The Muppet Show: 40 Years Later – Debbie Harry

Published: February 20, 2021
Categories: Feature, Reviews
From the book “Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie” by Debbie Harry & Chris Stein

Original air date: February 21, 1981

When you think of Debbie Harry, the lead singer of the legendary punk/new wave band Blondie, it would be understandable if you didn’t automatically assume that she’d be a good match for The Muppet Show. By the time this episode aired, 40 years ago to this week, Blondie had a slew of massive hits, including “Heart of Glass,” “Dreaming,” and “Call Me,” with several other big songs prominently rising in the charts. Also notable is that Blondie broke big in England before they did in the US, so Debbie Harry returning to England to shoot The Muppet Show was a bit of a homecoming for her. By this time, Debbie Harry and Blondie were a big deal, and a great get for the show.

It’s easy to forget that Blondie firmly came from the world of CBGB’s New York punk and had a sharp edge to them. There was grit to the band’s performances, and it’s understandable to wonder if that punk aggression is appropriate for the family-friendly Muppet Show. Harry’s guest stint reveals that the Muppets’ chaotic and textured world has more in common with the punk scene than one would initially expect.

An aspect of the punk movement that was so revolutionary was its lack of artifice that made the music have a refreshing immediacy in the overwrought Seventies musical landscape. There was a hugely democratizing element to punk: a message encoded in the music and aesthetics that anyone who wanted to be a punk could be one, all you needed was a guitar, a few chords, and a good idea for a song. The punk process was very much on full display in the finished early musical products for Blondie.

The Muppet Show‘s aesthetic was based in the softer world of late-sixties/early-seventies hippydom. Still, one can draw a straight line between punk’s bluntness and the fearless way Jim Henson and Co. showed us precisely how the Muppets worked. This can be seen in countless behind-the-scenes talk show appearances to the very look and feel of The Muppet Show itself. It never shies away from the fact that these are puppets, arm rods, and all. There’s a tactile nature to The Muppet Show that is very much part of its appeal and is punk in its own right. Because of these similarities, Debbie’s sensibilities fit right in with Kermit and the gang.

The highlights of this episode are Debbie Harry singing two of her Blondie hits: “One Way or Another” (originally written about a stalker ex-boyfriend of Harry’s) and “Call Me.” Harry does what she does best during these two musical numbers: rock out with a great sense of abandon and cheeky fun. Something empowering about Harry’s image is the sense of control she has over her onstage antics. Debbie is undoubtedly a sex symbol, but campy winks and nods were always happening under the surface of Harry’s rocker persona. There was a feeling that Harry knew that she was more unpoised, rough, and down-to-earth than her appearance initially lets on. Harry’s fun and down-to-earth personality shine through this entire episode, especially through her interactions with Robin and his Troupe of Frog Scouts. 

The Troupe is trying to earn their “punk merit badges,” and contrasting the scouts’ orderly world with the anarchic world of punk could be considered a silly Muppet Show joke, but there’s more to this plotline going on behind the surface. Punk at its best was a movement of free-expression. Getting to see these little frog Muppets indulge in the Day-Glo hairstyles and pogo dances of punk transmits a subtle message to the kids at home that it’s OK for them to express themselves in ways that can sometimes be seen by the outside world as chaotic and messy.

Even the stodgy old-lady Frog Scout leader Mrs. Applebee gets in on the fun as she is revealed in this segment to be happily adorned in a bunch of safety pins! This plotline also plays with the reality that boys worldwide were utterly enamored with Harry when this episode was released. According to Brian Henson, he was one of those boys, and that is why Jim Henson booked Harry for The Muppet Show in the first place!

We need to take a moment on Harry’s Muppet backing band. The Muppet Show designers had a lot of fun cramming some great details into them. My absolute favorite is the Rocky Horror Show pin the Muppet guitarist sports during “Call Me.” A close runner-up is the outfits the Muppet band are in during “One Way or Another,” dressed like Blondie from the cover of their 1979 hit LP Parallel Lines: skinny ties and all.

Another potentially intentional aspect of the look of the “One Way or Another” number is the use of colored doors in an otherwise foreboding bombed-out set, from which Harry humorously encounters a tiger, a monster, even a Muppet woman showering behind them! These doors resemble Big Bird’s iconic nest set from Sesame Street. Perhaps the Muppet Show’s set designers were trying to draw a comparison, from Sesame Street‘s brighter depiction of urban life to The Muppet Show‘s more frank and slightly adult portrayal.

Everything slows down a bit during a very touching duet between Harry and Kermit the Frog on “[his] rainbow song,” “Rainbow Connection”, which was the only time it was performed on The Muppet Show. Harry reveals a sweetness to her voice and she seems genuinely happy to be singing this iconic song with Kermit/Jim Henson. It’s a notable inclusion in this episode, and I wonder if maybe Harry requested to sing it as a change of pace.

If there’s a lost opportunity here, it’s that there are no interactions between Debbie Harry and Miss Piggy, who I guess would become instant friends. They are both strong women, blond bombshells (Harry was very openly a peroxide-job; Piggy might be playing her natural hair color a little closer to the hock), and Seventies icons. It would have been great to see them together, even just for a throwaway scene.

For some kids and families watching at the time, this episode was probably their first exposure to the complicated world of punk counter culture. It’s an admirable move that The Muppet Show was daring enough to have Debbie Harry on as a guest. The results were more than worth it and probably planted the seeds for some young punks watching. 

Harry’s Muppet Show appearance definitely represents a blip in time where two of the most Seventies of phenomenons: punk, and the Muppets, got to briefly co-exist. It’s surprising how good these two flavors of entertainment taste when intermixed, but when you look at their ingredients, it’s maybe not that surprising at all. Harry’s stint on the show is one of the best episodes in the whole series. Plus, you automatically earn your Frog Scout punk merit badge just by watching it.

From the book “Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie” by Debbie Harry and Chris Stein

Best Joke: The Frog Scouts have invaded backstage, and Kermit asks their Scoutmaster, Mrs. Applebee, to get them under control because there are some “unsafe areas back here.” Cut to a few moments later, and one of the Frog Scouts gets literally thrown out of Animal’s dressing room! Kermit replies, “that’s one of the unsafe areas I was talking about!” This is hilarious because a loose Muppet gets thrown, which is one of my most favorite things in the world and is always worth noting in an episode recap!

Lamest Joke: The Frog Scouts are trying to earn their punk merit badge and ask Debbie for advice because they’re “only tender-flippers.” Harry suggests says that pogo dancing will give them tender-flippers. It’s just, a very, very silly joke and Harry’s campy, New York accented delivery is great.

MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): Gonna give it to Robin for this one, which is such a rarity for him on the show, but he really drives the episode, and it gels so well with Debby Harry as the guest star.

Most Classic Moment: I think Harry singing “Call Me,” her purple-black feathered outfit, the punk Muppets backing her, the set with the neon-glow to it are all pretty iconic.

Should-Be-Classic Moment: Harry aside, the UK spot features an adorable rendition of the song “Forgiven,” featuring a little girl Muppet and Alexander Beetle. It’s pretty charming.

Coolest Puppetry Effect: This isn’t an effect as much as it’s just great puppetry: Gonzo’s penchant for panting is in full effect in his short cameo in this episode. With his buggy eyes and his constant movement, Dave Goelz is filling him with personality here. This is truly a glimpse of Gonzo at his best.

Adultiest Content: When Debbie Harry first enters the Muppet Theater at the beginning of the episode and has her interaction with Pops, she’s wearing her sunglasses indoors. She appears to be playing the scene a little hungover! Maybe her dinner with Jim Henson the night before moved to a bar after?

One More Thing: It’s a shame Debbie Harry was the only member of her scene to make it to The Muppet Show. Can you imagine special guest stars, The Ramones, The B-52’s or even Talking Heads? For me, this would have been pure pop culture nirvana.

One, One More Thing: If you want to learn more about Debbie, Blondie and why they are one of the GOATs, I did a whole podcast about them here!

Click here to express yourself in ways that can sometimes be seen as chaotic and messy on the ToughPigs forum!

by Louie Pearlman

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