The Muppet Show: 40 Years Later – Carol Channing

Published: May 8, 2020
Categories: Feature, Reviews

Original air date: May 8, 1980

It was really a shame that the folks behind this episode of The Muppet Show couldn’t find a guest star in time. They had to cover by having the beloved Muppet character Carol Channing be the “guest star” for the episode. The result is a reasonably typical Muppet Show episode.

Hold on… I’m getting some news… apparently Carol Channing is not a Muppet! This is a great surprise because she fits in with the Muppets like a hand in er… a Muppet. I’m joking, of course, but what is no laughing matter is that Channing’s turn on The Muppet Show is one of the most delightful episodes I’ve watched in a while. With her legendary background in Broadway and comedy, she blends in very very well with our felty friends.

If you haven’t ever experienced the multi-talented entertainment delight that is Carol Channing, first of all, I’m very sorry. Luckily, watching this episode of The Muppet Show is a great primer. Her talents are on full display, and it really is a treat. I also urge you to watch this absolutely terrifyingly fantastic musical number from the 1985 made for TV movie Alice In Wonderland in which she plays the White Queen for context. It’s OK, I’ll wait:

Sorry if that frightened any of you (it permanently scarred an entire generation of kids, MY GENERATION) but, you’ve got to hand it to her, no one, and I mean NO ONE handles a random sheep transformation with the tenacity of Carol Channing.

In this Muppet Show episode, she doesn’t randomly transform into a Muppet sheep, unfortunately. Still, she does sing an opening medley that is loosely thematically based around eyes, which is clearly the next best thing! Then she does a comedy sketch where she whistles all of her esses and Kermit has to continuously wipe off his microphone (timely)! In her closing number, she duets with Miss Piggy on a really great version of “Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend,” which is loosely set at a Victorian Ball.

During all of this Carol Channinsanity, the episode takes a breather for a plot: Miss Piggy has bought some cute new shoes, and her feet are just a smidge too large for them. When Kermit sees her wearing the shoes, he effusively compliments her, which makes the stilettos hard for her to give up. She wants more attention from her green paramour, but when Kermit and asks Piggy to sing and dance in these oppressive shoes, the results are humorous for us, and very painful for her.

Piggy really, really doesn’t want to get rid of the shoes, so she goes to her new pal Carol for advice. An aside: can you imagine Piggy actually being friends with Carol Channing? She apparently didn’t eat the food in restaurants for over 30 years! And she would eat a combo of seeds for dessert! They would be a terrible real-life match. Where’s my Muppet Show subplot about that?

Anyway, Carol empathizes with Piggy, because she has been forced to wear shoes too small for showbiz purposes as well! Although this plot may seem a little fluffy, there is a precedent in old-time Hollywood of women being forced to wear shoes too small to appear dainty. Seeing Piggy and Channing have an intelligent conversation about this on the show feels somewhat progressive for the time. It is also an argument for there to be more female characters in the Muppet troupe so that plot-elements like this don’t have to hinge on a female guest star to work. I can’t imagine Piggy having this conversation with Janice, for instance. It just wouldn’t work the same.

Piggy ends up having to ditch the shoes after Carol gets a giant Muppet monster, Timmy, to wear the heels and run around the block a few times to stretch them out. They end up comically embiggened, and that’s it for the shoes, natch.

While on the subject of the shoe subplot, it’s crucial to take note of this episode’s preoccupation with body parts in general and feet specifically. Not only do we have the opening-number medley loosely themed around eyes and the whole Miss Piggy small-shoes thing, but we also get a Swedish Chef sketch where he stuffs a loafer with meat (meat-loaf… get it???) and a stellar rendition of The Fats Waller 1936 jazz-standard “You’re Feets Too Big” (more on this later).

I don’t want to go so far as to say that someone on the writing staff at the time might have had a foot or shoe thing going on. Instead, I’m going to leave this screen-grab here of a rare shot of Miss Piggy’s feet and let y’all draw your own conclusions:

Seriously, everything about this episode is a delight, even the weird foot stuff. There’s a lot that I haven’t gotten into yet that is worth noting. When Carol Channing isn’t tearing it up on camera, we are also treated to a first-of-its-kind Pigs in Space/Vet’s Hospital crossover sketch, and the UK only spot where Beau and Floyd play the Bossa Nova hit “Wave” to a bunch of penguins. Apparently, Bossa Nova is penguin music. Yup that checks out.

I really can’t recommend this episode enough, and I’m sorry that I made that crass joke at the top that Carol Channing is a Muppet when what she actually is is one of the most multi-talented and delightful guest stars to ever be on the show. Anyway, us real Muppet fans know, if she ACTUALLY were a Muppet, her puppet builders would have made her eye placement a little better.

Best Joke: It comes early in the episode – after the all eye themed number, the huge-eyed Muppet chorus girls come backstage and ask Kermit how he thought it went, and without missing a beat he responds “20/20.” Simple and effective, you gotta love those Muppet show writers. Also, for such a funny episode, Fozzie surprisingly doesn’t make an appearance here.

MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): This is such a Miss Piggy-centric episode, it would be a shanda to not give this one to her. Frank Oz does a great job making Piggy vulnerable and empathetic as her plotline plays out: an aspect to Piggy’s endurance as a pop-culture staple that I think a lot of later portrayals don’t quite get right.

Most Classic Moment: Definitely Carol Channing and Piggy’s duet on “Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend” takes this title for sure. It’s a crown jewel on top of a great episode.

Should-Be-Classic Moment: If Carol wasn’t so fab in the whole episode, I would have given the most classic moment to Jerry Nelson’s rendition of “Your Feets Too Big.” There’s a depth of expression in the puppetry of the two pink monsters doing the number (performed by Jerry Nelson and Louise Gold) that really brings out the swing of the song. There are certain inexplicable qualities to music that can puppets evoke when they perform a song. What music does to a listener emotionally and internally doesn’t always resonate on such a gut-level with performances by real humans as they do with puppets. This number is an excellent example of that.

Missed opportunity: I can’t believe we get through the whole Carol Channing episode of The Muppet Show without her singing her signature song “Hello Dolly!” to a Muppet. She won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance as the titular Dolly Levi in 1964. Luckily, this was rectified when Carol Channing sang “Hello Sammy” (Hello Dolly with slightly altered lyrics) on Sesame Street in 1984 to Sammy the Snake, performed by some guy named Jim Henson. It’s clear from the fact that she worked with them twice that Carol Channing loved working with the Muppets. They indubitably are a match made in showbiz heaven.

One More Thing: Rowlf and Link Hogthrob together in one sketch, how did that work???

Okay, One More Thing: Yeah yeah I know Jim Henson had the ability to pre-record his voice leave me alone!

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by Louie Pearlman

Tagged:review | TMS40

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