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Muppet Memories

Smart, funny, irreverent, poignant -- the Muppets ruled then and still rule now.
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On With the Show

"The Muppet Show" announced itself as serious primetime entertainment, even if its players included Snowths, Snerfs, Frackles, Heaps, and Marvin Suggs and his Muppaphone. Playfully executed and thoughtfully conceived, the show could gather an entire family around the television after dinner and leave no one disappointed.

It proved that children and adults could be entertained by precisely the same things, which was a radical concept at the time, and part of the reason the show remains current after all these years. The first season is available on DVD and rumors of a summer 2007 release of season two are floating through the Mupposphere.

While the show's more adult aspects sailed over their heads -- its ruthless satirizing of the Moral Majority; its parody of Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy -- kids from the era of "Dynamite" magazine grooved on its cheerfully anarchic, anything-can-happen comedy. Along with the usual backstage farce (Fozzie gets locked inside Marvel the Magician's cabinet before his act), the Muppets' plastic reality engendered new levels of absurdity: a menagerie of impossible animals; Lena Horne singing "Rag Mop" surrounded by dancing mops; and featureless "whatnot" Muppets who transform slowly into monsters while Miss Piggy croons "What Now, My Love?"

Through it all a spirit of sensitivity to children prevailed. Jim Henson's credibly realized all-puppet world endorsed a belief in fantasy, while sketches like the weird, wonderful "Hugga Wugga" championed gentleness and persistence. In it, a monster blasts smaller, more timid creatures with boogie fog from his nose -- until he is vanquished with kindness by a little yellow alien whose defense is "You Are My Sunshine."

The first season also introduced Robin, the five-year-old nephew of emcee Kermit the Frog. In the tenth episode, guest-starring Harvey Korman, Robin sings "Halfway Down the Stairs," a poignant A.A. Milne composition about being neither grown up or little, but somewhere in between.

Family Gathering

Children of the 1970s who watch the DVDs with their own kids may be surprised by how adult it is. The hysterical network parodies -- alarmist newscasting, hackneyed cop shows, hospital dramas, cooking gurus -- are still trenchant thirty years later. Floyd the musician's galumphing walk seems more obviously inspired by the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, and Sandy Duncan sings "A Nice Girl Like Me" in a singles bar, pounding whiskey sours in a tear-away skirt.

Although it was silly, "The Muppet Show" was sophisticated, enlivening primetime with good comedy, heartfelt acting, and expansive music -- not just goofy fare like "Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd" and "Never Smile at a Crocodile," but jazz, standards, and showtunes.

The show could provoke, as when the Muppets and Broadway giant Ben Vereen turned "Chicago's" "Mr. Cellophane" into a fierce lament about urban alienation. But by episode's end, Vereen was safely surrounded by giant rod puppets and fluffy pink Koozbanians, singing "Pure Imagination."

Onward and Upward

According to the "Muppet Morsels" trivia track on the DVD, Henson was "not keen" on merchandizing the Muppets at first, considering it "too commercial." But with bigger projects in his mind -- spinoffs, specials, and movies -- he accepted agent Bernie Brillstein's advice.

Many of the show's guests appeared in 1979's star-studded "The Muppet Movie," including songwriter Paul Williams (episode #108) whose "Rainbow Connection" was nominated for an Academy Award. The movie freed the puppeteers from their elevated sets; famously, Kermit rode a bicycle. But the show's sweetness and cheeky, all-ages humor also translated to the bigger screen.

The Muppets have since nabbed jewel thieves in London ("The Great Muppet Caper"), starred on Broadway (The Muppets Take Manhattan), and sailed the seas ("Muppet Treasure Island"). In 2005, they returned to prime time with "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz," a made-for-TV adaptation of Henson's favorite book.

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