The Muppet Show: 40 Years Later – James Coburn

Published: October 9, 2020
Categories: Feature, Reviews

Original air date: October 11, 1980

Racism is a pesky li’l thing, isn’t it?

There you are, watching It’s one of your favorite TV shows – The Muppet Show. The guest star is the amazing James Coburn. You loved him in Charade, Duck You Sucker!, The Americanization of Emily, even Hudson Hawk. The man is a legend, and you can’t wait to see what he does with your old pals The Muppets.

Most of the episode lives up to your expectations. He calls Pops “Bub”! He shows Animal the correct way to bust up a chair! He stars in a delightful sketch about 1920s gangsters, one of your favorite genres! He uses Gonzo’s nose as a can opener! This rules, what a great episode, The Muppet Show is the best TV show ever made!

But then you get to the closing number, which is just a bunch of lazy racist jokes about Asia, and you sadly turn off the TV.

The final number is presented as “a salute to Japan.” James tells Kermit he wants to do “something more enlightened” than a cowboy sketch. Indeed, the sketch starts out okay, with James playing the gong while Animal interrupts. The joke there is that James is trying to respectfully perform the art of Japanese gong music, but Animal keeps messing it up. That’s pretty good!

But then the sketch is invaded by cowboys, and James starts calling an “East meets West” square dance. This is where the jokes get real questionable, including:

  1. The supporting players in the sketch are “the Toyko Tai-Chi, Karate, and Chowder Society.” This is the first signal that when they say “Japan” they really just mean “Asia.”
  2. The only time we hear one of them speak, it’s Kathy Mullen (a white puppeteer) doing a stereotypical “Engrish” delivery.
  3. James mentions Egg Foo Young, a Chinese dish, and Kung Fu, the Chinese martial arts.
  4. James rhymes “backy” (not a word) with “a cup of hot sacky” (not how you pronounce sake).
  5. The first line of the square dance is “Lean your partners to and fro, all join in with an “Ah so so!” and James makes a squinty-eyed face. 

On their own, none of these is the most offensive joke ever written. But they all show a complete disinterest in Japan, supposedly the subject of a salute. These are all references to things white people say about a generic Asia that’s all one big country. There’s no real affection for Japan. It’s a salute to “Hey, remember Charlie Chan movies? That’s probably what Japan is like.”

That’s what I mean when I say that racism is pesky. I don’t believe that the Muppet Show writers had any malicious intent with this sketch. They didn’t set out to make fun of Japan. But they didn’t bother to think beyond surface-level stereotypes either. All of these jokes and references were common in their childhoods, so they just went ahead and used them.

That’s how stereotypes get perpetuated – they’re unthinkingly passed down from a piece of media to its audience. This encourages the audience to absorb them and think of them as real information about a culture, in this case because it’s all presented as “a salute to Japan.” It reassures the audience that stereotypes are all true, and that’s all they never need to learn about another culture.

Yeah, it’s just a dumb comedy sketch. But I want The Muppet Show to be better than that, because it’s so good at everything else.

Lamest Joke: Waldorf on the octopus in their box: “You can’t throw him out! He’s a family man! He’s got a wife and squids!”

Best Joke: But then the Octopus pushes Waldorf out of the balcony, and I laughed very loudly for a very long time.

MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): Animal, who meditates with James Coburn *and* beats up an entire band of octopi.

Most Classic Moment: The best-ever Bear on Patrol sketch, featuring one of my favorite Muppets of all-time, Banananose Moldenado.

Should-Be-Classic Moment: That Roaring 20s gangster sketch really is a blast. I wish that had been the closing number instead.

Most Dated Joke: Kermit mentions The Gong Show, a show that is even more 70s than The Muppet Show.

First Appearance Of…: Betsy Bird, a full-body Muppet performed by dancer/animator Betsy Baytos. We watch her dance for a few minutes, and it would honestly be a lot more impressive if she wasn’t in a full-body Muppet costume.

Missed Opportunity: Maybe they should have just had Betsy Baytos on as a guest star!

Musical Highlight: Wayne sings “Close to You” in a curly blue wig and mustache. This disguise allows him to finish the song, which means we get to hear Richard Hunt’s beautiful tenor voice for longer than usual.

Adultiest Content: In the cold open, James Coburn pulls out a gun and shoots at Scooter twice. He does not murder him.

One More Thing…: Camilla sings along with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” during the Roaring 20s sketch. I don’t know about you, but I always find it unsettling when chickens speak English.

Okay, One More Thing…: Banananose Moldenado’s wanted poster says “State of Texas” on it. Does Bear on Patrol take place in Texas?!

Click here to ride in the squid car on the ToughPigs forum!

by Anthony Strand

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