So — five episodes in, The Muppet Show isn’t big with the plots yet. But nobody’s perfect. In the Rita Moreno episode, the backstage story is phone gags. The phone rings, Fozzie picks it up, and smoke comes out. Who is it? asks the frog. The fire department, answers the bear. And that pretty much keeps happening through the whole episode.
But who needs a storyline when you have this kind of comic energy? This episode has the first appearance of Veteranarian’s Hospital, the continuing story of an orthopedic surgeon who’s gone to the dogs. Doctor Bob comes out swinging. “I’m sorry I’m late, Doctor Bob,” Nurse Janice says, “I was operating in the other room!” “I know,” says Doctor Bob. “It’s the talk of the hospital!” (Rim shot.) Fozzie is the patient, and he’s understandably nervous — but Nurse Janice assures him that Doctor Bob is the only one who can save him. “She’s right,” says Doctor Bob. “I saved over five hundred last year.” What, patients? “No, dollars!” (Rim shot.) “Of course, I also lost over a hundred pounds.” What, in weight? “No, in England!” (Rim shot.) Nurse Piggy pipes up: “Doctor Bob, you should be ashamed of yourself! You call yourself a doctor, Doctor Bob?” Doctor Bob chuckles, “I’d never call myself a doctor. They never come when you call anyway!” (Rim shot.)
There’s more. Fozzie answers the phone, and coins pour out. Who was it? “Las Vegas.” At the dance, Animal dances with a girl, who says, “I hear you come from a broken home.” “Yeah!” Animal growls. “I broke it myself!”
Then Kermit does an introduction: “Right now, friends, I am proud to present a group of performers that I personally discovered in the waiting room of a bus station in Toledo, Ohio… They weren’t performing there, they were just waiting…”
I mean, they’re just showing off at this point, aren’t they? These are top-drawer comedy gags, one after the other. Set up and punchline, set up and punchline — Don’t try this at home, kids. These are comedy professionals, doing a demonstration lap on a closed course. That bus station gag, it’s just a perfect little comedy gem, just sitting there and waiting to be adored. The fact that the act Kermit is introducing happens to be Marvin Suggs and His Amazing Muppaphone — a creative, lunatic bit of Muppetry featuring a mallet-wielding egotist playing “Lady of Spain” by smacking tuned furballs — it’s more than funny at this point. It’s awe-inspiring.
The show ends with Rita Moreno singing “Fever,” backed by Floyd on bass and Animal at his drum kit — except every time she tries to do a sexy move, Animal throws her off with a loud drum riff. Frustrated, the guest star walks over and gives Animal a talking-to in angry Spanish. As she moves back to center stage, Animal growls, mocking her. She whirls around to glare at him — but he’s looking away innocently.
This, by the way, is the first episode of The Muppet Show that I remember. It was the fall of 1976. I was five and a half years old. The Rita Moreno episode was the first episode that aired on the New York station that I watched. And I have a vivid memory — possibly my single earliest childhood memory — of watching the Rita Moreno episode, and then sitting in the big red swivel chair in my living room and spinning around and around, humming “Fever” to myself. It was just so perfect. I was going to love this for the whole rest of my life.
On that night in 1976, I sat down and wrote a letter to Animal, asking him for his autograph. A couple months later, I got a big envelope from Henson Associates in the mail, with an 8 by 10 black and white photo of Animal at his drum set, with “ANIMAL” scrawled over the bass drum.
I still have it, of course. I’m looking at it right now.
by Danny Horn