DVD Review: The Muppet Show, season one
It's time to...oh, nevermind. I'll resist and be the only review of this DVD set on the planet that doesn't start by quoting the theme song...contagious as it may be.
And it is contagious. You remember the song (admit it). You probably remember more than a few of the songs. You remember your favorite guest stars, your favorite characters, you remember thinking it was really a guy in a Fozzie suit. Hell, you remember a lot of things, because "The Muppets" is such a collective memory to those who grew up with them...encompassing television, movies, books, music, toys...let's face it, those were excellent days.
But this is season one, which predates most of that stuff...and though Henson and co. cut their collective teeth on Sesame Street, there was still a long way to go before The Muppets really reached their peak. This is a four disc set that will take you through every episode of The Muppet Show's 1976 premier season--and, like that premier season, it has its great points, and its not-so-great points...
I do have to start by talking about the show, because it caught me off guard. I used to watch The Muppet Show. And Sesame Street. And the movies. Because...well, come on now, they were The Muppets. And The Muppets were some truly quality entertainment that appealed to children without ever talking down to them. They were comforting to be around. They were cute. They were funny. They interacted with each other like people. They got excited, they got scared, they got depressed. And there was not one child watching who was aware that they were watching pieces of foam or felt with ping-pong balls for eyes. These were characters. And they were alive.
This is because Jim Henson (with much help from Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt and Dave Goelz) created rounded characters...believable characters. He gave them motives, desires, emotional hangups...they were complex creatures, those Muppets, and I have every reason to believe they fostered more creativity in the children who grew up with them than can ever be accurately measured.
Now that that's out of the way, I can backtrack and be a bit realistic about things: The Muppets had their teething troubles. They may indeed have evolved into something far greater than anyone could have imagined, but--like all the greats--they have very humble origins. This season one boxed-set documents those humble origins in spades.
Not having seen The Muppet Show for at least ten years (and not having seen season one for the last...wow...I can't even remember...) it was a real shock to find that these were...well...gag-based shows. Where was the character interaction? Where were the heartfelt moments? Where was the story-telling?
Not here. Because, at first, The Muppet Show was a variety show with a gimmick...and that's that. Which isn't to say it's bad...or even disappointing. It's just flatly obvious how much the show (and the characters) improved in later years.
Is there joy to be had from watching season one? Oh yes. There is no question about that; many of the skits are hilarious, the musical numbers (by and large) are lovely, and it's easy to get lost in the show, forgetting utterly that you're watching puppets until you notice those black rods moving Kermit around by the wrists again. Also, you can't ignore the historical value of the show...essentially you get to watch the characters and performers find their footing.
And there is much footing left to be found in these episodes. Roughly a quarter of the debuted Muppets would be discarded after season one, and the ones that remained would be (thankfully) overhauled into their more believable (and recognizable) selves by season two.
Compared to what we would later know of them, these characters are frequently one step behind where they should be. Kermit is more of a boss than a friend to the other Muppets; he treats them as underlings or--at best--coworkers. He has no real feelings for any of them...which is almost inconceivable of the Kermit we'd later know and love.
Scooter--my favorite as a child--is oddly portrayed here as a schemer and a conniver who namedrops his uncle (the owner of the Muppet Theater) in order to get his way. Gonzo seems perpetually doped out on some kind of sedative. Miss Piggy doesn't even have a steady performer and her head looks like it was put together in significantly less time than the designers spent on any of the other main characters. Dr. Bunsen Honeydew has no laboratory assistant. And--craziest of all--Statler and Waldorf like things.
There was a long way to go for The Muppets, but I can say that season one only seems so out of place because later Muppet productions were so great. There is a tremendous amount of good to be found here...just be prepared for the shock of finding your favorite characters to be a bit more poorly defined than you remember.
Each episode follows The Muppets through their weekly presentation of The Muppet Show, a variety show that runs regularly at the Muppet Theater. The episodes themselves, as I mentioned above, are gag-based rather than story-based (something that would change after season one) and so there really isn't much to recommend one episode any more or less than another.
Except for the guest star of course, which is where the real variable of season one comes into play. While I don't think there's a "poor" guest in the bunch, some of them certainly do seem to be having more fun than others. Paul Williams, for example, is just fantastic. He relishes the chance to star in comedy skits with puppets and it shows. Florence Henderson is surprisingly game (singing "Happy Together" with a crowd of monsters in one obviously comic scene and the strangely moving "Elusive Butterfly" solo in another). Harvey Korman--of course--is a delight, especially in his portrayal of a monster-tamer who is utterly terrified of a pudgy, gentle blue monster that has to be seen to be appreciated for the comic gold that it really is.
All of these guests allow themselves to have fun with their ridiculous costars and the fun is contagious. This is where The Muppet Show goes right in season one: it has fun. The characterizations might be shakey, the timing might be off, the writing may not be nearly as sharp as it would be a mere one year later, but it's always great entertainment.
Oh, the packaging...yes...we're moving on to the product itself and not the show as a whole. Not really a path I've been looking forward to following but someone's got to do it...
Right. So you've got your standard slipcase over a fold-out cardboard case...no problems there...but it's one of those terrible "disc two is kind of under disc one but not entirely" designs where you end up removing discs you don't want to remove to get to the one you need. It's terrible. There's no reason for it. And for some reason discs two and four mount on a half hub, not even a full hub, meaning the discs are that much more difficult to replace properly and they end up scraping data-side-down across the thing because they aren't snapping into place the way they should.
Please, please, please, never do this again. Anybody. For any reason. There is no design imaginable that is less efficient than this. (And please don't take that as a challenge.)
You have a little booklet that outlines the guests of each episode...no chapter listings though...I wonder why...oh. Oh, I see. There are no chapters. At all. Even though they'd be extremely easy to define in a variety show like this. Which means I can't skip to a song I'd like to hear or a skit I'd like to see again, or over a skit that really isn't working for me. Thanks a million.
The box itself is done in a Kermit theme...his chest and collar. It's cute. There was even a limited-edition box that was the same design, only fuzzy. Despite the fact that Kermit is not one of the Muppets that actually has fuzz. Oh well, it's still a really cute idea.
Each disc bears the image of a core Muppet: Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, and Gonzo. And they're all publicity photographs from later seasons. Which doesn't bother me so much, but it is kind of jarring since in the case of three of these Muppets, their season one design is so different from their later designs that it just doesn't feel right.
The back of the box suffers from the same irrelevance: all of the Muppets shown are later designs, and don't actually reflect (at all) what you're going to see in the show. I mean, even one still from the program would be enough for me...but it seems that they're intentionally hiding the early designs of the Muppets, as though they would scare away buyers.
Maybe it would. I don't know. I just know it's kind of a cheat. And that publicity still of Kermit, Gonzo and Animal skateboarding is absurd. (Remember when they did that? When they all went skateboarding and did some huge simultaneous jump during which they postured for the camera? Remember?)
Easy to follow, easy to understand. A floating Kermit head is your cursor so it's always clear what you're highlighting. The design is not particularly appropriate (multi-colored disco squares) but they do look very nice and that's all I ever ask. An instrumental version of the theme tune loops in the background and if you take too long to make a decision Statler and Waldorf pop up and heckle you (a few different heckles on each disc). Kudos for that, because it's newly recorded material, and that demonstrates effort.
Funnily enough, the character stills on the menu are, in many cases, taken from season one, and not the later, more refined versions of the characters. So why banish them from the outside of the box?
The really strange thing, though, is that even though they opt for stills of the original Piggy and Fozzie, they also use a still of Beaker...who wasn't even created until season two. On one hand they were good enough to give us appropriate character images, but on the other hand they are also giving us images of characters who don't exist yet. Strange.
Disc one (and only disc one) opens with an endless series of trailers that you have to push "menu" to avoid. I hate this. Yes I do.
Maybe I'm indulging myself slightly too much here, but I do feel it deserves its own section: these episodes are not uncut. Most of them are, yes...and the cuts may be minor enough (I honestly don't remember; it's been ages since I've seen these on television so all I have to go by is the final runtime on the DVD) but they are missing material.
Four episodes are missing one musical number each, and one episode (the Jim Nabors episode) is missing two. Perhaps the greatest loss was Vincent Price singing "You've Got a Friend" with a chorus of Muppet monsters and ghouls...I'm sure that was just wonderful. (And I sincerely hope that doesn't sound sarcastic.)
So why are they cut? Well, they are all songs...and not original songs, which sort of screams "rights issues." You may counter by screaming "money issues" but don't be so sure: two Beatles songs are featured on this set (three ghosts singing "I'm Looking Through You" and Twiggy performing "In My Life") and those are notoriously expensive to clear. I honestly feel that if money were all it took to get these songs on the set, it would have been spent. More likely the rights-holders blocked their use...though why I'll never know.
Whatever the reason, they aren't here...but believing--as I do--that the reasons for this were beyond the control of whoever assembled this collection, I can accept that. What I don't like is that they also cut the backstage footage leading up to the songs. Presumably because they referred to the song or the performance and so opted for a smoother watching experience than for an episode that referred to things that were no longer there.
So that's a good point for debate. Which would have been better? Remove all references to the song as well? Or leave them in and just insert a big SCENE MISSING card after Kermit introduces the act?
What is good is that even though there are a few missing songs, many more were re-inserted into the show. When The Muppet Show was recorded it was already slated to be distributed in both the United States and the United Kingdom...and as we all know, they have different running times for their programs.
The Jim Henson solution? Record some extra songs and skits for the British audience. All of which (and I do mean all) are at least as good as the rest of the episode--and sometimes they are markedly better (these UK spots really put pianist Rowlf the Dog to good use...just give him a piano and a tune and you've got yourself another three minutes of lovely material). Every one of these UK spots has been re-edited into the proper episode. This makes up for the cuts, as far as I am concerned...but it's only fair that I do mention them.
Oh, and at the end of the show, keep an eye out for some really bizarre editing. Evidently the ITC logo used in the original broadcasts is no longer allowed to be used with the episodes, so the final shot of Zoot in the orchestra pit blowing his saxophone is replaced with another shot of Zoot in the orchestra pit blowing his saxophone with the newer logo over it.
Which is fine, except that Zoot changes position. And color.
It's creepy. Really creepy.
Now onto the special features...
The Original Muppets Pitch Reel:
Pretty nifty. An announcer Muppet (played by Henson) discusses, for the benefit of potential investors, what The Muppet Show will have to offer their viewers. It's a brief little piece that Jim Henson used as part of his presentation to get networks interested in The Muppet Show. I'll let you guess for yourself whether or not it was successful. (Careful...the answer isn't as easy as you think.)
A nice little extra...certainly good to have...but for unexplained reasons Kermit's final line ("What the hell was that?") is cut.
Season One Promo Gag Reel:
I have no idea what this is and the DVD doesn't explain it. It seems kind of like a blooper reel except...well...there are no bloopers...just the Muppets horsing around with each other. And in each one Kermit mentions who the guest will be on the next Muppet Show. But they're not long enough to be commercials themselves...are these edits of finished commercials? Bloopers from the commercials? Odd things the performers did to amuse each other? I have absolutely no idea. Which makes it kind of hard to come to a conclusion about how I feel.
The Original Muppet Show Pilot:
Now this...this is a pilot. I can say fully and honestly that this is better than most of the episodes in season one.
This is one of two Muppet Show pilots produced...hopefully we'll see the other one on a future release. This one is called "Sex and Violence." And it is hilarious.
It's a full half hour long, and its format is markedly different than the Muppet Show we know. Your three hosts are Nigel the conductor, Sam the Eagle and Sgt. Floyd Pepper, bassist for the Electric Mayhem. Which is surprising because all three of them would have severely diminished roles in the Muppet Show proper.
The pilot leaps from skit to skit in a channel-surfing sort of motif...much like the format Robot Chicken uses today. It comes back to a skit in progress, jumps off again to another one, never staying in one place for long. It's hyper. It's manic. It's very, very good...and it ends with a rare pull-back of the camera to reveal the performers working the puppets. That shot alone is worth admission price. Really great stuff. Really, really great stuff.
A subtitle option during which facts about the episode, the characters, the guest, the show in general, or the writers or performers pop onto the screen at an appropriate moment. I wasn't particularly looking forward to this...maybe because of its humble name. "Muppet Morsels?" It certainly doesn't sound like there's much to it...
More accurately, it should be called Muppet Bonanza. Because there is a lot of information you get per episode, and for every relatively worthless tidbit ("George the Janitor would later be replaced by Beauregard.") there are ten or more that are downright fascinating ("The puppeteers made it a point not to just open and close their characters' mouths but to 'push' a voice from it." "Henson's performance was so believable that the people holding the cue cards would hold them up to Rowlf and not him."). They also point out the mistakes in the show, such as character inconsistancies, or the very fun accidental apperances of puppeteers' heads or arms in shot.
It's great, great stuff (though a proofreader couldn't hurt) and I suggest watching every episode at least once with the Muppet Morsels on-screen...it's like getting a documentary about each episode for no additional charge. And I really, really hope later seasons get a similar feature, because it's by far the most valuable extra here.
Great stuff on the whole...though more than a little jarring if you're most familiar with later (and better realized) Muppet endeavors. Overall it's a testament to the brilliance of Jim Henson that even his teething-periods are so magical. Not a perfect set, a bit scant on the extras, but it's a full season of The Muppet Show, and you'd be a fool to complain about something like that.