To mark the 20th anniversary of the short-lived Muppets Tonight, Tough Pigs’ own Matthew Soberman and Ryan Roe watched every episode and took turns reviewing them for My Weeks with Muppets Tonight. Now that we’ve reached the end of the series, we got together to talk about the show as a whole.
Ryan: Well, we’ve come to the end of Muppets Tonight. Those 22 episodes fly right by when you watch them two at a time. I had seen them all a few times before, having watched them when they aired on TV, and rewatched a few times since. But Matthew, I suspect your experience was different. Had you seen them all before?
Matthew: As a child of a non-cable having household back in the day, certainly the second season was virgin territory for me as I took this journey with you. I have some very vague recollections of a few first season sketches, which I most likely watched when they aired. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” definitely stayed in my memory all these years.
Ryan: I can understand that. Good song, awesome puppets, and a Frank Oz character. So, in coming to the series with essentially fresh eyes, did you find that it met your expectations? Or equaled them? Or did you think the whole thing was balderdash?
Matthew: Well, I wouldn’t pull out the B-word on that. It’s interesting, having started this viewing just after The Muppets finished its run. I found that there were some unique parallels between the shows. Both had early episodes that didn’t exactly hit the mark, but as the run went on, the show found its groove and made for some great Muppet moments.
Ryan: Yeah… This show’s anniversary came at a funny time. Not like “funny ha-ha,” more like “funny bitterly depressing because the Muppets can never keep a show on the air.” It’s pretty impossible, especially now that The Muppets has also been cut down in its prime, to avoid the comparisons. But whereas The Muppets featured the whole familiar Muppet gang — including guys like Fozzie, Scooter, and Rowlf — trying really hard to do a modern sitcom, Muppets Tonight was in a shakier position from the start. Many of the best-loved characters just weren’t around, and it didn’t help that they seemed unsure of what kind of show they wanted to do.
Matthew: Not to mention they had the ghost of The Muppet Show on everyone’s mind. Then again, I suppose both shows had to deal with that. I think perhaps that’s what hurt Muppets Tonight the most: the fact that a lot of the characters people had grown to love had been reduced to supporting players. But that’s more emblematic of a bigger change of the guard behind the scenes. As older performers had sadly passed (Jim Henson, Richard Hunt), or were starting to step away from regular Muppet performing (Frank Oz), a lot of younger performers were starting to take their place in the Muppet ensemble, bringing new characters with them.
Ryan: Right. I think we probably both talked about this in our individual reviews, so maybe the readers want to step away for a minute and get some popcorn, but the Muppet crew’s hesitation to recast some of those classic characters certainly affected the casual audience’s interest in the franchise. And yet, I’ve always believed that the new characters created for Muppets Tonight were worthy additions to the Muppet troupe, and this re-watch only confirmed that. Do you have a favorite 20-year-old new character?
Matthew: It may sound clichéd, but I genuinely believe Pepe stuck around with the Muppets for a reason. You can see him slowly transform from Seymour’s sidekick into the proud, passionate prawn we know and love today. And you can definitely seen these “new” (at least new for 1996) characters being crafted with the same love and creativity that Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, and the rest were twenty years earlier. Phil van Neuter has a sense of vulnerability that eerily mirrors Piggy at her best. Clifford feels like the ideal host, driven by a desire to keep the show going, even if he is more laid-back than Kermit. Ultimately, I think it was the similarity to The Muppet Show that was both Muppets Tonight’s salvation and undoing.
Ryan: Congratulations, you’re the first Muppet fan ever to favorably compare Phil van Neuter to Miss Piggy.
Matthew: I eagerly await a karate chop.
Ryan: As for Clifford, I don’t know that I’d call him the ideal host, but I did spend most of a My Week talking about how much I’ve come to appreciate him. And yeah, the Muppets Tonight writers, like the Muppet Show writers, were developing their characters and experimenting with new ideas — but unlike the classic series, they were up against the audience’s preconceptions. They were darned if they did and darned if they didn’t… Take “Pigs in Space: Deep Dish Nine – The Next Generation of Pigs in Space.” (Please?) I’m sure it seemed like a good idea to revive one of the classic sketches, but the results were overwhemingly underwhelming.
Matthew: I think what people, at least casual Muppet fans, have to understand was that The Muppet Show was what I like to call a “lightning in a bottle” show. It was the perfect storm of people and circumstances that’s virtually impossible to duplicate. Muppets Tonight was trying to take the format of The Muppet Show and contemporize it. It was never going to be the same thing again.
Ryan: But some new people and circumstances got together to produce a funny show, with plenty of funny stuff. By the way, my own favorite “new” character is Bobo, who tends to steal every scene he’s in, whether he’s grousing at Pierce Brosnan for unintentional Peeping Tom antics, or explaining that he’s not eating Rizzo’s rat chow but Bizzo’s bat chow in the otherwise unremarkable “Real World” sketch. (Honorable mention: This rewatch has made me appreciate Johnny Fiama and Sal more than ever.)
Matthew: Ditto. I’m glad Bobo stuck around. He is a total scene-stealer. He also taught me how to woo Cindy Crawford, not that I’m expecting to.
Ryan: Let me know how that goes if you run into her. As long as we’re on favorites, what was your favorite episode?
Matthew: Ooh, that’s really tough. There are a few that are super-awesome. Garth Brooks is absolutely hysterical, (The Artist Formerly Known as) Prince has some really interesting puppet choreography and effects, and I really love the story in the Coolio and Don Rickles episode.
Ryan: Garth Brooks is pretty much a no-brainer, largely because of Brooks’s enthusiasm. I’m going to have to add the Pierce Brosnan episode to my favorites list as well, because this re-watch made me realize how many of my favorite moments from the series are in that one episode. And the Andie MacDowell episode is perhaps the most successful example of the late-series efforts to do more storylines outside the “Let’s put on a variety show” format.
Now, let’s be negative, because that’s what fans do: Are there any episodes that stand out to you as being particularly weak?
Matthew: Though it may be unpatriotic to disparage an episode that features a Robot Abraham Lincoln, I think the Paula Abdul episode featured a lot of elements from those early episodes that didn’t quite develop yet, though it does have some great puppetry work in “Opposites Attract.”
Ryan: Robot Lincoln makes me laugh, but other than that, there’s probably a reason they chose not to air that episode from the first production season until late in the second broadcast season. Unless it was because 1996 Paula Abdul was between her “Straight Up” chart-topping days and her sweetheart singing competition judge days. Anyway, the Heather Locklear episode was the roughest for me to get through… but I might just be saying that because I ate some of Bunsen’s chimichangas.
Matthew: That’s it, hold tight, I’m getting the biscotti. Also, aside from episodes, the single worst thing I saw on Muppets Tonight, hand-down, was “Fairyland PD” on Jason Alexander’s episode, featuring a suicidal Humpty-Dumpty.
Ryan: The worst thing I saw would have to be something from “Bay of Pigs Watch” with Champ Schwimmer/David Hoggselhoff and the show’s disappointing sexism, as discussed in Part 3 of this series. But “Fairyland PD” reminds me, we haven’t mentioned the UK spots yet. It’s come to our attention that the versions of the show we were watching were not the original American airings… Not only were the UK spots (“Fairyland,” the delightfully strange “At the Bar,” and the one-joke “Swift Wits”) present, but for some reason some sequences from the ABC versions were missing. It was never our intention to do partial coverage of these shows, which means someday we’ll have to do “My Weeks with the Muppets Tonight Stuff I Missed Last Time.”
Matthew: I suppose that’s our punishment for doing a retrospective two decades after the fact. Frankly, I’m just grateful that a show that didn’t have a grand following back when it aired still has all of its episodes (if not in their complete forms) available online. (Thanks, Muppet Wiki!)
Ryan: I have just a few more notes on the show, starting with: the enigma of Mr. Poodlepants. I will confess that I thought he was hilarious back when I was young and unsophisticated, but now I’m not even sure what he’s supposed to be. A clown? An Ed Wynn impersonator? Just a weird guy?
Matthew: I think “just a weird guy” is the best possible explanation of Mr. Poodlepants. Personally, I’m more of a Bill the Bubble Guy guy myself.
Ryan: Bill is a limited character, but at least it would be easy to describe him to your pal who’s feigning interest in your Muppet fandom. He’s the guy who blows bubbles. Mr. Poodlepants, on the other hand, is… well, he seems to be wearing a hat made of surgical tubing. That’s certainly unusual.
My next note: I don’t think I realized until I was actively paying attention to every episode just how much Kermit is not around. I get that Steve was still easing into the role, and Rizzo was a major player, but a weekly TV series seems like a good opportunity for both the writers and the audience to get used to “Steve’s Kermit.”
Matthew: I think Steve mentioned that briefly at the VultureFest panel in NYC not too long ago. Basically, he explained that he was still trying to get people to think of the character as not “Steve’s Kermit” but just Kermit. I agree with you; I think the best way to dispel the comparisons was to have the character consistently appearing on a regular basis as to get people adjusted.
Ryan: My final note: Clifford lied to me at the beginning of every episode. He keeps saying “We got a show for you, guaranteed brand-new.” But none of them were brand-new! I had seen them all before! I want my money back!
Matthew: Yeah, I think that guarantee expired in 1998. Though to be fair, some of them were new to me! All I had to do was wait twenty years!
Matthew: One final thought: as we’ve been fortunate to see an explosion of Muppet content in the last five years or so, I think it’s interesting to reevaluate the stuff from 1990 to 2004, the post-Jim, pre-Disney purchase era. You can definitely see that there’s a lot of changes happening, from performers to characters, and there’s a heavy amount of content that came out of that as a result of the existing deals that were done with Disney before Jim’s death. It’s cool to see that transition happening in real time.
Ryan: Yep! Also, as new, young Muppet fans have been spawned in the frog-pond of the recent franchise comeback, it’s been fun to see a lot of folks discovering this era for the first time and treating these productions as just another part of Muppet history.
Matthew: I have one last question to close on: what do you get when you cross an elephant and a rhino?
Ryan: Gee, Matthew, I don’t know! What do you get when you cross an elephant and a rhino?
Matthew: Elephino! (Ba-dum!)
Eh, maybe I should’ve gone with STU! (Okay, I’m done.)
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by Matthew Soberman and Ryan Roe