On September 20, 1976, The Muppet Show premiered in the US. For those of us keeping track, that’s exactly 40 years ago. Four whole decades. Ten Summer Olympics. Eighty regular dentist check-ups. Wow. It’s such a momentous occasion, we wanted to do something almost-as-momentous to celebrate. So why not start one of the most audacious ToughPigs projects we’ve ever attempted?
Today begins our new five-year series – The Muppet Show: 40 Years Later! We will be reviewing every episode of The Muppet Show 40 years after it aired. So between now and June 8, 2021, we’ll be covering all 120 episodes of the show that continues to be the benchmark for all Muppet projects.
We’ll be going off the US air dates, as listed by the Muppet Wiki, as opposed to the production order or UK air dates. Because everything is super confusing. We’ll do our best to keep as close to the exact 40th anniversaries as possible, at least within a few days. Over the next five years, I’m sure we’ll get it right at least once or twice.
Rita Moreno – Air date September 20, 1976
To kick things off, we’re reviewing the Rita Moreno episode, which was the fifth episode produced, but the first to air in the US. (Also, the second to air in the UK, if that matters to anyone.)
By the time someone had to choose which episode of this new puppet variety show to use as viewers’ introduction to not just the show, but for many of them, the work of Jim Henson. So the question becomes: Why start with the Rita Moreno episode?
I mean, the obvious answer is because it’s a fantastic episode. When I’m asked about my favorite Muppet Shows, Rita Moreno’s always makes the list. It’s by far the best of the first season (sorry, Charles Aznavour). But it’s still interesting to think about families sitting in front of their TVs in 1976, tuning in to a weird puppet show and seeing The Muppet Show theme song for the first time.
Among the first moments they’d see is Fozzie Bear telling a joke during the intro. Something about his dumb cousin and the European common market. Not only does the joke bomb, but we don’t even see Fozzie look dejected, as if we’re in on the joke that he’s supposed to be a bad comedian. As far as the audience can tell, this was supposed to be the show’s A-game. Not a great start.
Okay, so maybe the first full sketch properly encompasses that Muppet sentiment. Kermit introduces Rita Moreno in “I Get Ideas“, in which she spars with a full-bodied Muppet (who we presume is a boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend) and they pretty much just beat the crap out of each other in a bar. It’s actually a wonderfully choreographed and funny skit, but it’s missing a lot of the familiar Muppet icons that embody the show. The only recognizable character is a silent Miss Piggy (who, as you may remember, wasn’t yet the A-lister she would soon become), there’s no dialog or lyrics to the music, and it’s not quite bizarre enough to pass as Jim Henson’s early experimental puppetry like “Java” or “Mahna Mahna” (the latter of which kicked off the first Muppet Show episode produced).
Thankfully, the rest of the episode is full of familiar sketches. We get the Swedish Chef, an At the Dance, the Newsman (twice!), a panel discussion, and a talk spot. The best part is that because it’s not the first episode produced, all of these bits are presented as if we’d seen them many times before. No wasting time on origin stories! It also adds a bit of extra timelessness to The Muppet Show, which could’ve been running for decades before the first episode takes place. Much like Jack Torrence in The Shining, The Muppet Show has always been here, and always will.
Another recurring sketch we get to see is an early Veterinarian’s Hospital, which is absolutely the perfect thing to include in a viewer’s first encounter with The Muppet Show. Especially a viewer in 1976, who may have already seen Rowlf on The Jimmy Dean Show. Jim Henson really shines as Rowlf, as he’d honed his comic timing with Jimmy Dean and brings all of those skills to Dr. Bob. Rowlf was the perfect character to help bridge the connection from Jim’s early years to this new variety show.
As for the guest star, Rita Moreno is the perfect person to help introduce the Muppets to the world. Not only is she beyond likeable and extremely talented, but she knows how to treat the Muppets in a way that most guest stars completely miss. When you watch the episode next, see how she physically handles them. (I mean, besides the guy in the bar.) She pokes at Miss Piggy, she squeezes Kermit’s mouth shut, and in a wonderful moment of comedy and character, she pulls on Animal’s nose so she can grab his attention. Despite referring to them as “cute” in the Talk Spot, she treats the Muppets like real people, which is the key to appreciating what they’re capable of.
The episode ends with “Fever”, which very well may be one of the greatest Muppet moments of all time. It’s funny, well choreographed, with great music, great character work, and it’s all done in one take. No wonder Rita Moreno won an Emmy for her work on this episode.
You’d be hard pressed to find a better introductory episode from the first season of The Muppet Show to get someone hooked than Rita Moreno’s. And obviously it worked, because the show ran for five more years and helped spawn the whole Muppet franchise we all know and love today. So, thanks Rita!
Best Joke: It’s pretty hard to choose, but it’s hard to compete with the running gag of Fozzie answering the phone with unpredictably comedic results. Especially because it’s so quickly identified as a “running gag”.
Lamest Joke: Kermit’s introduction at the top of the show includes a joke about 225 dancing elephants who forgot to pack their trunks. It’s a facepalm sort of joke, even when it’s played off as one of Fozzie’s clunkers.
MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): The aforementioned Rowlf the Dog for being a trailblazer for the series.
Most Classic Moment: Fever. Fever Fever Fever. Always Fever.
Should-Be-Classic Moment: The UK spot in this episode is the Country Trio singing “To Morrow“. I (and everyone in their right minds) love the heck out of the Jim, Jerry, and Frank caricature Muppets, and it’s a shame that they only have a select few appearances on The Muppet Show.
First Appearance Of…: Marvin Suggs and his Muppaphone get slammed for the first time in this episode!
Missed Opportunity: Have you ever seen this rare photo? Obviously, they had a backup idea for after Rita Moreno crushed Animal’s head. Honestly, it worked much better to keep it all in one take, but it’s still a hilarious and bizarre variant.
Obscure Character Watch: The Guru (aka Brewster) is in the panel discussion. I always wonder what happened to him. But then I forget about him and move on to more important things, like ironing.
Adultiest Content: Rita tells Sweetums that he can’t hold cue cards, but he can hold whatever else he wants. So he picks her up and carries her off to Frog-knows-where.
One More Thing…: The episode ends with one of the series’ stranger Statler and Waldorf tags. Waldorf stands up, claims he couldn’t find the chewing gum, and the audience laughs as Zoot plays the final post-credits note.
Okay, One More Thing…: Marvin Suggs apparently has a Muppaphone named Marvin. Let your fan theories fly!
Stay tuned as we tackle the Jim Nabors episode next week! It’s fun for the whole family with ToughPigs’ Muppet Show reviews!
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by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com