The Muppet Show: 40 Years Later – Lesley Ann Warren

Published: February 8, 2019
Categories: Feature, Reviews

Original air date: February 8, 1979

When I was assigned to write about the Lesley Ann Warren episode of The Muppet Show a while back, I thought, Sure, I’ll write about this guest star I’ve never heard of… as long as it doesn’t need to be written until after the New Year (I’m an educator, and it was the beginning of the school year).  Upon watching, I was therefore incredibly delighted to discover that while I did not know Ms. Warren by name, I certainly knew her by face, as she portrays none other than cheeky Miss Scarlet in the cult-classic Clue!

This delightful season three episode already has all the trappings of a successful Muppet Show episode:  A “Pigs in Space” sketch, a daredevil stunt by Gonzo (that lands him and a motorcycle in Statler and Waldorf’s balcony), and an ongoing wordplay gag (the cast and crew think their guest is either a knife-throwing or dancing cucumber act, both named “Lesley and Warren,” or Les, Lee, and Warren, a colorful trio with an unspecified act, all of whom Kermit seems surprised to see—whose job is it to book these guests anyway?!).

And yet, the segment that stuck with me was a sketch that was decidedly un-Muppety for most of its duration. The first onstage sketch of the episode is an interpretation of the Beauty and the Beast ballet with Doglion (I’d be curious to know who was inside his costume!) playing the beast to Warren’s Belle.

The choreography is actually pretty incredible and I admit to getting lost in the dance. I remember calling out “I need to see who choreographed this” and was not surprised to learn that it was none other than Dame Gillian Lynne, the original choreographer of Cats and Phantom of the Opera! I’ll admit to being one of the many Broadway fans who criticizes Cats for being devoid of plot (a position I’ve coincidentally had cause to share numerous times after TV comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend recently did a Cats pastiche with the same central thesis), yet there is no denying that the dancing redeems that production and certainly left an impression on me in this one.

Even though I assumed at some point the writers would insert something humorous into the sketch (which they do in the final five seconds of the ballet when Belle essentially transforms into a mini-Doglion before they exit the stage in classic vaudevillian style), they went nearly four whole minutes putting on what was simply an engaging and well-executed ballet. I also need to give a shout-out to whomever constructed the set, which cleverly uses perspective to create a elegant backdrop to the dance.

Sometimes The Muppet Show has a musical segment that plays really seriously (think Florence Henderson’s bizarre rendition of “Elusive Butterfly” or even Warren’s slowed-down version of Billy Joel’s “I Love You Just the Way You Are” in this very episode), so I was fully prepared to love this ballet just the way it was—with a giant Maurice Sendak-esque monster pirouetting with Miss Scarlet!

Best Joke: Warren seems surprised to learn that Kermit is an eccentric like the rest of the Muppets, and not as sane as she thought, leading him to exclaim, “Me not crazy? I hired the others!”

Lamest Joke: Kermit also delivers the episode’s worst (or at least most perplexing) joke when in his show-opening intro he says, “We hope you’re as happy to see us as we are to see us… amongst other people.” I still don’t quite understand it.

Most Valuable Muppet: Link Hogthrob, simply because he has the confidence to rock a deep-vee shirt at the disco (is this the only time we see his chest hair?!).

Most Classic Moment: I’m going to give it to Marvin Suggs beating the crap out of his Muppaphones while Warren watches in unbridled disgust.

Should-Be-Classic Moment: I feel badly for the American viewers of the ‘70s; they missed out on seeing the extra spots that existed solely because the UK did not feel the need to sell as much airtime as did those across the pond. This episode has a “Mack the Knife” spot with Sam and Dr. Teeth that surely would have become a classic moment. Sam interrupts Dr. Teeth’s performance, questioning the appropriateness of a song that is about a cold-blooded serial murderer, and Dr. Teeth succeeds in convincing him that it’s about a man with money who buys his wife sofa pillows.

I happened to already be smitten with Sam and think that some of Frank Oz’s best work is with him. So many of Frank’s characters are larger than life (Piggy, Fozzie, Marvin Suggs), and they are Funny with a capital F. There’s something about Sam–little glances, pacing around, even just going “hmm–” that allows Frank to practice a sort of subtlety and nuance that his other main characters don’t really possess, and I think it’s brilliant.

I also adored this particular pairing (do we ever seen Dr. Teeth and Sam interacting like this again?). Dr. Teeth is the perfect person to appease Sam because it is as if he is of a different species than him (I don’t mean literally; I know birds and humans are different species), making his translation believable to Sam. Sam responds to Dr. Teeth as if he is being educated about an alien culture.

Most Dated Joke: In the cold open, Warren is backstage getting ready for the show when Luncheon Counter Monster slaps her several times while exclaiming that they don’t need to be wished luck because they have talent. The Muppet Wiki transcript wants to believe that he “slaps Lesley’s back” but it certainly seems to me that he’s slapping her backside (especially based on Warren’s nonverbal reactions), and if that is the case, it definitely seems like the kind of joke they wouldn’t make today.

Coolest Puppetry Effect: There are a few trivial things I always pay attention to on screen. One of them is whether or not takeout coffee cups actually contain any liquid in them (usually they don’t, which infuriates me to no end, and I’m not alone.) Another one is whether performers who are not actually playing the piano are successful in convincing us that they are. I’m happy to report that more than usual (or at least more so than in a handful of various clips I’ve seen over the years), Rowlf looks like he is actually playing those notes on the piano during the Billy Joel cover. He moves plausibly between bass and treble notes and masterfully simulates playing both chords and more arpeggiated notes alike.

Musical Highlight: I’ve already raved about an assortment of musical moments, so I’m actually going to use this space to tell you how much I detest disco music and thus did not care for Warren’s performance of “Last Dance” (what’s the antonym of “highlight” anyway?).  I think I must have had a fatal acid trip while listening to disco in a past life.

Obscure Character Watch: The Koozebanians can be seen getting their groove on at the dance club! We also see Annie Sue and Janice hanging out there. I guess these are the characters producers assumed would be at a disco.

Adultiest Content: Warren winks at the camera before coming on pretty strong to Link and then attempting to seduce him with her song-and-dance number. I have to say she is very skilled at playing off the Muppets physically in this episode. I never feel like she’s gazing at or embracing puppets.

One More Thing: This episode had not one, but two brief tap-dancing moments. It’s almost as if they found some tap shoes on set and tried to shoehorn them in at the last moment (pun intended).

Okay, One More Thing: Perceptive Muppet nerds may recognize the insignia on Gonzo’s motorcycle. It’s the same as the Muppets, Inc. logo from the 70s!

Click here to rock a deep-vee shirt at the disco on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Staci Rosen

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