The Vaudeville of “The Muppet Show”

The internet is abuzz with news of the streaming availability of The Muppet Show on Disney+, and I am surprised this morning to discover that I hadn’t already done a dedicated post on the show. I had discussed it a bit in my book No Applause, and in my posts on Jim Henson, The Muppet Movie, and the 2011 movie The Muppets (one of my most successful posts), but not on its own account. So here we go!

The Muppet Show was a British produced TV variety show that was created between 1976 and 1981, starring Jim Henson’s Muppets, at the time best known to audiences from Sesame Street, and various TV specials (such as the 1972 Muppet Musicians of Bremen). The show was syndicated in the U.S. during its original run and for a time afterward. The Muppet Show was kind of a love poem to show business, both to vaudeville and TV variety, both of which had died by that point. It was nostalgic and sweet and funny and corny, but also (like Henson) also kind of edgy, weird, and quirky.

The host was the universally beloved character Kermit the Frog (played by Henson), who was also a kind of anchor amidst a lot of chaos and craziness, in the tradition of Mickey Mouse in Disney Cartoons, or Andy Griffith in Mayberry — an earnest, good-hearted straight man, who occasionally got his own laughs. And there were several other main characters who drew on our expectations of what one might find in a rep company: a demanding and vain diva named Miss Piggy (Frank Oz), a loveable hack stand-up comedian named Fozzy Bear (also Oz), a melancholy accompanist named Rowlf the Dog (Henson), a combination magician and nut act named Gonzo the Great (Dave Goetz), a star-struck young stage manager/gofer named Scooter (Richard Hunt) whose main job was to call places, and even a couple of hecklers in the form of a pair of old men named Statler and Waldorf (Henson and Hunt) who got some of the funniest lines on the show and then laughed their heads off about it.

Though aspects of the show resembled live vaudeville, it also tapped into TV tropes as well, and so among the other recurring characters was a Swedish Chef (Henson), the science guy Dr. Bunson Honeydew (Goetz) and his hapless assistant Beaker, Sam Eagle a conservative commentator who also happened to be a bald eagle (Oz), and the rock band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, whose star member was the Keith Moon-like drummer Animal (Oz), the favorite Muppet of many.

This is only some of them. With all these regulars, there was a great feeling of ritual to the show, starting with a catchy song that was to me reminiscent of the Warner Brothers Bugs Bunny theme song, promising glamor, fun, and excitement, which the show invariably delivered, I might add. There were songs, and comedy routines, and slapstick. There was always a top notch guest, who interacted with the Muppets and often performed numbers with them. Because the guests were often old time pros like Bob Hope or Milton Berle, and the Muppets appealed to kids, the show achieved the increasingly elusive feat of being able to entertain the whole family. So many impressions from that show, and I know rewatching it again will trigger much. (One special moment I recall was Peter Sellers quipping that he’d had his real personality “surgically removed”. This was long about 1979 or 1980, shortly before he died).

The Muppet Show‘s explosive success (unusual for a program that was both syndicated and made in another country) led to a series of popular movies, much merchandising, and a foothold for the Henson empire in other realms (e.g., the Star Wars films, which made use of his puppetry innovations as well as the talents of Frank Oz as Yoda). So that’s what came NEXT. But I would hope younger viewers might be inspired by the show to explore what came BEFORE: the 100 years of American show biz history which The Muppet Show is constantly quoting, sending up, and paying homage to. If I may (like Gonzo) toot my own horn, this blog and my various books are very good places in which to do that.

For more on vaudeville and television variety, including The Muppet Show, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,