The Muppet Show: 40 Years Later – Steve Martin

Published: November 3, 2017
Categories: Feature, Reviews

Original air date: October 31, 1977

The Steve Martin episode of The Muppet Show is one of my all-time favorites, mostly because it’s filled with so many meta-jokes. And lucky for you, readers, I’ve never meta joke I didn’t like!

I’ll pause here while you all petition the Pulitzer Prize committee to add a Comedy category expressly for this joke.

This episode isn’t the only one to break the regular format of The Muppet Show – there is of course the Loretta Lynn episode which takes place in a train station while the theatre is being fumigated, or the later themed episodes like “Dial Liza with a Z for Murder” or “Brooke Shields in Wonderland”  – but this is the first one to really branch out and try something completely different.

You see, Kermit forgot that tonight is the night he’s supposed to hold auditions for the show, and so he has to cancel the performance they had planned starring Mr. Martin. And within that, we’re treated to a barrage of odd acts that are slightly less polished and weirder than what we’re used to on The Muppet Show… which is really saying a lot.

But my favorite bits in this episode revolve around the fact that the Muppets, as always, are in on the joke. Take Statler and Waldorf (… please!) (Pause again for the letter-writing campaign to the Mark Twain Prize Nomination Committee). During the theme song, they lament that they liked the old opening better. Meanwhile, Gonzo explicitly calls out his own trumpet gag. These are innocuous comments on their own, but add in those two old fogies getting their jokey wish that the show is actually cancelled for the night, and Steve’s insistence to still do his acts as if he were actually guest-starring on the show, and you’ve got this wonderful, bizarre through-line of them winking to the audience that, “Yes, we’ve cancelled the show, but you’re still getting A show, just not THE show. Get it?”

On top of that, Steve Martin is on the top of his game here. This was right at the cusp of Martin’s popularity, where he was selling out amphitheaters for his genre-redefining stand-up acts and cracking up Johnny Carson on a regular basis, but right before The Jerk came out and he began his launch into movie stardom. In addition, Steve was able to take elements of his already hilarious stand-up and add in things only the Muppets could do. Things like a giant balloon attacking him for stealing baby balloons to make his balloon animals are only achievable with a talented crew like this. At any other point in his career, Martin would have been an amazing guest star for the Muppets, but this exact moment allowed him to be the super-silly, expressive, no-holds-barred performer that makes him one of the all-time best guest stars they’ve ever had.

And this is why I love this episode. It’s not the funniest of the season – though there are still some genuinely hilarious stand-up routines from Martin, and the manic movements of Marvin Suggs never fail to crack me up – but it’s got an energy to it that is undeniable. It’s the kind of pinnacle moment for Martin that Henson, Oz, and everyone on that crew was able to bring out in their guest stars. Every time they brought someone onto that stage, they allowed them to shine, and set them up to support them in doing exactly what they’re known for and best at. It’s always just as much their show at it is the Muppets’.

But all throughout each episode, even ones like this that break the mold into a million pieces, the Muppets are still there to give us moments of chaos like the Fazoobs or Yolanda the Dancing Cheese. And the very best of both worlds is clearly represented in the finale where big stars at the top of their game (I’m talking here about the Muppets as well as Steve) come together to do a show-stopping performance for a show that isn’t actually happening. Who else but the Muppets can pull that off?

Man, I love this show.

Best Joke: Floyd asking Kermit if they’ll be using the All Food Glee Club, and if he could if he’s not.

Kermit: “Are you putting together a show?”
Floyd: “No, a dinner.”

Lamest Joke: See also, “Best Joke.” I love lame jokes.

Honorable Mention-est Joke: The dashed hopes of Sam Eagle as he realizes that Statler and Waldorf doing some old-fashioned, good-natured vaudeville singing and dancing probably won’t make the show, but the All Food Glee Club almost definitely will. Frank Oz’s line readings with Sam never disappoint.

MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): As this episode is more of a spotlight for lesser-known characters and one-off bits, Marvin Suggs’s frantic dancing stole the show for me, so I’m giving him the MVM.

MVL (Most Valuable Laugh): Richard Hunt’s. As legend goes, since the idea is that the show was cancelled, the usual laugh track is omitted and the crew of the show provided the laughs you hear. Richard’s was so loud that they added in some sprinklings of recorded laughter to make it seem more realistic. But trust me, you can hear Richard all the way through, loud and clear.

Coolest Puppetry Technique: This episode is chock full of Bunraku style puppetry, and I want to give it a proper shoutout. This is also referred to at times as “chroma key” or “green screen” puppetry, and it’s used to show full-bodied puppets while erasing the puppeteer. Obviously nowadays the use of blue or green screens help the process a lot, but back in 1977 Henson and crew used black backgrounds and black clothing to use it to great effect. *Brian Henson voice* “See how many instances of bunraku puppetry you can spot in this episode of The Muppet Show!”

First Appearance Of …: The Flying Zucchini Brothers! Booma, Booma!

Musical Highlight: Dueling Banjos, as only Steve Martin and the Muppets could do it. Until they did it again.

Most Classic Moment: The All Food Glee Club, hands down.

One More Thing: I reached out to Steve Martin on Twitter for comment on this episode, just to see if there was anything he’d like to share. As of this time, he hasn’t responded. But isn’t it cool to live in a time where maybe he could respond?

Okay, One More Thing: Did Jim Henson know how to play the banjo? I’ve never gotten an answer on this one. I’ve always found it interesting that his most famous character and the puppet version of him both played the banjo, but I’ve never seen proof that he knew how to. Anyone know?

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by Matt Wilkie

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