How did the Cold War end? Maybe you thought it was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but in reality, the seeds were sown by Marlo Thomas three years earlier… and she never could have done it without the Muppets, in a TV special that you probably haven’t seen. In 1988, Thomas produced a TV special called Free to Be… a Family.
It was a follow-up of sorts to Free to Be… You and Me, her lovely 1974 special which explained how boys and girls are equal, and people who are different can still be friends, and other stuff that everyone really should have already figured out by 1974.
The Free to Be… a Family TV special is an international variety show, as kids in Moscow meet kids in the New York City via the magic of television. Penn and Teller teach the kids how to do a magic trick, a Russian rock singer sings a song with words I can’t understand (Honestly, it’s like he’s not even speaking English), and Robin Williams shows up to be hyper for a few minutes.
The other executive producer of the special was longtime Sesame Street contributor Christopher Cerf, and it was written by Cerf with Sesame writer Norman Stiles and Sesame composer Sarah Durkee… all of which explains why there are Muppets in the show. The first Muppets we see are Kermit and his (non-Sesame) pal Miss Piggy, in a filmed segment demonstrating how the American puppets traveled to Moscow to meet with a Russian puppet character to “hammer out the terms of this show.”
Piggy doesn’t say much, so I’m guessing Frank Oz wasn’t present for the filming, (photographic evidence from Muppet Wiki suggests Piggy was puppeteered by Kathy Mullen) but they’re really in Russia, so I’m guessing Jim Henson made the trip, which is pretty impressive. Less impressive is the Russian puppet character, Kruscha the Pig (whose name I’m probably spelling wrong. If anyone reading this is familiar with Russian children’s television, please correct me). Compared to the expressiveness of Kermit and Piggy, Kruscha looks pretty lame. He’s really just a fancy finger puppet, and his mouth doesn’t even move. No wonder the Soviet Union failed, if that’s the best puppet they could come up with to represent their nation.
Kermit and Kruscha’s negotiations involve a lot of yelling and banging on the table, but finally, as Marlo Thomas tells us, “the exact details of our show were agreed upon.”
The next time we see Muppets in the special is a segment called “Pig to Frog,” which is presented as a panel discussion between “a distinguished panel of Americans, and an equally distinguished panel of Soviets” who “participate in a frank and open discussion” of their differences. The American panel includes two Honkers, a penguin, and Meryl Sheep; in other words, the very definition of the word “distinguished.”
So this is the weirdest part of the special. The purpose of the whole project is to teach kids that their counterparts in a Communist country are just like them, and that citizens of both countries have a lot to offer each other. But in this segment, Kermit talks about how crappy life in the Soviet Union is, and then Kruscha talks about how terrible life in the USA is. It’s completely contrary to the message of the show!
They’re pretty funny, though. Kermit shows us a Soviet elephant who lost his job and the love of his life…
…and Kruscha tells the story of a homeless bear, performed by Kevin Clash, who just can’t catch a break.
I’ve never been to 540 Park Avenue in NYC — a web search tells me it’s the Regency Hotel — but if I ever find myself passing by, I’m going to look for this sign:
This bit features an appearance by Whoopi Goldberg, in what would be the briefest, most random cameo of her career until Letters to Santa: A Muppets Christmas 21 years later.
So basically, the “Pig to Frog” sequence teaches us that Americans and Soviets can never get along, and that both countries are awful places to live. So much for druzhba.
But wait, there’s still more Muppets! An ongoing gag in Free to Be… a Family is the premise that the satellite link between Moscow and New York is maintained by Lily Tomlin’s character Ernestine the operator. She sits in a control room inside a van parked on the street, and of course she gets to count ringy-dingys.
About halfway through the show, Ernestine informs Marlo Thomas that if she wants to continue the connection, she’ll have to feed the parking meter. Thomas doesn’t have any change, but she’s rescued by a passing Honker, who gives her a quarter. But where has he been keeping that quarter? Honkers don’t wear no pants — they ain’t got no pockets!
There’s one more super-brief appearance by a Muppet who shows up in a montage, but I’ll let you see for yourself in the following YouTube clip, which contains the rest of the aforementioned Muppet moments too.
And here’s a fascinating tidbit if you’re a fan of the sitcom Scrubs: One of the American kids who gets to talk to his Russian penpal is Donald Faison, who would grow up to play Turk on that show. And Faison’s younger brother Olamide was the third actor to play Miles on Sesame Street, which just goes to show you that everything and everyone in the world is inexorably linked to Sesame Street forever.
In conclusion: If Marlo Thomas ever writes a memoir, she should definitely call it Rescued by a Passing Honker.
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