Very Special Henson Specials: The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show

Published: July 20, 2015
Categories: Feature

Here at Tough Pigs, we’ve covered nearly every Christmas special Jim Henson and/or the Muppets ever made. But most of the non-holiday-related specials have been neglected until now. Each week, I’m joined by another Tough Pigs writer to watch a classic Muppet special that has nothing to do with Christmas.

Fantastic Miss Piggy titleAnthony: This week, we’re jumping ahead a decade, and we’re finally going to see Muppet Show characters other than Kermit. It’s The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show, and I’m thrilled to discuss it with Tough Pigs founder (and author of the excellent blog Dark Shadows Every Day) Danny Horn. Thanks for joining me, Danny!

Danny: Hi, Anthony! Kissy kissy.

Anthony: So let’s start with context. This special is from 1982, and it really couldn’t have happened at any other time. This was Piggy’s Big Cultural Moment. In 1981, she’d starred in a movie, written her own book, and appeared on the cover of every magazine on this Earth.

Danny: Yeah, the obvious thing to say about this special is that it’s “too much Miss Piggy”, and that you would have expected the American people to be utterly sick of her by now, but it doesn’t seem like the spell had worn off yet. She had a record album in ‘82, and the Miss Piggy calendars were still best sellers. People really, really liked Miss Piggy in the early 80s. It wasn’t just me.

Fantastic Miss Piggy starAnthony: That’s true, to such an extent that she really is the sole star of the show here. Kermit and the other Muppets appear almost exclusively in the control room, a setting that has some cute gags but doesn’t account for much of the running time. Rewatching it, I initially found myself wishing they were in it more, but then I realized – Of course they wouldn’t be. They can’t be. Piggy wasn’t going to willingly share the spotlight with that bunch of clowns.

Danny: Yeah, they’re definitely banking on Piggy’s appeal here, but they come back to the control room pretty often. Basically, after every Piggy scene, they come back for a moment with Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo.

Can we talk a bit about the “TV special” premise? Cause it’s kind of weird.

Anthony: Absolutely we can. Weird in what way, other than seeming exactly like a straight-forward cheesy 70s variety special?

Danny: They made an interesting choice, not to host this in the Muppet Theater. “The Muppets Go to the Movies” was their first post-Muppet Show special, and they treated it like an extra hour-long Muppet Show episode — the same theater, the same format. This is a year later, and they go with a more generic “TV special” setting — kind of a big blank empty set that they fill up with dancers and Miss Piggy. It’s got a very different feel.

Fantastic Miss Piggy paganAnthony: Very different. The choice to use human dancers is an odd one, I think. Something like the big Pagan Sacrifice number – which goes for a minute or so before Piggy shows up – would be a lot more entertaining if those had been full-body monsters. Or, if not more entertaining, at least more like I want Muppet stuff to be. The dancers (including Steve Whitmire!) acquit themselves fine, but it feels like they beamed in from a different, much worse type of programming.

Danny: And Piggy gets a little lost in these big human-sized sets. Watching this makes you realize how important it was on The Muppet Show that everything was Muppet-sized; the human guest stars were kind of these giant intruders into the Muppet world. Here, everything is human-sized, and in some numbers, Piggy seems really small, and isolated on a little platform at the front of the stage. “Snackcercise” is probably the clearest example, because the humans are way off in the distance somewhere.

Also — why is this a live special? That’s another element that feels a little off. You always understood that The Muppet Show was in front of a live audience, but a special like this is clearly being taped and edited.

I mean, it’s silly to get over-involved in the logic of the fictional world. But the tone of the show is really different from what another “Muppet Show” special would have been.

Fantastic Miss Piggy CalendarAnthony: You’re right, and the Henson team later ran into that same problem with “Muppets Tonight,” which could never decide if it was a live late-night sketch show or a prime-time variety series.

I will say that there are two segments where the sets work really well for me here. The first is the Calendar song, with its elaborate backdrop set that always keeps the focus on Piggy, and the other is the big finale number, which is set up like a concert-in-the-round. Piggy is on a platform, but it seems more appropriate for her bravura take on “I Will Survive” than it did for a silly gag like “Snackcersize.”

Danny: I really like the Calendar song. The set is great, and the number’s powered by a good gag about tiring Piggy out with lots of costume changes. They’re kind of just showing off how good they are at Piggy hairstyles and costumes. That’s basically the underlying theme of the whole show — “The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show: We Are Amazing at Puppet Costumes”.

The show is also super up-to-date for 1982. Were you around in 1982? I forget how old you are.

Anthony: I’m afraid I was born in 1984.

Fantastic Miss Piggy George HamiltonDanny: Well, now you know what 1982 was like; it was exactly like this special. The aerobics workout number, the “consumer advocate” product testing, George Hamilton’s tan — these were super current references.

Anthony: George Hamilton’s tan, and also the unironic use of him as a handsome, desirable man. Was that really a thing? I’ve always thought of him as self-evidently a joke, but Piggy treats him like the Ideal Male through this entire show. Piggy generally has good taste, so I assume this is supposed to be no different than Christopher Reeve or Gene Kelly on “The Muppet Show.”

Danny: It was kind of ironic at the time, too. From what I remember, he was definitely considered attractive, but a bit too into himself. I guess the best way to explain it is that he actually was famous for being tan. I cannot explain that at all. It was just a fact about 1982.

Anthony: Since we’ve brought up George Hamilton, let’s talk about the guest stars. In addition to being tan, George Hamilton also isn’t very funny here. The only time I actually laughed at something he did was that over-the-top Cary Grant imitation.

Danny: He’s got kind of a Leslie Nielsen quality.  He’s vaguely aware that he’s ridiculous and not very good at this — by “this” I mean acting and comedy and being a human — and he’s decided to double down on it.

Anthony: I can buy that. And he certainly seems to be having a good time, which helps. In the “love scene” I mentioned earlier, he looks very amused at Frank Oz’s equally over-the-top Southern Belle voice, which helps make the whole thing even sillier.

Danny: He’s the kind of guest star who needs to be blown up and stuffed into a chicken suit, basically. He’s projecting kind of an over-confident veneer that’s obviously fake, and it would be funny to see him have to deal with Gonzo or the monsters or somebody. It’s kind of a shame that he only interacts with Miss Piggy, who takes him at face value and doesn’t really push him out of his comfort zone.

Fantastic Miss Piggy ConsumerAnthony: John Ritter, on the other hand, gets to do a whole bunch of different stuff.

Danny: John Ritter is adorable. Like, in general he is, and also specifically in this special.

Anthony: I really like that he gets to be in love with a disinterested Piggy. Is that an angle they’d ever done with a guest-star before? Obviously they did that with Gonzo a bit in season two of TMS, but it still feels novel here.

Danny: I think the closest they’d done was with Nicky in The Great Muppet Caper.

Anthony: Of course! It was a theme of the Piggy’s Big Moment era.

Danny: But yeah, I hadn’t really thought about how unusual that would have been in The Muppet Show. I think it totally works here, because the whole show is about how amazing / terrifying Piggy is.

Anthony: In addition to the love triangle, John does some of his signature physical comedy in the consumer testing sketch, and his best spotlight comes at the end when he gets to sing “The Impossible Dream” dressed as Piggy.

Danny: He is lovely. That’s actually another super-specific 1982 thing — John Ritter was a big TV star, and as far as I can recall, he was universally beloved. His role in the special is basically to come in and stand next to Miss Piggy and just be John Ritter.

Anthony: The special aired on ABC, the same network as “Three’s Company,” and I can’t imagine that’s a coincidence.

Fantastic Miss Piggy Impossible DreamDanny: Well, that’s basically what “Three’s Company” was all about, just arranging things attractively around John Ritter as he does silly physical comedy. In this special, he actually gets to make out with Miss Piggy. There’s that moment when they just kind of go for it. I guess America was ready.

Anthony: Once America has seen you vigorously kiss Elton John’s chest hair, they’ll watch you do anything.

Danny: Yeah, but that was just Miss Piggy kind of over-zealously jumping on a guy — you knew that at the end of the song, he was going to brush her off and get away. In the Piggy/John Ritter makeout scene, there’s kind of a suggestion of, okay, I guess we’re just actually doing this now.

Anthony: Because, unlike the Muppet Show, Piggy is in control.

Another example of how amazing/terrifying Piggy is comes from our third guest star, Andy Kaufman (or maybe Bob Zmuda or maybe Paul Giamatti as Bob Zmuda) as Tony Clifton. His act is, of course, terrible – a grotesque parody of a lounge singer. But when everyone else in the control thinks it’s awful, Piggy is able to coerce them into agreeing with her that he’s “doing wonderfully.” She never had that kind of power in the Muppet Theater, where her diva tendencies were just kind of tolerated. Here everyone has to indulge her, because she’s in charge without question.

Fantastic Miss Piggy Tony CliftonDanny: Tony Clifton is the one part of this show that I just think is unbearable, a complete and baffling misfire. Andy Kaufman was sometimes a really funny comedian, and sometimes he would just act annoying until everyone agreed that he was a genius. Tony Clifton was his most annoying anti-comedy routine — a shtick that was really only funny to comedians and probably not even them. On behalf of 1982, we didn’t get it either.

But I think he’s in The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show precisely for that reason, because there’s something kind of angry about the show, and the Tony Clifton scenes are the first real signs of hostility toward the format.

Anthony: Absolutely. Jim Henson, as the director, shoots those scenes of the control room watching Clifton’s act in complete silence. These are the Muppets – they’re used to terrible acts, they thrive on terrible acts – and even they don’t know how to react to any of this. They’re just mortified that this thing is happening, and unsure of how to tell Piggy that without getting their heads chopped off.

Danny: Andy Kaufman’s genre was basically “the comedy of unease” — you were supposed to feel uncomfortable. It’s aggressive, like they’re daring the audience to turn it off.

I think this is the last time the Muppets ever used the variety show format, isn’t it?

Anthony: Wow, yeah. You’re right. They did variations on it like the MuppeTelevision segments on the Jim Henson Hour, but that was an austere variety show from the future where there was no audience and nobody ever touched each other.

Danny: Yeah, the wire mother of comedy-variety shows. So I think The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show is kind of Jim Henson and Frank Oz saying goodbye to the format that they’ve been living in for basically decades, if you go back to the Ed Sullivan and Jimmy Dean days. They’re saying: we are now through with this, forever.

So the show starts out with some nice musical numbers that could easily have been part of The Muppet Show, but with human dancers. And then halfway through, Tony Clifton comes in, and kind of opens the door to an angrier take on the format.

Fantastic Miss Piggy Kermit Piggy fightAnthony: And then Kermit passive-aggressively shoots the “love scene” with awful close-ups, leading to a big fight between him and Piggy (“I think a chat is definitely in order, frog!” “I think so, pig!”)  When you mentioned that angry edge earlier, that’s what I thought of. It’s a lot like their lakeside argument in The Great Muppet Caper, but it feels more raw here somehow. After it’s over, Kermit still seems shaken in the control when he tells Fozzie “Is the pig on her mark? Get the pig on her mark.”

Danny: Oh, yeah. That gets patched up pretty quickly, but there’s kind of friction in the air by that point, and the whole special starts to feel like they don’t want to be there anymore.

I like that, by the way. Well, I don’t like the Tony Clifton parts. But I kind of like the feeling that Jim and Frank are doing one more show like this, and then they’re going to burn the place down. So the big concert number ends with this angry rendition of “I Will Survive”, and then they basically destroy the entire show.

Anthony: There’s even a moment where Kermit comes on stage to take the reins and end the chaos, just like he always does. But it doesn’t really work, because this isn’t the Muppet Theater and he’s not in control.

Danny: Yeah, the final confrontation scene between Piggy and the network Vice President is just extraordinary. Piggy’s excited about starring in her own series, and when the suit tells her it’s just a one-shot special, she’s furious. She says, “I’ve been killing myself for one crummy show?” which is basically saying that this has been a waste of time.

To some degree, this is what Henson managed to sidestep with The Muppet Show, by producing the show in England and distributing it in syndication. They didn’t have network vice presidents who could cancel their show at a moment’s notice. So they’re kind of playing out a nightmare version of what that would have been like, as their last variety show.

Anthony: In some ways, probably what it was actually like with the Valentine Special and “Sex and Violence.” Also, I enjoy that the closing credits get in one last dig at that guy by crediting him as “Fake Network VP.”

Fantastic Miss Piggy karate chopDanny: Yeah, the whole closing number is just the angriest, most punk-rock way to end a network TV special. Miss Piggy trashes the studio — karate-chops the network suit, pulls down all the crummy fake sets, smashes the cameras — calls down fire and destruction from the heavens. And then she walks out the door. It’s unreal.

Anthony: And having destroyed the variety show, Jim Henson moved on to destroying camping, New York City, and fuzzy little bunnies.

Fantastic Miss Piggy control room

NEXT: Joe Hennes joins me for Tale of the Bunny Picnic!

Click here to sing a ballroom rendition of “Isn’t She Lovely” on the Tough Pigs Forum.

by Anthony Strand and Danny Horn

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