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The Muppet Show is a half-hour variety show in which Kermit the Frog and the Muppets put on a weekly musical/comedy revue at The Muppet Theatre. Unfortunately for them, things never quite go according to plan, for the Muppets or their weekly guest stars.
While Kermit had been featured extensively in other programs in the past, this show marked the introduction of a large, varied cast, including the hapless comedian Fozzie Bear, the diva superstar Miss Piggy, the lunatic daredevil artiste Gonzo, the wild drummer Animal, the unintelligible Swedish Chef, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his hapless assistant Beaker of Muppet Labs, and many others. Their performances consistently fail to entertain the old curmudgeons Statler and Waldorf, who provide a running commentary of wise-cracks.
The action in each episode was balanced between the on-stage acts and the frantic activity backstage (one of the very few exceptions is episode 110, in which almost all sketches and skits are depicted on stage). The concept was reminiscent of old-time radio shows like The Jack Benny Program, where the star struggled to put on a weekly show amidst personal problems and an often uncooperative cast.
Kermit the Frog serves as the host of The Muppet Show, and was also the director and general overseer of the performances, assisted by Scooter, the gofer who only got his job because his uncle, J. P. Grosse, owned the theater. The show's orchestra was conducted by Nigel, and musical acts ranged from solo musicians such as Rowlf the Dog to the show's main rock and roll band, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.
Because it was a puppet show, The Muppet Show had the advantage of being able to include an endless array of characters with only a small number of performers. Aside from the aforementioned characters, recurring figures included self-appointed censor Sam the Eagle, who tried to make the show more cultural; Camilla the Chicken, Gonzo's girlfriend; Robin the Frog, Kermit's nephew; and Link Hogthrob, the captain of the Swinetrek in the "Pigs in Space" skits, among others.
Certain characters from the early years of the show, like Hilda and George the Janitor, fell by the wayside, while newer characters were introduced, such as Beauregard the stagehand and the boomerang fish-throwing Lew Zealand. One of the few minor characters who became a major player after the series ended was Rizzo the Rat. In addition, the generic Whatnots and a wide array of animals, vegetables, and minerals filled out the chorus.
Most of the Muppets appeared in both backstage scenes and onstage sketches and songs. For example, while Beaker was primarily Bunsen's assistant, he also frequently helped Beauregard with his backstage duties. Although Janice was The Electric Mayhem's guitar player, she also appeared as a nurse in Veterinarian's Hospital. Many characters with backstage jobs also appeared on-stage quite frequently, in group numbers and "At the Dance" sketches. However, some characters were pigeonholed into their own sketches, such as The Newsman of Muppet News Flash and Louis Kazagger of Muppet Sports.
The Muppet Show featured a mix of established Muppets and new characters. Some major characters from previous productions (Kermit, Rowlf) remained prominent while others (Nigel, Thog) were relegated to background or supporting status. Some minor characters from previous productions (Gonzo, Miss Piggy) became stars.
Sketches and Set Pieces
Some of the more popular comedic bits from the show include:
- At the Dance - A group of Muppets (some regulars, some not) dance to ballroom music while cracking puns and one-liners.
- Muppet Labs - Dr. Bunsen Honeydew pushed the cutting edge of science with his bizarre inventions, which somehow inevitably caused horrible things to happen to his assistant, Beaker.
- Muppet News Flash - The Newsman would report breaking news happening in the Muppet Theater or elsewhere in the Muppet universe. Unfortunately for him, he would often find the story invading right into the Muppet newsroom, usually to his own personal pain. (For example, a report on the stock market indicating that "beef fell dramatically" causes a cow to fall from out of nowhere onto the Newsman's head.)
- Pigs in Space - An ostensible space opera along the lines of Star Trek, the skits followed a hapless porcine crew attempting to successfully interact with alien life, or sometimes just keep the ship running. They would usually fail at both.
- Veterinarian's Hospital - Dr. Bob (actually Rowlf) operated on a variety of strange patients while cracking corny jokes with Nurse Piggy and Nurse Janice.
- Swedish Chef - a cooking show parody where the unnamed chef, who spoke a form of gibberish with the occasional understandable word thrown in, attempts to make a meal, usually with disastrous and messy results.
- For a complete list of guest stars, see Muppet Show Guest Stars.
- For a complete list of episodes, see Muppet Show Episodes.
In keeping with the TV variety show format, each episode showcased a celebrity guest star or duo, who were the only humans to appear on the show. As noted in Jim Henson: The Works, "From Jim's point of view, this would help provide a bridge between the Muppet world and the audience. From ITC's point of view, it would make the show easier to promote." In the first season, Kermit introduced them at the start of the theme song and in a lyric after a joke by Fozzie. From the second season onward, the guest was invariably introduced in the cold open. During the first season, their involvement was limited primarily to the on-stage performances, showcases for the guest's comedic or musical skills. They also regularly participated in comedic blackouts, talk spots, and panel discussions.
As early as the first season, the fighting Rita Moreno and the eerie Vincent Price gave a special tone to the episode they appeared in. As the series wore on, the guests became more and more crucial, becoming involved in the backstage plots (Gonzo falling in love with Madeline Kahn, James Coco helping Kermit to improve the numbers), expressing dissatisfaction with the show (John Cleese, Jaye P. Morgan), or as featured performers in elaborate "theme" stories. One of the more extreme examples came in the final season, with episode 507, as guest star Glenda Jackson reveals herself to be a ruthless pirate and commandeers the theater. The guest roster included a range of performers, from familiar film and television personalities and stage theater veterans to ballet dancers, country singers, rock stars, experimental pantomime artists, and even a ventriloquist or two.
The majority of the guest stars during the first season were either personal friends of the production team (for example, first season head writer Jack Burns' former comedy partner Avery Schreiber was a guest), or a client of Jim Henson's agent, Bernie Brillstein. By the second season, thanks in part to Rudolf Nureyev's famous guest appearance, the show started to attract more celebrities, and eventually, celebrities were asking to appear on the show.
Whenever a star was booked to appear on the show, they would be asked if there were any characters who they wanted to work with. Most of them wanted to work with either Kermit or Miss Piggy. However, the producers generally preferred if the guest stars would have been more open to lesser known characters to allow for fresher material for writers. In that regard, some stars who proved that flexible included Glenda Jackson who insisted that she would be up for any idea presented, while John Cleese of Monty Python fame co-wrote his own material for the producers to use.
Some of the more memorable guest star moments include the following: Rita Moreno's performance of "Fever", backed by Animal on drums; Rudolf Nureyev dancing with a pig ballerina; Harry Belafonte singing "Turn the World Around", accompanied by African Masks; Alice Cooper singing "School's Out" with the monsters near a haunted castle; John Cleese being forced into a closing number; Gene Kelly giving Kermit a dance lesson; and Raquel Welch performing a song-and-dance number with a giant spider. In addition to showcasing the guests' familiar skills or "shticks," stars occasionally performed against type, such as Nureyev tap dancing to "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" or screen tough guy James Coburn focusing on zen meditation and calmness.
Some episodes played on the guest's established "star texts" as specific characters, such as Christopher Reeve's Superman and Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman. Roger Moore's appearance played ironically off of his James Bond persona, as Moore preferred to do the whimsical "Talk to the Animals" over any spy heroics. Occasionally, the guest's alter-egos even appeared directly, such as Peter Sellers as Inspector Jacques Clouseau, Gilda Radner as Emily Litella, or Carol Burnett's janitor character. The most elaborate example, however, came in episode 417, as the stars of Star Wars appeared as themselves, continuing their space opera dramatics, while Luke Skywalker's portrayer Mark Hamill also appeared briefly as himself, introduced as Luke's "cousin."
The Muppet Show had a number of short segments and musical acts, along with backstage scenes which usually made up the show's plots. While the plots often occurred backstage, with a random variety of sketches thrown in, there were also many themed shows, especially in the last season. Such themes included a horror-themed show (when horror stars Vincent Price or Alice Cooper appeared on the show), an evening of Paul Simon songs (when Paul Simon guest starred), a salute to vaudeville (when Wally Boag guest starred), and even an all-puppet show (when Señor Wences was the guest). Most episodes featuring country music evoked a Western or rural theme. Beginning in the third season, four episodes departed from the norm and utilized a "book" format, as the cast presented a long-form play (Robin Hood, a murder mystery, Alice in Wonderland, and 1001 Arabian Nights).
Due to shorter commercial breaks in the United Kingdom, an extra two-minute sketch was also included in the UK broadcasts, normally shown after the middle commercial break and never featuring the guest stars. Regular elements during the first season included "At the Dance" and the Talk Spots. These two sketches were featured less often in subsequent seasons. Another common recurring sketch in the first season was Fozzie Bear's monologues, which were later replaced by more elaborate acts (ventriloquism, for example), or dropped entirely.
“The audience for some reason always thought that the show was shot live which always astounded me because if you watch The Muppet Show, every shot is a special effect, there's a little trick going on everywhere and it took a lot of time and a lot of effort to pull that together. Of course, the real audience for The Muppet Show as you see in the show is a bunch of Muppet monsters and various creatures.”
“The way the show was taped, we would block and tape, which means that each piece of material would take anywhere from half an hour to several hours to tape, so it's a long, slow process. You can't really work in front of an audience that way. I mean, when we had Raquel Welch in the studio, we had a good 150 guys from neighboring studios, but it wasn't an official audience.”
He then addressed the use of a laugh-track:
“Because of the form we had decided to choose to do the show, that we were doing what amounts to a little vaudeville show in front of an audience on a little stage with a backstage. So having chosen that as a premise, we decided to sweeten the shows and, as I look at some of the early shows, I'm really embarrassed by them. The sweetening got better later on, but it's always a difficult thing to do well and to create the reality of the audience laughing. I did one special dry - without any laugh track - looked at it, and then tried it adding a laugh track to it, and it's unfortunate, but it makes the show funnier.”
The laugh-track was even addressed within the show, such as in the episode guest starring Ruth Buzzi. During the show's Talk Spot, Kermit cracks a joke and mentions that it is "up to the laugh track" whether it's funny or not. At the end of episode 320, Kermit comments "You've been a wonderful laugh track!" In the At the Dance segment of episode 507, a pirate shouts ship directions to a crew: "Keelhaul the writers! Hoist the laugh track!"
Jack Burns was the head writer during the first season and most of the humor during that season was gag-based. Many recurring sketches, including At the Dance, Veterinarian's Hospital, The Talking Houses, Blackouts, and Fozzie's Monologues, focused heavily on jokes. After the first season, the talking houses and blackouts were dropped, while At the Dance and Fozzie's monologues were both featured less often, or tied to a specific gimmick or theme. Many of the backstage plots during the first season also revolved around running gags, such as episode 115, with Fozzie subjecting Kermit to an endless stream of puns.
After the first season, Jack Burns stepped down and Jerry Juhl took over as head writer. When Jerry Juhl became the head writer, the show became more character-based. Later episodes focused more on the backstage plots than the on-stage sketches. Some examples include episode 502, where Kermit fired Miss Piggy, and episode 515, where Gonzo turned the show into a dance marathon. The "book" format episodes often collapsed stage antics and backstage plot.
Other changes include the opening theme song. The lyrics have stayed the same but what happens during the beginning has changed at least three times.
Behind the Scenes
While Jim Henson had been pleased with the success of Sesame Street, that show had branded the Muppets as a "kids' act." Henson was interested in creating a show that would provide entertainment across all age groups.
Henson auditioned his characters and his concept for the show many times to the major television networks, even filming a pitch reel for CBS. By 1973, ABC had ordered two prospective pilots for a potential series: The Muppets Valentine Show and The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence. ABC ultimately passed on producing a half-hour show.
Initially, Henson and company resisted producing the program in syndication, as they feared that the show would be underfunded. However, a British syndicator named Lord Lew Grade brought a proposal to the Henson Company, with an assurance that the show would have the money for the production values it needed.
The show first hit the airwaves in September 1976. While it became a hit internationally almost immediately, the show struggled in the ratings its first year in America. In the second year of the show, with the format and the characters finding their groove, and such big-name stars as Bob Hope, Madeline Kahn, John Cleese, Steve Martin, Elton John and others appearing, the show became a success in America as well.
The show was subsequently dubbed in several languages and broadcast all over the world, which eventually led Time magazine to declare The Muppet Show "the most popular television entertainment on earth."
The show ran for five years and 120 episodes. It finally went off the air, not due to a lack of popularity, but as a result of Henson's desire to move on to bigger projects, such as The Dark Crystal, that would require the full energy and resources of his company. Production wrapped on The Muppet Show on Friday, August 22, 1980.
The popularity of the series led to many Muppet specials, movies, albums, and merchandise, both during and after the show's run. The show was popular not only in North America and the United Kingdom but all over the world, so there have been many Muppet products that were not available for sale in the U.S. and/or U.K. During the show's run there were a number of toys produced, including hand puppets and plush toys released by Fisher Price. There were many Muppet Show albums featuring songs from the show, and a number of compilation albums featuring material from the first albums have been released since the show ended.
During the show's run (as well as the first few years after production ended), a collection of Muppet Show annuals were released once a year in the UK. The Muppet Show also had its own fan club, which included four newsletters per year. There were also a few games as well as a book that illustrated and transcribed material from the show.
The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper were the first attempts to adapt the characters to cinema, released during the show's original run, and other movies and specials followed. In 2002, The Muppet Show celebrated its 25th anniversary, with action figures, collectible busts, a 25th anniversary album, a set of trading cards, and more. In 2009, The Muppet Show format was adapted into a series of comic books from BOOM! Studios.
In the UK, The Muppet Show made Channel 4's list of the 100 greatest kids' all-time shows, ranking at number 2.
The first country to air the series was England as produced by ATV for the ITV networks. At the time, there was no complete networking of the independent networks, and as such the different regional channels did not all air the show on the same day or time. Not all regions aired every episode -- for example, LWT (London Weekend Television, the franchise that covered the Greater London and Home Counties areas during the weekends) only aired 23 of the 24 episodes recorded as part of the first series. The first region to air the show was the ATV/Midlands region on Sunday, September 5, 1976, beginning with the Joel Grey episode (NB: For the purposes of this article, the Midlands region airdates will be referred to throughout, unless otherwise specified). 16 episodes aired consecutively between September and December 1976, before the show took a one week break over Christmas, resuming in the new year for another five weeks. Over the next two months (February to March), however, a series of re-runs (as well as a compilation edition) were aired; the final three episodes, featuring guest stars Ethel Merman, Connie Stevens and Vincent Price eventually screened in April 1977.
The second season debuted on Friday, September 30, 1977, beginning with the George Burns episode. Although 24 episodes were recorded as part of the second recording block, 30 episodes ended up being screened between September 1977 and April 1978. This consisted of the 24 episodes from the second recording block plus six episodes from the third recording block. It would appear that this was the case in other regions, as LWT also aired 30 episodes. Most episode guides, however, do not include the last six episodes (featuring guest stars Roy Clark, Leo Sayer, Gilda Radner, Pearl Bailey, Jean Stapleton and Loretta Lynn) as part of Season Two but instead as part of Season Three.
The third season debuted on Friday, November 17, 1978, beginning with the Raquel Welch episode, and consisted of the remaining 18 episodes recorded as part of the third recording block, concluding on Friday, March 9, 1979, with the Lynn Redgrave episode. The season only ran for 17 weeks as the Danny Kaye episode was broadcast on Christmas Day 1978, three days after the broadcast of the Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge episode.
In August 1979, Union members of the Independent Networks went on strike over a pay rise dispute and for 10 straight weeks, there was a complete blackout in all the regions. The dispute was resolved in late October 1979 but unfortunately, no television listings for the regional networks were printed until the following week. This has caused some confusion with regards to the airdates for the fourth season, and most guides only list 23 episodes having aired as opposed to the 24 recorded. Programming on ATV resumed on Monday, October 29, 1979; the fourth series of the Muppet Show began that night as the first programming after the news, starting with the Dudley Moore episode (the only one that is not mentioned in some guides). The series only ran for 23 weeks as the remaining episodes aired in their usual Friday night slot, beginning with the Crystal Gayle episode on November 2, 1979, and concluding with the Diana Ross episode on April 4, 1980.
Reruns of The Muppet Show aired in syndication for many years, eventually moving to the TNT cable station from 1988 to 1992. From 1994 to 1995, reruns began airing on the Nickelodeon cable station instead. In 1999, the reruns moved to the partly Henson-owned Odyssey Channel. When Odyssey became Hallmark Channel, the Henson shows were taken off the schedule.
Reruns still sometimes air in countries outside of the United States, though, often packaged with the MuppetTelevision segments of The Jim Henson Hour (retitled The Jim Henson Show), and episodes of Muppets Tonight. Disney Channel UK picked up the original series from 2005 until 2007.
- Videotapes of The Muppet Show were sent to scientists manning the McMurdo Station in Antarctica.
- In a 1979 episode of Sesame Street, Telly Monster names TV programs that start with the letter M. Listed among them is The Muppet Show.
- In 2005, the show ranked 2nd place in Channel 4's 100 Greatest Kid's TV Shows vote.
In the '80s and '90s, compilation videos featuring the most memorable sketches and songs from The Muppet Show were released by Playhouse Video. These compilations featured many sketches, including UK Spots, with new wraparounds of the Muppet characters.
During the late '80s, a video label in Argentina called Ledafilms, released at least three volumes with full-length, Spanish-dubbed episodes of The Muppet Show entitled En El Show De Los Muppets (literally: In the Show of The Muppets) and Muppet Show Special. In 1994, Jim Henson Video included two episodes on Monster Laughs with Vincent Price, the first home video release of complete Muppet Show episodes in English.
In 2000, Time-Life began offering several of the most famous and popular episodes of The Muppet Show in their complete form on video (allowing American viewers to see an extra two minutes of footage that previously had only been available to UK audiences). The episodes were initially released on VHS and then re-released on DVD as Best of the Muppet Show; fifteen volumes (45 episodes) in total. These were also sold in stores, distributed by Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.
In August 2005, Buena Vista Home Entertainment (a Disney imprint) released a DVD set of The Muppet Show: Season One. The 24 first season episodes were mostly complete, except in a few instances where music rights proved prohibitive, resulting in musical numbers being deleted from the show. A second set, The Muppet Show: Season Two, followed in 2007, featuring uncut episodes, with a third, The Muppet Show: Season Three, released in 2008.
That same year, The Muppets Studio general manager Lylle Breier stated on a podcast that Disney was in the process of acquiring legal clearances for music on the remaining seasons. Seven years later, Martin G. Baker was quoted as citing insufficient audio elements for seasons 4 and 5 as the reason any further home video releases of The Muppet Show were being held up (despite a number of episodes from those seasons being previously released on DVD).
- Directors: Peter Harris, Philip Casson
- Writers: Jerry Juhl, Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jack Burns (season 1), Marc London (season 1), Joseph A. Bailey (season 2), David Odell (seasons 3-5), Chris Langham (seasons 3-5), Don Hinkley, Jim Thurman (select season 4 episodes)
- Puppeteers: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Dave Goelz, Eren Ozker (season 1), John Lovelady (season 1), Louise Gold (seasons 2-5), Steve Whitmire (seasons 3-5), Kathryn Mullen (seasons 3-5), Brian Muehl (season 5), Karen Prell (season 5), Betsy Baytos (season 5), Peter Friedman (select seasons 1 and 3 episodes), Cynthia Adler (season 1), Fran Brill (season 1), Jane Henson (season 1), Bob Payne
- Musical Director: Jack Parnell
- Music Consultants: Larry Grossman (seasons 1-3), Ray Charles (seasons 4-5)
- Musical Associates: Derek Scott, Conn Bernard
- Dancers: Betsy Baytos, Graham Fletcher, John Bottoms, Michael Coleman, Julian Hosking, Jess Whitfield
- Choreographers: Gillian Lynne, Norman Maen
- Producers: David Lazer (executive), Jim Henson, Lew Grade, Jack Burns (season 1)
- Designers: Faz Fazakas, Don Sahlin, Bonnie Erickson, Calista Hendrickson (costumes), Robert McCormack (supervisor), Sara Paul (supervisor), Michael K. Frith (consultant), Amy Van Gilder, Caroly Wilcox, Mari Kaestle, Jan Rosenthal, Robert Payne, Rollin Krewson, Barbara Davis, Tim Miller, Dave Goelz, Ed Christie, Leslie Asch, Nomi Frederick, Marianne Harms, Larry Jameson
- Finch, Christopher Jim Henson: The Works, page 94
- Finch, Christopher Jim Henson: The Works page 108.
- Channel 4.com - One Hundred Greatest Kids TV Shows
- "The BBC Comedy Guide: The Muppet Show"
- Muppet Morsels from Episode 121: Twiggy
- The Muppetcast "Show #85" November 23, 2008
- The Muppet Mindset "The Muppet Mindset Show – John Denver" by Jarrod Fairclough, October 7, 2015