The Original ‘Muppet Show’ Is Back, and We Are Frankly Delirious
Disney+ will stream all five seasons of the original “Muppet Show,” starting Feb. 19. Tim Teeman and Kevin Fallon cannot wait to see Kermit, Piggy, Gonzo, and the chickens.
Tim Teeman: I am so glad Disney+ is streaming all five seasons of the original Muppet Show, from Feb. 19. When I was growing up in Britain in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, it was on TV on late Sunday afternoons, perfectly timed just before the dreariness of a new school week. A few years later, I would plead for hush from my family when the Dynasty theme began, but there was no need to do the same when the Muppets theme started up with that orchestral roll and Kermit’s frenzied announcement. And then the singalong: “It’s time to meet the Muppets, it’s time to dress up right…” All generations were ready to watch the Muppets.
I loved all the Muppets—all their colors and kinds (the most divine, strange animal-humans) in their bulb-flashing, theatrical boxes—singing and swaying to that theme tune, and then waiting, waiting, to see what disaster would befall Gonzo as he blew the last note on his horn. And then, knowing that I could not know what would happen in the next half-hour: how mean Miss Piggy would be to Kermit, the chickens squawking and bopping around the Swedish Chef (who I still impersonate regularly), Fozzie Bear’s bad jokes. Pigs in Space. Veterinarian’s Hospital (“the continuing storrrrry of a quack who’s gone to the dogs”). I watched it, a big, delighted, dopey smile on my face. And I still have that same expression on my face watching the Muppets now. They still give me immediate, simple joy.
Kevin Fallon: As you know, I was but a wee boy barely into his twenties when the show first aired (don’t you dare correct me), so my early memories of The Muppet Show were watching reruns as a kid, just a few short years ago. (Again, don’t you dare…) It’s corny, but there is something to the “fun for all ages!” thing that we talk about a lot in pop culture, but is rarely as true as it was with this show. Nothing made Young Kevin suffocate in wheezing laughter like the Swedish Chef’s gibberish, or Beaker’s short-circuited beeping. It was nonsense, and it was delightful.
And if there’s any question about the show being formative to the Big Ole Gay I would one day become, I was instantly drawn to Miss Piggy and every fabulous thing she was doing. But then as you get older you realize how absolutely brilliant it is as a showbiz satire. Every episode was like Billy Wilder and Mel Brooks teaming up to stage a demented production of Noises Off!, only it was somehow even smarter than that fan fiction would promise to be. I can’t wait to stream it all again.
Tim: We have all been Beaker this last year... I loved it when Beaker sang “Feelings,” and Animal saved the day, temporarily. I have never analyzed my love for the Muppets, and I am keen for it to remain as natural and untainted in my mind and heart as the vision of a magnificent waterfall. But I think that as a little kid watching the Muppets was a bit like being treated as an adult and as a kid, all at the same time. Most children’s television of the time, at least in Britain, spoke to you as children. My favorites—like Tiswas, Marmalade Atkins, and Grange Hill—spoke to you as a kind of adult-in-waiting, or at least a kid who knew the world a bit more widely than adults liked you to know it.
The Muppets (and their cousins in Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock, but really the Muppets above all else) seemed like the coolest gang of friends, and they mimicked adults for children’s laughs. They were anti-authority, jovial anarchists. I really liked how these strange creatures knew each other, that they joked with and played with each other. And that they were PUTTING ON A SHOW. I adored Statler and Waldorf in their box, criticizing everything, those misanthropic gruff bitches.
It seemed so crazy to me that there was this TV show that I loved, and these two voices of catty doom were also subverting it, making it OK to laugh at it as well as with it. I loved all their cute, weird faces. But they could also take the knocks too, and be real. Just like the divine Miss Piggy, her devastating “hi-yahhh” chops, and her endless demands and torture of poor Kermie! We all yearn for better, so much better, like Miss Piggy did. Her relentless pursuit of it felt both mad and furiously righteous.
Kevin: Looking back at it, I kind of see it like a less stressful version of watching SNL. With The Muppet Show, everything that could go wrong was going to go wrong—and that was the point! Whereas with something like SNL, you’re constantly watching and observing the things that weren’t up to par, that went off the rails, that fell victim to a tight production schedule and wasn’t perfect. With The Muppets, the imperfection was the point. We were meant to laugh at Kermit losing his mind as someone would breathe too hard at just the moment he finished erecting his delicate house of cards, and it would all crumble around him. (Sometimes literally.)
Is it weird to view 30 Rock as a direct descendant of The Muppet Show, with Liz Lemon as the stand-in for Kermit? And then the celebrity guest stars! You know how there are random bits of pop culture that for some reason are seared into your brain? Not even because they’re that much better than anything else, but just because they’ve randomly decided to set up shop in your consciousness forever? For me that’s Rita Moreno singing “Fever” with Animal on the drums.
Tim: Yes, you’re so right Kev. In fact, all the “making the band” or “getting the show on” shows we have now might be traced by the glorious chaos of The Muppet Show—which itself, now that I think about it, was first broadcast after the success of A Chorus Line. The Muppet Show is set on stage and in the backstage area of a theater, and at its heart is all about performance, the business of show, showing off, and the fragility and ego and madnesses of performers. It is a show full of theater, both being made and being meta-feasted upon—it’s like a mad game of one-upmanship, a brainy custard pie fight—and it was great seeing the celebrities of that time play along with the fun, like Liza Minnelli and Steve Martin.
The show loosens up everyone it comes into contact with; it makes happy fools of us all. Yet it’s as rigorously written, as tight, as any episode of 30 Rock and Veep. Jokes, emotion, profundity, more jokes: all packed in there. It’s still wild that the show crossed generations, and never spoke down to any to do so. Any Muppets fan will love this Daily Beast article by my friend Erica Wagner. Her mom replied to all the Muppets’ fan mail! Erica, who wonders if The Simpsons would exist without The Muppet Show, grew up surrounded by letters from kids like you and me! As Erica writes about why they transfixed us, “Somehow, the knowledge that they were not ‘real’ never damaged their authenticity. The truth of art transcends felt and fabric and wire.”
Kevin: It’s a show and they are characters that people, like you and I, have such a strong, nostalgic connection to. And they’re perfect characters, too. Fully-realized, nuanced versions of various stock types that can adapt to any sort of narrative (hence everything from A Christmas Carol to The Wizard of Oz getting Muppet treatments). But it’s been interesting to see how, especially in recent years, the Jim Henson Company and Disney have struggled to keep them “hot,” especially considering revivals and existing intellectual properties are the hottest thing in entertainment.
Because of how deep my adoration is for these characters, I may have been more forgiving than most critics when ABC tried to do a The Office-like mockumentary sitcom, or just last year when Disney+ made another play for the youth audience with Muppets Now, an, all-things-considered smart skewering of modern influencer culture and the web-content boom. But at the crux of my reviews for both was, “I wish they would just bring back The Muppets Show instead.” This isn’t a revival, of course, but it’s going to be a pleasure to revisit the 120 original episodes again. (Side note: Have you also been singing the theme song in your head the entire time we’ve been writing this?)
Tim: BUSTED. I have, including the instruments… And I am also now addicted to these: Gonzo’s drum/horn disasters, collected together on YouTube. I was also just thinking that, for me, the perfect Christmas movie is not It’s a Wonderful Life, but The Muppet Christmas Carol. It’s Michael Caine’s best performance since Alfie, and one of those films—Beaches is another, the original—which I could watch over and over again. Here are the Muppets being cute, all perfectly cast to the Charles Dickens template and also warped out of traditional shape, like Miss Piggy’s Mrs. Cratchit, who is NOT a Mrs. Cratchit to be messed with.
The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) is a better advertisement for 1980s New York than After Hours, Desperately Seeking Susan, Wall Street, and Cagney & Lacey put together. You are so right about the original, and about questionable brand extension—although I kind of think you can’t mess up the Muppets, or is it that the Muppets can’t mess up? Maybe it comes back to the strength of the original. Maybe it comes back to their creator Jim Henson, and he and his team keeping a loving hold on what he initially conceived. Even as I type this, I am thinking of my favorite lines from Veterinarian’s Hospital, which can be as simple as “Bongos, Dr. Bob!” While it’s wonderful the original five seasons are soon to play, do you think modern TV or cable could ever do the Muppets wrong in a big way? Or is it too hallowed a piece of TV turf to ever mistreat?
Kevin: The promising, though maybe concerning, thing is that they haven’t done anything to ruin the Muppets yet... but they also haven’t stopped trying. There seems to be a desperation to capitalize on this brood of pop-culture icons and do something that hits in a modern way. The movies with Jason Segel were totally fine and faithful to the spirit of all those great classics you just mentioned, but they didn’t exactly usher in a new era of Muppet Mania. And those new TV series I mentioned never really took off. I don’t know if the explanation is that variety shows are sort of out of style, or if it’s too hard to make anything feel like the event that a weekly airing of The Muppets Show and, later, Muppets Tonight were.
But it does pain me that the reigning modern representation of the Muppets in pop culture is that meme of Kermit sipping tea. He deserves better! The truth is, it’s been so long since I’ve seen The Muppet Show, I’m very curious how the episodes hold up all these decades later. Will making them available on Disney+ suddenly manifest Muppet pandemonium? Who knows! All I know is that it is rare to get a news alert and realize, “Oh this is actually very good news, and very good news for me, specifically.” So I, for one, can’t wait to play the music, light the lights, and continue my pandemic year of never leaving my apartment or doing anything remotely fun or invigorating or interesting or exciting—but this time with The Muppet Show tonight.
Tim: Maybe the Muppets demand we go back in time to meet them? Maybe that’s what Disney+’s streaming of the original will teach us: that not everything needs to be updated. Not everything needs to be tweaked and given an edge. The Muppets don’t need updating. They were mocking celebrity, mocking themselves, laughing at us, laughing at themselves, and just simply entertaining us, forty years ago. They were whole back then, they were whole right from the outset. The Muppet Show reminds me of The Golden Girls: an instant classic, the embodiment of timeless pop culture. It stands the test of time because it’s so well done.
As I type this, I am watching Jim Henson appear alongside Diahann Carroll on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1975, with Kermit. Carson asks Kermit how his love life is. “I work on Sesame Street. You don’t ask a frog questions like that,” Kermit replies. Watch Kermit’s face, as Henson describes how he made the first Kermit out of a couple of his mother’s spring coats, with ping-pong balls for eyes. On Henson’s arm, strings visible, Kermit is horrified. He is real, after all, not a fabricated puppet. How dare his creator speak this way! Dear Muppets, welcome back.