Anthony Strand: Last year, I was joined by my wife Roz for a discussion of her least-favorite episode, Rich Little. Today she’s here for a more positive discussion of her all-time favorite episode, Harry Belafonte. Thanks for joining me here on the couch, Roz!
Roz Strand: You’re welcome, honey! I love contributing to Tough Pigs every now and then, and I’m honored that we get to review this one, because like you said: it is the best.
Anthony: You’re not alone in ranking it that way. It’s a fan favorite for sure.
Roz: Yeah! It has everything that a regular Muppet Show has – great music, hilarious sketches, complete nonsense. But it also has this spirit to it brought by Harry Belafonte, but shared by Jim Henson. They both wanted to change the world, and this episode shows that.
Anthony: You think this episode was an attempt to change it?
Roz: Yeah! Harry Belafonte’s a musical legend at this point. He paved the way for a lot of artists from around the world coming to the US to make it big, and specifically a lot of black artists. So this is a big moment. It’s a meeting of two geniuses.
Anthony: I agree with that. But before we talk about Harry Belafonte’s songs, let’s talk about the other stuff in this episode. You mentioned that you tend to forget about all of it because it isn’t Harry Belafonte.
Roz: Which is odd, because it’s usually the opposite. I remember all the Muppet-only sketches first and the guest star isn’t the most memorable bit.
Anthony: So, with all of these sketches fresh in your mind, what stood out on this viewing?
Roz: Well, the backstage story is hilarious and pointless.
Anthony: Fozzie as the scriptwriter? That’s one of my favorite stories they ever did.
Roz: Well, I know! You put it on a Muppet love songs mix CD for me when we were dating!
Anthony: Well, if you’re gonna make a CD of all Muppet love songs, there’s only one way to introduce it, and that’s with “Laggies and Genglefins.” That whole bit makes me laugh out loud every single time. Also when Fozzie gets his tie stuck in the typewriter.
Roz: Yeah! Also, this is probably one of the best “Pigs in Space” sketches because it’s so meta. Because it starts out like a regular sketch, but then Strangepork switches Piggy and Link, which, how hard must that have been for the puppeteers?
Anthony: What do you mean? They just switched puppets.
Roz: They just switched puppets, but Frank Oz is always talking about how they’re characters, they’re more than just voices. And here they destroy that for the sake of a joke. Which would have been good enough. That would have been funny. But then, for no reason at all, Strangepork sounds like Janice, Janice runs in, Link starts screaming for Kermie, and then Kermit is the Swedish Chef. None of this makes any sense. It kind of just seems like the puppeteers all got drunk and just started messing around with puppets. That’s what it seems like it’s derived from.
Anthony: You know what else is insane?
Anthony: Rowlf and Lew Zealand singing “Tea for Two” backwards.
Roz: That’s impressive. Why is it those two?
Anthony: Who knows! But it just makes it weirder and funnier.
Roz: But would it be funny without Fozzie’s script?
Anthony: That’s one of the best jokes in that storyline. “Curtain opens. Lew Zealand and Rowlf do something funny. Curtain closes.”
Roz: Frank Oz is so on in all of this. Even Fozzie switching his hat from “Banana Boat” back to his regular hat is hilarious.
Anthony: Yeah, this is a great Fozzie episode. So next let’s talk about Harry Belafonte’s three big numbers in the show. You just brought up “The Banana Boat Song,” which is first and is decidedly the silliest of the three.
Roz: They didn’t hold anything back on that. It’s so Muppety.
Anthony: It’s full of great little touches. Obviously you have all the stuff with Beauregard not knowing what bananas are, and Fozzie –
Roz: Wanting to make it perfect.
Anthony: See, I was gonna say “losing control” but yours works too.
Roz: Yeah, wanting to make it perfect and then losing control.
Anthony: But then they also give Fozzie the additional joke of not being able to sing the “Day-Os” in time. Which is an example of what makes that sketch so great. It keeps going to new places and doing new things, adding new jokes.
Roz: The little tarantula, and his surprising voice, and then him getting into a labor dispute with the parrot.
Anthony: Both Jerry Nelson!
Roz: And then Harry Belafonte pulls them all together with music. Which should just be sweet, but then they still make it funny, with Fozzie not being able to sing on cue. And even when Harry shudders because Fozzie can’t get it right – I’ve done that with our own kids, because you can’t get them to stop but you love them so much. That makes me laugh out loud to see him shudder because he can’t control these Muppets.
Roz: And we have to mention Beauregard’s dancing! It’s so funny the way that Dave Goelz is using him, just wobbling and bouncing across the screen. It’s amazing. Beauregard hardly says anything in this, but once he stops getting beaten by Fozzie, he just starts dancing to it because the song is so good.
Anthony: Another small thing that I really love is Link wearing a three-piece suit with an ascot up in the corner. He doesn’t do anything or contribute to the sketch in any way except being part of the pig chorus, but he made sure to dress his best when Harry Belafonte’s on the show, and I love it so much.
Roz: Really, we could write a whole article just about this sketch, but we should probably move on.
Anthony: Okay, so that brings us to Harry Belafonte’s drum battle with Animal. To me, the most impressive thing about that is that it makes me forget that Animal can’t actually play the drums. It just seems like two guys playing drums.
Roz: I’m most impressed that I actually get a melody of a beat in my head. It doesn’t sound random like a lot of drum battles. It sounds like music. And it shouldn’t. They both look like they’re just losing their minds. Animal almost makes a full circle.
Anthony: I think the physicality is a huge part of what makes it so great. Frank Oz is doing these very subtle movements with Animal throughout, and Harry Belafonte almost becomes the more Muppety of the two. He does these huge exaggerated movements to make up for it, and the contrast works so well.
Roz: I think it works so well because Animal would move like that if he were a full-size human.
Anthony: But he has arm rods, so he can’t. Ready to talk about “Turn the World Around”?
Roz: I am always ready to talk about “Turn the World Around”! It’s gotta be one of the most iconic bits that the Muppets ever did, because they designed those ornate African masks for the song. And they’ve used the image of those masks in other Muppet stuff.
Anthony: A Celebration of 30 Years.
Roz: Yeah, that’s how loved it was.
Anthony: And Harry Belafonte sang it at Jim Henson’s Memorial Service.
Roz: You can tell how much respect they have for it. They give Harry a chance to give that prologue to Fozzie to explain where it came from. It’s a real Reading Rainbow moment. You get to see everything about it.
Anthony: The song itself is so gorgeous. The African rhythms, the also the lyrics. They’re so simple but so powerful. You talked about this being a meeting between Harry Belafonte and Jim Henson, two geniuses, and this song combines the messages that they both spent their careers talking about. It’s the message of unity and respect that Harry Belafonte spent the Civil Rights movement talking about.
Roz: Even now. He just did it in BlacKkKlansman. He’s still fighting.
Anthony: True. But it’s also the message of Fraggle Rock.
Roz: Yeah, that really, really speaks to me. I think that Harry Belafonte has probably sung this song other places and had an impact on people. But the movement and the visuals that Jim Henson adds to this amazing song makes anyone watching want to join in and be one with everyone in one heart, one body, and one spirit.
Anthony: I can’t think of a way to top that. Let’s just watch this episode again.
Best Joke: Leggies and Genglefins. We both say this *all the time.*
Lamest Joke: The Muppet Sports blindfold race isn’t bad, but it’s definitely the weakest thing in a near-perfect episode.
MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): Fozzie, the scriptwriter.
Most Classic Moment: “Turn the World Around,” of course. “Banana Boat” is a close second.
Should-Be-Classic Moment: Beauregard always thought bananas was peachies. Dave Goelz’s delivery of that line is magnificent.
Most Dated Joke: When Fozzie gets his tie stuck in the typewriter, he looks at the camera and says “I wonder if this ever happened to Neil Simon.” That’s how you know it’s the 70s.
Coolest Puppetry Effect: The way the African masks move is so fluid. They also have a wide variety of mouth types, which are unusual for The Muppet Show.
Musical Highlight: It’s the three Harry Belafonte numbers. Haven’t you been paying attention?
Missed Opportunity: Not expanding the show to an hour for this week.
Obscure Character Watch: The parrot who will someday be named Eric. I love that guy!
One More Thing…: Belafonte says that he’s never sung “The Banana Boat Song” on TV before, but he had once – on The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1955, 24 years earlier.
Okay, One More Thing…: Be sure to read Muppet Wiki’s page for this episode, which has a ton of behind-the-scenes info including thoughts from Harry Belafonte himself.
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by Anthony Strand and Roz Strand