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.
In a tradition that goes all the way to be the beginning of the site, we here at Tough Pigs have done a whole lot of conversation-style pieces about Muppet specials. But nearly all of them have been about Christmas specials. Now, I love Christmas specials as much as anyone, but Jim Henson made a bunch of TV specials that have no connection to the holiday. Since there’s no obvious time to watch these specials, we’re doing it right now. I’ll be joined by a different guest every week for the next seven weeks.
To kick things off, we’re looking at “Tales of the Tinkerdee” from 1962, Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl’s first crack at a full half-hour program. Of all the specials we’ll be discussing in this series, “Tinkerdee” is the only one that’s been covered on Tough Pigs before – back in 2001, Danny Horn went all the way to the Museum of Television & Radio to see it. Here in 2015, some kind soul has posted it to YouTube:
Joining me is Julia Gaskill, Tough Pigs writer and co-host of the Frog Kissin’ podcast. Julia, this is your first time watching Tales of the Tinkerdee, so I’ll let you take the lead – what were your first impressions of it?
Julia Gaskill: As a whole, I really enjoyed it. I hadn’t even heard of Tales of Tinkerdee until pretty recently. It was short and simple, but still a lot of fun. Plus getting to see Jim and Jerry’s earlier work is always a treat!
Anthony: Makes sense that you’d never heard of it. It’s easily the most obscure thing we’re going to cover in this series. It never aired on TV, and it wasn’t screened publicly at all until 2001 (as Danny discussed at the time). After that it started circulating as a bootleg trade item, and it’s only been on YouTube for about a year.
Julia: Yeah, I learned that it was unaired figuratively today, which I guess isn’t too surprising since I hadn’t so much as heard of it before. It had a lot of similarities to Hey Cinderella and Frog Prince, so I’m curious as to why it never aired. Do we know the reason?
Anthony: It was just a pilot for a series that didn’t get picked up.
Julia: Ah, gotcha. At the start of Tinkerdee, they promote it as a “new series.” I was wondering about that.
Anthony: Right, and at the end Kermit promises he’ll be back with “more tales of Tinkerdee.” Which didn’t happen, obviously, but it did lead to a whole bunch more hosting gigs for Kermit. This is his first one ever, which is kind of a big deal.
Julia: Yeah, and it was his first time wearing his now iconic collar. I never knew that it started out as part of a ministerial costume for him, which he wears in the episode. I guess it kind of stuck.
Anthony: I didn’t even think about that, but you’re right. He’s still not a frog, but he’s getting closer all the time. Anyway, I love how soulful he is in this. Right from the start, he’s the perfect master of ceremonies. It might be hindsight talking (in fact, it probably is), but from the second we see him strumming on that lute, it seems exactly like Kermit. There’s some rough stuff here, but Kermit feels oddly fully-formed.
Julia: I had that same thought. He seems almost complete, but not quite. He’s definitely starting to take on his form in Tinkerdee as the eventual star of the Muppets. Also, I loved all his silly rhymes throughout narrating the story.
Anthony: “Let me take a second, or four or five/To tell you that the presents are beginning to arrive.”
Julia: “It is the princess’s day of birth, let bells ring out the news / We’ll celebrate with joy and mirth, and a party I suppoose” is my favorite one.
Anthony: Those rhymes are part of the reason that I tend to think of Tinkerdee as “Sam and Friends: The Movie.” It has the same crazy energy that that show had, but it’s five times as long. So Jim and Jerry get to really indulge their love of silly music and running gags and ridiculous payoffs to those gags.
For example, the whole runner with King Goshposh and the Prime Minister having to hide 67,000 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. That’s a funny bit in its own right, but it’s so much funnier when it turns out that Taminella’s sentence is to eat those sandwiches for the rest of her life. This is the first time that they’d had the luxury to spread a gag out over such a long time, and it’s really fun to watch that happen.
Julia: Yeah, it’s a lovely thought when you realize that Jim and Jerry got to go from Sam and Friends to expanding their styles of comedy and storytelling. Even though it never aired, it’s still a wonderful accomplishment, and you can easily see how Tinkerdee led to them creating Cinderella, Frog Prince, and all their other early specials. Speaking of which, I wasn’t expecting to see Taminella and King Goshposh in this one! It’s always great when those two make an appearance!
Anthony: Absolutely! We’ll be seeing more of both characters in the weeks ahead, but they’re both delightful here. Even if they hadn’t returned for those later specials, they’d still be memorable characters. That’s especially true of Taminella, who is one of my favorite Muppet characters of all time. You and Matt Wilkie recently discussed the lack of female Muppets, but Taminella is one of the best (albeit one played by a man).
Julia: That’s a topic that’s come up a lot for me recently and (*foreshadowing music plays*) might be something I talk a bit more in some future ToughPigs pieces. But for now, yes! Taminella is a great female character, and it’s a shame she hasn’t made an appearance in, what? Decades? That would be so awesome if she made a reappearance after all these years.
Anthony: The Frog Prince was 1971, so it’s been 44 years. Astounding.
I always wished Jerry Juhl had done more characters, because he’s amazing as Tammy. His performance here is full of delightful little touches, like the glee with which she tosses a chair down into the pit, and then the shrug as she says “Have some lunch, Grunch.”
Julia: I’ve always found Jerry Juhl to be a delightful performer and wish he had kept at it, but the man does know his way around a script. Tinkerdee’s script has a lot of charm to it, and what’s so impressive is that this was one of the first things he ever wrote for/with Jim.
Anthony: Right, their collaboration is brand-new, but they fell right into the rhythms that they would use for the next thirty years.
Julia: Exactly. It’s the start of the duo’s career working together. Even in a production as early as this one, it’s evident how well they worked together – both behind the scenes and performing.
Anthony: For me, the best comedy team in the special is Taminella and her orge henchman Charlie, played in various scenes by (presumably) Jim’s legs and arm. Charlie isn’t even a puppet, but they spend the whole pilot trading silly lines and hitting each other on the head. Maybe my favorite scene in the whole special is the one where the Prime Minister announces each present, Taminella mangles the names, and then Charlie mangles them even further.
Julia: That is a great moment. I did a double take when Jim’s legs made their first appearance in the special, but Charlie and Taminella ended up being a delightful team. I loved how the two got into the castle disguised as Santa Claus and his reindeer; it was so absurd and random, but worked so well in this style of comedy.
Anthony: It *is* absurd and random, and yet the whole show has a strange logic to it that follows that same line of thought. Nobody at the castle questions that Santa and his reindeer are there because it’s the kind of place where you might hide thousands of sandwiches in closets, or where you can spot a witch because of the lightning when you hit her in the face with a custard pie. None of it makes any sense, but by the end it all seems reasonable enough. That’s Muppet magic, my friend.
Julia: Muppet magic: the best kind of magic there is. Hands down.
Anthony: It’s also interesting to me that Charlie is basically the closest thing the Muppets had to a full-body character in 1962. At heart, he’s a precursor to other good-natured giants like Splurge, Thog, and Sweetums. But instead of being a big impressive puppet, he’s just Jim Henson’s bare skin. And yet, somehow it still plays. They’re clearly working on a tiny budget here, so they invest all of their resources in characters and jokes.
Julia: And thank goodness that they did! Their characters all looked great and the jokes are topnotch throughout. I noticed the small budget in their set, but even that wasn’t a huge hinderance to the overall performance. Plus I sort of love the fact that there’s a character in Muppet canon who is only visible from the shins down. Jim’s legs deserve more recognition, apparently!
Anthony: They do a great job!
One thing that’s unique about Tinkerdee is that we don’t know who played several of the characters – basically everyone except Taminella and all of the ones who obviously sound like Jim Henson. I think that’s a shame, because I’d love to praise the performances of whoever plays the Prime Minister or Yorick’s hilarious cameo as the pompous guard in Super Grover’s helmet (“Santa Claus isn’t due here until Christmas, and this is summah!”).
Really, the only disappointing character is Princess Gwendolinda, because she’s easily the worst-looking puppet in the show, and she also has a very grating voice.
Julia: I agree, Gwendolinda was a bit of a let down. Besides her build and voice, she wasn’t that entertaining of a character either. Almost all of the other characters get these great humorous bits and running gags, while Gwendolinda floated in and out of scenes. She added to moments, certainly, but I would’ve liked to see more defining qualities to her character besides just being a princess.
Anthony: Agreed. The only positive element to her character is that she endsup being the only smart enough to recognize Taminella through all of her various disguises. Which is nice way to push the plot along, but it isn’t very funny. The next two fairy tale specials made the smart decision to cast humans as their female leads, and they’re both much more memorable. But I’ll get back to that in the weeks ahead.
Julia: That’s a good point. I can appreciate that about Gwendolinda, and I agree about casting humans in their following specials – which I’m excited to hear you talk more about in your upcoming pieces!
Anthony: Thanks! I’m excited for that too!
Any final thoughts?
Julia: I just think it’s incredible that Jim was only 26 and Jerry 24 when they set out to make Tales of the Tinkerdee. They had a vision and they went for it, and it turned out wonderfully. Even though it wasn’t aired way back when, it led to so many other wonderful collaborated efforts – which you’ll be talking much more about – and amazing productions. I’m so glad I finally got the chance to see it and then talk with you about it.
Anthony: I’m glad too! It doesn’t get discussed much, but now that it’s more readily accessible, I hope that changes. Like you say, it’s one of the foundational documents of the Muppet style. But even on its own, as a piece of TV, it’s hilarious and entertaining. Thanks so much for joining me to remind people of that!
Next up: Ryan Roe joins me for 1969’s Hey Cinderella.
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by Anthony Strand and Julia Gaskill