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In 1974, the Children’s Television Workshop hosted an epic crossover of Avengers-style proportions.  They smashed their two biggest franchises together so audiences could witness Cookie Monster, Morgan Freeman, Big Bird, Rita Moreno, and more on the small screen together.  Universes merged, continuity-be-damned, and the worlds of Sesame Street and The Electric Company fused to become Out to Lunch.

Out to Lunch aired during prime time on ABC, which was both a time slot and a network unfamiliar to our Sesame friends.  Looking at the timing, it’s obvious to me that Jim Henson intended to use this opportunity to help build his variety show-esque portfolio and use the sketches in this special as fodder to help sell the concept of The Muppet Show.

In watching this ultra-rare special, that influence is palpable.  Gone are the songs about letters and numbers, and instead they’re replaced with funny sketches, rowdy characters, and silly songs.  It’s certainly the sort of thing I imagine a network executive might be shown to convince them to pay Jim to create new characters and turn this crazy special into a hit series.

For reasons unknown to me, Out to Lunch has been lost to Muppet fans.  Very little of it has been seen publicly, and no video exists online.  In fact, many fans thought it to be completely lost, but I’m here to tell you that it definitely exists, and it’s pure 1970s fun.

(I am also here to tell you that unfortunately, I am unable to share any video with you.  I’m grateful that I’m able to share anything about the special at all, and I hope this satisfies your curiosity.)

Let’s go through this special scene-by-scene!  I’ll go in-depth on the Sesame portions of the show, but forgive me if I spend less time on the Electric Company bits.  No offense to Rita Moreno, but hey, this is a Muppet fan site.  And frankly, the non-Muppet stuff in this special just isn’t all that great.

The special begins with the end of a news story being read by Bill Beutel, an actual reporter who worked with ABC News from 1962 to 2003.  The studio camera cuts, and the stage manager calls for lunch.  The news crew (which includes hard-to-see cameos by Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, and several Electric Company cast members) departs the set, leaving it empty.

The camera pans over to the ABC logo, which is next to DEF and GHIJ logos, and Big Bird!  He says, “Oh, hi! I bet you can’t guess who’s gonna take over the network while all those nice people at ABC are… out to lunch.”

That’s the name of the show, you guys!!!

Ernie pops up behind the desk with a clapboard and announces the beginning of the opening number.  The Electric Company cast pops out dressed as dancers and begin singing “We’re in Charge”.  Characters from both shows start pouring out to sing, complete with plenty of references to other ABC shows.  For example, Bert suggests that it verged on treason when they canceled Dinah Shore. (Classic Bert.)  The Count volunteers to be the director, Ernie will do props, Big Bird will run the camera, and Herry suggests that ABC will call the cops.

The whole number is fun and chaotic, and definitely the sort of thing you’d expect to see on The Muppet Show, complete with celebrity guest stars and the insinuation that it might be (deliberately) terrible.  It’s just damned fun.

The show continues with some opening credits, calling out the Muppets and Electric Company stars, as well as the special guests: Barbara Eden and Elliott Gould.  Also, Carol Burnett, who seems caught off guard and apologizes – she’s eating her lunch and doesn’t have time to appear on the special.  This turns out to be a running gag throughout the hour, as Burnett repeatedly declines to perform.  It’s a gag worth of both the Muppets and Carol Burnett.

Bert and Ernie host “60 Seconds”, a spoof of 60 Minutes, which they refer to as a “magazine for television”.  They’re planning to interview the President of the United States (conveniently unnamed, and conveniently off camera).  Before the interview starts, Ernie disagrees that their show should be referred to as a “magazine for television”, and instead maybe an almanac or journal or booklet for television.  It leads to a huge argument that lasts the full 60 seconds, and the show ends without getting a word from the President.  It’s classic Bert and Ernie, especially as Bert explodes at Ernie for wasting their opportunity.

The Electric Company then does a “Movie of the Month” romantic comedy spoof, which leads to a cute song-and-dance number between Elliott Gould and Rita Moreno, including one funny moment in which they tap dance on a soft couch. It’s… fine, but mostly forgettable.

Rita Moreno takes center stage again in an extended commercial for Bonny Paper Towels, in which she’s running a diner and serving an accident-prone man who finds himself covered in water, beer, ketchup, coffee, and other assorted condiments.  No Muppets in this one either.

Bert and Ernie return in the ABC control room.  Ernie is fiddling with knobs while Bert panics, thinking something might explode.  Ernie asks him if he remembers when Evel Knievel jumped over Snake River Canyon, and “you haven’t seen anything yet”.  Bert responds, “I didn’t see anything then“.  Ernie then queues up the next segment…

It’s Kermit!  Reporting from the Grand Canyon.  He’s interviewing Grover Knover, who is planning to jump over the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle.  But apparently Grover has no idea what he’s supposed to be doing.  When Kermit tells him, Grover replies, “You have gone BANANAS.  Grover will get smashed up and hurt, and Grover was just getting used to Grover.”  Kermit implores him to consider his fans and the potential for fame, which seems to get through to Grover.  He compares Grover to Evel Knievel, who jumped over Snake River Canyon and became famous.  But Grover balks at the idea once he learns that Snake River Canyon is 800 feet wide, while the Grand Canyon is closer to 5,000.

To help Grover feel more comfortable, Kermit shows him the motorcycle he’ll get to use. Grover hasn’t ridden a two-wheeler before, so Kermit offers to show him how.  (By the way, if you think Kermit looks a little off in the picture above, it’s not just you. From what I can tell, Jim Henson couldn’t get his right arm around the motorcycle, so he’s performing Kermit with his left hand.  It’s a little stiff, but he gets the job done.)

Anyway, Kermit gets on the bike and begins showing off all the controls (including the “Frog’s Angels” logo on the side) and the lack of brakes (to streamline the bike).  “How will I stop?” “Well… you’ll stop, Grover. When you get to the other side… you’ll stop.”  Kermit demonstrates how to start the engine, and of course, Grover turns the throttle and Kermit zips off and crashes.

“The score after one jump,” says Kermit, “is Grand Canyon: 1, Frog: 0”.

The Electric Company takes the stage for a soap opera spoof: “The Search for the Guiding Light”.  I’m not entirely sure what the gag was: Possibly that the characters are drinking too much coffee, or that they’re referencing long lists of character names who we don’t know because the show doesn’t actually exist.  Whatever, there are no Muppets, so I zoned out.

Bert and Ernie return to the control room as Bert begins to beg Ernie to cut to Barbara Eden.  Ernie says no, so Bert leaves to get a burger. Ernie then announces the lovely Miss Barbara Eden, causing Bert to rush back in and get angry and Ernie for almost making him miss the musical number.

Barbara Eden then sings a funky version of “Nearly Missed a Rainbow”, complete with some sort of psychedelic light show.  It feels very “variety show”, with a hint of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” music video.  It’s also just nice to hear this classic Sesame Street song performed as an actual pop song.  People should cover it more often.

After some extremely brief moments with Caroll Burnett (who still won’t perform), Grover and Herry (who applaud Burnett), and Bert and Ernie (who lament that after this special, the ABC staff will start taking their lunch breaks at the studio), Morgan Freeman leads another Electric Company sketch about a fast food restaurant where the staff insists on singing after every order.

And with that, we’re at the halfway mark!  Come on back to ToughPigs later this week to read all about the second half of Out to Lunch, which features a card shark, a late night show, and Robert Frost! Yes, really!

Click here to ride a motorcycle over the ToughPigs forum!

by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com

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