“Hey listen, it’s another great show folks. I mean tonight our guest star is one of the truly great dancers of the world: The one and only, Miss Juliet Prowse. And if that weren’t enough we’ve also got Mahna Mahna. Whatever that means.” – Kermit the Frog
With the news that Jason Segel is set to write the latest screen adventure for the Muppets, and that a Jim Henson biopic topped the Black List (a list of the most promising unfilmed scripts) last year, I’ve decided to take an episodic look back at The Muppet Show.
The Muppet Show originally aired in 1976, and was a result of Jim Henson’s desire to create a show for a broader audience. He was also anxious to avoid becoming pigeonholed as a children’s entertainer, which was his career for much of his life up to that point through his work on Sesame Street, where it was his creative input and Muppet creations that largely led to the show’s success.
Sesame Street was also where a number of the Muppeteer team members, that would go on to work on the The Muppet Show met, including Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt and Steve Whitmire. Jack Burns, former performing partner of George Carlin, was the head writer for the first series, alongside Jim Henson.
Henson pitched the show, with a somewhat unconventional sales pitch, to studio executives in America, but failed to find a backer. This led to the series being picked up by the UK-based ATV studios based in Elstree, who aired the show on ITV and sold the broadcast rights to CBS. Henson was initially reluctant to go down the syndication route, but ultimately it was the only way his vision would reach the desired audiences, so concessions had to be made.
So, without further ado, let’s head to The Muppet Theatreto see what Kermit and co have in store for us…
The first episode that aired differed drastically from the Sex And Violence pilot, a smart move, as it’s hard to imagine the show achieving the same success had it followed that format.
There are moments of brilliance in the pilot, but it lacked the cohesiveness that was evident in the first episode, and instead seemed like a series of vignettes with very little tying the episode together, aside from a few tenuous links. Both shared similarities, in the sense that they are very much vaudeville-style shows, but there are more common threads tying The Muppet Show.
Sex And Violence also lacked Kermit as the main protagonist. Playing the role of affable everyman (well, frog), Kermit is believed to be the closest representation of Henson’s personality in any of the show’s characters. Kermit, like Henson, is the show runner who attempts to keep the talent in check and ensure that the show runs as smoothly as possible.
The guest star for the first episode was dancer and actress Juliet Prowse, whose introduction involves dancing to Scott Joplin’s Solace, accompanied by the Muppet Gazelles, and who later talks to Kermit and is presented with her Muppet likeness.
With all due respect to Prowse, she’s far from the biggest name to appear as a guest on The Muppet Show throughout its 105 episode run, and is perhaps an example of the fact that the show’s producers struggled to secure big name stars to appear on the show in the early stages.
It’s not as though Prowse’s involvement is cringeworthy, but as is the case with some of the guests who would appear on the show in later episodes, at times when interacting with Kermit, it seems as though she’s uncomfortable with what’s required of her, and occassionally comes across as patronising.
It’s safe to say the guest star is far from this episode’s highlight. That honour would go to one of the excellent musical numbers that feature in the show, which opens with one of the Muppets’most beloved songs, Mahna Mahna.
Mahna Mahna‘sorigins aren’t as innocent as many would imagine. The song was originally written for the X-rated 60s movie Sweden: Heaven And Hell. Henson appropriated the song the year after the film was released for a sketch on The Ed Sullivan Show, when it was performed by the Snowths and Mahna Mahna. The two sketches are almost identical, but it was its appearance in this show that lead to its highest chart position when it peaked at number eight in the UK.
Another song that was used previously was You And I And George, performed by Rowlf the dog. The song originally appeared on The Mike Douglas Show in 1966. This is my favourite moment of the episode, and one of my favourite Muppet songs in their back catalogue. Funny, dark and quite touching, it tells the story of a third wheel in a relationship who’s presented with an opportunity to capitalise when his competitor for the object of his affection accidently drowns. It’s a sign of the dark and subversive humour that would run through The Muppet’s projects.
This first episode also introduced a character that would come to play a major role in the show, Miss Piggy, although you don’t necessarily get that impression from the introduction here in the Muppet Glee Club performance of Herb Brown and Arthur Freed’s Temptation. The Glee Club are conducted by Kermit who, as the song builds towards its climax, is advanced upon by the porcine sex pest.
I’m not sure many would argue that this is the best The Muppet Show has to offer, but despite not being the strongest episode, it provides a great starting point for what’s to follow by setting the format and introducing many of the characters that would come to define, not only the series, but the Muppet brand.