Original air date: March 1, 2020

I really, really hate magicians.

Just to clarify: I don’t hate magic. Magic is great. It’s magicians that drive me bananas. The innate showmanship of magic acts often makes the performers give off an air of mystery that I only see as an exclamation of “I know something you don’t know.” Stage magic is a series of tricks that only a few are privy to, and I feel frustrated at being left out of the secret.

Magic, on the other hand, is something really special, and this episode of The Muppet Show is full of it. When it’s done well, it can create an experience like no other. But it takes a very special type of magician to pull it off.

I’ve always wondered what the big deal was with Doug Henning. He’s such a product of his time – goofy hair, goofy smile, loud wardrobe, and vacant eyes. And all that attached to a broom-like mustache. He must’ve been an incredible performer to gain so much notoriety in his time. Well, whatever he had, he forgot to bring it to The Muppet Show. Thankfully, The Muppet Show already has an expert magician: Jim Henson.

Henning attempts four magic tricks throughout the episode, and they’re all terrific opportunities to leave the room and make a snack. During the cold open, he performs some close-up magic with disappearing and reappearing shells. He does the “Zig Zag Girl” trick that we’ve all seen a million times. He makes some tissues dance. He locks a lady in a box, then switches places with her.

Each of these tricks crawl at a snail’s pace. They all have Muppets in them, but none actually use them in a fun or interesting way. And they all have camera edits, so any magic we might be tricked into thinking is real could be explained by the “magician” in the editing room. Not even Doug Henning’s mustache could save them.

Meanwhile, the entire episode is riddled with Muppet magic – some obvious and some incredibly subtle. For example, Miss Piggy sings “It’s Magic” for the opening number, as Kermit phases in and out while magically altering the background. Sure, it’s all probably done with Chroma Key and some post-production tricks, but when Piggy ends the song by smothering and kissing Kermit, only for him to vanish again, it’s not a camera trick – Jim Henson just drops Kermit out of frame as Frank Oz expertly performs Miss Piggy as she reacts to the incredible disappearing frog. Anyone would be floored by the incredible magic the Muppet performers could pull off.

Later, Kermit explains the effect as “a lot of electronic trickery”, which is such a classic Jim Henson move. He knows that the magic can be made more special by letting viewers in on the secret. He doesn’t need to walk you through every step of the process, but by giving the viewer a peek under the curtain, the effect becomes less of a spectacle and more of an inspiration. Memorably, this notion would be expanded on in the Jim Henson Hour episode, “Secrets of the Muppets.”

In another scene, Robin sings a sweet song – “Leave Me Some Magic” – from Doug Henning’s dressing room. At first glance, it’s simplicity at its finest (something Robin excels at), with just one Muppet in an empty room. But upon further inspection, Robin appears to be sitting in a chair with nothing beneath it – certainly no room for a performer. Once again, Muppet magic astonishes, and I bet 95% of viewers never even noticed.

Meanwhile, all this great stuff is juxtaposed by Doug Henning boring me to tears with his magic acts. The aforementioned “Zig Zag Girl” sketch is the worst culprit. He elects one of the ugliest Muppets I’ve ever seen (credited on the Muppet Wiki as “Doug Henning’s Assistant“, probably because they burned the costume to release whatever evil spirits inhabited it before it could be given a name), which looks like it belongs in a carnival game where you throw bean bags at its head.

The creature is put into the Zig Zag box, the parts become rearranged, and it emerges with its head swapped with its midsection. And man, I don’t know what it is, but it’s not magic. It’s just disturbing.

As much as I disliked whatever it was Doug Henning was trying to do, maybe the real trick he pulled was giving us an opportunity to notice the real magic Jim Henson was creating every week on The Muppet Show.

Best Joke: The “plot” of this episode (if any Muppet Show episode really has a plot) involves Fozzie Bear trying to be a magician and accidentally summoning dozens of rabbits. As he tries to pull a rabbit out of his hat, he first summons a rabbi (“You was expecting the Pope, maybe?”) and a robot (“You were expecting the R2-D2, maybe?”).

Lamest Joke: The post-credits bit featured one of Fozzie’s rabbits in Statler and Waldorf’s box saying “Th-th-th-that’s all folks!” and being hit in the head with a mallet by Waldorf. I’m not quite sure why there’s a Looney Tunes reference or what it has to do with magic. The Muppet Show rarely does references disguised as jokes, which makes this feel like an abandoned Family Guy gag.

MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): Robin! Because he’s a real frog! Sitting in a chair and everything!

Coolest Puppetry Effect: There are a few great ones in this episode. One of which is Fozzie’s top hat, which has a false bottom to allow for the rabbi, robot, and rabbits to pop through. That’s not the cool part – what’s impressive is how the rest of the rabbits literally shoot out of the hat like a cannon. I legitimately have no idea how they did it.

Missed Opportunity: With all the magic talk, it would’ve been great to let Jim Henson really give a wink to the camera with one of his more impressive puppetry tricks. Basically, I want a “think about that, folks” moment.

Obscure Character Watch: Some of the creepy bird people from the Liberace episode show up to assist Henning in a trick.

Adultiest Content: A hunter asks Fozzie if he can have his rabbits. Then he opens fire in the theater to try and kill them all. It got real dark, real fast.

One More Thing…: In one scene, one of the rabbits sneaks on stage while Kermit introduces an act. As Kermit flails his arms, the rabbit does too. It’s adorable.

Okay, One More Thing…: Okay, one more Muppet magic moment. When Kermit introduces Miss Piggy’s song, he reads from a note she wrote. Kermit holds the note with one hand and follows along with his finger on the other hand. And for one brief moment (of many), I forget that Kermit isn’t a real frog.

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by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com

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