Here at Tough Pigs, we’ve covered nearly every Christmas special Jim Henson and/or the Muppets ever made. But most of the non-holiday-related specials have been neglected until now. Each week, I’m joined by another Tough Pigs writer to watch a classic Muppet special that has nothing to do with Christmas.
Anthony: For our final entry in the series, we’re watching “The Tale of the Bunny Picnic” from 1986. Joining me is Tough Pigs co-runner Joe Hennes. Welcome, guy!
Joe: Thanks, other guy! It’s great to be here on my own website.
Anthony: Well, I’m glad you could make the drive over here! Let’s start with a basic summary. “Tale of the Bunny Picnic” is about lovable old Bean Bunny, who’s just a little guy. He lives in a village of bunnies, and one day he sees a dog – the first one in many years.
This was your first time watching the special, so I’ll throw it over to you – what did you think of it?
Joe: Let me just say, it’s so weird to me that there are still Muppet things I’ve never seen. I feel like a bad Henson fan for making it this far in my life without having ever seen Bunny Picnic, but then I remember that I’ve spent most of my life absorbing literally hundreds of hours of Muppet content, so it’s okay if an HBO/BBC special made for little kiddies slips through the cracks.
That said, the special was… fine. I started out really enjoying it, but then my own age caught up to me (which happens to be slightly older than the target demographic). I’m just too old for bunnies. Or picnics. Or anything remotely cute. Humbug.
Anthony: Sure, I’m not at all surprised at your reaction. I enjoy the special quite a bit, but I saw it several times as a kid. That makes a huge difference with a special like this. For example, the opening number (“Hello Sunshine”) still makes me really excited, because the screen is overflowing with puppets – there’s gotta be a couple dozen of them, at least – and the voices have this neat layering effect where everyone’s kind of singing over everyone else and it seems like a big bunny party. When you’re 7, that’s wonderful. And now it just makes me feel 7.
But I’m guessing it’s probably not as wonderful when you’re in your 30s seeing it for the first time.
Joe: Actually, quite the opposite. Let’s back up just a little. The first thing we see on the screen (other than the Jim Henson intro, which was missing from my copy) after the title is “Written by Jocelyn Stevenson”, so I’m already getting excited about the Fraggle connections. And then we see “Music by Philip Balsam” and “Lyrics by Dennis Lee”, and I’m literally sitting up in my seat. And then it’s co-directed by Jim Henson! So as far as I know at this early hour, I’m in for an hour-long Fraggle Rock episode, where the Fraggles have sprouted long ears and lost the ceiling to their cave.
Anthony: Absolutely. The Fraggle pedigree is strong.
Joe: Right, and then we jump straight into the big group scene, which is exactly the sort of thing we’d see down at Fraggle Rock. And their waiting on the arrival of the Storyteller, just like in Fraggle Rock! And then: A big scary dog! JUST LIKE IN FRAGGLE TOWN! I mean, Rock.
Anthony: So you’re on a Fraggle high – you’re bouncing through the opening number, and then Bean gets a solo number called “I Had a Dream,” which feels exactly like any of the soft, thoughtful ballads from Fraggle Rock. I’m thinking of things like Mokey’s “Ragtime Queen” or, especially, Wembley’s “Sleep by the Light of the Moon.”
Joe: Balsam and Lee are, unsurprisingly, on pointe with Bunny Picnic.
Anthony: The most impressive song here, if you ask me, is the epic closing number “Drum of Time.” Again, it’s very reminiscent of a lot of their Fraggle Rock work, but it seems to be on a larger scale to me. It’s almost like the Balsam and Lee version of one of the big, rousing crowd numbers from Les Miserables or something like that.
Every time I watch this special, it makes me wish that we’d gotten a Jim-era Muppet movie with songs by Balsam and Lee.
Joe: What are those guys even doing right now?? We should hire them to write the soundtrack to our lives.
Anthony: A capital idea! So anyway, another very Fraggle-esque element in the special is Richard Hunt’s performance as Lugsy, Bean’s mean older brother. For me, that character is the thing that keeps “Bunny Picnic” from being too saccharine. Much like the Muppets in later productions, Lugsy is disgusted by how cute Bean is, and he never passes up a chance to mock him. On paper, that’s an okay character, but Richard cranks it up to 11, turning him into a hilarious, lovable jerk.
Joe: Much like Richard himself! Speaking of Bean’s cuteness, I was first introduced to Bean on The Jim Henson Hour, where his whole shtick was that he was so cute, it caused the rest of the cast to feel actual pain. So I was expecting his first appearance to be so horribly cute, I’d want to punch him right in his tiny, pink bunny nose. I guess I didn’t really feel that way, so I’m not sure if I should feel disappointed or not.
Anthony: I think you didn’t feel that way because Steve Whitmire is good at his job. If this was an animated special – over even if it was made by a less-talented puppet outfit – Bean *would* be unbearable. But everyone involved knows how to make him actually endearing. Little touches like Bean’s imitation of a fire-breathing dragon are cute in a good way, not in the sickening way you mentioned before. Steve’s clearly putting a lot of effort into making us want to spend time with Bean.
Joe: This is true. Bean doesn’t grate me, but it’s also weird because he’s not the Bean I’ve grown to know and love. If anything, he got cuter as time went on because the Muppets told us he was so cute. And then they kept saying it to the point where we cheered when he’d get clobbered by Scrooge’s wreath or trampled by Miss Piggy’s oversized luggage. The guy in Bunny Picnic may not be obnoxious, but he’s pretty bland in comparison to who he’d eventually become.
Anthony: Yeah, that’s true. On The Jim Henson Hour, he was a ridiculous parody of the character he is here. I mentioned Lugsy as a highlight earlier, and that’s largely because Lugsy is one of the only elements here that’s actually funny. A lot of other stuff is pleasant, but it doesn’t really make me laugh. And Bean is emblematic of that – he’s a nice little guy, but he isn’t funny. I prefer it when Muppets are being funny.
Joe: You know who the highlight character was for me? Bean’s dad. I legitimately laughed out loud every time he flipped his lid over the idea of a dog in their midst. (Or the lack thereof.)
Anthony: Yeah, I love Bean’s dad. In my notes I have written “I like Kevin Clash’s voice for Father more than I like anything about his dialogue,” and that about sums it up. The repetitive “A dog?!” or “No dog?!” shouldn’t be nearly as funny as it is, but Kevin’s just having a great time amping up the hysteria. It’s a great performance.
Joe: I want to talk about the farmer for a minute. Do we think he’s the son of one of the bad guys in The Muppet Musicians of Bremen? You just reviewed that one, so you’re the resident expert.
Anthony: He’s certainly related to those guys, but I think he works a little bit better as a character. Like Matt and I talked about in that review, the villains in “Bremen” are all so serious and nasty and no fun to watch (except for the one Jim Henson plays). Here, at least the Farmer is played by Marty Robinson, so his sneezing fits sound like an allergic Telly. If nothing else, he’s entertaining on that front.
Joe: His reason for being is a little odd to me. So, the bunnies live nearby because they know there’s no dog. But the allergic farmer (who sneezes in his own backyard, despite the fact that the bunnies aren’t in the immediate vicinity) is being driven insane via his allergic reaction, presumably ever since the last time the bunnies saw a dog a generation ago.
Anthony: I thought he was just sneezing because of the dog – he has some sort of generic animal hair allergy. The bunnies are far enough away that they don’t bother him, but now the dog is right next to him.
Joe: So he has the same allergy as Cloris Leachman in The Muppet Movie? Makes sense. So, what do you think pushed him over the edge to suffer having to be near his new dog to finally rid himself of the rabbits?
Anthony: Well, the plot requires a dog.
Joe: Good enough for me! Also, I really like that dog. He’s no Sprocket, but Jim is obviously having a lot of fun with him. Whatever his name is. And I just really appreciate that Jim was still willing to perform these types of random characters so late in his career.
Anthony: That’s another element that ties it to Fraggle Rock – Jim didn’t need to take the time to play Cantus or Convincing John either, but in all three cases he seems to be having a blast. I especially like the dog’s tendency to announce his actions out loud (“Whimper whimper, quake quake”). That’s the type of thing that could be annoying from a lesser performer, but Jim makes it sing.
Joe: Speaking of the dog, remember Bean’s imaginary transformation to help him hide from him? He imagined that he was a tree. Seems pretty short-sighted to me.
Anthony: See, if we’d had Rowlf around to narrate like in “Dog City,” he might have made that joke for you! Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that lack of even the slightest amount of bite might be why you got sick of this thing when it was half-over. How accurate is that?
Joe: Yeah, that would’ve helped. I wonder why the chose to leave out that adult element, or even some bookends by Kermit, like they do in “Emmet Otter” and “Christmas Toy.”
Anthony: Kermit’s absence is definitely glaring. Except for “The Cube,” obviously, this is the only thing we’ve covered in this series that he isn’t in. Part of me wonders if they considered using him as the narrator before they settled on Old Bean telling the story to his grandkids (kind of like Old Martin Short in Clifford telling the story to li’l Ben Savage!).
Joe: Old Bean! That was easily the most jarring Muppet experience I’ve had in a long time. I was not expecting to see cute little Bean Bunny decades later, on death’s door. It’s the same reason I have to close my eyes at the end of Muppet Christmas Carol when they show the withered Fozzie and Sam. If Muppets can get old, that means they can die, and I am not okay with that. Unless it’s Dead Tom. Or Emmet Otter’s Pa.
Anthony: Fair point, but at least Bean aged better than Fozzie and Sam did. He looks quite stately.
Joe: I suppose.
Anthony: I wonder if Kermit’s absence is due to Jocelyn Stevenson’s presence as the screenwriter. Most of the other specials we’ve watched for this series were written by Jerry Juhl, who has probably written more dialogue for Kermit the Frog than anyone else. Stevenson, on the other hand, never wrote for the Muppet Show characters outside of a few books.
Joe: Huh. You may be right. Why does Jocelyn Stevenson hate Kermit?? Does she also hate Santa Claus and cotton candy and happiness??
Anthony: You should write her an email with those exact questions in it. It’ll be a Tough Pigs exclusive!
Even though Kermit couldn’t be bother, this special makes up for his absence with about a million supporting characters, most of whom have one basic tick that they get to play a few times. Did any of those stand out to you?
Joe: I liked the multitude of individual bunnies as a group more than I did any one of them individually. I liked the ultra-cool (for the 1980s) Be-Bop, and the bunny that likes eating –
Anthony: The amazingly-named “Bulbous” played by Mike Quinn.
Joe: Ha, I did not remember that! I even liked Bean’s sister, Babble, who had the potentially annoying trait of talking too much, as performed by Camille Bonora (unfortunately miscredited as Camille “Bonara”).
Anthony: Poor Camille. Getting back to Be-Bop – played, of course, by Kevin Clash, the epitome of cool – when I was a kid, I thought he was the greatest. He dominates my memories of watching “Bunny Picnic” as a kid. Watching it now, it surprised me that he doesn’t show up at all until the special is almost half over. He’s still entertaining, but like you say, he couldn’t possibly exist outside of 1986.
Joe: Actually, I’d love to see his resurgence today. The Muppets could use a better 1980s throwback than the nonsensical catchphrase-spewing ‘80s Robot.
Anthony: I would enjoy that! Another character that I really love is the dog’s snail confidante, who appears in exactly one scene, but is just a beautiful little puppet. And David Rudman gives him this wonderful dry delivery.
Joe: Wow, yeah! I loved that little guy in the roughly 12 seconds we got to see of him.
Anthony: I’d watch a whole movie about that guy.
Joe: He could have adventures with the Labyrinth worm. Very slow adventures.
Anthony: You should pitch it to the Jim Henson Company. Given how much they love dragging up literally anything from the 80s, you could probably make it happen!
Joe: There are just so many stories to tell about the Worm. Who is the missus? How would he expect big ol’ Sarah to fit into his home? What sort of tea are they serving???
Anthony: He can explain it all to his new droll sidekick, the Snail! A surefire hit!
Anyway, do we have anything else to say about “Tale of the Bunny Picnic”?
Joe: I have one more thing to say about “Tale of the Bunny Picnic.”
Anthony: Go for it!
Joe: It is most definitely about bunnies. That is not really up for debate. But is it really about a picnic??
Anthony: Kind of? The picnic – featuring the Storyteller’s tale of the giant hedgehog – is the big set-piece in the middle of the special. And the main reason they want to vanquish the dog is so they can resume the picnic. But yeah, something like “The Tale of Bean Bunny” might have been a better title.
Joe: “Tale of the Allergic Farmer”. “The Dog With No Name”. “Bunny TALES (Get It? Like a Bunny Has a Tail??)”
We talked earlier about how this is more kiddie-oriented than most of the other specials we’ve covered in this series. I think that’s because of how fragmented the Henson Company had gotten by the 1980s. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Jim was still working to make a name for himself, so all of the specials had to appeal to a bunch of different audiences. By now, he had Muppet stuff, Fraggle Rock, his fantasy movies, and other things all happening at once. If someone wanted a more adult Henson, they could go watch Labyrinth. This could be targeted directly at little kids.
Joe: Well, if they thought the company was fragmented then, just imagine how they would’ve felt in 2004.
Anthony: The same as everyone else – bad! But hey, at least they didn’t have to cut Kermit out of this one.
Click here to go to Great-Great-Great Grandmother’s house for pickled parsnips on the Tough Pigs Forum.
by Anthony Strand and Joe Hennes