Original air date: January 31, 1981
[NOTE: This review was written before The Muppet Show was released on Disney Plus. The series is now available on the streaming service, but this episode is not included.]
In 1980, Richard Pryor was scheduled to appear on The Muppet Show. He had to drop out for personal reasons at the last minute, so staff writer Chris Langham stepped in. Langham, a British comedian who was recommended by John Cleese, had joined the show’s writing staff in season 3.
In 2004, the era of tape trading was coming to an end. In its dying days, it briefly transformed into DVD+R trading. In one such trade, ToughPigs’ own Ryan Roe sent me a DVD with some specials, the Fraggle Rock finale, and the Chris Langham episode. It was one of the few Muppet Show episodes I owned, and it quickly became a favorite.
Langham’s lanky, offbeat presence is a delight. Watching the episode, you can see his influence on the show as a writer. He does two acts completely alone. Amazingly, despite starring only a human, both of them still feel exactly like The Muppet Show. The first is an indescribable act about a Scotsman that ends with a hailstorm of peanuts falling on his head.
The second is routine where he invents a time travel apparatus. Halfway through, it sends him back in time, and he does the first half backwards. Back in college, I watched that sketch over and over, marveling at the precision with which he mirrors every single inflection and gesture. It’s one of my favorite things in the history of The Muppet Show.
Langham’s interactions with the Muppets are just as good. He confuses Sam the Eagle with a sausage card trick. He does a hysterical owl imitation backstage. Best of all, he finds a kindred spirit in Gonzo, who excitedly watches Chris’s magic act rehearsal backstage. This leads to the closing number, “Hawaiian Cowboy,” another inspired bit of nonsense. It’s a terrific end to one of the show’s best-ever episodes.
When I first saw this episode back in college, it blew me away. Langham fits in so well that this almost feels like a Muppet Show episode with no guest star. The episode is wall-to-wall insanity, and it was one of my favorite pieces of comfort viewing throughout college. Most of all, it felt like a gift that I got to know this charismatic, oddball comedian. I would never have heard of Chris Langham without The Muppet Show. Just one of the many great things the show did for me. Or so I thought.
In 2007, Chris Langham was arrested and sent to jail for possession of child pornography. In general, we try not to dwell on the personal lives of Muppet people, but of course this changed my view of this episode. I was devastated to learn it. After all, I would never have heard of Chris Langham without The Muppet Show. I’d built him up in my head as a comedy hero, and it turned out he was a creep the entire time.
In 2021, it’s impossible for me to watch this episode and not think about Langham’s personal life. There’s nothing specific in it that foreshadows his arrest. The jokes are still funny, the routines are still impressive, and Langham still has that same weird appeal. Indeed, Langham is the same guy now that he was in 2004 when I first saw this, and in 1980 when they shot it. I just know a sad truth about him that I didn’t know before. Does that change the episode? No, and yet the whole thing bums me out now.
Most people watching this episode on Disney+ next month will have no idea who Chris Langham even is. They’ll think he’s just some weird guest star who works well with Muppets, like so many other Muppet Show guest stars who aren’t really famous anymore.
Part of me envies those new viewers. Part of me wishes I could take a time travel apparatus back to 2004 and laugh at this episode like I did then. Mostly I just spend this whole episode hoping that Chris Langham has gotten help and turned his life around. I don’t know him. I don’t really think that “he was so funny on The Muppet Show” is a good reason for me to want him to be a better person.
But The Muppet Show has that much power. I want reality to line up with the illusion of the Muppet Theater, because the Muppet Theater is just such a nice place to be. But being so funny on The Muppet Show isn’t actually enough, and so I hold out hope that Chris Langham will become (or has become) a better person in real life. That’s not a funny place to end, but man, it’s really true.
Best Joke: Chris’s aside that his owl impression is “Just the sort of stuff you can do at home, you know?” always makes me laugh, because I love the idea of a person deciding to do that.
Lamest Joke: During the closing number, Chris yells “Hawaii! Ha-why not?!”
MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): The Gnu, who gets a whole song about him, and it’s super entertaining because the puppet is so cool-looking and Jerry Nelson does such a great voice.
Most Classic Moment: The Time Travel Apparatus sketch should be put in textbooks.
Should-Be-Classic Moment: Kermit, Robin, and a whale sing Cole Porter’s “Friendship” for the opening number. That feels like something Muppet fans would talk about, but it doesn’t come up. Consider this me bringing it back into the conversation!
Most Dated Joke: The codeword in Chris’s escape artist act is “Hoopla!” It’s 1980, so they didn’t have to worry about the audience thinking of “We Built This City.”
First Appearance Of…: My main man The Gnu!
Musical Highlight: “Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner” is full of stereotyped characters, but it’s also a heartwarming salute to London’s growing diversity in the 1970s and 1980s.
Adultiest Content: After Chris says that he’s zen skiing, Sam the Eagle says “I’ve always had the greatest respect for other people’s crackpot beliefs.” That’s the perfect summary of Sam.
One More Thing…: After four and a half seasons, this is the one where Statler and Waldorf note that “If you think about it, there are these strange pauses in this show where nothing happens on stage.”
Okay, One More Thing…: In addition to the Gnu, this episode also features Melissa and her Magnetic Moose. Big week for ruminating mammals on The Muppet Show, I guess!
Hey, this is our first review since they announced that The Muppet Show is coming to Disney+! Click here to get excited about watching this episode on TV in three weeks on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Anthony Strand