Original air date: September 23, 1977
Back in the 70s, Rich Little became a superstar doing impressions. This is *remarkable*, because he was a genuinely terrible impressionist. He made his reputation on a handful of good ones – Johnny Carson, Jack Benny, Richard Nixon – and the rest mostly sounded like variations of those.
His surprising lack of talent is on full display in this week’s Muppet Show, and here to talk about it with me is my wife, Roz Strand.
Anthony Strand: Okay, so first let’s talk about your relationship with Rich Little, who you’d never heard of until you first saw this episode.
Roz Strand: My life is so much worse because I’ve seen this. Like, my blood pressure is affected whenever he thinks he’s being funny. He’s like the most inappropriate fifth grader telling a fart joke and then laughing at it, and then I feel like I’m the crazy one because it’s not good. I doubt all of my comedic judgements when I watch him on The Muppet Show. Because there’s laughter, and I don’t expect there to be.
Anthony: Because he’s bad at impression?
Roz: YES! He’s bad at the only function that he’s there for! Yet he sings as if he’s doing impressions of singers. He’s not a good entertainer – he just states exactly what imitation he’s doing. He’s like a magician who walks onstage and says “I’m pulling a rabbit out of the this hat because there’s a secret compartment in this hat that I keep a rabbit in.” No one would want to see that, and no one should want to see an impressionist who just says “I’m Kermit the Frog” in a weird voice.
Everybody has a Kermit the Frog impression, and they’re all bad. So why does he get to do it on The Muppet Show? He’s just as good as you, or me, or anyone else who tries to do a Kermit voice?
Anthony: I would say that his Fozzie is probably the worst one.
Roz: It’s the longest, that’s why it’s the worst.
Anthony: Probably what happened is that he watched one Fozzie sketch and based it all on that. Presumably one where he takes his hat off a lot
Roz: And holds his hands like he has rigor mortis!
Anthony: But then Fozzie calls him on it, which is good. Fozzie comes out and says “Bob Hope! Jack Benny! Milton Berle!”
Roz: Right, he starts naming comedians, and the only way Fozzie knows to name comedians is because he says “I the comedian.” He literally has to say “I’m the bear with all the jokes.” If there were two bears in the world who told jokes, no one would know who he was.
Anthony: And what about Piggy?
Roz: Well, he might as well be doing an impression of me when I’m mad, because I have a female voice. Therefore Rich Little must sound like me. I would give him more credit if he’d at least brought a piece of Scotch tape to tape his nose. But instead he pushes up his nose with his finger and talks through his hand, which I do to little kids and they don’t find funny.
Anthony: And you don’t find this funny.
Roz: I don’t! Why did they even let this happen? Obviously he only tried these voices out for three minutes right before they started the sketch. I don’t get who thought this was funny enough to dedicate film to. I mean, did someone on the show actually find it funny? Or where they just pandering to the guest star?
Anthony: Yeah, they’re all so bad.
Roz: They’re so bad! He doesn’t sound like them at all! He just says who he is. I think on some subconscious level, he must know how bad it is. But he keeps getting paid so he keeps doing it.
Anthony: So his imitations of Muppets are bad –
Roz: His imitations of Muppets are *the worst*
Anthony: But he threw those together. His celebrity impressions he’d been honing for years, and they’re also bad. We watch a lot of old movies.
Roz: We’re actually familiar with those characters!
Anthony: Right, and there were still a bunch who you had no idea what he was doing.
Roz: How can I know if he doesn’t know?! It seems like he’s making it up. It’s like he’s doing fake imitations like Peter Serafinowicz.
Anthony: Also, you thought his John Wayne was W. C. Fields again.
Roz: I guess there’s part of me that wants to excuse him if he’s drunk all the time. I can accept him as a performer if that’s what he’s doing. His performance is about the same as my dad drunkenly singing “Runaround Sue.”
Anthony: Speaking of singing, during the episode you described Rich Little’s Gene Kelly impression as “sounding more like Joan Rivers.”
Roz: It not an impression if all you do is hold your mouth really wide. Our 2 ½-year-old daughter saying “This is my new voice” in a silly voice entertains me so much more than Rich Little thinking he’s doing a good job. Another bad one is Kirk Douglas. The Kirk Douglas imitation on Animaniacs –
Anthony: Mauriche LaMarche
Roz: Is so much better, and it’s broader, and animated, and silly, and they just did it to amuse themselves because kids in the 90s don’t care about Kirk Douglas. But Rich Little is trying to impress people by sounding like Kirk Douglas, and all he does is yell the word “Dimple” like that’s supposed to mean something.
Anthony: Or Bing Crosby, which we only knew because Kermit says “sing it, Bing!”
Roz: Right, we still need audio cues from the Muppeteers. I’d understand the whole thing better if it was on descriptive audio service.
Anthony: The last one I want to talk about is Maurice Chevalier. You love that guy.
Roz: I love Maurice Chevalier, and in fact I love impressions of Maurice Chevalier, like in Monkey Business when they’re pretending to be him to get off the boat. That’s my favorite scene in any Marx Brothers movie because they’re goofing on Chevalier.
Anthony: And you love him in old musicals.
Roz: I do! Partly because he seems naive, like you kind of want to educate him. And you know the phrase “You’re cute when you’re angry?” That wasn’t about a woman, that was about Maurice Chevalier. When he gets indignant, he’s adorable.
So when I see Rich Little sounding like an elderly ex-pat with a bad French accent, it’s not cute, it’s not suave, and it doesn’t sound like Maurice Chevalier. I would never want to jazz up my lingerie for him!
Anthony: Obviously Rich Little does many other bad impressions in this, but we’ve spent enough time on that. Let’s talk about what’s good.
Roz: This is the most manic depressive episode of The Muppet Show! The highs are pretty high. Piggy’s full-body solo in front of a huge Muppet audience in “Boy in the Gallery” is just fabulous!
Anthony: And it features a huge milestone for your favorite Muppet, Gonzo.
Roz: The iconic start to my favorite Muppet love story – Gonzo macking on a chicken.
Anthony: Is that iconic?
Roz: Gonzo and Camilla were on top of our wedding cake! Yes, it is iconic!
Anthony: Ha, true! The episode also has a bunch of regular stuff like “Vet’s Hospital” and “At the Dance”.
Roz: Yeah, that’s regular. But it makes me laugh, and that’s all I want from The Muppet Show.
Anthony: So are you glad you rewatched it to see the good stuff?
Roz: No! I would have fast-forwarded to only the good stuff! Just, every cent Rich Little has made, he really should give back to the American people.
Anthony: Well, he’s Canadian.
Roz: UGH! Why is he here?!
Best Joke: Kermit calling Rich Little a “master impressionist.”
Lamest (Muppet) Joke: “Dr. Bob, even if he is a little horse, should you be using the saw?” “Sure, you’ve never heard of a sawhorse?”
Most Classic Moment: One of the Muppets’ 60s variety show staples, The Glow-Worm, makes its first and only Muppet Show appearance here.
First Appearance Of…: Gonzo’s love of chickens. He sees those legs during auditions for his dancing chicken act, and it’s all over.
MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): Gonzo, who believes in that chicken so strongly that he makes us believe in the dancing chicken.
Most Dated Joke: All of Rich Little’s impressions, obviously. That bad Paul Lynde doesn’t delight audiences like it used to.
Musical Highlight: The Boy in the Gallery, one of Piggy’s best solos of all-time.
Coolest Puppetry Effect: The high-angle pan-out on Piggy in that same song. It really does look like she’s standing alone on the stage, commanding every inch of it.
Missed Opportunity: Hiring an entirely different guest star.
Obscure Character Watch: Fleet Scribbler shows up again to insult Rich Little’s Cary Grant impression.
One More Thing…: When “Vet’s Hospital” started, Roz said “Maybe they can remove Rich Little’s larynx.”
Okay, One More Thing…: Roz: “People say that our generation invented getting a trophy for participating, but I think Rich Little’s parents invented it. Because they didn’t have the good sense to tell him that maybe he’d be better at pottery, or accounting, or anything that wouldn’t punish us as an audience.”
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by Anthony and Roz Strand