Dead Man Gambling: The Muppet Show’s Unsung Spooky Ghost

Published: October 31, 2022
Categories: Commentary, Feature

Happy Halloween!

Halloween, of course, is a time for spooky stuff. You know what’s a spooky thing that happened on The Muppet Show? Well, yes, it was spooky when Kermit turned into a vampire and bit Vincent Price, but that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about a different thing.

Yeah, okay, it was also spooky when Alice Cooper tried to get the Muppets to sell their souls to Satan, but that’s not what I’m talking about either. I’m talking about a spooky Muppet Show thing that doesn’t get discussed as much online, probably because it doesn’t directly involve any of the main Muppet characters.

I’m talking about the time Kenny Rogers sang his hit song “The Gambler” on a train , surrounded by gangly Muppets with human hands, and it turned into a spooky ghost story. You can watch it on YouTube here.

I wrote about the Kenny Rogers episode for our “The Muppet Show: 40 Years Later” review series, but I want to single out this musical number today, both because it’s sufficiently eerie for Halloween, and because I wanted to write about something scary but we’ve already done an article on Bert and Ernie in the pyramid.

This is not one of those Muppet Show numbers that’s only vaguely inspired by the song, or weirdly unrelated to the song. The staging of this musical number is a mostly faithful retelling of the song “The Gambler.” When Kenny Rogers sings about handing the titular Gambler his whiskey and a cigarette, we see him physically hand over that whiskey and that cigarette. And while the song is not generally considered to be scary – not like “Thriller” or “The Monster Swim” – this version of it is pretty eerie.

First of all, there’s the design of the three Muppets in the train car. They have more realistic faces than your average Whatnot. They’re old men, like Statler, Waldorf, and Pops – but none of those guys are creepy. They’re kinda cuddly. They’ve even made plush dolls of Statler and Waldorf that your kids can cuddle with. Nobody wants to cuddle with a Gambler doll. (If I’m wrong and you do want to cuddle with a Gambler doll, please let me know and I’ll issue a correction!)

And their hands! They have real human hands! Real hands are usually reserved for characters who have to stick their grubby little fingers in food, like the Swedish Chef and Angelo. But here are these three one-shot characters with five fleshy metacarpals on each hand. Has a chill gone down your spine yet?!

The most alarming part of the number happens later: Just as the prophet Kenny Rogers foretold, the Gambler (who is performed by Jerry Nelson, excellent as always) dies in the middle of the song. I’ve heard of a “dead hand” in poker, but this is ridiculous! And yet, his time on Earth and in this train is not over. He immediately comes back as a ghost! And then he starts doing a little dance, now more energetic than he ever was when he was alive. He seems really happy to be dead. And he’s pretty spry for a dead guy! (That’s my favorite Offspring song.)

This doesn’t really come across well in a screenshot, but the dancing ghost Gambler is even creepier than the sitting alive Gambler. I’m not the type of person to be easily unsettled by Muppet legs, but the Gambler’s do the trick. It’s like… they’re a little bit too long? They’re just disproportionate to the rest of his body to make me go “Yuhhh!”

According to my Google Home, according to Wikipedia, according to a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center, 18% of Americans say they have seen a ghost. I’ve never seen a ghost, but if they’re anything like the Gambler, I hope I never do.

And yet, I have to admit… he’s a pretty good dancer. I can’t imagine having moves like his when I’m that old, or that dead.

In many ghost stories, a ghost is the spirit of a person who died and has unfinished business. Once they finish their business, they can move on to the next world, like moving on to the next level of Burger Time after you’ve built enough burgers. That’s how that game works, right? I think so. HEY, GOOGLE! HOW DOES BURGER TIME – NO, NOT “BURGER RESTAURANTS NEAR ME.” I SAID “BURGER—” YOU KNOW WHAT? FORGET IT.

Anyway, the Gambler is very clearly a person who died. And he comes back in ghost form much more quickly than ghosts usually do in fiction, so he must be eager to finish that business. And what’s the first thing he does? He dances! We can assume that, with a name like “the Gambler,” this fellow must have made most of his income by playing cards for money. But you know what I think? I think he never really wanted to be a professional gambler. He always wanted to use those long legs of his to be… A DANCER!

And thus, as soon as he dies, he does a joyful, translucent dance. And as soon as the song his over, he fades away, having finally fulfilled his true purpose. He’s ready to move on. He knows when to walk away – and when to shuffle-step away, leaving Kenny Rogers to grin awkwardly at the camera.

I take back everything I said. The Gambler isn’t creepy at all!

Well, maybe he’s still a little bit creepy. But I like him more now.

By the way, when I told my wife and Tough Pigs contributor Staci that I was going to write about the Gambler because he was scary, she asked if I wanted to dress as the Gambler for Halloween. That’s a good idea! Next year I’m going to wear a gray wig and a ratty old suit, carry a fake cigarette and cards, and go around doing ghost dances. Ha. I can’t wait to see how freaked out people get when they realize I have human hands!

Click here to ride on a train with a dead guy on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Ryan Roe –

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