The calendar has moved ahead to 1998 and sadly, we’ve come to the last week of reviews for Muppets Tonight. (But not the last installment of this article series. See below!) Thankfully, the final two episodes in the show’s run may have been two of the strongest the show ever put out. So before we get to the mourning and weeping, let’s take a look at…
This episode must have been a sci-fi and pop culture nerd’s dream come. Between having Beaker on a Star Trek cruise (complete with Mister Sulu himself, George Takei), a joke based on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a plot centered on Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, this episode is like Comic-Con in a half-hour variety format. I’m a sci-fi and pop culture nerd (like you couldn’t tell already), so this already shoots it to the top of my favorite episodes list. But if that weren’t enough, this also has one of the strongest storylines I’ve seen on the show so far.
For those who haven’t watched the episode, I’ll give a brief summary: After Beaker sets off on the aforementioned Star Trek cruise, Bunsen is left alone, and he wonders what kind of person he is without his trusty assistant at his side. He decides that if Beaker can go off and be adventurous, then he can too, and so he decides to try on several “hip” personalities, ranging from Snoop Doggy Dew to a lounge lizard in the image of Johnny Fiama himself.
His newfound charisma catches the attention of guest star Andie MacDowell, and the two engage in a whirlwind romance, with MacDowell wanting to do increasingly “edgy” activities like bungee jumping and getting something pierced, forcing Bunsen to break down and realize that these new identities aren’t truly who he is, and that he’s a scientist and proud of it.
First of all, how great is it that Bunsen finally gets a storyline all his own? That’s something you hardly ever see anymore. I love how the episode leaves Bunsen with a new appreciation for who he is. It may not be much in the way of character growth, but at least now he knows he can survive without Beaker around every moment. Another standout in this episode is that there’s original music, which you hear in Bunsen’s rap and in Johnny Fiama’s parody of “Pretty Woman.” The show on a whole, I think, could have benefited from more original songs.
Beaker gets some fun moments with Takei on the cruise, though Takei clearly is the star of these spots. Instead of playing the typical celebrity who hates fan conventions, Takei is the life of the party, chewing Beaker’s ear off until (as is standard Star Trek procedure), something goes horribly wrong, leaving the ship in command of Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan). The bits are fun, but they seem to play better to fans that have at least a cursory knowledge of Star Trek, let alone those who know that their Gorns from their Mudd.
Elsewhere, the in-between bits are cute, including MacDowell in “Four Weddings and a Frog,” where the writers manage to put in every frog joke imaginable, and Kermit taking on Bruce Springsteen in a parody of the “Dancing in the Dark” music video (where the punchline is—ugh—that Miss Piggy is heavy). Perhaps the most surprisingly fun gag may be Mr. Poodlepants and the Mormon Tabernacle Penguins. The premise alone just seems funny, and it manages to get some laughs.
This episode is a great example of what worked on Muppets Tonight. It has a strong plot, with enough other bits to keep the pace brisk. It’s only a shame that the show was starting to hit its stride as the run was coming to a close.
- Evidence It’s 1998: Snoop Doggy Dew (I guess he would be known today as Snoop Dew) and an appearance by The Fly Girls from In Living Color, which had ended its run back in 1994. Frankly, this may have been reference that was dated before it even aired.
- During the “Pretty Bunsen” bit, Bunsen emerges from the dressing room in a flamenco outfit, which I’m willing to bet came from the set of Muppet Treasure Island. Cabin Fever, aah!
- Funniest line of the episode: Nigel: “Roll Kermit’s midlife crisis!”
- Bill Barretta makes an on-camera appearance as the director of the Star Trek cruise. Personally, I think it’s a missed opportunity to feature everyone’s favorite Star Trek performer and Muppets Tonight writer — Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’s Punk on Bus!
During this episode, I got the sinking feeling that by this point, everyone knew that the show was coming to its end. Recurring bits that hadn’t been used in later episodes returned, such as “Bay of Pigs Watch” and “The Eagle’s Nest” (previous season two appearances were in episodes produced as part of the first season), and most importantly, the majority of the episode takes place outside of the production of the show-within-the-show.
Johnny Fiama and Sal have a double date with Daryl and Page Hannah at his home, when Mama Fiama arrives and, aghast at the sight of Johnny dating, chases the women out of the house while delivering an unintentional beatdown to Johnny and Sal. Infuriated by his mother’s behavior, Johnny decides to leave home and never return. With no place else to go, he takes up residency within the KMUP studio, while Sal tries to take the role of surrogate mother.
Though he has plenty of bravado, Johnny is clearly distraught. Sal takes it upon himself to reunite Johnny and Mama. Sal writes letters allegedly from Johnny and Mama to each other apologizing and saying that they want meet at home. Johnny returns home, and sings “You and Me Against the World” to his mother. (Wow, the Muppets doing a Paul Williams/Kenny Ascher song! They should work with the Muppets sometime!) Later, it’s revealed that Mama has taken in a boarder: Johnny Mathis, who sings “Misty” for Mama. (Personally, I would’ve made a different request.) We never quite know whether this happened while Johnny was living at KMUP, or if after their reconciliation, Johnny decided that it actually was time to move out and live on his own.
This episode is groundbreaking in that, for the most part, the main story takes place outside of the KMUP grounds and that we actually get to focus on the home life of a character. Strangely enough, it feels like this episode was breaking the ground for what would be the foundation of The Muppets, and more importantly, it genuinely feels like it’s finally trying to break out of the variety format. For once, it feels like Muppets Tonight isn’t just a newer version of The Muppet Show.
Sadly, this would prove to be the last episode of the series, which leads me to wonder about what we might have seen if the show had continued. Would we have eventually gotten what we’ve been able to enjoy since this past September way back in 1998, only with more Johnny Fiama, Clifford, and M! D Bolo? Or did Muppets Tonight end at the right time? It’s certainly interesting to think about…
- Funniest line of the show: Bobo: “Darci is the product of home-schooling. Problem is, she was raised by wolves. Stupid, illiterate, permissive wolves!” (From “The Real World: Muppets”)
- Recycled Song Alert: Before appearing in this episode, both “Macho Man” (performed here as “Macho Bug” by the Village Spiders) and “You and Me Against the World” were used on The Muppet Show. You can find “Macho Man” in Victor Borge’s episode, and “You and Me Against the World” in Helen Reddy’s episode.
- Evidence It’s 1998: Mercifully, there isn’t much in the way of dated references in this episode. I guess the closest thing is “Bay of Pigs Watch.” But hey, Baywatch is getting a new feature film adaptation, so everything old is new again!
Hey! Are you bummed out that this marks the end of My Weeks With Muppets Tonight? Don’t be! Coming soon, join Ryan and me as we take a very post-mortem look at the impact of Muppets Tonight and what we’ve noticed on this journey through robotic Lincolns, Star Trek fan cruises, and Jean-Dodd Van Clamme.
Click here to engage in a whirlwind romance with Andie MacDowell on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Matthew Soberman