The Muppets was not only a great financial success worldwide, it also successfully rebooted a Muppets franchise which had lost its way in the 1990s with endless made-for-TV movies and muppet versions of popular tales such as A Christmas Carol and The Wizard of Oz. As Ricky Gervais once acerbically joked on his radio programme, Schindler’s List is a great film but there is one way to improve it: a Muppets Schindler’s List.
The latter Muppet films aren’t quite as bad as most will have you think, but they do pale in comparison to the original Muppet Movie of 1979 and its television predecessor The Muppet Show, an anarchic, self-aware deconstruction of the traditional TV variety show which was once a ubiquitous feature on the TV schedule.
If you loved The Muppets and want to go back and make your way through the television show, it can seem quite daunting: there are 120 episodes, some of which are entirely forgettable, and some of which feature guest stars who I’m sure were famous at the time (Rudolf Nureyev, Mummenschanz) but would prompt in modern audiences only a look of slightly annoyed confusion.
So to help you revisit one of television’s true treasures, here are my ten favourite episodes. While guests from the worlds of comedy, music and the theatre are plentiful – highlights include Spike Milligan, Paul Williams, Elton John, Johnny Cash, Buddy Rich, Milton Berle and Carol Burnett – I’ve decided to concentrate on guests who would be interesting to film buffs, lest the list contain 50 names.
1. Vincent Price (episode #16)
A name synonymous with horror since the 1940s, Vincent Price was given the chance to scare a whole new generation of people with his appearance on one of the Muppet Show‘s first episodes, which included this duet with Uncle Deadly on James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend”, inexplicably left off the Muppet Show season one DVD.
Price’s horror-themed episode is also one of the first where the content and tone of the show was modified to suit the guest, a tradition which continued on-and-off for the show’s entire run.
2. Steve Martin (episode #31)
This episode begins with Kermit holding auditions in the empty Muppet Theater, but due to a calendar mix-up Martin turns up thinking he’s supposed to be on the show. In one of the more unique episodes of the series, this one features no laugh track as Martin entertains Kermit and the Muppets with his eclectic talents, and the laughs you hear are those of the cast, crew and muppeteers.
Known to most Americans for his appearances on late night talk shows and Saturday Night Live, Martin’s brand of comedy was well-suited to the circus atmosphere of the Muppet Show, and in this episode he showcases his abilities playing the banjo, juggling and even fighting a balloon monster.
Bonus: Is this episode’s performance of “Duelling Banjos” the only time a reference to Deliverance has found its way into children’s programming?
3. John Cleese (episode #36)
Famously co-written by Cleese himself, this episode sees the former Python tied up and forced to participate in the show’s sketches against his will. (That may sound familiar to those who saw the same thing happen to Jack Black in The Muppets.)
Cleese was said to be such a fan of the Muppets that he essentially forced his way into the writers’ room, as Brian Henson relates on the DVD:
“[Cleese] immediately created a bond with the writers of the Muppet Show and he wanted to get involved in the writing. So together they came up with this ridiculous concept where John doesn’t want to be on the show, so the great thing is this whole Muppet Show is about the Muppets trying to get John to be on the show but John’s trying to get off the show.”
4. Peter Sellers (episode #42)
Peter Sellers’ appearance on the Muppet Show will surely go down as one of the strangest things to make it to air in the 1970s, and that’s saying something. It is most famous for the frankly bizarre segment where Kermit interviews Sellers as Queen Victoria, complete with beard, long hair and corset, and Sellers informs Kermit that “there is no me… I had it surgically removed”.
But that is by no means the only crazy segment on the show. My personal favourite is the sketch where Sellers plays a distinctly Strangelove-esque sadistic German medical doctor, pictured above, whose horrific massage techniques must be seen to be believed.
5. Sylvester Stallone (episode #68)
There’s one reason, and one reason only, to watch this episode: action star Sylvester Stallone dressed as a gladiator singing “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” with a lion. (Skip to 05:00 in the video above.)
It ranks somewhere between the sixth Rocky film and Stop or My Mom Will Shoot on the scale of embarrassing Sylvester Stallone moments.
Bonus: You may remember that part of this episode was re-dubbed and appeared in a montage in Rocky III, demonstrating Rocky Balboa’s fame.
6. The cast of Star Wars (episode #88)
Luke Skywalker, C3PO and R2D2 crash-land in the Muppet Theatre searching for Chewbacca and, sensing that they’d make better guests than the one already booked (gargling argyle gargoyle Angus McGonagle), Kermit makes the intruders a part of the show.
The Muppets and Star Wars have a lot in common. Nearly all Jim Henson Studios projects have referenced the Star Wars saga in some way, usually in parody, and one of my favourite episodes of Muppet Babies sees Gonzo filming a rip-off of Star Wars with his first video camera. Most famously, of course, senior muppeteer Frank Oz performed the character of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, which had just come out when this episode first aired.
Obvious commercial promotion aside, it’s one of the most enjoyable non-film Star Wars appearances. Apart from the Star Wars Holiday Special.
7. Alan Arkin (episode #96)
Vincent Price’s episode of the Muppet Show is scary, but it’s scary in a benign, classic horror movie kind of way. Alan Arkin’s episode is, not to put too fine a point on it, insanely fucking terrifying.
Witness as he gets turned into a monster in a Muppet Labs accident, and embarks on a murderous rampage of cute bunnies singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”.
8. James Coburn (episode #98)
Some of the best moments on the Muppet Show feature the guest star playing against type: Raquel Welch boning up on her Shakespeare; Christopher Reeve performing a suave piano duet with Miss Piggy; Sylvester Stallone pretending to have talent.
In this episode, James Coburn plays up to his tough guy image by instructing Animal on the correct way to bust a chair in the opening scene, but by the end of the episode a calmer, more sensitive Coburn has decided that meditation is what Animal needs, although it doesn’t quite take.
9. Brooke Shields (episode #99)
This is one of my favourite episodes of the Muppet Show because it combines two things I love: muppets and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A 16-year-old Brooke Shields, fresh from her breakout performance in The Blue Lagoon, plays Alice in the typically haphazard re-telling of Lewis Carol’s book, featuring a special appearance by the Jabberwock and a song made famous in the film version of an unrelated story.
One of the more visually sophisticated Muppet Shows, the format of this episode – where the guest star plays the main character of a famous tale with muppet supporting characters – would anticipate the Muppets’ later adaptations of A Christmas Carol, Treasure Island and The Wizard of Oz.
10. Gene Kelly (episode #116)
Gene Kelly showed on his TV specials of the 1950s and 60s (which are nearly impossible to find online apart from short, but brilliant, clips) that he’s more than comfortable holding his own in the variety show format. When he arrives at the Muppet Theater, however, he believes he’s only there to watch the show from the audience, and the Muppets must coax him into performing his most famous songs for the studio audience.
Before that, however, Kermit tries to keep up with the great dancer in one of the Muppet Show‘s most famous duets, pictured above.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who follows me on Twitter that Gene Kelly is one of my all-time favourite male film stars. Gene Kelly and the Muppets? Heaven.