The Muppet Show: 40 Years Later – Jean-Pierre Rampal

Published: January 15, 2021
Categories: Feature, Reviews

Original air date: January 17, 1981

If you’re reading the headline of this recap and wondering who Jean-Pierre Rampal is, you’re not alone. I had no clue who he was before I rewatched this episode. If you asked me to pick Rampal out of a lineup of random Muppet Show guest stars, I wouldn’t be able to. 

Always up for a challenge, I did some in-depth research (i.e., opening Wikipedia) on Rampal before I watched the episode. I learned that he was a French flutist who returned the flute to prominence as a classical solo instrument after it was just another woodwind in the orchestra for so long. He had a brilliant and lyrical way of playing, which captured many fans’ ears and imaginations throughout his sixty-year career. Although he was most known for bringing back various Baroque pieces into the Classical Music firmament, Rampal didn’t shy away from playing popular music, too, melding the worlds of high art and low art. This puts him right at home with the Muppets and Jim Henson’s aesthetic. It’s not discussed enough, but The Muppet Show did a great job making more complex forms of art accessible to a broad audience and mashing it up with a hearty dose of pop culture.

Although Jean-Pierre Rampal is definitely not a versatile 70’s-era variety show superstar (he does no singing or dancing here, because I’m guessing he can’t), he is a good sport. He brings a casualness to his interactions with the Muppets, making the whole episode as breezy to watch as a relaxed flute solo. This was at a stage in the show’s production where the writing and performance teams really knew how to maximize their guest-star’s talents. We definitely don’t get a repeat of the Sly Stalone debacle here, and that’s a colossal relief!

Most of his interactions during this episode feature Miss Piggy, who makes an excellent foil for him, as he speaks French to her and she pretends to respond. But guess what? Piggy doesn’t actually speak French. A shocker, I know! At one point, Rampal refers to Piggy as “a great artist… a great CON artist!” This joke lands nicely and offers an insight into Piggy’s motivations that I think modern writers of the character don’t always get right. Piggy is written somewhat dumb and clumsy these days, but we all know she’s trying to pull off being a “perfect” star. In our modern culture, that means she’s trying to be beautiful but aspirational: someone you can follow on Instagram with millions of followers but still feel like you could have lunch with if you ever met in person. What I like about Piggy here is that it’s so clear that she’s a toughie (when Kermit flat-out tells her she can’t speak French, she replies, “Cool-it Green-o!”) who’s trying to appear to be elegant. She’s desperately trying to con everyone, and it’s an identifiable and sympathetic personality trait.

This is reinforced by the musical number that Piggy and Rampal perform together: “Lo! Hear the Gentle Lark,” where she has absolutely no clue when to come in. Afterward, she claims that she’s not used to performing with a flutist, and Rampal replies that he’s not used to performing with a singer. Guess they’re both divas in their own way!

Rampal is given a lot more to do without Piggy, and it’s all pretty delightful. His closing number is an excellent spin on the Pied Piper story in which a bunch of evil babies has invaded a town of peaceful rats. Rampal plays a killer arrangement of “Ease on Down the Road” from the classic 1974 broadway musical The Wiz to rescue the village from the babies. Props also have to go to Steve Whitmire as Rizzo, who gets to sing a great little solo. Rizzo doesn’t sing enough on The Muppet Show. For such a sleaze, he has good pipes!

The episode contains a much needed quiet moment as well, as Rampal plays “The Little Shepard” to a bunch of gentle Muppet birds. One of the Robins from the previous “Rockin Robin” number explains to Rampal that birds love flute music. In one of the sweetest replies in the history of The Muppet Show, Rampal responds that flutists love birds. Although this part of the show is a little slow, it’s really satisfying watching Rampal do his thing with a group of sweet birds in rapt attention.

I didn’t know who Jean-Pierre Rampal was before watching this episode, but I’m glad I know now. Not only is he a world-class musician, but he’s also effortlessly funny, a sharp sparring partner for Miss Piggy, and most importantly, a good sport. It’s these attributes that make watching this episode such a breeze.

Best Joke: 

Statler: One more chorus would’ve killed the pig!
Waldorf: Encore! Encore!

It’s fast, it’s mean, it’s classic Statler and Waldorf.

MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): This episode is all about Piggy, and it’s great.

Most Classic Moment: The segment when Jean-Pierre Rampal is playing “The Little Shepard” is pretty sublime.

Should-Be-Classic-Moment: Jim Henson puppetry fans, please take a look at Rowlf on keys as he accompanies Rampal and Miss Piggy on “Lo! Hear the Gentle Lark!” because he is straight-up killing it. As Rowlf tries to franticly keep up with the pace of the piece, he is giving a bunch of hysterical looks over to Piggy and Rampal, all the while frenetically banging on the piano and giving us maximum ear-wagging. It’s definitely a background moment that Henson is giving his absolute all to.

Musical Highlight: I like Jean-Pierre Rampal’s contributions to this episode, but I love the opening number that doesn’t feature him. The Electric Mayhem is perched up in a tree in the absolutely classic sequence, singing “Rockin’ Robin” with a flock of birds. I love Richard Hunt’s breezy lead vocals as Janice and Animal’s random “Tweet tweets” as the song goes on.

Coolest Puppetry Effect: I don’t know if this is really an effect, but I love the electric sledgehammer’s look in the Muppet Labs segment. Such attention to detail was played with every item that inhabited the world of the Muppet Theater.

Adultiest Content: Two random French Muppets are getting totally frisky during the UK-only “La Seine” number. Someone should throw a glass of water on them! Cool off thirsty Whatnots; this is a family show!

One More Thing… I did not mention the fab conga sequence featuring Marvin Suggs and our pals from Veterinarians Hospital through this whole review. For shame!

Click here to toot on your flute on the ToughPigs forum!

by Louie Pearlman

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