If you’re reading this article the day it comes out, there’s about one week left until The Muppet Show hits Disney+, when episodes with guest stars like Johnny Cash are no longer lost to the sands of time. Finally, people other than those of us who taped this episode off of the TV when it aired in syndication can enjoy it!
Considering Johnny Cash is possibly the most famous of all the celebrities to ever appear on The Muppet Show, a lot of people are going to be watching this one, probably for the first time. And I’m glad they’re going to get to see Gonzo, riding a cow, atonally singing “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” because, yeah, that’s what the Muppets should be all about.
So if you’re as hyped for that as I am, you might have already checked out the landing page Disney posted for The Muppet Show on Disney+, in hopes that maybe you’ll hear the whispers of Gonzo’s singing voice echoing across the prairie. If you do that (and you’re on certain platforms), you’ll see, in addition to a description and a lovely photo of Kermit and Fozzie, a warning from the Walt Disney Corporation. It reads:
“This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.”
So let’s have a conversation, because the Johnny Cash episode features not one, not two, not three, but six sketches with a visible Confederate flag in the background.
In a way, this makes sense. These sketches all take place on the same set, a stereotypical southern barn-turned-concert venue, and that’s not exactly an uncommon sight in these places. But as has been made especially clear in recent years, the Confederate flag isn’t just a simple signifier of the South. It has been used with hateful intent, to emphasize the white supremacist history of slavery in America, by both those with ties to the Confederacy and those who simply appreciate its racist ideals.
Recently, there has absolutely been a reckoning regarding this flag, with many states officially removing it and other Confederate imagery from government buildings, but as we all know, it still appears in harmful places, like at the January 6 capitol raid.
And here it is, behind Fozzie Bear trying to tell a joke about a walrus.
It’s weird, you know? The Muppet Show absolutely isn’t using it in a hateful way. Lew Zealand sings a song about fish puns; he isn’t being racist. Johnny Cash himself was a pretty good dude, who worked very hard to support rights for Native Americans throughout his career. But it’s a fact that indicates just how prevailing the ideals of white supremacy can be in our society, because the Muppet team felt they needed a Confederate flag to convey that the show was country music-themed. What does it mean that those two were so linked? How can we move away from this?
These are big questions, and certainly far too big for me, a white guy whose only area of expertise is Muppet background characters (you can see T.R. the Rooster in the background of some shots, the puppet that would become Howard Tubman’s butler Carter shows up in the opening number… you know the drill). But ignoring the meaning of these questions was how we wound up in this situation in the first place, pretending a symbol of hate is just a neutral background object.
So yeah, I’d rather simply talk about this episode, and how annoying Big Tiny Tallsaddle and his cohort are. But getting this stuff out in the open is simply just more important.
Best Joke: It’s probably the best moment of the episode, actually. After Fozzie’s comedy act is ruined by the insults of Wally Whoopie, Kermit is forced to stand up for his friend. Kermit lays on the compliments, but keeps neglecting to include “funny.” Fozzie desperately (and fruitlessly) keeps pointing this out. It’s always nice to be reminded of the duo’s friendship, especially when it’s this funny.
Worst Joke: Waldorf says, “If men that ride horses are called cowboys, what do you call chickens that ride cows?” Statler responds, “Stupid!”
This isn’t even a joke.
MVM: Kermit gets really angry in this one, as his show keeps getting hijacked by Big Tiny Tallsaddle and his country music crew. An angry Kermit is a good Kermit.
Most Classic Moment: For the closing number, Johnny Cash and Miss Piggy sing some of “Jackson.” According to our pals at Muppet Wiki, this is one of the only recorded instances of Johnny Cash singing this song with anyone other than his wife.
Best Song: As mentioned, it’s absolutely “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” which is just a fabulous song to begin with.
One More Thing: Johnny Cash is so cool, folks. Did you know he performed five songs on Sesame Street? They’re all really memorable, but if you haven’t seen him perform “Nasty Dan” with Oscar, you should watch that now:
Click here to have an important conversation on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Evan G