And here we are at the end of the legend of the MuppetZine. Four years down, one to go, and the future is wide open. Let’s see how Danny decided to spend his final four issues…
Now that we’ve gotten all that Muppet Treasure Island hype out of the way, it’s time to focus on the next huge production coming from the Muppets: Muppets Tonight. The show premiered in March of 1996 (just a few months before this issue was released) and went off the air in July (presumably soon after this issue made it into our hands).
Once again forgoing the news at the head of the ‘zine, this issue begins with an interview with Muppets Tonight writer Jim Lewis! Lewis talks about writing for the show (“Well, Beaker really wouldn’t do that…”), finding the balance between the new and classic characters, and what to expect in season 2 (“More viewers, hopefully”). It’s a fun little interview, but Lewis doesn’t reveal much beyond the obvious, though that’s most likely because there wasn’t much to tell at the time, especially with the possibility of cancellation looming over their shoulders.
Of course, the news section is mostly devoted to Muppets Tonight, offering more of a recap of the show than any new updates. And rather than bank on the success (aka free advertising) of Muppets Tonight, Nickelodeon decides to take The Muppet Show off of its schedule. Aliens in the Family was yanked off the air after only two episodes (RIP Bobut). The Jim Henson Company options “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” about a bear who finds a manuscript and masquerades as the author in New York City, and I’m actually a little disappointed that this never happened. After 45 days, the stolen Bert and Ernie puppets (from issue #16) have been anonymously returned after a radio plea from the German Ernie, Gerd Duwner (you seriously cannot make this stuff up). And in the wacky news of the day, a man who claimed to have a bomb strapped to his chest broke into a New Zealand radio station and demanded that they play “The Rainbow Connection” for 12 hours straight. It turned out that the bomb was a fake and the radio station didn’t play “The Rainbow Connection” even once! And more importantly, the mad bomber was not, I repeat not, Danny Horn.
Since this is an all-Muppets Tonight issue, the next segment is naturally a review of.. Big Bag?? I admit, I’ve never seen an episode of Big Bag, and the review doesn’t make much sense to me. It has phrases like “ragtag dog”, “Trouble-scope”, “bloo bloo bloo bloo”, and “predictable and dull” (actually, I’m all too familiar with that last one). This review is a rare example of Danny’s trademark snarkiness, as he gives himself the opportunity to let loose on a production that he doesn’t think is very good. It doesn’t deliver the punch-in-the-gut that many of his later ToughPigs reviews have, but it’s a good start.
The Muppets Tonight reviews continue with this segment of The Balcony, which features roughly 700 write-ins from the fans (one of whom is ToughPigs’ own David Beukema!).
In the category of “Things you never thought you’d see again”, Smig brings us a four-page comic spotlighting Bear on Patrol! Be sure to check this one out below, as it’s not to be missed. It easily could’ve been stolen from an old Muppet Show script. Yep, it’s that clever.
After last issue’s two-page “Back Page”, this issue keeps the tradition growing by expanding this one to four pages, featuring four Miss Piggy talk show appearances: Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, NPR’s All Things Considered, The Rosie O’Donnell Show, and The Tonight Show. Piggy was doing the rounds promoting her new cookbook while admitting that she has no idea what to do in a kitchen, and adding a few heaping spoonfuls of sass that only the Pig can deliver.
This issue is devoted to the grumps and grouches and fuddy duddies of the Muppets, a demographic generally ignored (yet universally loved) by the general public. Yes, I realize that made no sense. Now scram!
Instead of the regular trivia contests Danny was holding in previous issues, this one features a “Muppet Oracle Contest”, in which you submit your predictions for what 1997 will bring, and the most psychic MuppetZine reader will win the jackpot. Questions include: The title of the 6th Muppet movie and the 2nd Sesame Street movie, and the timeslot for the second season of Muppets Tonight (okay, who had “Whenever the hell Disney Channel wants?”). Unfortunately, since MuppetZine didn’t last long enough to complete the contest, the winner has been lost to antiquity.
Muppet news! Muppets Tonight season 2 will return on ABC (lies!). Despite the fact that Martha Stewart was visibly rattled after Miss Piggy’s appearance on her show, Piggy will appear again in Martha’s kitchen. Christmas is once again in danger, as it needs saving by Elmo in a new TV special. There’s an announcement of a show in development that I’ve never heard of: Magic Time, which finds a young lawyer and his boss thrust into a world of magic and dragons and jugglers or something. And of course, lots of merchandise like a poster of Animal snowboarding, Sesame Street Koosh balls, and the cologne that makes you smell like a frog on the beach.
The feature article is essentially a “plea for universal misunderstanding and bad behavior”, asking for more appreciation of the grumpier Muppet characters like Sam the Eagle, Oscar the Grouch, and those two old guys in the balcony. It also spotlights the antithesis to these guys like “Mother Goose Stories” and “Big Bag”, citing their lameness as proof for why we need the angrier and grouchier characters to fill a realistic and entertaining Muppet world. And it’s all true! Harumph.
Smig brings yet another multi-page comic, this time spotlighting Johnny Fiama and Sal, telling the story of all the gigs Johnny has played and all the celebrities he’s hung out with. Once again, check it out in the “Smig Art” section below!
Next up is a three-page article by Bill Sherman about his visit to the set of The Animal Show. But it’s less about the animals and more about watching puppeteers like Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire and Bill Barretta, which is a treat in itself. He also got to visit the London Creature Shop where he saw puppets from The Storyteller, Babe, Pinocchio, and more. It must’ve been hard to get that whole experience down on paper, and it’s even more difficult to recap it in this paragraph. But needless to say, it’s a fun trip through Henson UK.
Remember in the last installment of My Week with MuppetZine when I claimed the dumbest thing ever written was coming up in issue #18? Well, here it is. This edition of “The Balcony” begins with yet another article written by Yours Truly. I thought I’d discovered the Holy Grail when I realized that there was such a strong connection between The Muppet Movie and The Wizard of Oz! Songs about rainbows, making new friends on a cross-country trip, and of course, “Wizard of OZ… Frank OZ… Conspiracy? I think not.” Ugh, what a piece of garbage.
But this installment of “The Balcony” is notable for another reason: It features articles written by both myself and my ToughPigs-running cohort Ryan Roe! Little did we know that a mere 11 years later we’d be taking control of the whole Muppet fandom thing started by MuppetZine. Ryan’s review of Muppets Tonight includes the line, “Muppets Tonight is better than anything else on TV,” and goes on to tout the positive aspects of the show, though “it just needs a little fine tuning.” I’m going to wager that Ryan’s opinion of the show has stayed about the same, though he probably isn’t as much of a Mr. Poodlepants fan as he once was.
The end of MuppetZine is near! You may have noticed that “Early” isn’t a season, meaning that we’re officially off the regular publishing schedule. Danny also upped the price to $3.50 per issue in a final act of desperation. It’s sad, really. (But, y’know, not really.)
The issue begins with another A-list Muppet interview, this time with Bill Barretta, a relative newcomer to the Muppet crew, but already having made his name performing Clueless Morgan in Muppet Treasure Island and Pepe, Bobo, and Johnny on Muppets Tonight. He recounts his time working on Dinosaurs, writing to Jim Henson as a child (and getting a response!), meeting Brian Henson while working at Sesame Place, being upstaged by Frank Oz during Muppet Classic Theater, and on and on and on. The interview goes on for a whopping 10 pages, far longer than any other MuppetZine article. And really, if you’re gong to devote 35% of your ‘zine to anything, it might as well be an exclusive interview with someone as talented and prominent as Bill Barretta.
The news, which begins way down on page 15, recounts Muppets Tonight’s hiatus, a film called “Martian Holiday” goes into development, Frank Oz is set to reprise his role as Yoda in Star Wars Episode 1, and why don’t you visit the fancy shmancy Muppet Internet newsgroup rec.arts.henson+muppets? It’s like a ‘zine, but slower!
Smig brings another three-page comic, this time spotlighting Fozzie Bear and his never-fail tips for stand-up comedy. While it’s yet another golden nugget on its own, my favorite part is the obscure Sam and Friends cameos. Give ’em a click below to read the comic!
The issue ends with a clever article that uses the “Elmo Saves Christmas” tagline, “Can there be such a thing as too much Christmas?” to investigate the possibility that Elmo has become nothing more than a toy-shilling marketing machine. Even Regis Philbin went on record as saying “I hate Elmo!”, referring to the then-current “Tickle-Me-Mania”. The article also relates a story about a Canadian Tickle Me Elmo buyer being trampled for his purchase. It makes you wonder if moments like these are why Elmo wanted to have Christmas every day in the first place…
And here it is: The final issue of MuppetZine. It wasn’t intended to be the final issue, as Danny’s comments refer to his tentative plans for future editions. (Even the “Your subscription lasts until issue #___” section on my copy is extended to #25.) But there was still a good amount of content in the archives, so Danny began offering “MuppetZine Volume One”, a spiral-bound book collecting the first ten issues for $25. Not a bad deal, especially for obsessive types like you and me!
The issue also features the second Smig-drawn logo, similar to the previous one but much more chaotic and with appearances by Johnny and Sal, who didn’t exist back when the first logo debuted.
The feature article spotlights ten popular misconceptions about Muppet history, ranking them by believability amongst the fans. The rumors range from Bert and Ernie’s naming from It’s a Wonderful Life to Gonzo’s species, from Puppet + Marionnette = Muppet to Ernie died of AIDS. Naturally, none of these are true, and the Muppet Wiki has devoted a lot more space to every one of these on their rumors page. Some of them on Danny’s list, however, are more gripes than widely-believed misconceptions. For example, he tackles the rumor that the Swedish Chef was a collaboration between Jim Henson and Frank Oz, citing that puppeteers who perform hands shouldn’t count (“I’ll start calling the Chef a ‘collaboration’ when somebody tells me who performed Rowlf’s hands when he played piano”). But hey, it’s great information to have either way, especially when the Muppet Wiki is still 8 or 9 years away.
One downfall to living in a world without YouTube is that there are Muppet specials we’d heard of, but had no way of ever seeing. That explains the next segment, which recaps the entirety of “The Great Santa Claus Switch” over the course of five pages. Seven years later, Danny would forgo the whole “summarizing” thing and just transcribe the whole dang thing. Of course, those are hours he’d never get back, as YouTube in all its wonderous glory was right around the corner…
The news is once again delegated to the middle of the ‘zine, possibly referencing the fact that there really isn’t a whole lot of breaking news in the Muppet world in 1997. There is the exciting announcement that Muppets Tonight would be continuing on The Disney Channel (which was horrible news for me and everyone else whose parents wouldn’t pony up for the premium channels). HBO buys the syndication rights to The Storyteller and will be airing its watered-down sequel “Greek Myths” soon after. Frank Oz has a few movies in the words: In and Out and “Bofinger’s Big Thing” (later simplified and re-spelled to just “Bowfinger”). Henson is working a few more shows, only one of which will make it onto the air: A kids’ show about a 7′ tall bear and his giant blue house (the other shows mentioned include an untitled Muppet sitcom on Fox, “The Van Helsing Chronicles”, “Attention Earthlings”, and “Take My Family, Please”… feel free to let your imaginations run wild). There’s also a cute story about Penny Marshall’s appearance on Sesame Street. While filming her scene, she began to slip and she reached out to Big Bird to catch her fall. Unfortunately, she grabbed onto Big Bird’s right arm and promptly tore it off. “Don’t worry,” Big Bird reassured her, “it’ll grow back”.
One last news item includes a report on the passing of longtime Sesame Street writer, director, and producer Jon Stone. As one of the most influential members of Sesame Street’s original creative team, Stone deserved more than two paragraphs on page 20 of MuppetZine, but when the only information Danny had to cull from was his New York Times obituary, that may have been all he could muster. Again, it’s so bizarre to think of a world in which we can’t just Google the information we need and pull from any one of 20,000 results.
Next up, D.W. McKim recaps the history of the Muppet Meeting Films, describing their influence on the later Muppets and what their role was into the early 90s. He follows it up with a description of every Meeting Film. which was much more handy thank the Muppet Show or Fraggle Rock episode guides, as practically none of the MuppetZine subscribers had ever seen them. There’s a phone number and address at the end of the article where you could get information on ordering the Muppet Meeting Films, and I remember convincing my father to call the number, because I couldn’t imagine living without seeing these videos. He came to me with the bad news that the videos were far too expensive, and that he might buy me one, but definitely not all 13 available tapes. Needless to say, I let it go, and it wasn’t until I became an adult when I saw these films. They are totally worth the wait. (And Dad: I still can’t believe you didn’t buy them for me! Wah!)
A mysterious, super-rare 21st issue of MuppetZine does exist, created especially to recap the MuppetFest event in 2001, but sadly I don’t own it. Lucky for you, you can read the whole thing on the Muppet Wiki right now! You don’t even need my silly commentary! I’m out of a job!!!
And that’s it! 5 years, 20 issues, and a foundation for what would become a Muppet fan legacy. As you know, four years later Danny founded ToughPigs.com, which built on what MuppetZine began and continues to provide up-to-date news, poignant satire, biting commentary, and as much Muppety fun as we can cram onto our little site.
On behalf of the entire ToughPigs team, we thank Danny and Smig and everyone who contributed to MuppetZine over the years. Without you, we wouldn’t be here. And we really like it here.
Click here to view the printed version of the ToughPigs forum!
by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com