Starting on the 25th anniversary of the television premiere of The Jim Henson Hour, Tough Pigs’ own Ryan Roe and Anthony Strand have been reviewing every episode of the ambitious but short-lived series. We’ve reached the end of the series, but we both have even more words to say about it.
Anthony: And we enjoyed most of them!
Ryan: We did! Or at least, we enjoyed most parts of most of them. I believe you said something about halfway through about the fact that writing reviews of each episode made you more aware of the flaws.
Anthony: Right, especially the stuff set in the Muppet Central control room. As a teenager watching these episodes in the early-2000s, I remember thinking it was kind of a charming 80s-future setting. But watching it now, it’s just a dead end. There’s no sense of space, and the characters themselves seem to be interacting with an empty room.
Ryan: Right. The control room may be the single biggest problem with the series. Whereas on The Muppet Show you could have Luke Skywalker bursting through the stage door, or Animal throwing bowling balls and knocking over Muppets on the upper level, in the MuppeTelevision segments everything is pretty much limited to moving left and right. Also, it doesn’t really make sense when you have things like the folk dancers in the Ted Danson episode, and they’re dancing in the control room.
Anthony: That’s a good point. If all of the programming is beamed in from other channels, Kermit should never interact with any of the acts. So they have to violate the rules of their setting just to enable character interaction, which is a huge problem. We’ve both written about how awkward it is for the guest stars to be on screens, and this is an extension of that.
Ryan: Exactly. I expect my talking frog programs to follow strict rules of logic, darn it! They must have realized some things were amiss. I really wonder what kind of changes Jim and the writers might have made if there had been a second season. Would they add a standing performance stage set? Or would that feel too much like a step backwards?
Anthony: You know, I think they might have. I mentioned in my review of the Buster Poindexter episode that the scene with him and Solid Foam hanging out feels more natural than any other guest star moment.
Ryan: Yeah, that comes the closest to a backstage guest star moment from The Muppet Show.
Anthony: It’s easy to imagine the “Guest Star Channel” becoming a place where the Muppets can easily go to engage in various antics, without breaking the show’s format.
Ryan: So maybe they were already trying to improve it. Too bad the show got canceled!
Anthony: Another thing that I think might have changed is the abundance of humans in the sketches. I won’t claim that every sketch starring humans is terrible, or that every Muppet sketch is a winner. But man, the show stops dead in its tracks during those bits so often, it’s painful.
Ryan: That’s one aspect where you and I differ. I think the presence of human actors works, because they’re used judiciously. I wouldn’t want Fern and Anthony in “hurtingsomething” to be humans, but I can’t imagine Fozzie’s ghost story working better with Muppets as the motel owner and the businessman.
Anthony: Sure, but the star is Fozzie. I’m thinking of things focused on human characters, like the sketch about the farmer and his wife, or Bootsie & Brad. The latter of which is a place I know we differ. You consider it to be a judicious use of human actors, while I consider it to be 12 minutes of screen time wasted on one dreadful joke.
Ryan: Aw, Bootsie and Brad make me laugh. They’re dolls! But they’re played by people! I can’t say there was enough material there for more than the sketches they made, but how can you not be amused by a Ken doll played by an actor with plastic hair?
Anthony: Very easily.
Ryan: Well, when I dress up as Brad for Halloween, I won’t come trick-or-treating at your house.
Anthony: The makeups are unsettling, the jokes alternate between tired and crass, and the performances are too hammy even for a series starring the Muppets. It might be unfair to say “It reminds me of a MadTV sketch,” but that’s the truth. Those sketches coast on the idea that it’s inherently funny to see humans as Ken and Barbie. It isn’t, at least not to me. Certainly not four times in eight episodes.
Ryan: A MadTV sketch? Dang, that’s harsh! I don’t know. I get a kick out of seeing adult actors act out the way the little girl would play with her dolls… When Brad says he’s going to leave the room and come back in, he just bumps into the door and turns around. Bootsie thinks girls and boys are exactly the same except for bumps. It’s cute, if I can get away with using that word without losing any of my considerable street cred.
Anthony: Well, I’m glad you feel that way, because “cute” is the last word to come to mind when I see those horrible grinning faces. And here’s something else that’s harsh: Bootsie and Brad is probably my least-favorite element of anything Jim Henson produced during his entire lifetime.
Ryan: Wow! You heard it here first, folks. Okay, so you hate the recurring human characters. How about the new Muppets on the show?
Ryan: Actually, my favorite is the Solid Foam drummer. PSYCH! It’s Digit.
Anthony: His design is very 1989, which is maybe why he didn’t stick around after Jim died. It’s hard to imagine that puppet showing up in the literary adaptation movies in the 90s. But Dave Goelz gives him such warmth. That Kramer/Reverend Jim kind of oddball was a new thing for the Muppets, and he’s just delightful.
Ryan: Dave gives him warmth, sure, but mostly a lot of personality. From the very first episode (whether you consider that to be “First Show” or “Outer Space”), you instantly get who he is, and you like him. I can’t say the same about a character like Lindbergh, as great as his design is. Couldn’t Digit have at least made his way into The Muppets at Walt Disney World the following year? He’d be so happy in Future World at Epcot!
Anthony: I would have been in favor of that. And I agree about Lindbergh’s design being great, but character-wise he’s basically just Beauregard.
Ryan: Right. We already had one of those.
Anthony: Much more interesting are two characters who are basically forerunners of future Muppets who did stick around. Leon, which is Kevin Clash playing a scheming little trickster a lot like Pepe.
Ryan: He’s even horny like Pepe.
Ryan: That’s a good observation. The bit when she tells Kermit she loved The Muppet Show when she was in nursery school is one of the funniest moments of the the series. She and Walter could geek out about old Muppet stuff for hours on end. Um, not that talking about old Muppet stuff for hours on end is geeky. How do you feel about her look? She’s more traditionally Muppety than Digit or Leon, but as several fans have pointed out, she sure does look like a Cabbage Patch Kid.
Anthony: I really don’t like her look at all. She reminds me a lot of this series of videos I saw in Sunday School as a kid called Nanny & Isaiah. But she’s a fun character, and it’s really nice to see Fran Brill move into that family of characters.
Ryan: The crazy thing is, Nanny & Isaiah replaced The Jim Henson Hour in that time slot on NBC after it got canceled.
Anthony: Which brings us to the most Exciting! and Groundbreaking! of the new characters – Waldo. What are your thoughts on that guy?
Ryan: He’s a fun novelty. It’s cool that they did more with him than making him a high-tech character who just exists — he morphs into all those different objects and characters. I guess there was always going to be a limit on what he could do, though, considering how much time and money went into just a few minutes of screen time for him. It would have been interesting to see him interact with a guest star. Did he ever participate in a closing number?
Anthony: Yeah, I think he’s in the closing number of “Food.” But I’d say that “a fun novelty” is a good way to sum him up. It’s impressive that he can morph and fly around, but he’s not terribly memorable as a character. There’s a reason that all discussion of him focuses on the technology.
Ryan: Right. I don’t know if this is actually the case, but it feels like the majority of his appearances include Kermit or Vicki saying, “Waldo is a computer graphic!” In 1989 they had to explain that to the audience, I guess.
Anthony: Correct. All audiences had to go on were Tron and that one scene in The Abyss.
Ryan: These days we assume every character we see on television is a computer graphic, including Sid the Science Kid, Thomas the Tank Engine, and Brian Williams.
Anthony: Steve Whitmire does what he can with Waldo, but JHH contains some of his career-best work when he’s playing Bean Bunny.
Ryan: Oh yeah, Bean!
Anthony: Bean isn’t technically a new character, because he was the star of Tale of the Bunny Picnic, but the approach here is completely different. That was a sweet special for small children, and Bean’s role on JHH is a hilarious spoof of it.
Ryan: Yeah, turning Bean into a character whose role is “He’s cute so the rest of us don’t have to be” was a really clever idea. If he had just been cute like he was in Bunny Picnic, it would have gotten old really fast. But instead, it’s taken to hilarious extremes (Not to be confused with The Extremes, who are cool but not particularly hilarious.)
Anthony: Right, the complete disgust that all of the other Muppets have with his cuteness is perfect. It’s more of a disgust with the very idea of the Muppets being “cute characters for children,” really. That’s something Jim struggled with throughout his career, and Bean is his best and funniest reaction to it.
Ryan: Steve Whitmire is great as Kermit, and it was cool seeing Rizzo become a star in the 90s, but it’s too bad those roles meant less stuff for Bean to do. Although it was also really entertaining to see him a frequent slapstick victim in the late 90s and early 2000s.
Anthony: Yeah, that was fun, but I miss his brief period of stardom. So let’s talk about the music. What songs stand out for you?
Ryan: Can the answer be anything but “Sweet Vacation” and “The Music Keeps on Rolling Along?”
Anthony: Those are the two standouts for sure, but there are other gems. I really like “Jump” with Smokey Robinson, and the Extremes’ cover of “Maneater.” Those both feel a lot like good Muppet Show numbers, if The Muppet Show were still running in 1989.
Ryan: Yeah, those are both fun. They both take place in a single space, which makes them feel even more like The Muppet Show. But some of the best musical numbers take advantage of the fact that the acts on the show is not limited to one set, like “La Bamba,” which cuts between lots of different characters from throughout the episode singing the song.
Anthony: Another good example of that is “The Food Chain Song,” which I wrote about in my review of the “Food” episode. And “The Food Chain Song,” like “Sweet Vacation,” was written by Phil Balsam & Dennis Lee of Fraggle Rock fame. “Sweet Vacation” is, as far as I know, the only time they wrote a song for the Muppet Show characters. So that’s pretty exciting.
Ryan: It’s very exciting. I wish it had been released on an album. Solid Foam’s Greatest Hits and Other Songs from The Jim Henson Hour.
Anthony: I’d buy it! So, we’ve talked a lot about MuppeTelevision, but that only accounts for 8 of the show’s 20 segments.
Ryan: True. There’s a whole lot more Jim Henson Hour to talk about. In fact, this wrap-up conversation may end up being two installments. In fact, it definitely will. In fact, this is the end of the first installment!
Come back next time for the second installment, as we wrap up our wrap-up of My Weeks with The Jim Henson Hour! Click here to be disgusted with Bean Bunny’s cuteness on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Ryan Roe and Anthony Strand