Jim Henson is one of those rare individuals whose creative achievements have left an indelible mark on pop culture worldwide. His Muppets are as recognizable as any other fictional characters. Henson first gained notoriety in the early ‘60s with Rowlf the Dog, who appeared in commercials and became a regular on The Jimmy Dean Show.
In 1969, Henson joined the children’s television program Sesame Street and the Muppets became a household name. Henson wanted to branch out and entertain adults as well. His first attempt was in 1975 on the inaugural season of Saturday Night Live in a series of sketches set in the Land of Gortch. The venture didn’t work out, but Henson and his team were too talented to be denied.
They then created The Muppet Show, a vaudeville show within a show hosted by Henson’s signature character and alter-ego Kermit the Frog that also allowed viewers to see the characters backstage. In their infinite wisdom, the American networks rejected it, but Henson got financing from British television executive Lew Grade who produced and distributed it around the world. It ran five seasons from 1976-’81 and in its second season won an Emmy for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series. During its third season (1978-’79), TIME reported that the series was “almost certainly the most popular television entertainment now being produced on earth….seen by at least 235 million people in 106 countries.”
Now on DVD, all 24 episodes from the third season are available, and 30 years later the material still holds up. The jokes come fast and furious, and there’s a lot of good musical numbers, but the real strengths come from the characters. It’s amazing how quick the puppeteers make you forget that what you are seeing isn’t real. The hosts interact with them very naturally.
The shows usually had an overarching theme that tied in with the host. Things got spooky on and offstage when Alice Cooper hosted, and the show became a little bit country, to quote another variety show of the time, when singers like Roy Rogers & Dale Evans appeared. Some of the episodes were particularly imaginative. Loretta Lynn’s episode was performed at a train station; the disease cluckitis ran rampant backstage during Roger Miller’s appearance, turning Muppets into chickens; and rather than the usual variety show during Lynn Redgrave’s episode, the Muppets staged Robin Hood.
The series had a number of recurring sketches. There was the sci-fi spoof “Pigs in Space” and the medical soap opera “Veterinarian’s Hospital.” There were also sketches that focused on particular Muppets, like Gonzo the Great’s failed stunts, Fozzie Bear’s failed comedy routines, and Muppet Labs with Dr. Honeydew and Beeker and their failed experiments. Statler and Waldorf, the old men in the balcony, were always quick to joke at their expense.
New additions to the season are characters are boomerang fish thrower Lew Zealand, janitor Beauregard who takes over for George, and young starlet Annie Sue the Pig, who Miss Piggy feels threatened by a la All About Eve. The recurring sketch “Bear on Patrol,” featuring Fozzie as a police officer, also debuted.
Speaking of new, American fans might notice segments they are unfamiliar with. That is because the UK versions were two minutes longer due to the difference in commercial breaks between the two countries. Referred to as “UK Spots,” they usually featured musical numbers.
Disc Four contains some fantastic archival footage. The Muppets on Puppets was an hour-long special recorded in June 1968. Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl, Don Sahlin, and Rowlf provide an informative history of puppetry. Kermit and Grover also make appearances for those paying attention. What’s really great for fans is to see a Muppets scene from behind the scenes so you see how the performers work. There is some slight audio drop out due to the source, but it is well worth watching.
“A Company of Players” is a 10-minute feature on the show about the puppeteers and the characters and contains great footage behind the scenes. There are Purina Dog Chow Commercials from 1962-63 with Rowlf and Baskerville.
The Muppet Show – The Complete Third Season is a fantastic addition to anyone’s video library and is perfect for the whole family. It collects an unbelievable amount of talent rarely paralleled in the history of television. The theme song wasn’t kidding when it stated it was “the most sensational inspirational celebrational Muppetational.” Sit back and enjoy the laughs.