February 10, 2017

The Muppet Show: 40 Years Later – Twiggy

Filed under: Feature,Reviews — Tags: , — Anthony Strand @ 11:21 am

Original Air Date: February 7, 1977

It’s no secret that the first season of The Muppet Show was very different from later seasons – gags are valued over character consistency, guest stars are rarely seen off-stage, and the backstage plots are generally more “a collection of jokes” than an actual plot. As the season nears its end, some of these problems are getting worked out – the backstage plot here is a collection jokes with a resolution at the end (progress!) – but the show is still figuring out exactly what it wants to be.

This episode has two sketches that I can’t imagine showing up later, but for very different reasons – “In My Life” and “The King’s Breakfast.” In a lot of ways, these two scenes are polar opposites. But before we compare them, let’s talk about each one separately.

After a brief set-up with Muppets in it, all of “In My Life” is a tight closeup on Twiggy’s face next to a slideshow of her career highlights. This is boring for a lot of reasons – partially because it’s a static shot of her face, partially because the old pictures show Twiggy doing things I don’t care about, and partially because it’s a dull arrangement of a great Beatles song.

But mostly it’s boring because it could be a guest star number from any 70s variety show. This is what guest stars did on Donny & Marie or Sonny & Cher – show up and sing a song with no jokes, completely focused on them and how talented they are. The Muppet Show was usually above that – it highlighted the guests’ talent by having them do funny or impressive things with Muppets. The whole appeal of guest-starring on The Muppet Show was that you got to do things you couldn’t do anywhere else, so why waste time doing regular junk?

“The King’s Breakfast,” on the other hand, couldn’t possibly appear on any other show. It starts out with Twiggy reading A. A. Milne’s poem to Gonzo as a bedtime story, and it becomes an elaborate set piece starring Twiggy, King Goshposh, and Featherstone in drag.

I can’t stress enough how weird this whole thing is. This is a poem about a dairy maid who has trouble getting the proper condiments for a king’s breakfast. It consists entirely of lines like ‘Excuse me, your Majesty, for taking of the liberty, but marmalade is tasty, if it’s very thickly spread.” And everything about it is completely bonkers.

But here’s the thing – on The Muppet Show, completely bonkers is par for the course. This is something no other TV show would ever think about doing (and not just because one of the characters is a talking cow). So even though they never returned to this “children’s poetry cosplay” setup, it’s still uniquely Muppety. And for my money, it’s one of the highlights of Season 1. Twiggy seems like she’s having a blast, it’s great to see the Hey Cinderella/Frog Prince characters again, and the poem itself is offbeat and funny.

This is why The Muppet Show is one of the greatest TV shows ever made, in a nutshell. It was always willing to experiment and try new things. Sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn’t, but viewers never knew exactly what they would see when they tuned in.

Of course, that meant viewers occasionally got a boring musical performance with no Muppets in it, but that’s a small price to pay for wild innovation every single week.

Best Joke: Sam on the difference between immoral and illegal: “Immoral is doing bad things. Illegal is me with a tummy ache. I didn’t write it!”

Lamest Joke: “How is it that a beautiful girl like you only has one nose?” in the press conference setup to “In My Life.”

MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): Uncle Deadly had a plum role in last week’s episode with Vincent Price, but here he gets a proper introduction – the entire backstage plot consists of people worrying about the Phantom of the Muppet Theater. When the Phantom shows up, he lives up to the advance billing because it’s Uncle Deadly. This is a true star turn on par with Orson Welles in The Third Man.

Should-Be-Classic Moment: I think I’ve made my affection for “The King’s Breakfast” very clear.

Most Dated Joke: This isn’t a joke, but the look of the dancing feather boas in the opening number “Dance” couldn’t possibly be any more 70s.

First Appearance Of…: Vendaface, who would later gain immortality as the letter V in Mike Boon’s Muppet Alphabet.

Musical Highlight: Jerry Nelson’s highest falsetto ever makes “Dance” a ton of fun. My wife, a noted falsetto-hater, strongly disagrees. Decide for yourself!

Missed Opportunity: Uncle Deadly’s backstory – as a Shakespearean actor who was killed by the critics and has haunted the theater ever since – didn’t inspire a flashback. Or a spinoff.

Obscure Character Watch: Beautiful Day Monster has one of his best appearances, popping up in front of Gonzo’s gong in the opening credits.

Adultiest Content: It’s possible that Uncle Deadly was actually murdered by critics.

One More Thing…: Uncle Deadly steps out to take a bow when Kermit thanks “the Guest Star,” and he’s not kidding – he’s much more memorable than Twiggy.

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