STUDIO: Disney
MSRP: $39.99
RUNNING TIME: 604 Minutes
• Muppet Morsels
• Original Pilot
• Muppet Pitch Reel
• Season One Gag Promo Reel

Puppets get no respect. Sure, Punch and Judy can get a table for dinner and Howdy Doody still holds down pension on the board at Philip Morris like a rich old cowboy. But most are begging for wool scraps in the garment district or shucking it in underground gigs like a blacklisted ventriloquist dummy.

Not the Muppets. What a difference one letter makes. These characters are as enduring as bedrock. I’m not going to talk about the genius of Jim Henson because his puppets never cured cancer or redefined any physical laws. But he was a corny, funny and subversive guy who understood that the difference between creepy and endearing is a winning personality. Thirty years later, his creations are fresh, funny and even surprising.

The Show

Once upon a time, family entertainment didn’t mean childish simplicity and insipid songs. In the primitive 1970s, family television could feature characters interacting like adults, so long as there were enough puns and broad gags on the surface. Beneath the text, political, cultural and sexual gags could be hidden for the adults.

That’s The Muppet Show, which seems to have hit TV running. The faux-real variety show arrived fully formed, ready to satirize popular entertainment and offer genuine laughs of it’s own. Think Kermit is a kids’ character? Think again. Kermit and Piggy are funny to kids because they’re talking animals with wonderful voices, but they also reflect what was going on in the world in a way rarely seen in family programming. Peanuts and The Simpsons are among the few that come close, as I reckon.

At the dawn of creation, forties came in garbage bags? Ghetto!

The show is funnier than I remember. It has no boundaries. A Muppet exists to fit every stretch of the imagination, and scenes turn dramatic, romantic, psychedelic and everything in between. The wit of the writers can be wicked, but they’re just as adept at turning out a genial piece of fluff. The best moments, of course, are where a fluffy bit gets wicked, or vice versa.

Sandy Duncan’s first song, accompanied by a funky syncopated beat, asks ‘What’s a Nice Girl Like Me Doing In A Place That Never Closes?’ She sings the question, downs some guy’s drink, then a monster tears off her dress and she dances. Another bit has Sam Eagle explaining how he’d mistaken Marcello Mastroianni for a type of soup. When he ordered it, he got a swarthy, good-looking man in a bowl. That joke blows my mind. So does the one where Kermit, drinking from a straw, peers at the camera and says, ‘think about this one, folks’ as the liquid in the glass disappears. Fourth wall? Never.

Jim Henson: hentai pioneer.

Unless you’re carrying a torch for someone like Sandy Duncan, most of the guest stars aren’t going to inspire fandom. I can imagine the show initially had a tough time wrangling stars to work with puppets, so the cast for this season is full of b-listers and one-hit wonders. Not that they fail to entertain — most are great — but most people under 30 will have no idea who many of the guests were.

Probably for the best, since Henson upstages his human stars with insistent puppets. With no reverence for a performer’s ego, musical numbers are crowded with out-of-control backup singers, and the animalistic Muppets swarm all over each good-looking hostess. It’s funny every time. Not because Muppets always get their way, but because they all have their own desires and ambitions.

The only clip left from Michael Ironside’s deleted episode.

These are true personalities — funny, demanding, even dangerous. If the guest stars had been allowed to play down to the Muppets, the show would collapse. How could we get behind a showbiz production where outsiders took control every time?

Besides, these aren’t squeaky-clean Barney toys. Henson created real characters; I watch these shows and wonder what they all do after work. I don’t figure they hang out together much. It’s easy to imagine Kermit’s eyes rolling as he cracks a beer and hangs up on another stalker call from Piggy. Sam Eagle is probably a total dick to the bag boy at the grocery, and I guess Gonzo’s got a small group of friends and an ugly girlfriend who thinks he’s pretty cool.

And no matter what anyone tells me, I’ll maintain till death that Rowlf the Dog is based on Tom Waits. I don’t care if he debuted while Waits was still washing dishes at a pizza joint to support his 13 pack a day high school smoking habit. They’re one and the same. Waits must have a Malkovitch portal in his head; when Henson went in, Rowlf was born.

One and the same.

I didn’t revere the Muppets as a kid, probably because I rarely got to watch the show. Now I’m glad, because I get to experience it free of preconceptions. Even if I expected the world of it, however, The Muppet Show would deliver.

(One note: I’ve read that several of these episodes are missing musical numbers, supposedly because Disney couldn’t/wouldn’t pay for the rights. That won’t affect your enjoyment of the set, but it’s worth mentioning.)

9.5 out of 10

The Look

It’s TV, and late ’70s TV at that. So don’t expect any magical revelation. The image is good, with some incredibly bold colors and as much crisp detail as a studio camera could grab, but it’s still softer than what you’ll find on some of the remastered Disney Muppet discs, based on my glances at those.

8 out of 10

The Noise

It’s a TV show from the ’70s. That said, we can hear every gag, and the musical numbers have a little bit of punch.

7 out of 10

The Goodies

I’m disappointed. Instead of commentaries we get ‘Muppet Morsels’ — pop-up trivia facts that don’t always illuminate what’s onscreen. So during a sketch where Peter Uustinov is playing a robot politician who acts as a British PM and Russian Premier, the innocent data track is explaining that Dr Bunsen Honeydew’s name is derived from a piece of scientific equipment and a melon instead of talking about how the show managed to shade a family show with political humor. I only watched about half the episodes with pop-ups enabled; they offered too little, and were typically just annoying.

Also disappointing — in a catastrophic way — is the included pilot, The End of Sex and Violence on Television. Remember what I said about being brilliant out of the gate? This pilot proves me wrong.

In this half hour the show isn’t hosted by Kermit, who only appears once to make a sly sexual innuendo. Many familiar bits are present — At The Dance, Statler & Waldorf, The Electric Mayhem Band — but the context is totally different. The rhythm is all off, and most of the jokes are corny rather than funny. It also breaks the agreement between puppet and audience (the 5th wall?) by pulling back to show the puppeteers. It’s a neat thing to see once, but I’m glad it didn’t become part of the regular show.

Ernie, that cross-dressing slut.

As bad as the pilot may be, and it really is a chore to sit through, it’s yet another reminder that creat creative works rarely emerge ready for consumption. It’s encouraging to see that the show wasn’t an automatic success.

The extras are almost let off the hook by the brilliance of the pitch reel, three minutes of concentrated Henson madness. This is the show’s cynical side, where a Muppet pitchman guised as a news reporter launches into an ever more energetic litany of reasons broadcasters should buy the show.

He begins by extolling the show’s quality, but winds up the frenzied speech exclaiming that all involved will get rich and famous, as day-glo graphics pulse in the background. I had to drink some Jonestown kool-aid after the indoctrination was done; it was great. Then I bought the show.

6 out of 10

The Artwork

Fur! Or kind of — the first edition of the set plastered green velvet on the cover to emulate Kermit’s upper torso. Even in a standard cardboard edition, I like the minimal, graphic design, which is more successful than the weird new Simpsons cases. I do shudder when I imagine how they’ll address Miss Piggy, though. If that set has furry pig tits I might have to pass.

8 out of 10

Overall: 8.9 out of 10