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December 15, 2017

The Muppet Show: 40 Years Later – Zero Mostel

Filed under: Feature,Reviews — Tags: , — Ryan Roe @ 9:00 am

Original air date: December 7, 1977

I can’t think of anything on The Muppet Show quite like “The Fears of Zero.” 

Late in this episode, guest star Zero Mostel sits in a darkened study and recites a poem about all the fears that torment him when he’s alone late at night.  As he speaks, the weirdest-looking Muppet monsters creep in – living, breathing, manifestations of those fears.  By counting them all, Mostel is able to stave them off… for now.  It’s pretty creepy. 

This is still The Muppet Show, so of course it’s not too scary.  Mostel slams a book on his nose. He makes silly faces. He yanks off his own toupee to reveal his bald head.  But many of the fears he lists are very rational ones: hunger, pain, bullets, even death.  That’s heavy stuff.  And the very premise of feeling overwhelmed by fears and uncertainties while left alone with one’s thoughts is a familiar scenario to many of us, even if we still have our hair. 

The Muppets are well-known for their ability to be simultaneously funny and heartfelt, but here the show swings quickly and with subtlety from funny to ominous.  One second, Mostel is going for broad laughs; the next, he’s showing something resembling genuine terror at, for example, his fear that “no one will be willing to see me as I know I really am.” 

For years, we Muppet fans assumed this melancholy poem was a pre-existing work, perhaps by Edgar Allan Poe.  But no, Jerry Juhl wrote it himself for this sketch (which I believe he revealed at a Muppet event Q&A in the early 00s, but I can’t seem to find anything to back that up).  It sounds enough like Poe that it could be Poe – by it has an undercurrent of comedy that Poe never achieved.  Therefore, Jerry Juhl was a better writer than Edgar Allan Poe. 

Mostel goes all-in on this sketch. He’s one of those guest stars who has no trouble adjusting to working with Muppets.  In his first number, he yells and throws furniture.  By the end of the show, Kermit even announces that he’s “joined the ranks of the Muppet monsters.”  And then Mostel bites Sam the Eagle’s face. 

Speaking of Sam: If Mostel is an agent of chaos, this episode is a notable point in the emergence of Sam as The Muppet Show‘s self-appointed, but never successful, agent of order.  Sure, he’s already pushed Wayne and Wanda on the show because he admired the wholesomeness of their act, and decried nudity (if you watch the series in broadcast order, as we have been). But in this episode, he spells it out for Kermit and for us: “I feel my job is to make sure this program is morally upright and cultural and wholesome.” 

And then comes the episode’s funniest scene: Sam goes to Mostel’s dressing room and drones on about how unacceptable the show is, while Mostel, behind him, eats a powder puff, tries to bash Sam’s head with a hammer, and points a gun at him.  During that last moment Sam turns around, and what does Mostel do?  He sticks the gun in his mouth!  Sam doesn’t even react to this, he just goes on with his speech. 

Now here’s what I’m wondering: Does Sam even care that Zero Mostel is just as wild and crazy as the Muppets?  Did he really hope to accomplish anything by going on this rant?  Or is it possible that the simple act of speechifying makes him feel better about the whole thing?  He knows by now that the show is never going to get better.  But maybe he’s not doing it for the show.  Maybe he’s just doing it for himself.  

Coolest Puppetry EffectThe backstage storyline is all about Kermit booking lady wrestlers on the show. (This was years before the real-life GLOW existed!) When Granny the Gouger, a rod-hand puppet, lunges at Kermit backstage, she hits the intercom, knocking it off the wall.  Presumably this means there was a stagehand just outside the frame, waiting until the split-second when Granny’s hand hit the intercom to yank it down.   

Elsewhere, smoke shows up in unexpected places not once but twice: It drifts out of the phone when Scooter speaks to his cigar-chomping uncle, and it pours out of Zoot’s saxophone as he and Rowlf play “When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”  And then Animal plays an energetic drum solo and his drums catch on fire.  The special effects crew got quite a workout this week. 

Best Joke: There’s a running bit where Statler and Waldorf are watching TV during the show. At one point, they change the channel and are unimpressed to find “two ancient old guys sitting in a theater box watching television.”  At which point I’m watching The Muppet Show, in which Statler and Waldorf are watching themselves watching The Muppet Show, in which Statler and Waldorf are watching themselves watching The Muppet Show, in which… WHOA. 

MVM (Most Valuable Muppet)I’m tempted to give it to Beautiful Day Monster, who smashes a pie in Sam’s face, just because I like that guy.  But I have to give it to Sam, who ends up holding the whole episode together. 

Musical Highlight: The Electric Mayhem’s rendition of “Polonaise in A Flat” sounds great.  I’d like to hear Dr. Teeth and the gang take on more classical pieces.  As loudly as possible.  Fortunately, there’s another one coming up in a few weeks in the Rudolf Nureyev episode. 

First Appearance of…: In production order: Beaker! He warily observes as a steel rabbit invades Muppet Labs to eat Bunsen’s new magnetic carrots. 

First and Last Appearance of…: Richenda Carey, one of three women performers who appeared in an episode as an audition.  She voices the Featherstone-style queen in Mostel’s “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” number – apparently just doing the voice with another performer doing the puppetry.  The open performer spot would go instead to Louise Gold. 

One More ThingZero Mostel was the only guest star who died before his episode made it to air.  He passed away just about three months after this episode wrapped. Rest in peace, Zero. 

Okay, One More ThingKermit tells Sam that, among other acts on the show, Fozzie and Zero will be doing a pantomime.  We never see it, but there is a photo out there, which means they apparently taped the sketch but then cut it.  It’s unusual for a Muppet Show to end with anything other than a closing number with the guest star, so I wonder if the pantomime was supposed to close the show instead of the somewhat anticlimactic lady wrestlers bit. 

Click here to feel overwhelmed by fears and uncertainties while left alone with your thoughts on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com

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