Original air date: May 30, 1981
For the past five years now, ToughPigs has been reviewing The Muppet Show. Maybe you know that. Maybe you’ve been reading along every week as they came out on the 40th anniversary of their original airings (Wow, thanks!). Maybe this is the first of these reviews you’ve read (Hey, lucky you! You can watch/rewatch these classics on Disney+ and read our thoughts all in one manic frenzy). But as we wrap up this final season, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The Muppets … are puppets.
Oh SNAP, did I just ruin your childhood?!
Okay, so you probably already knew that. But Kermit the Frog sure didn’t. And when he invited Señor Wences to guest star on The Muppet Show, he decided to do something that they had never, ever, ever done before – put on a full-length puppet show! This episode showcases some of the classic traditions of puppetry, providing many different styles and performers. In addition to Señor Wences – the ventriloquist extraordinaire of stage and screen all the way back to the 1920’s – we also get to see performances by bunraku puppeteer Bruce Schwartz and some woefully inept marionetting by Fozzie Bear, amongst other puppet performances.
Now, I’m a sucker for theme episodes of The Muppet Show. I love when they take a concept and run with it, flip it on its head, and hurl a couple of penguins at it. But what I love about this theme episode is that… it isn’t. It’s not technically a detour from the norm for the Muppets. Every episode is a puppet show. Right? But then again, wrong. It is a new and unique idea for the Muppets. Kind-of? …I need to lie down.
Regardless of where the fleece lands on this issue, this is a wild episode of The Muppet Show. It is one that could only take place in 1981, and just barely at that. Señor Wences’s days of television acclaim were on the downward trajectory following his many years of Ed Sullivan Show appearances. He was a man with a long, rewarding career who could still wow audiences with his talents, but whose talents were becoming more antiquated with each passing season.
But just as he did with Edgar Bergen, Jim Henson wanted to honor those puppeteers who changed the game, especially in television. And we know Jim wanted Wences to be a guest star at least as early as season 4, as he was name-dropped in Scooter’s “Best Guest Star” nominees song in the Phyllis George episode. When you’re in the final season of a show that has taken the world by storm, you’re given quite a big, blank slate to fill in during that season. So while many folks may not remember his appearances on The Colgate Comedy Hour or a series of Parkay margarine commercials, Jim giving Wences this spotlight helped to cement his legacy. We can all marvel at his performances on Disney+ right now. It’s so great to have a place where these hallmarks can last forever – at least until the WiFi goes down again.
I also want to talk about Bruce Schwartz for a moment. Schwartz is actually a repeat performer for The Muppet Show, having done a different bunraku performance on the Cleo Laine episode in season two. His art is beautiful and poignant, telling stories without words and capturing something deep with rods and wood. If you haven’t seen his performance on that episode, I recommend seeking it out as a companion piece to this one. But another cool thing about Schwartz is that he is the only human to guest star in more than one episode of The Muppet Show! The only other “people” to have done that were Bert and Ernie. What an honor!
Best Joke: In a meta joke that has been a favorite of the ToughPigs community for decades, after Kermit explains to Gonzo that a puppet is a doll made to look alive by wiggling it, Gonzo asks, “Who wants to watch dolls wiggle? Doll wiggling, talk about boring!” (Then to add to the gag, after Fozzie’s puppet act inevitably fails, Gonzo exclaims that it was actually a terrific idea for an act!)
Lamest Joke: The first joke is the lamest – Pops is stirring his coffee with his finger and says, “There’s something terrible in this coffee. Oh! It’s my finger,” in a joke staler than that coffee.
MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): Fozzie tries and fails at yet another form of entertainment, proving even worse at marionettes then he did with Chuckie and his attempt at ventriloquism. But as always, he’s charming as all get-out in this episode, trying his damnedest to make it work – even if making it works means flipping the roles at the end and becoming the puppet as the Dancing Clown manipulates him in the closing. Will this puppet ever learn how puppets work? The world may never know.
Most Classic Moment: They can’t all have “Mahna Mahna,” right? This episode probably wouldn’t have a segment in anyone’s Best-Of clip reel, but there is a piece here with some hilarity and history. While not an out-and-out classic, and initially only seen in the UK, I’m gonna give this one to Beauregard performing his Punch and Judy act for Kermit. When Miss Piggy entered and provided a critique of the wiggling dolls replacing her act on the show this week, the whole thing shone so brightly I laughed all throughout. Major “Queen Gertrude watching the play in Hamlet” energy here. And it also happens to be the clip of The Muppet Show featured in An American Werewolf in London.
Should-Be-Classic Moment: In the intro for Veterinarians’ Hospital, Miss Piggy mouths along to the Narrator’s usual spiel – until he catches on to what she’s doing and changes pace to make her mess up. It’s so small but so perfect.
Most Dated Joke: I’m still trying to figure out why Doctor Bob asked if Pinocchio’s mother was frightened by the Concorde, and how a supersonic jet would make your nose grow.
First Appearance Of…: Even though it was their final season, the Muppet Workshop still made plenty of new characters this year. This episode featured new puppet characters who were … well, puppets. This includes Pinocchio, Punch and Judy, and Fozzie’s marionette, the Dancing Clown. Of these, the only ones to live on after the show were Punch and Judy. See if you can spot them next Christmas in The Muppet Christmas Carol.
Coolest Puppetry Effect: Everything Bruce Schwartz does is beautiful, and the bunraku style means that he’s kind-of visible throughout his performance. But he fades away so quickly that it really feels like you’re watching the doll wiggle on its own. Simple but very effective.
Musical Lowlight / Adultiest Content: “Puppet Man,” a song about a man doing anything for his woman if she just “pulls his string,” is made a million times creepier by it being Pinocchio singing the song to Geppetto. Skip ahead, trust me.
One More Thing…: During the theme song, Kermit pops out of the O sideways and then slides down the O until he is in the center. It was so unexpected and fun!
Okay, One LAST Thing…: As 5 years of doing these reviews come to a close soon, I just wanted to thank you all for reading. I fully believe that the Most Valuable Muppet was the friends we made along the way.
Click here to watch dolls wiggle on the ToughPigs forum!
by Matt Wilkie