Welcome back to My Weeks with Muppets Tonight! To shake things up a bit this week, I’ll be reviewing these episodes with Tough Pigs’ own Anthony Strand, who counts the Tony Bennett episode as his Muppets Tonight favorite. But before we get to ol’ Tony, we’re talking about…
Ryan: This seems to be as good an episode as any to address the way Muppets Tonight views women, which is possibly the biggest problem with the series. And yet the main storyline, involving a supermodel, is one of the nicer ones. It’s the one where Bobo falls in love with guest star Cindy Crawford.
Anthony: It’s also one of the three I taped from ABC airings, so I saw it about a million times as a middle-schooler. But even with all those viewings, I remembered the Bobo/Cindy stuff as being more sexual/problematic than it actually is. Bobo seems like such an innocent here – like he’s never considered before that he could have romantic feelings (for a human, a bear, or anything else).
Ryan: His motives actually seem pretty pure. Rather than lasciviously lusting after Cindy (as many dudes did in the 90s), he just has a crush on her and wants to tell her how he feels. Maybe that’s what happens when you get hit by Cupid’s arrow and see visions of heart-shaped butterflies. Or are they butterfly-shaped hearts?
Anthony: In any case, Bobo is such an inherently lovable character that we’re on his side here even when he’s making a fool of himself. There’s one moment where Rizzo is playing Cyrano de Bergerac and Bobo ends up asking Cindy if he can play with her balloons sometime.
If this had been a Pepe story, for example (even though Pepe wasn’t really Pepe by this point, you know what I mean), he’d be knowingly making that kind of joke all the time, and it would be insufferable. But Bobo seems to have no idea he said an innuendo, so it plays much better.
Ryan: The infamous “nice balloons” joke. At the time, that represented the Muppets treading into naughtier territory than we were used to, and my pruder younger self wasn’t too sure about it. But it plays out as classy as such a joke possibly could — we don’t even hear Bobo repeat Rizzo’s “Those are some nice balloons you got there,” we only hear “…maybe you’ll let me play with them later.”
Bobo is totally lovable, and he’s probably the best of the new characters invented for Muppets Tonight. And unlike Gonzo on The Muppet Show, who was let down easy by Madeline Kahn, Bobo actually wins the heart of Cindy Crawford at the end, based on his awkward charm and his bear mating call. (Cindy Crawford is not the best actor or comedian, but her harrunngga is impeccable.) On The Muppets, Bobo has made a few references to an offscreen wife. If we ever see her, I’ll be so happy for them both if it’s Cindy Crawford.
Anthony: I agree that that would be cute, and that’s exactly what’s so appealing about this story: it’s not a story about a Muppet objectifying a woman. It’s a sweet romantic comedy. Yes, it focuses on the guy, but Cindy has as much agency as Bobo does. She punches him in the face over the balloons comment. She agrees to dance with him after he harrunnggas at her – not because she’s obligated to, but because she finds it charming. Throughout the episode, she’s treated like a person, not a body.
Ryan: Sadly, that’s not the case for Spamela Hamderson over in “Bay of Pigs Watch.” In this episode’s sketch, the shapely pig gets stung by a jellyfish and David Hoggselhoff-as-Champ Schwimmer essentially forces himself on her with the pretense of sucking out the poison. This follows the previous “Pigs Watch” in which he forced himself on her to give her mouth-to-mouth. And that’s… fun for the whole family?
Anthony: There’s no joke here, outside of “Man sees a pair of boobs and can’t control himself.” It’s deeply uncomfortable, and not funny at all. I know that it was the 90s and Baywatch was a popular thing, but why didn’t anyone – at any point in the creative process – say “This is in bad taste and also not comedy”? And not only that, but they kept returning to it. Airing one “Bay of Pigs Watch” sketch to the sound of thundering rejection would have been bad enough, but they went ahead and did it three more times.
Ryan: And not only not only that, the same attitude keeps popping up all over the series. By this point, we’ve also seen a bunch of male Muppets gathering around to gawk at Michelle Pfeiffer taking her robe off, and Clifford’s sleazy “You should know!” to Billy Crystal regarding Meg Ryan’s attractiveness, and so on. As a Muppet fan, I generally fall into the Muppets Tonight defender category, but all of this stuff was so ill-advised.
Anthony: I think that’s a real problem that comes out of having a mostly-male creative team and cast. In general, sex is an easy topic for lazy comedy, and I think having a variety of viewpoints keeps writers from relying on crutches like that. That’s true behind-the-scenes, but it’s also true on-camera. Spamela wouldn’t be funny either way, but since she’s Leslie Carrara-Rudolph’s only regular character, the fact that she’s nothing but a sex object seems even more egregious. It really feels like the writers have no idea what to do with women except ogle them.
Ryan: Right, and Spamela was certainly a waste of Leslie Carrara-Rudolph’s talents.
On a happier note, I want to mention the Irish Rodents act, which I’d add to the list of bits that feel like they could have come from The Muppet Show. Oh, how I wish there was some behind-the-scenes footage of however they were launching those oversized cheeses into that fondue pot from offscreen.
Anthony: I really like that one, although my favorite moment isn’t the rats themselves, but Rizzo convincing Clifford to unselfconsciously dance along. Another highlight – which is Sam the Eagle’s talk show “The Eagle’s Nest,” which is one of the best uses of Andy and Randy Pig. Their screwball logic is such a funny contrast with Sam.
Also that sketch is Frank Oz’s only contribution to the episode. What a weird time 1996 was that Frank Oz could get called in just to dub Sam the Eagle for one sketch.
Ryan: It’s a pretty safe guess that he didn’t do the puppetry for that one. This episode also features “STU!” As a young fan (a very, very, very young fan, let’s make that clear), I was active on the old alt.tv.muppets Usenet group way back in the day. As I recall, the simple but effective running gag of the kid from the “Kermit the Frog Club” sketch who repeatedly pops up to shout his name for the roll-call was a big hit with Muppet geeks when this episode aired. Over-enthusiastic fans were interjecting “STU!” in random threads for weeks, months, and perhaps years after the sketch aired. And, you know, it’s funny, although I think I laughed more at the kid with the “NEWT” t-shirt who resembles a certain Republican politician, and the one whose shirt says “MEATHEAD” but who introduces himself as Robbie.
Anthony: Yeah, I’m not sure what their obsession with Rob Reiner was. Meathead is a caricature of his All in the Family character, and the Billy Crystal episode had a completely different caricature of late-80s Rob Reiner on the set of When Harry Met Sally.
Anyway, the thing that amused me most about “The Kermit the Frog Club” this time out was when “M! D’Bolo” said his name, my wife turned to me and said “That’s nice that they had some diversity!”
Ryan: Ha! I think that might be my favorite thing about the sketch this time too.
Anthony: One final thing about this episode before we move on – it has one terrific musical moment, which is Bobo’s 60s Retro Montage Fantasy, a duet of “I’m a Believer” with Micky Dolenz, who seems like he’s having an absolute blast.
Ryan: Despite the fact that he was working with Bobo, rather than a more established Muppet. It’s joyful and groovy, and it may be the most animated we’ve ever seen Bobo. Being in love looks good on the guy.
Anthony: You mentioned at the top of this review that the Tony Bennett episode is my all-time favorite. Like Cindy Crawford, it’s another of the three I had recorded as a kid, which certainly influenced that decision. Also like Cindy Crawford, it’s a showcase for a new character played by Bill Barretta, in this case lounge singer Johnny Fiama, along with his monkey sidekick Sal. The episode gives them a real crisis – their falling out over Johnny’s inability to sing with his hero Tony – and puts in the effort to make their split feel genuine.
Ryan: It’s as much Sal’s story as it is Johnny’s, and unlike Johnny in the presence of Tony Bennett, it hits all the right notes. One of the great tragedies of Muppets Tonight is that it did some wonderful stuff with its new characters, but the audience at large just wasn’t interested because Johnny Fiama wasn’t the green guy they were tuning in to see. But Johnny’s angst, and Sal’s sad walk in the moonlight, are well-executed character moments, and surprisingly compelling.
Anthony: Absolutely. As Muppets Tonight found its voice, it became more like a sitcom than The Muppet Show had ever been, and this episode is the first one to feel like a very confident sitcom story. Various episodes of The Muppet Show had emotional stories, but the focus was always pretty squarely on the sketches. Here, we never go too long without checking in on Johnny and Sal. Every single Johnny/Sal scene tells us something new about that story and about their relationship, which gives it room to breathe. Basically, it’s paced like a typical 90s sitcom, but instead of a B-story, we get an A-story and sketches.
Ryan: And we barely even notice that Tony Bennett isn’t much of an actor. He delivers a few lines, but otherwise the episode wisely just lets him sing. And half the time, he’s playing a robot version of himself, which is an especially clever touch.
Anthony: Yeah, that really helps, even though his performance is about the same either way. The robot allows for a strong finale (Johnny being able to sing with Tony after all, because he thinks it’s the robot), and there’s something about Tony’s stiff delivery that I find endearing. For years, I’ve quoted his “But Sal, you’re Johnny’s monkey” line, which is delivered like he’s trying to remember how to register surprise.
But like you say, mostly they just let him sing. Tony does three full songs (“Firefly,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” – the crooner standard, not the Green Day song, – and “Shakin’ the Blues Away”), a rarity for Muppets Tonight! Did any of them stand out for you?
Ryan: The “Firefly” duet with Kermit is pleasant. And I’d say it’s an acceptable use of Spamela, Andy, and Randy, letting them clown around in the background just so there’s some kind of joke happening.
Anthony: That’s my favorite too, largely because that combination of song + background jokes really does make it feel like a Muppet Show sketch. It’s also a terrific song – one with a lot of adult implications, but nothing that keeps it from being family-friendly.
This is slightly off-topic, but it’s always been interesting to me that that song – which is about a woman teasing men with the possibility of sex before “leaving me moanin’ low” – was written by a woman, Carolyn Leigh, in the 1950s.
Ryan: That is interesting. I must confess I never listened that closely to the lyrics. What an educational article this is!
There’s also a running gag that reminds me of The Muppet Show but takes things a few steps further: Gonzo’s Missiles of Death act, a stunt that not only goes awry in wacky ways, but ends up sending Gonzo flying across the country. It even leads to a welcome speaking role for Lew Zealand, when a machine that Rizzo thinks is tracking Gonzo’s flight turns out to be the microwave cooking Lew’s popcorn.
Anthony: That’s a good bit overall – it’s certainly a different way to bring back Stunt Gonzo than the recent “Going, Going, Gonzo” episode of The Muppets – but I have to confess that my favorite part of that runner is the end, where he lands in Statler & Waldorf’s room, and they get one of their best jokes in the past 25 years: “Check his pulse!” “If he’s got one, I’ll split it with you!”
Ryan: This week’s entry for “Evidence It’s 1996” has to be the scene when Gonzo flies past Mount Rushmore… and for some reason, all the presidential heads talk like Beavis and Butthead.
Anthony: Oof. Yeah, that felt like a placeholder joke that just never got replaced with something better. The last time we saw Mt. Rushmore in a Muppet production, it was a very funny bit in Sex & Violence about how George Washington is terrible at Knock-Knock jokes. I’d much rather have seen that again.
Speaking of sex and violence, the “NYPD Green” sketch in this episode – which is all about a network censor rejecting lines that aren’t appropriate for a family show – feels weirdly topical now following all of the hubbub over whether the 2015 series is too adult. I’m sure the writers felt that pressure back when Muppets Tonight! was in production, but the internet wasn’t as much of a force then as it is now, so we didn’t hear as much about it.
Ryan: Muppet Wiki notes that this is the first episode with no Frank Oz characters. Honestly, I didn’t even notice. Did you?
Anthony: Not really. If anything, I’m surprised it took this long. Even when he is there, it usually feels like he isn’t. I’m thinking of the episodes where they trot out Fozzie for one sketch to do some bad jokes or something. Frank Oz characters being absent is the status quo for the Muppets in the 1990s – after all, In & Out won’t direct itself. Muppets Tonight! spent so much building up its new characters that I rarely think about how little we see Frank’s. Mostly it’s just jarring when they do show up.
Ryan: One more thing: It’s been confirmed by Bill Barretta that the correct spelling of Johnny’s last name is “Fiama.” It’s an anagram for “legitimate businessmen.” But in this episode, a newspaper headline after Johnny’s big failure reads “RATINGS RISE AS FIAMMA FALLS.”
Anthony: So did the prop department just not care, or is it an intentional – albeit incredibly obscure – joke about the paper not bothering to spellcheck Johnny’s name? I guess we’ll never know.
Ryan: Johnny doesn’t seem too worried about it, so I guess I won’t lose any sleep over it.
Anthony, thank you for joining me! It’s been fun… But what do you mean you voted for Dukakis?!
Anthony: You’re welcome! And I’m over here, you stupid monkey!
Thanks as always for Muppet Wiki for most of the images seen here! Click here to launch oversized cheeses into the Tough Pigs forum!
by Ryan Roe and Anthony Strand