An episode featuring ballet impresario Rudolph Nureyev dancing 'Swine Lake' with Miss Piggy is pretty unforgettable.

James Plath's picture

This is the season that Miss Piggy gets a trophy for her efforts. No, not Kermit. An Emmy for Outstanding Comedy-Variety or Music Series that she had to share with executive producer David Lazer, Muppet creator Jim Henson, and Muppeteers Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, and Dave Goelz.

And they had to share it with the Muppets they created and gave life to, because it was these freaky furballs that kept audiences coming back for more--lovable critters like Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem (with psychedelic pink-haired Floyd on guitar and Animal on drums), Rowlf the dog, Rizzo the Rat, Sam the Eagle, Scooter the whatever, and the quasi-human Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, opera-box hecklers Statler & Waldorf, and The Swedish Chef.

Watching the show almost 30 years later, it's even more apparent that Henson & Co. were doing a straight vaudeville show with all the schtick and only a fraction of the humans. So if you appreciate the old variety shows, you'll get a kick out of seeing the same sort of things performed by puppets, because most of the songs are, in fact, taken from vaudeville or the British music halls. If the old shows bored you to tears or seemed as corny as Kansas AND Iowa in August, then you won't find them all that appealing. What's more, the guest stars this year really date the production. Of the group, younger viewers may only recognize Don Knotts (from "The Andy Griffith Show" and Disney live-action comedies), piano man Elton John, comedians Steve Martin, John Cleese and Peter Sellers, Julie Andrews ("Princess Diaries" and "The Sound of Music"), and Cloris Leachman ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show"), who's found new life as an old character actress in big-screen comedies.

But new viewers probably won't know impressionist Rich Little, singers Lou Rawls, Judy Collins, Teresa Brewer, and Petula Clark, singer-actress Cleo Laine, blonde bombshell Jaye P. Morgan, or actors Nancy Walker, Dom DeLuise, and Zero Mostel.

For fans of old-time vaudeville, radio, and TV, this season features some real gems. Comedian and early TV pioneer Milton Berle guests, as does ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, cigar-chomping comic George Burns, and that grand old hook-nosed funny man himself, Bob Hope. It's bittersweet, of course, watching performers who are no longer with us. In fact, Mostel died just months after filming his segment, and though his King Henry VIII costumed rendition of "What Do the Simple Folk Do?" is fairly straightforward, even sedate, there was no indication that he was in ill health.

Because of "Sesame Street," Henson's Muppets have found a new audience, and the corny vaudeville gags certainly speak to that age level. Each guest star is subjected to some manner of mild abuse or embarrassment, while some segments get a little rowdier than others.

I'm sure that my opinions have been colored by sentimentality, but the strongest episodes are ones that feature those old hams, along with the Elton John, Bernadette Peters, and Peter Sellers segments. In fact, both Peters and Sellers received an Emmy nomination for their work, as did writer Peter Harris for the John episode ("Crocodile Rock"? You bet!). An episode featuring ballet impresario Rudolph Nureyev dancing "Swine Lake" with Miss Piggy is also pretty unforgettable.

The half-hour show combined fresh routines each week with running gags. The famous opening song remained unchanged, with Gonzo then trying to blow a trumpet with varying disastrous results-a gag that was used in the old "Mickey Mouse Club" with Donald Duck, and even in the opening of "The Simpsons." This season's ballroom dance routine will seem like a more elegant variation of the old "Laugh-In" go-go dance sequence, which has brief stoppages to feature two-line jokes, mostly puns. This season's running "soap operas"--yet another framework for jokes--are "Veterinarian Hospital," featuring Miss Piggy as a nurse, and the "Star Trek" take-off, "Pigs in Space." It's all corny, silly, slapstick fun, with equal measures of bad jokes or puns and physical comedy.

The picture quality is pretty decent, given the time perioid (1977-78). There's a little graininess, which you'd expect, and the kind of slightly faded color that seems to have plagued a number of '70s shows. But the emphasis is on "slight" here. It's really not that bad--just noticeable. The aspect ratio is 1.33:1.

Nothing fancy here. Just a Dolby Digital Mono that does the job. At least it's not muffled or flat-sounding, as is sometimes the case.

A nice surprise here. Fans of the show are treated to three bonus features, the best of which is a pre-"Muppets Show" Valentine's Day special which aired on January 30, 1974. It's a rare artifact that's presented here for the first time on home video. Fans of music videos will get a kick out of "Keep Fishin'," by Weezer and The Muppets in a battle of the bands. It'll be a kid favorite. The last of the extras is "The Muppets on The Muppets," one of those in-character interviews with the gang. Personally, I'd rather they interviewed the Muppeteers.

Bottom Line:
If you were thinking of only adding one season of "The Muppet Show" to your family video collection, this might be the season. Besides that Emmy to recommend it, there are a number of strong guest appearances.


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