At some point toward the end of the The Muppets Take the Bowl live show, Kermit the Frog said something to the effect of, “Well, we did it! We took the Hollywood Bowl!” In my seat at the venue, I said out loud, “You sure did!”
It’s important to note that I am not the kind of person who usually calls out to performers onstage who cannot possibly hear me. I’m generally more of the enthusiastic applause type than the verbal exclamation type. But the fact that it slipped out is indicative of just how caught up I was in the joy of the show.
You’ve probably read the recap of the whole show on this very website, and you’ve seen videos taken by various audience members from various seats at the three performances of the show. If you haven’t… Take a look around the internet. You’ll find them! And you’ll see bits and pieces of a show that was not just good, but way better than it needed to be.
When I read that the Muppets would be joined by the Hollywood Bowl’s resident orchestra, the cleverly named Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, I assumed the program would include several moments when the musicians would play on a Muppet-free stage, if only so the puppeteers could rest their arms for a few minutes. I was wrong. Boy, was I happy to be wrong. As Kermit discovered to his chagrin early in the proceedings, this was a full-length show with Muppet shenanigans from beginning to end.
Sometimes that meant pre-recorded bits shown on the venue’s giant screens while performers were switching puppets or scenery was being set up, but I’ll take that over French horns any day. NOT THAT I DON’T LIKE FRENCH HORNS. I do like French horns. It’s just that I didn’t buy tickets to a show called The French Horns Take the Bowl, so I was delighted to get so much Muppetbang for my buck. The pre-recorded stuff was a smart way to integrate Statler & Waldorf into the proceedings (commenting from their box at the Bowl), and it allowed for some material that wouldn’t have been practical onstage, like the audience-pleasing Walking Dead parody that found the Swedish Chef brandishing a blowtorch.
So, for much of the show, there’d be a big act, and then a video, and then a small act and some banter, and then a video, and so on. The evening was expertly paced… It was so savvy to give us hints of Miss Piggy throughout the show before her big, ridiculous number in the second act, and to mix sketches with songs, and to end the first act with an extended, rockin’ set by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem so the crowd went into intermission feeling groovy. That segment felt like the latest stop on a Mayhem tour that began with last year’s Outside Lands festival, and it proved that they’ve really got the hang of the whole live Muppets thing.
This show had something for everyone. There were, of course, a lot of hardcore Muppet fans in the audience — I know several people who flew across the country for the show, and some who flew in from other countries to see it. We, the Muppet geeks, were happy just to be there, and we would have felt like we got a good show as long as we saw a bunch of Muppets onstage, with the visibility of our favorite performers as an added bonus (more on that in a minute).
There were also a lot of casual fans there, including many local parents with their kids and Hollywood Bowl season ticket holders. The very idea of the Muppets may be a novelty to these folks, so they would have felt like they got a good show as long as they saw things that reminded them of the last time they watched The Muppet Show, whether that was a month ago or 20 years ago.
Fortunately for everyone, the show had all of the above. It was as if the Muppet people had a series of dials on a big console labelled “THINGS PEOPLE LIKE ABOUT MUPPETS.” And they dialed them all up as far as they could go.
The credited writers were Muppet veterans Jim Lewis and co-director Kirk Thatcher, along with co-director Andrew Williams and Matthew Barnette, who I’m not familiar with (although I’d certainly be willing to see what else they could come up with for the characters!). I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they started the writing process by making a list of familiar bits from The Muppet Show, from regular sketches to recurring motifs – “Veterinarian’s Hospital,” a comedy act by Fozzie, a stunt by Gonzo, amusingly abusing the guest star. And then (after presumably crossing “At the Dance” and “Bear on Patrol” off the list), they came up with a new, entertaining, logistically feasible stage version of each one.
Perhaps you noticed I used the word new in that series of adjectives. It would have been so easy for the Muppet people to just say “Let’s see… What should we do for Muppet Labs? How about the edible paperclips one, where Beaker’s nose falls off? Okay, great. Now, which Pigs in Space should we do…?” But they didn’t settle for reenacting sketches the Muppets have done before. They did a new Muppet Labs, in which Bunsen demonstrated cloud technology by physically zapping Beaker into the cloud, where he was accosted by monsters. And they did a new Pigs in Space, in which the Swinetrek crew kept making references to other sci-fi properties and were admonished by space copyright lawyers.
Even when they did familiar musical numbers, they did them with a twist. Kermit sang “Happy Feet,” but we actually got to see his tap-dancing feet (thanks to a total of three puppeteers), and then Bobby Moynihan joined him with some giant frog feet of his own (thanks to two more puppeteers). Kermit and Fozzie sang “Movin’ Right Along,” but then it turned into a road song medley that included “I’ve Been Everywhere” by Rowlf and “On the Road Again” by Bobby Moynihan and Walter. (Yes, Walter!)
See what I mean? They kept throwing beloved Muppet bits into the show, and for every one, they thought of a way to enhance it.
There were several moments that weren’t recurring sketches at all, but all-new bits in the spirit of The Muppet Show. There was an amusingly lame act — Robin and his singing group Croakapella attempting and failing to sing “Hooray for Hollywood.” There was an ambitious act gone wrong — Pepe taking over for Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conductor Thomas Wilkins so he could conduct his own arrangement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
It still makes me laugh that they used Pepe for that gag, by the way. The logical choice would be Sweetums or a similar character who could actually walk up to the podium, grasp the baton, and lead the orchestra. Pepe’s one of the smallest Muppets, and he doesn’t even have live hands! And yet, it’s impossible to deny the comedy value of seeing the prawn clutching a sticky in each of his four hands and helping transform Beethoven’s boring masterpiece into a lively Latin-flavored number complete with dancers. The show was full of surprises like that.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of all was the visible puppeteers. Despite what I heard a lady behind me say about how weird it was to see Fozzie end at his baggy midsection, watching the performers work their magic was thrilling. They ran around, they crouched, they rolled across the stage on dollies, always clad in all black and always in perfect synchronization with their fellow performers. Fortunately, anyone who just couldn’t handle the reality that the Muppets are puppets had only to focus on the big screens, where the show was framed like a Muppet TV or movie production.
The very best acts of the show were the ones that made strategic use of the live medium: Kermit and Moynihan’s “Happy Feet” number, a magic trick by Gonzo that involved Kermit and Gonzo levitating, and Miss Piggy covering Adele’s “Hello” while getting thrown around the stage. These all required remarkable timing and dexterity on behalf of all the puppeteers, and seeing how they pulled it off was half the fun.
It also made everything funnier. On a TV show, Gonzo could levitate but there would be an effort to erase the puppeteers. When Gonzo levitated on the Hollywood Bowl stage, we could see that Dave Goelz and company were just lifting him off the ground and waving his limbs around, but being “in on the joke” actually made it more fun to watch.
And when the audience got to see how many people and how much choreography it took to make Piggy bounce, jump, fly, roll, slide, and fall – including one super-fast puppet swap — all while singing and dancing? Holy crap, was that impressive.
So here’s one big question: Could this work on TV? Does the success of The Muppets Take the Bowl prove that a new, regular Muppet variety show would be a hit on television? Well… maybe. But I remain a skeptic on that topic. A one-time live performance and a weekly TV series are different animals — even when they star the same cast of talking animals.
Folks at the Hollywood Bowl shows were sitting in seats they paid for, looking forward to a great time and willing to devote their undivided attention to it. If the Muppets tried doing this on TV, they’d be competing with everything else on TV, plus streaming shows, and everyone’s smart phones and tablets and transistor radios.
There’s also the undeniable reality that some of the crowd’s good will came simply from the joy of seeing these beloved characters in front of them. All it took was Kermit appearing onstage to elicit cheers. And then there were cheers for Scooter. And cheers for Fozzie. And cheers for Rowlf, and pretty much every Muppet.
There’s no guarantee that that good will would keep viewers coming back week after week. And could the writers possibly turn out a show this entertaining thirteen to twenty-two times a TV season with the same perfect balance of old and new? Again I can only say… maybe! But after seeing The Muppets Take the Bowl, I’d be considerably more optimistic about such a TV show than I would have been just six days ago.
But wait, who cares about TV? This was a live show! And it was a terrific one! That’s what I should be talking about! In an interview with Forbes, Kirk Thatcher and Bill Barretta speculated about doing the show in other venues, and it would be a waste and a shame and a travesty if they didn’t bring a version of this to more major cities. New York would be the obvious choice… They could do it at the Barclays Center and call it The Muppets Take Brooklyn! Or perhaps large outdoor venues would be ideal to facilitate the family fun atmosphere that was present at the Bowl – The Muppets Take Wolf Trap in Washington, DC? The Muppets Take Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver? The Muppets Take [Insert Your Home City’s Amphitheater Here] in [Insert Your Home City Here]?
I hope the Muppet decision-makers are paying attention to the response on social media, because about 75% of it is people who don’t live near LA or couldn’t go expressing their hope that the Muppets will do an encore performance in their area. The message to Disney is clear: The people are crying out for more! The people are hungry for live Muppets!
Until that happens, it’s worth taking a moment to celebrate the fact that this show happened at all, and it was really, really, really good, and it was a hit. Kermit nailed it: They did it! The Muppets took the Bowl!
Seriously, though… When’s the next show?
by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com