Original air date: May 2, 1981
Gladys Knight – Motown legend, actress, one of Kermit’s fellow Masked Singers – is one of the best guest stars The Muppet Show ever had. Every second she spends with them is a gift to us, the audience.
At the beginning of this episode, Gladys Knight strolls into the theater, casually puts her thumbs in her pockets, and cheerfully says “Hi, Pops!” It’s clear from the very beginning that she’s thrilled to be on The Muppet Show. Her energy level never drops, and it’s such an asset. The rest of the opener is a series of jokes about how “Gladys Knight” sounds like “glad it’s night,” and they land because she’s so completely into it.
Kermit describes Gladys as “dynamic,” and he isn’t kidding. She sings three songs, all in different styles. The first (and most up-tempo) is “Friendship Train,” a song she did with the Pips in 1969. The Pips are represented here by a trio of Muppets pinned to a train. That should be awkward, but it isn’t for two reasons. First, the Muppet performers put a lot of life into the Mup-pips’ faces and hands. But even more importantly, Gladys is all in. She pours her heart into it like it’s the performance of her lifetime.
Backstage, her enthusiasm continues. Gladys tells Kermit that “I just love those Mup-pips!” and imitates their hand movements. It’s 100% adorable, and it shows just how at ease Gladys was with the Muppets.
Later, Gladys closes out the show with one of her signature songs, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” This is an unusually fast-paced version of the song, and she knocks it out of the park. She’s backed by singing grapes, and seems delighted when a bunch of grapes starts jumping up and down on her arm. It’s a rousing finale to the episode, but now I want to jump back and talk about her middle number.
In between, she joins Rowlf for a blues number, preceded by a whole bunch of jokes about dogs singing the blues. The two have an easy, natural chemistry, and they end up singing the Billie Holiday classic “God Bless the Child.”
Gladys sounds wonderful as always, but it pains me to say that this song bores me to tears. Now, when I say that it pains me, I absolutely mean that. I want to love it. I’ve tried to love it. I love the idea of it. Gladys Knight doing a blues number on The Muppet Show? That rules, right? The problem must be with me?
I don’t want to sit around complaining about a thing that’s obviously well-done, so I’m bringing in someone who does love it. Tough Pigs pal (and Muppet Show expert) David Beukema cites this as one of his favorite guest star numbers from the show, so I asked him to write a few words about it. Take it away, David:
Why I Love Gladys Knight Singing “God Bless the Child” On The Muppet Show, by David Beukema, age 39.
The Muppet Show’s ostensible stars are The Muppets themselves, and it’s hard not to focus on hilarious and hyper frogs and bears and pigs and chickens and things. They’re so much fun! Playing just as important a role, though, are the human guest stars. Over the course of five seasons, Jim Henson, Lew Grade, and David Lazer booked some of the greatest entertainers of the 20th Century onto their quirky puppet show. These guests made classic moments interacting with The Muppets, but some of their best performances came as standalone showcases.
For a segment that lasts about four minutes (a pretty big amount of real estate in a 25-minute show), Gladys Knight holds court and shows off why she is considered one of the greatest soul singers who ever lived. Singing “God Bless the Child”, Billie Holiday’s signature song, solo and without interruption from Muppets (who instead crowd around her, appropriately in awe), we are reminded that we are in the presence of an immense talent. Gladys sings the song tenderly, passionately, and reverently, a fitting tribute to the late, great Holiday. The song also becomes a brief pause in the usual Muppet frenzy, a cool oasis amongst that chaos. Her rendition is tremendous, too; I have 16 recordings of “God Bless the Child” in my music collection, and in my book, Gladys’s performance of it on The Muppet Show is near-definitive. How marvelous is it that we can say that of a performance on a variety show starring puppets? And how lucky are we to have been exposed to the wonder and artistry of Muppet Show guest stars?
Except Rich Little.
Recently, another Tough Pigs pal, Joghem Jalink, mentioned that you can tell whether a Muppet Show guest star had fun by watching how they behave during the “Good Nights” at the end of the show. That’s certainly the case here – Gladys not only laughs and smiles through the whole thing, she starts bouncing, pretends to shiver, and then lets out an enthusiastic “Woo!”
She’s so clearly having a blast, and so are we. It’s pure joy. You gotta check this one out.
Best Joke: Scooter enthusiastically announces “The act you’ve all been waiting for – the one and only Signor Baffi and his flashing knives of death!” complete with Scooter Fist.
Lamest Joke: A Muppet construction worker tells Kermit “There’s something I don’t like about heights – falling from them.” There’s no other possible end to that statement!
MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): Fozzie has to suffer the indignity of Signor Baffi throwing knives at him, but he also gets to be the conductor on the Friendship Train. So let’s give it to ol’ Fozzie.
Most Dated Joke: It’s not a joke, but Gladys’s fur coat in the good nights couldn’t possibly be more 70s.
Most Classic Moment: One of the all-time great Vet’s Hospital sketches, where the patient is a weatherman who keeps singing weather-related standards.
Coolest Puppetry Effect: The opening number, “Night and Day,” starts out with singing puppet sarcophagi. Then they open up to reveal singing puppet mummies. They both look really cool!
Missed Opportunity: We never got an action figure of Gonzo in his rad Mummy costume.
Musical Highlight: “Gladys Knight sings ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ with Muppet grapes” sounds like a throwaway joke on 30 Rock, but it also sounds incredible because it’s Gladys Knight singing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
Obscure Character Watch: The UK sketch is the song “Alley Oop,” sung by Steve Whitmire as a cool-looking bald caveman with an orange beard. I love that guy. He should make a comeback.
One More Thing…: I didn’t get into the backstage plot, about a construction crew’s work causing the roof to fall in, but it’s very funny.
Okay, One More Thing…: The “Alley Oop” song starts with the line “There’s a man in the funny papers we all know.” Can you imagine a world where we *all* know the comic strip Alley Oop? What a time that must have been to be alive.
Click here to be glad it’s night on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Anthony Strand