applaud Phyllis Diller for managing to do her signature act while still playing well of the Muppets. Also, as before, Mummenschanz just doesn’t work well as a guest star. There’s just too big a difference in style.

Ryan: There are surprisingly few examples of guest stars appearing in the backstage area in this season.  Having them interact with Muppets “offstage” and integrating them into storylines will come later, as the show becomes a lean, mean comedy-variety machine.  The guest stars best known for comedy tend to fit in most seamlessly at this stage — your Harvey Kormans, your Avery Schreibers.  And of course Rita Moreno, who won an Emmy for her appearance.  I can’t argue with the Academy there.

Joe: Not very many of the guest stars meshed well with full episodes of The Muppet Show, just in individual sketches.  But that has everything to do with the writing and nothing to do with the talent.  I wish they could’ve gone back and done more with some of the guest stars who worked well with the characters like Rita Moreno, Phyllis Diller, and Peter Ustinov.  Let’s see what they could’ve done with an actual backstage plot!

Pick a song, any song.  Talk about it!

Evan G: I’ve already talked about a few songs in my other comments, but I think I have to go with “Some Enchanted Evening.” It’s such a hilarious subversion of Bert’s character that could really only be done by taking him off Sesame Street. I’d say about once a month my dad and I spontaneously break out into dueling Bert impressions as we sing the song.

Either that or “Fugue for Frog.” Floyd truly is a genius.

Matthew S: Not to keep harping on Vincent Price, but I really love his rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend.” The beginning starts out creepily, highlighting how eerie the lyrics can be, but when the monsters start coming out, it becomes this friendly, affectionate performance. Even monsters can care about their friends!

Ryan: “Dance” from the Twiggy episode is wild stuff.  Those colors!  Those feather boas leaping around!  The teeth on that fuzzy singing… thing!

Joe: I could write a whole essay about “Fever” (hey, maybe I will someday).  It’s such a perfect Muppet Show sketch.  The comedic timing, the slow burn, the sexiness.  Rita Moreno is hilarious, has a wonderful singing voice, and she’s a badass who doesn’t take any crap from Animal.  Now that’s my kinda woman.

Julia: A great number showcasing a great guest star is “A Nice Girl Like Me”. You’ve got the charismatic Sandy Duncan, a catchy song, and some fun choreography with the full bodied Muppets.

Anthony: In the decade-plus before The Muppet Show started, the Muppets had developed a bunch of standard numbers for talk shows, and a bunch of them show up here (“Java,” “Mahna Mahna,” and so on.) But the real standout in that group is “Hugga Wugga,” which is much more complex than the version they did on TV in the 60s. Here, they use the extra time (and their own regular set) to turn it into one of the purest bits of Muppet weirdness ever made.

Matt W: “You and I and George” is an underrated masterpiece. God bless Rowlf.

Okay, one more thing.  Final thoughts on the season?

Matthew S: As we go along, I really enjoy watching the show evolve in real time. It’s oddly heartening to know that even The Muppet Show had its hiccups in its early years. It just goes to show that when you give a show time to grow and find its groove, something amazing can happen. *CoughcoughABC*

Ryan: It’s always fascinating to revisit these episodes of “The Muppet Show But Not Quite The Muppet Show.”  There really is a lot to love about the show, even at this early stage.

Joe: It’s weird – I adore almost every moment from the first season, but I have trouble appreciating complete episodes.  The season is full of classic moments, but suffers from the lack of cohesion.  Luckily, almost every change and addition in season 2 fixes the show’s big issues, bringing us a couple steps closer to Muppet perfection.

Evan G: Everyone else’s thoughts are pretty on point, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the Muppets’ designs. There’s a definite roughness to the visuals of Season 1 of The Muppet Show. It’s absolutely a bit jarring. Going back and watching the theme song is particularly strange (I can’t stand the way the puppets look at the end before Gonzo hits the gong). But there definitely is a charm to some of the early designs. Watching the season again reminded me of how much I love tiny droopy Gonzo, blank-eyed Floyd, and of course big floppy Fozzie. He used to wiggle his ears, guys. That’s something you’ll remember if you go back.

Julia: Again, I enjoy watching it from start to finish. I love several of the episodes and a whole slew of the acts and certain moments, but whenever I watch it, in the back of my mind I’m always thinking, “It’s great, sure, but it’s even greater next season.”

Matt W: The Muppet Show is a journey, not a destination. And this important first step is going to lead to the reasons why forty years later, it’s still sensational, inspirational, celebrational, and of course – Gooder-than-Good? Entertainial? Funtastic? I wish I had one word to sum it up. Oh well! Maybe next season!

Anthony: I hope to see more from this bunch of wacky characters in the future. I enjoy their antics.

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by the ToughPigs Staff

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