Original air date: September 27, 1980
As we’ve taken this five-year journey through the series, we’ve discussed its hidden meanings, reflected on its creative mission, and examined the pop culture microcosm of the late 1970’s and early 80’s. So when I sat down to watch the Roger Moore episode, I figured it would be more of the same. I’d talk about my love of the James Bond films, and how Moore brings his trademark charm and wit to the hosting gig, and it would be fine. But as I probably should’ve expected by now, a thought came to my mind.
It took a whole lot of work to make The Muppet Show!
I think most of this appreciation comes from the fact that the episode, and how it was made, features heavily in the documentary special “Of Muppets and Men: The Making of The Muppet Show.” It shows the process, from the script readthrough, to music recording, to the actual taping, and how it creates an episode of consummate performers coming together to make something wonderful. Of course, this is something that I’ve known for a while, but there’s something about this episode that made me extra appreciative of the efforts that went into making this. It got me to notice the little things… that is, when I wasn’t dealing with bomb-throwing cute animals and renegade pies.
Just think about Miss Piggy sitting with Moore as she sings “On a Slow Boat to China.” Imagine being a puppeteer and having to crouch in a pit under a sofa to shove your hand through and perform a character, especially one as physical as Miss Piggy throwing herself at Moore the whole time. That has to be exhausting and challenging, but somehow, Frank Oz makes it look effortless. The Muppet performers and the show crew are incredible at their jobs, each of them worthy of praise.
Even when the effects aren’t terribly elaborate, they’re still mesmerizing on their own. I found just the simple act of having Lew Zealand run around to squeeze fish to perform “You Light Up My Life” fascinating. Jerry Nelson could’ve easily just had Lew glide across the floor as if he was dancing, but he made the effort to shake the puppet as he walked, which really adds to the character. Those few steps tell the story of Lew Zealand, who may not be the most skilled performer in the Muppet ensemble, but whose passion for boomerang fish (or gurgling musical fish, in this case) makes him a character worth watching. Another bit of effortless magic.
Come to think of it, effortless is a word that can describe most of the show, especially Moore’s performance. Even amidst the chaos surrounding him, he still manages to exude his suave persona. Much like Bond himself, he’s cool under pressure, and can manage to disarm even the harshest critic with a simple look. And when he slips into that action mode in “Talk to the Animals,” he manages to show a sense of humor that is the prime example of why he was the perfect actor to play the world’s most famous spy… as well as an ideal Muppet Show guest.
And much like Bond has his gadgets and gizmos to help him save the world, the Muppets have their secret weapon: the performers. It takes a special quality of actor, singer, comic and puppeteer to make something like this. After all, you’ve got to appreciate a crew of people that can cram into a viking ship and move their hands in time to a hip disco song like “In the Navy.” It may have taken a day and a half to film the whole number, but it was worth it. It’s what makes the Muppets the Muppets, and nobody does it better.
Best Joke: I think Kermit sums up how everyone’s feeling about 2020 with his first introduction for Moore: “Um, and now a man who needs no introduction, so what am I doing out here?” I’m with you, Kermit.
Lamest Joke: Immediately following the number:
WALDORF: Quite a touching scene. Oh-oh-seven and seven-oh-oh.
STATLER: Seven-oh-oh? Is that Miss Piggy’s code name?
WALDORF No, it’s her weight!
Yeah, I’m a bit tired of the Miss Piggy weight jokes. There are so many other jokes you can make, and they keep hitting the same icky one. Leave the lady be!
MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): Just for those little steps that won my heart, I’m giving the honor to Lew Zealand, who also has his performance cut short by Miss Piggy, who wants to keep the show classy for Moore. The poor guy is just giving his all out there, only to be rudely interrupted. Not cool, Piggy.
Most Classic Moment: I think given how much play it got in compilations and in “Of Muppets and Men,” I have to believe that “In the Navy” is probably the most recognizable part of the show and one of the best. It’s so heartwarming to see all those animals start their naval career!
Should-Be-Classic Moment: Moore getting the jump on Pops in the cold open. I love how he plays it so straight, as if he’s Bond himself. It’s the perfect offset to what he’s like for most of the show.
Most Dated Joke: While Miss Piggy tries to romance Moore, wishing she could get him “On a Slow Boat to China,” Moore responds, “not even Concorde,” a famed jet known for being one of the fastest commercial flights across the Atlantic Ocean. The final Concorde jet was retired in 2003.
First Appearance Of…: His highness, the Mackerel, who was named king in this week’s Muppet Newsflash. His reign was brief, as it was his only appearance on the show.
Coolest Puppetry Effect: This week, all the puppetry is cool. Even if it’s simple, just bringing this show to life week after week is pretty darn cool.
Musical Highlight: I really love the UK spot, where the orchestra plays an instrumental version of “How High the Moon.” Those small touches make it look like a real band just jamming out, right down to Rowlf hotdogging as he plays the piano.
Missed Opportunity: Outside of his appearance in the theme song, Gonzo never appears in the rest of the episode. It’s a pretty packed one as it is, but it still feels weird when he isn’t around.
Obscure Character Watch: The prairie dogs appear as part of the ensemble of cute animals for the closing number, and I’m pretty sure I see a close relative of Joe the Legal Weasel in there. Could it be Mr. or Mrs. the Legal Weasel?
One More Thing: If you haven’t seen “Of Muppets and Men,” I highly recommend checking it out. It’s a great retrospective and chronicle of what went into making the show. You can find it on YouTube in varying picture quality.
Okay, One More Thing: JAMES BOND WILL RETURN… SEVENTEEN YEARS LATER.
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by Matthew Soberman