The Muppet Show: 40 Years Later – Gene Kelly

Published: February 26, 2021
Categories: Feature, Reviews

Today’s article was written by longtime ToughPigs friend and Gene Kelly enthusiast Sarah Elizabeth Grace! Many thanks to Sarah for her hard work!

Original air date: February 28, 1981

It’s the end of the world! The greatest golden age movie musical star is there, but he refuses to perform! What will happen in tonight’s Muppet Show? Who knows?!

Well, if you’re like me, you know what happens because you’ve (through back channels) seen this episode at least a dozen times. Yes, until last Friday we had to watch the Gene Kelly episode via grainy YouTube uploads and on-the-down-low file transfers. But now, thanks to Disney+, when we can finally watch The Muppet Show season four and five in clear definition! Yay! 

Over four years ago, when my partner Joe Hennes (maybe you’ve heard of him) told me he was getting writers to review each Muppet Show episode, he offered me the Gene Kelly episode. I. Love. Gene. Kelly. He was literally my biggest crush in high school (no offense Zac Effron) and I’ve seen almost all of his films multiple times over. Every August 23rd, I’ll watch one of his films and this episode to celebrate his birthday. 

Of course not everyone is as obsessed with Gene Kelly as I am. Most people who know the song “Singin’ in the Rain” couldn’t tell you who sang it, or what the movie is about. But that man jumping on a street light, arm outstretched with an umbrella in hand, literally singing in the rain, is a milestone in American entertainment that reverberates through generations, cultures, and classes. Just. Like. The Muppets. 

Jim Henson and his team constantly used old Hollywood songs and references in The Muppet Show, so it’s no surprise that older stars typically fit right in. When Joe and I have watched the Golden Age movie musicals together, he’ll start to sing along and I’d be surprised how he knew the number, having never seen the movie. He’d always answer: “Oh it’s from The Muppet Show!”

Back to Gene. The writers know how to utilize a living legend like Gene Kelly, giving the audience what we want but in an unexpected way. The first number he actually participates in (he cheers from the wings for the adorable penguins and seals in the opening number “Jambalaya”) is Kermit’s dance lesson. When he mentions that he used to be a dance teacher, that’s actually correct! He taught at his family-owned Gene Kelly Dance School in Pittsburgh before moving to New York. The number, “The Worry Song”, is a send-up to a number in the Kelly film “Anchors Away”, where Kelly’s character teaches Jerry the Mouse how to dance. Originally MGM wanted Mickey Mouse, but Disney refused to loan him out. And now Disney owns the Muppets! Oh Disney. You sure own a lot of things! Kermit tap dances against a black piano, allowing for Jim Henson and other puppeteers to conceal themselves in the black fabric. Practical effects and nostalgia – my favorite!

The magic continues to grow in the next number, when Piggy literally begs to sing with Gene. I don’t blame her one bit! I definitely would! He holds her in his arms and they have a sweet, if not a little absurd, love duet with “You Wonderful You”, originally sung with Judy Garland in his film “Summer Stock”. 

But then the real magic of “You Wonderful You” occurs when Gonzo interrupts the number. Piggy has to get into her costume for her next sketch, and Gonzo replaces her spot in Gene’s arms. There’s a moment of Gene going “Um, ok?” but then it’s full commitment from both Gonzo and Gene. Big smiles, they’re both in on the joke but also, at the same time, it’s not a joke. He even boops Gonzo on the nose! 

This is why the Muppets are evergreen, imprinted on almost everyone’s hearts no matter their age, level of fandom, or background. It’s this perfect blend of unexpected chaos and inclusive joy. It’s a “yes and” attitude. The same can be said for the plucky movie musicals of old Hollywood. If you haven’t recently watched Singin’ in the Rain, I highly recommend it. It’s as funny and beautiful as anything made today. 

Then it’s no wonder that Kermit is desperate for Gene to perform the titular song, knowing full well the guest star has decided to only watch the show. With a perfect replica of the movie’s set ready to go, Kermit sends out the desperate-to-perform Lubbock Lou and his Jughuggers to sing “Cool Water” in the pouring rain. After their disastrous 20 second performance, Gene Kelly compassionately asks Kermit: “You were really hoping I’d do ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, right?” He explains he won’t sing it because people would get sick of it if he sang it too often. Just like “Rainbow Connection”, huh, Gene? Look, a classic is a classic, and the Muppets know it.

Rowlf, goading him with the “Singing in the Rain” vamp, ends up creating a medley of old Gene Kelly movie musical songs for him to sing. First it’s the American in Paris song “‘S Wonderful” with Scooter, then “You Were Meant for Me” with Miss Piggy, and then a song from his cinematic debut, the titular song “For Me and My Gal”, sung along with the whole Muppet gang. Gene happily surrenders to this sweet cozy backstage joy, and asks Rowlf to play the vamp one more time. 

Gene Kelly, almost thirty years after he originally performed it, sings an intimate ballad of “Singin’ in the Rain”. I cry every time. Pushing seventy, this living legend still has old Hollywood charm and a playful edge. The piano picks up a little, and our guest star puts a spring in his step as he opens up an out-of-nowhere umbrella and walks out onto the perfectly-recreated Singing in the Rain set. Rowlf’s bare-bones instrumental plays as Gene Kelly realizes there’s no rain, folds his umbrella, and strolls off into the night. Okay, crying again. 

The Gene Kelly episode is an intersection of timeless tokens of pop culture in one 26 minute chunk of time. And the perfect button on Gene Kelly’s career (thankfully airing after Xanadu). 

Best Joke: Link telling the announcer to “get your mommy to kiss it” after the Pigs in Space announcer says he hurt his ankle. It’s very sincere, making it a very weird look into Link’s personal life. 

Lamest Joke: The gay panic of the two male dogs kissing after chasing around the fiddle-playing lady dog in “Fit as Fiddle”

MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): The Pigs in Space/Veterinarian’s Hospital announcer who finally shows his face only to die (okay, probably just knocked unconscious) at the hands of Piggy. Don’t hold out on someone when they ask you for the meaning of life!

Most Classic Moment: Can’t beat the piano medley at the end.

Should-Be-Classic Moment: Gonzo and Gene’s duet. Don’t date anyone who won’t look at you the way they look at each other! 

Coolest Puppetry Effect: How did that jug band puppet have water in its foam mouth?! 

Missed Opportunity: I know Gene Kelly probably wasn’t capable of dancing more than a little soft-shoe at this point in his life, but what I’d give for him to have a full-on dance number with someone like Doglion. 

One More Thing…: For most of us, having access to old films has always been possible during our lifetime, and therefore we can understand and enjoy references to movies that were made before we were born. When this aired, however, movie rentals weren’t widely accessible. So the enjoyment of the nostalgic references in this or any other “living legends” episode are purely for those who actually saw the films in theaters at the time! Therefore, Jim Henson and the rest of the writers of The Muppet Show were attempting to preserve and reintroduce these cultural monoliths for another generation!

Okay, One More Thing…: The plot of this episode involves Beauregard panicking over the end of the world, an in-reference to the fact that this was the final Muppet Show episode to be filmed. Not that you’d know, as there are 21 episodes listed after it on Disney+.

Click here to serenade a weirdo on the ToughPigs forum!

by Sarah Elizabeth Grace

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