The Muppet Show: 40 Years Later – Cleo Laine

Published: May 11, 2018
Categories: Feature, Reviews

Original Air Date: May 15, 1978

Family. We’ve all got one, except for about 90% of the Muppets, who don’t. As any fan of the inimitable Muppet Family Christmas knows, however, Fozzie’s got a family member: his fabulous-freewheeling mother Emily Bear. At her best (Muppet Family Christmas, of course), Emily is a terrific character. She’s eccentric, and zany, and really loves her son even though he annoys her.

I bring this up because—as I’m sure many of you know—Emily Bear’s first appearance is in this, the Cleo Laine episode of The Muppet Show. That made me extremely excited to rewatch this one. Quick summary: this is that time where Fozzie ruins the entire show trying to impress his Ma only to find that she slept through the whole program. And as I rewatched this episode, I realized something: the Cleo Laine episode really shows The Muppet Show at its best and its worst at the exact same time.

How is that possible? Well, stick with me.

As you know, Fozzie and Kermit have always been portrayed as best friends…the kind where one of the best friends completely drives the other one up the wall. This episode hammers that point home better than any other. Fozzie’s desperate pleas to be in every sketch are hilarious, and Kermit’s tired, grumpy comebacks (“I am not kind and you are not the star!”) make them even stronger. One thing I noticed on this particular viewing was how much of this is conveyed, marvelously, through Frank Oz’s physical performance of Fozzie Bear. The way Fozzie collapses in front of Kermit while entreating him is really only topped by his frantic manhandling of Kermit during the classic phrenology sketch. The duo have such a good dynamic, and the writers and performers have absolutely pinned it down in full by this point.

What makes this even better is how this plot spills over into the sketches. Fozzie’s phrenology sketch and Pigs in Space are shaped entirely by the idea that he’s trying to impress his Ma, and this consistency makes the episode much stronger than the frequently-patchwork, often-messy Season 1.

Or it should. Because the issue here is that a bunch of these sketches really don’t hold up. In particular, Fozzie’s Pigs in Space sketch is entirely centered on the idea that Link really wants to kiss Miss Piggy, and he won’t take no for an answer. (It doesn’t really matter that Piggy is really Fozzie in a wig.) This sketch does not really work so well in 2018 (and honestly probably shouldn’t have worked in 1977 either). Likewise, in the UK spot, Rowlf, Baskerville, and the Afghan Hound sing a really catchy song, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”…that is also kinda racist? Top this off with an extremely boring wordless limbo routine and some exceedingly creepy Haunted Doll Watch-esque puppetry from guest puppeteer Bruce Schwarz…and you’ve got a pretty meh setlist.

Or you would, if it weren’t for two of Cleo Laine’s numbers. I know nothing about her, but this gal rocks a scat number with the Electric Mayhem (I always love those) and brings down the house in a duet of “You’re Just in Love” with the Swedish Chef. Watch these sketches, watch anything with Kermit and Fozzie together, and sleep through the rest. We can assume Emily Bear did the same.

Best Joke: During the scat number, Zoot informs Cleo Laine that “a zebra and a geranium should never use the same toothbrush.” Now that’s some sage advice.

MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): I usually hate giving this award to main characters, but this time it’s so obviously Fozzie Bear. What a champ. What a nervous, desperate champ. He deserves this small shred of recognition after having his Ma sleep through all his acts.

Obscure Character Watch: I didn’t time it, but I’m fairly certain that Baskerville the Hound has more screentime and more lines in this episode than Piggy, Gonzo, and Bunsen combined.

Best Musical Moment: As mentioned, the Cleo Laine/Swedish Chef duet is probably my favorite thing the Swedish Chef has ever done (and I guess definitely my favorite thing Cleo Laine has ever done).

Most Classic Moment: Fozzie’s phrenology sketch. Calling Kermit’s eyeballs “head bumps” cracks me up every time.

One More Thing: Link, try to do better, OK?

Click here to rock a scat number on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Evan G

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