My Week with The Muppet Show: Week Four, Day One

Published: August 11, 2003
Categories: Feature

So, where were we? Oh, right, halfway through the first season. Previously, on My Week with The Muppet Show: I was watching every episode of The Muppet Show in production order, and writing a commentary on each one. Except I stopped for about a year. Better get back to it.

But I’m not the only one who took a break to regroup, actually. The Muppet people had a production break right at this point in the season: the Candice Bergen episode was taped in mid-August, 1976, and then the Avery Schreiber episode was taped a month and a half later, in late September.

This wasn’t much of a vacation, obviously — this was the beginning of the fall TV season, when the show first went on the air. Henson and Kermit did some promotions, going on Good Morning America and Dinah Shore to plug the new show. The rest of the time, I expect they sat around and chewed their fingernails, and then worked obsessively on how to make the show better. That’s what I would have done.

Cause it did okay; the show was well-received right from the git-go. Good reviews, decent ratings. But it was obvious, I think, that there were some flaws in the show that needed to get fixed.

Which brings us to this: “Our guest is a young man and an old friend who’s been making television and nightclub audiences laugh for many years as part of the comedy team of Burns and Schreiber. And right now, he’s launching a new career as a movie performer and a television star in his own right: Mr Avery Schreiber!”

And all across America, millions of children are saying, Whoooooo?

I’m not taking anything away from young Mr Avery Schreiber here, but he’s not exactly the kind of guest who needs no introduction, is he. He’s not one of your Paul Simons or your Carol Burnetts or your Peter Sellerses. The Q-rating is not high. He’s more the “can you remember anybody’s phone number offhand” kind of guest star. The other half of the comedy team of Burns and Schreiber would be Jack Burns, the head writer for the first season of The Muppet Show. It’s an inside job.

But like I said, I’m not criticizing. The guy’s funny, and according to Kermit, he’s a young man. He’s a kid, young Master Schreiber, just starting out in the business, and they’re giving him a leg up on his new career. I can’t be too rough with him. Never let it be said that I pick on children.

But before we get to him, we’ve got an important Pig thing going on backstage.

Miss Piggy corrals Scooter, and asks for a teeny tiny favor. Kermit is reluctant to return her affection, so she wants Scooter to make the frog jealous by telling him that Avery Schreiber is madly in love with her. (Avery Schreiber? the audience gasps. But he’s only a CHILD!) Scooter asks what happens if he refuses. Piggy purrs: “Then I will karate chop you until the only thing you will be able to go fer is DOWN for the COUNT!” One jealous frog, comin’ up!

A little later, Scooter tells Kermit that Avery is in his dressing room with Piggy, and gave strict instructions that he shouldn’t be disturbed. Kermit is incredulous: “Piggy and Avery, are you nuts? He wouldn’t touch her with a ten-foot pole!” “You’re right,” Scooter says, “he was touching her with his HANDS!” Scooter whispers a sample “sweet nothing” into Kermit’s ear, and the frog chases him away: Out, out, OUT! He shakes his head: “Piggy and Avery? Sheesh!”

Now, correct me if I’m wrong — and I’m sure you will — but I think this might be our first actual story in a Muppet Show episode. They’ve done a bunch of running-gag episodes, with Fozzie pulling backstage tricks on Kermit. And they’ve done some proto-story episodes, like the Robot Kermit in the Ruth Buzzi episode — but that was really just a string of disconnected scenes, rather than a story that builds from one scene to the next.

But this is a real story. Miss Piggy has a goal — even if it’s a vague “get the frog to love me” goal — and she’s doing something about it. When they did the dry run for this story in the Florence Henderson episode, Piggy just flounced from scene to scene, smothering Kermit with kisses and then darting away. Here, she’s a pig with a plan.

And that’s not all that’s going on in this episode, either. We’ve got the Electric Mayhem tearing up the house playing “Tenderly” really, really loud. We’ve got the Infant Schreiber exchanging comic insults with Sweetums on what looks to me like the biggest, most impressive Muppet Show set so far. We’ve got Bunsen Honeydew inventing a gorilla detector, and getting attacked by a gorilla. Roll up, roll up, folks, every scene a winner. They did not waste that production break napping, no no. They’ve got quality stuff.

Back to Piggy. Kermit is doing a talk spot with the guest, when Piggy runs in and starts doing smoochy-face with Li’l Avery. He plays along, until Kermit puts a stop to it: “I know what’s been going on behind my back, but Miss Piggy is MY girl! You’re just a guest on this show, just passing through town! She loves me, and she’s gonna have dinner with me, tonight, after the show, Miss Piggy, you and me, alone!”

I don’t really have that much to say about that — the greatness of that moment is transparent — but I want to take a second just to sit and enjoy it. That’s why we like stories on this show, for bits like that. I bet some viewers were actually startled by this amazing development.

Anyway, great as it is, it all fizzles out a few scenes later.

Backstage, Piggy snuggles up to Kermit and apologizes for making him jealous. Kermit admits that he isn’t actually jealous: Scooter told him it was all a trick. Piggy karate-chops Scooter, and then screams at Kermit: “Who NEEDS ya? Flipper face!”

Which is a nice ending, but unfortunately, it’s still two long scenes away from the end of the episode. They’re starting to figure out how to tell a story on the show, but the bit they haven’t mastered yet is how a backstage story can affect the onstage action, right up to the end. The closing number here is Avery singing a peppy nonsense song with a bunch of aliens, monsters and birds. It’s an energetic, fun number, but it’s only satisfying as an ending if the Schreiber sprout is the most important thing in the episode, which he is not.

Still, Piggy does come back at the curtain call to snuggle with Avery and punch Kermit in the face. So there’s progress here, definite progress. Stay tuned.

by Danny Horn

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