Alright, let me start this with a confession: I’m an absolute Muppet fanatic. The Muppets have always been a huge part of my life, heck my real life nickname used to be Kermit. I’m not sure it was initially meant to be flattering; I have the misfortune of being shaped like fat bodied, thin-limbed Muppet, but some time around fifth grade I eventually embraced it. There’s a stuffed Kermit sitting on my monitor right now, looming down at my keyboard as I type. When Jim Henson died I sat down and cried. The man was a genius. To me the Muppets are an incredible institution, one which by the way hasn’t gotten the best treatment in the last few years. So it’s a delight to finally see one of the Muppets’ greatest triumphs “The Muppet Show” on DVD. I haven’t seen it since I was a kid. Would it hold up? Would it still be funny? Or have I deluded myself into thinking it was more than it is? Surprise, my memories didn’t do it justice. “The Muppet Show” isn’t just funny, innovative, unique television… it’s a legitimate piece of art. Forget Picasso, let’s talk about Jim Henson.
When “The Muppet Show” debuted in 1976 on various channels across the country, on the surface it resembled a parody of shows like “Laugh In” or one of the other many variety shows infesting the television landscape at the time. Were that the case, the gag would no doubt have worn thin after only a few episodes. But the show ran a lot deeper than that, developing imaginary characters with lives both on and off the stage that would endure for decades and generations to come.
This wasn’t the first time the Jim Henson created creatures known as “The Muppets” had been seen on television of course. Sesame Street had been up and running for years by then, and Muppet characters had been popping up on other television shows. Rowlf the Dog for instance was already famous for his appearances on “The Jimmy Dean Show” and for a few notable spots in dog food commercials. Still, they weren’t exactly mainstream. Henson was trying to do what The Flintstones did for animation, take his puppets into primetime and gear them not just for kids, but adults as well. With a mix of music, comedy, and performance art, the all puppet series was a rousing, high concept success.
The idea is simple enough; it’s a variety show without any humans. The cast is made up entirely of Muppets, with only the weekly guest star filling out the fleshy quotient. Hosted by Kermit the Frog, we follow the Muppets’ antics both in front of and behind the curtain, and sometimes even into the audience. Season One contains a few stock segments that show up in every episode, like a sit down interview done by Kermit with the week’s human guest, and a ballroom dancing number where Muppets interact with each other via one liners. But the rest of the show is mayhem, and the bits vary wildly from week to week, minute to minute. One minute you’re watching Sandy Duncan slam shots and dance with amorous monsters, the next Fozzie Bear is on stage being heckled by the Muppet Theater’s resident cranky critics Statler and Waldorf. Connecting everything together is backstage comedy, where Kermit frantically produces the show, urging his talent out on stage or battling Miss Piggy’s unwanted advances.
What’s amazing is how incredibly easy it is to forget these characters don’t actually exist, that in fact they’re just bits of felt with a man’s hand up their ass. The Muppet performers are incredible artists, and if instead of simply enjoying the show you stop to watch exactly what it is they’re doing with these fairly simply puppets you’ll be blown away. There’s incredible artistry in what they’re doing. Sometimes that’s obvious, as in a visually intricate dance number with carefully constructed foam birds. But there’s true artistry even in the show’s simplest moments, Rowlf playing the piano, or Animal wailing away on the drums. The accomplishment of Henson and his Muppeteers is unmatched; the man created a complete world full of imaginary, yet living, breathing characters without animation or CGI. Because they’re made of real bits and pieces, Kermit and Piggy and Gonzo and the rest really do live in our world, not some far off place of ink or computer processing. It’s imagination brought to life, what a feat.
Of course what good is all this fantastic artistry without decent writing behind it. The show is extremely creative, and whether they’re doing original songs, covers, old jokes, new jokes, or whatever it all seems fresh and somehow on the edge. Because they’re using Muppets actually performed by the same person doing the voices, there’s plenty of room for ad lib, and that pays off brilliantly as great performers like Frank Oz ad to already great weekly scripts. I’m not going to tell you that every gag on the show hits. A lot of that depends on the guest stars, some of whom work, and some of whom don’t. Season One isn’t exactly packed with big name, celebrity appearances, but instead it mixes in real artists, dancers, and comedians with big names like Vincent Price and Peter Ustinov. Price’s episode is classic, as the Muppets go all monster in honor of the great horror master. Some of the others though, occasionally miss the mark.
“The Muppet Show Season One” marks the beginning of one of the great series in the history of television. It’s unique, original, and amazing. Watching this set is one of the best times I’ve had slogging my way through any Season DVD, and with or without special features this thing would be a must have, Muppet fan or otherwise. Revisit old friends back when they were out at their best. “The Muppet Show” is a work of true genius. It’s funny, original, and family friendly without resorting to pandering. Jim Henson’s work is an uplifting inspiration.
The first thing that had me worried about this disc release was the cover. It’s fuzzy and green. They’re mimicking Kermit with the case, and I guess that’s kind of cute. No doubt subsequent season releases will look like the fur of Fozzie, Gonzo, and Miss Piggy. But this is “The Muppet Show”, and when people thing “Muppet Show” they think of those iconic, red curtains. That really should be the cover. No problem, the slipcase may be a gimmick, but the actual DVD case inside sports the traditional red “Muppet Show” curtains, complete with fuzzy Muppet feet hanging out from underneath. Well done.
The case contains four discs, and when you pop one in you’ll find easy access to the menu, without having to sit through unskippable advertisements or interminably long legal notices. The menu itself is a little weird looking, but wonderful since it’s hosted by the every sarcastic Statler & Waldorf. They’ll beg you to burn the DVD while you still can, but if you press on and start pressing buttons you’ll find the standard set of DVD features.
The first three discs each contain a grouping of episodes, available with a PLAY ALL or selected individually. Each of these three discs also has a text commentary/information track. If you enable it, while you watch the movie fun little facts about what you’re watching will pop up in white text at the bottom of the screen. Some of these are great, in fact, one of them prompted me to run out and buy a really cool Jim Henson Country Band Muppet action figure. . It sits proudly next to my computer inspiring me. They’re worth watching for all the little information provided about the show. They talk about how Henson got the thing going, about how Kermit wasn’t the original host, what the Muppet performers may be doing off screen. But, more than a few of them are also crap… dumb dictionary definitions for common household words, information about cleaning supplies. Worse, each fact is preceded by an annoying graphic which flashes across the screen before the fact, obscuring your view of what’s happening on the screen. I’m not sure what the point of this is. Do I need really need an announcement to tell me a fact is coming? Won’t I figure it out when the text pops up on the screen? Despite a few problems like this, the text commentary tracks are worth enabling your second time through the set. Don’t use them on your first viewing; they’ll only jar you out of the experience.
Disc Four is the biggie, containing the last few episodes of the series as well as the meat of “The Muppet Show – Season One” set extras. It contains the same text commentary the other discs have for its episodes, but there’s more.
First up is the original, pilot episode of “The Muppet Show” entitled weirdly enough “Sex and Violence”. It’s interesting as a curiosity, but it bears little resemblance to the show they wound up with. In fact, it’s rather terrible. I’m not sure what happened between the pilot and the actual aired series, but thank god for that. If anything, the pilot bears a strange resemblance to the modern TV show “Robot Chicken”, only much much worse. Also included is the original pitch reel for the show, used by Henson & Co. to push the show to television executives. It’s the least subtle pitch in pitching history, and includes such hilarious and quotable phrases as “dirty hippies will love our dirty hippies”. Make sure you watch it. Rounding things out is a promo gag reel. On a personal level I really enjoyed it, it reminded me of the old commercials they used to run for the show back when it aired. But as gags, they aren’t exactly funny.
So while this release isn’t exactly stacked with extra features, it’s pretty well done for a television box set release. Most television set releases include little more than the show, but Buena Vista has gone at least a little out of their way to give you more, and the more they’ve given is pretty good. The picture quality is generally consistent, and the series looks better than I’ve ever seen it, back when I was squinting through rabbit ears. The sound is solid, the songs are good enough that it's worth pumping through your surround sound system, though this is television so don't expect crazy THX effects. The show alone makes “The Muppet Show – Season One” an absolute must own, the fact that they’ve done a decent job with the set is just a bonus. I can't wait to review Season Two.