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November 25, 2016

The Muppet Show: 40 Years Later – Valerie Harper

Filed under: Feature,Reviews — Tags: , , — Evan G @ 1:27 pm

harper7Original air date: November 22, 1976

What made The Muppet Show work? That’s obviously been a question Disney has been frantically trying to answer over the past few years. It’s something we’ve all got an answer to, whether we’re Bill Prady or Kristin Newman. To me, the core of The Muppet Show is chaos. The characters need to be responding to bizarre happenings in the only way they can: with music and bad puns. In the first season, however, many of the episodes are plot-light, which prevents things from reaching peak chaos. Take the Rita Moreno episode. It’s an amazing piece of television, but the only real plot is that “Fozzie has a series of running gags involving infrastructure systems.”

harper4That’s different in this episode. There are two good ways to describe the Valerie Harper episode of The Muppet Show: it’s the one about the African Berry Bush and it’s also the one that’s like an African Berry Bush. The first part is easy to explain: Statler develops a crush on Harper and sneaks backstage to give her a clipping from his rare Berry Bush. After George accidentally waters it, the plant grows wildly and runs amok, turning the backstage area of the Muppet Theater into a jungle (complete with Tarzan, which Kermit insists on pronouncing “Tarzin”). You know, classic jungle hijinks. Classic George the Janitor!

The thing is, this episode is like the Berry Bush because it has a lot of potential for growth. This is, in theory, not a plot-light episode. First, you’ve got Harper’s maniacal desire to appear on the show. She’s willing to sic wild geese on the opening act to replace them. Second, you’ve got Statler’s crush, which puts him and Waldorf in new situations. And of course, you’ve got Kermit in a pith helmet, trying to bushwhack his way through Tarzin‘s rainforest. As Kermit says, “I get the feeling this is going to be one of those shows.” Here are the seeds of the idea that the show is always one bizarre event away from being destroyed.

harper5The problem is that this episode doesn’t really hold up compared to some of the “controlled chaos” antics of later seasons. While there are some narrative roots to this episode, no one ever actually solves the problem of the jungle: they just stop talking about it. Kermit asks “Didn’t that plant grow into a great big bush or was it my imagination?” That’s it. Most significantly, the plant doesn’t engage with any of the sketches or puns. Backstage, Kermit and the gang are fighting for their lives against a renegade, ravenous Berry Bush while Statler pines after Harper; on stage, Harper and the Clodhoppers are dancing to “Nobody Does It Like Me” against a black background. There’s no sign of the plant or the conflict or even Statler anywhere, which means the episode’s ideas never get to bloom.

But there’s budding potential here. It’s amazing how close this episode comes to feeling as cohesive and fruitful as something like the Gladys Knight episode of the final season. Harper is a fabulous guest star who really seems like she wants to be performing with the Muppets. Her opening number, “Broadway Baby,” is definitely entertaining, as she emerges from different doors in the theater dressed as famous Broadway actors. “Nobody Does It Like Me” is a classic full-body Muppet dance number, even if the Clodhopper puppetry has not aged well. And of course, though they aren’t connected to the story, the sketches are pretty entertaining. Jerry Nelson’s amazing Floyd vocals blow “Searchin’” out of the water, and of course, the UK version of this episode brought us Rowlf and Sam singing “Titwillow.” If you haven’t seen it (or even if you have) go look it up. It’s fantastic how good it is given how early in the show’s run we are, and it’s the exact kind of idea that made the next few episodes of the show flourish so quickly.


Most Valuable Muppet: There’s a lot of strong contenders in this episode: the Swedish Chef, Sam the Eagle, and even George the Janitor. But the winner clearly is Statler, who’s got a lot of good jokes. It’s also always fun to see him and Waldorf get involved in the actual plots of episodes.

Best Joke: The aforementioned Tarzan bit. Kermit: “The only person you’re gonna meet back here is Tarzin!” Statler: “I hope he’s a good dancer.” Statler… surprisingly willing to date Tarzin?

Lamest Joke: I can’t type out the whole “Easter Bernie/Pinchline” bit Hilda performs. Suffice it to say that it’s a master class in how not to make puns and also a master class in why Hilda didn’t make it past season 1. Ugh.

Coolest Puppetry Trick: Let’s give some credit to the Clodhoppers. They’re a fun way of doing a full-body dance number, even if it’s pretty obvious to figure out how the trick is done. Unfortunately, I’ve never been a big fan of their “Grover’s less lovable cousins” designs.

Obscure Character Watch: Boy, they really wanted the three-headed monster Tom, Dick, and Harry to be a thing for like two episodes there, huh?

Musical Highlight: As I mentioned in the article, Jerry Nelson has the perfect voice for “Searchin’,” helping an otherwise unmemorable sketch reach standout levels.

Missed Opportunity: Things that should’ve happened: The Berry Bush doing something notable. Statler singing with Harper. Hilda being an interesting or worthwhile character.

Most Classic Moment: “Titwillow.” Why are you still reading this? Go watch it! Watch it again! Tweet it to your congressmen!

One More Thing: Are you watching “Titwillow” yet?

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by Evan G. – Evan@ToughPigs.com

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