In the spring of 1989, a new television program called The Jim Henson Hour premiered on NBC. It didn’t last very long, but it remains a fascinating chapter in Henson history. To commemorate the show’s 25th anniversary, Tough Pigs’ own Anthony Strand and myself are going to review every episode, taking turns watching each one and saying incredibly insightful things. It’s My Weeks with The Jim Henson Hour!
So here we are! It’s April 14, 1989, and The Jim Henson Hour is on the air! It’s not exactly the creatively limitless free-for-all Jim originally envisioned (more on that in a future installment), but this first-aired episode consists of two half-hours that are pretty darn different from each other, starting with an episode of “MuppeTelevision” with our old friend Kermit the Frog. These segments were touted as a Muppet Show for a new era, with guest stars and everything.
As informed Muppet fans know, Jim Henson initially had trouble getting big-name guest stars to appear on The Muppet Show, but as the series became a worldwide phenomenon, that problem disappeared and stars were practically begging to be on the show. Now here it is, the late 1980s, and everyone knows who the Muppets are. So the guest star for the first episode on this new show must be some huge, super-famous celebrity, right? Who will it be? Eddie Murphy? Michael Jackson? Tom Cruise? Nope, the guest star is…
Well, that’s an interesting choice, especially considering Louie Anderson was best known as a moderately successful stand-up comedian in 1989. It was years before his Saturday morning cartoon or his stint groaning “SURVEY SAYS–!” on Family Feud. I wonder if Anderson was the only guest they could get to come tape the show in Canada. Or maybe it was Jim’s way of making a statement — that the content was going to be the focus of his new show, and he didn’t care about viewers only tuning in to see the guest star.
This episode introduces the format that would remain consistent for most of the episodes. After a brief cold opening, Jim Henson greets us from his computer-animated back porch to tell us how great the show is going to be, then he throws things over to Kermit the Frog. Kermit is working in a control room called Muppet Central, where he gets TV signals from all over the world, and he’s going to choose stuff he thinks we’d like to see. Basically, Kermit is saving us the trouble of looking for our lost remote.
Tonight’s theme is science fiction, and while Kermit and new Muppet Digit discover TV signals transmitted from other planets, Louie Anderson patiently waits inside a monitor for his sketch to begin. But where is he, exactly? I’m sure Anthony and I will both address this more later, but the whole control room premise creates a weird feeling of disconnect, and it’s never more obvious than when Kermit talks to the guest star. Unlike The Muppet Show, the guest star doesn’t have a dressing room, so we’re asked to accept that they just kind of sit there with a camera pointed at them for the whole show.
Anderson does a sketch called “My Dinner with Codzilla.” This is a sketch that dares to ask the question “What if My Dinner with Andre co-starred a gigantic, monstrous fish-lizard more interested in burning and smashing everything in sight than discussing philosophy and human nature?” It’s a bit distracting that they couldn’t just call the monster Godzilla (probably for legal reasons?), but it’s perfectly good Muppet comedy. I do have to wonder what percentage of the prime-time viewing audience had seen My Dinner with Andre, but even if you don’t know the film, watching a Muppet monster eat a restaurant is good clean fun.
And so is the next sketch, a beauty pageant from outer space. MuppeTelevision writer Chris Langham plays Marty the Earthling host, which is another difference between this show and The Muppet Show: There are humans playing random roles in sketches. This sketch is another solid one, with pageant finalist Zsa-Zsa Porkmustard, whose special talent is excreting ammonia while setting fire to her nose, going up against Jo-Beth Garfdehoo, who wants to work with underprivileged children and then eat them.
Outside the sketches, there’s not much of a plot in this MuppeTelevision episode, other than a sequence near the end with Kermit, Waldo and Lindbergh beaming themselves into Digit’s brain to fix a wacky robot problem he’s having. With that taken care of and a few minutes left in the episode, there’s only one thing left to do: A closing number! That’s when some familiar-looking but oddly-colored aliens called the Teppums appear on a monitor. They’re doing a variety show on another planet, and they need a closing number too, so everyone joins together in “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.”
Muppets doing a closing musical number is only natural, and it’s really nifty that they cut to characters from other parts of the show (Bean Bunny from an earlier sketch with Louie Anderson, the hyper Muppet singing group The Extremes), but it just seems so weird that Kermit and friends are doing a musical number in a control room full of monitors. There’s no live audience. Shouldn’t they be on a stage somewhere? And the fact that the whole set is bluescreened really limits the space they have to work with, so rather than dancing around a stage, they just kind of bob up and down in the same claustrophobic shot. And where’s the band? And yet, it’s still Muppets singing “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” and who can argue with that?
As the first episode of a high-tech Muppet show, this is good stuff. Pretty much all the jokes and sketches work, and Digit is already proving to be an entertaining character. But I can imagine that anyone tuning in to see “The Return of the Muppet Show” would be confused. It’s nice to see Gonzo in the mix, but who are all these new characters who look so different from any of the familiar Muppets?
And again, there’s that whole control room premise. It looks cool, but it just doesn’t feel like a location. There’s not much sense of a physical space, like the Muppet Theater or Fraggle Rock or Sesame Street, and the characters can’t interact with anything in the background. Would the show have been more successful if Jim and his collaborators had spent a little more time establishing the world it took place in, in between coming up with cool ways to use the latest video tricks?
The second half-hour of this episode is The Storyteller‘s “The Heartless Giant.” I guess The Storyteller is one of the least-loved Creature Shop productions, but I appreciate what they were going for. In his introduction this week, Jim says the goal of the show is “to combine ancient European folk tales with the visual punch and pace of today’s music videos.”
They pulled that off, more or less. “The Heartless Giant” doesn’t have a lot of special effects beyond the titular animatronic-headed giant, but it looks pretty good, except for this one part where the giant throws some normal-sized human guards around and it’s painfully obvious that they’re basically dolls.
In the story, as told to us by John Hurt’s pleasant, large-schnozzed Storyteller, an evil giant is imprisoned in a cell, and he manipulates a young prince into setting him free. Then the giant kills a bunch of people, including the prince’s brothers, because he is literally missing his heart, which is what makes him so mean. I think this would explain the behavior of a number of prominent politicians as well, but anyway.
The prince believes the giant is still redeemable, but at the end of the story, the giant’s heart is located and destroyed, which kills the giant, much to the young prince’s dismay. And then in the Storyteller’s closing remarks, he tells us that it all started because a prince met a giant and they became friends. Which isn’t accurate at all. The prince was always just a pawn in the giant’s schemes, and the giant never really wanted to be friends with the prince. So that’s not ultimately a very satisfying story, although the giant, with his Creature Shop-built head, is suitably ugly and menacing.
By the time The Jim Henson Hour premiered, a few episodes of The Storyteller had already aired on their own. But I can imagine the average TV viewer seeing this and having no idea what to make of it. It’s like, you have Kermit the Frog singing songs with bunnies, and then you go to a commercial, and when you come back you have this dark story with a sadistic giant who goes around killing people. I love Jim’s ambition, but I can see why Mr. and Mrs. American were confused.
Jim closes out the show saying, “Next week we’ll have more comedy, more adventure, and more fun. See you then!” Okay, Jim! See you then! And if you come back later this week, you’ll see my pal Anthony Strand taking a look at the next episode, featuring a MuppeTelevision segment guest-starring Ted Danson and a second half that’s one of the strangest things Jerry Juhl ever wrote.
by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com