With Candice Bergen, The Muppet Show had a perfect opportunity to concoct a classic episode. After all, it was rare for them to find a guest so comfortable with puppets. In fact, she had likely spent most of her younger years surrounded by them, given that her father was the great Edgar Bergen, one of America’s foremost puppeteers prior to Jim Henson (Edgar would later appear on The Muppet Show himself, making Candice and him the only father and daughter to ever both guest star on the show; he would later not only make a cameo in The Muppet Movie, but when he died shortly before its release, the film would be dedicated to him.).
And Bergen is just as terrific with the Muppets as one would expect (and as we’ve already seen on her SNL appearance). What’s great about her interactions with them is that she’s so used to puppets that she doesn’t treat them preciously whatsoever, nor does she act in awe of them, nor does she affect a deliberately fractious relationship with them. She treats them as people, completely straightforwardly. There’s no winking to the audience and no overflowing delight at being in their presence. Not to say that that can’t be a lot of fun with the right guest–arguably more so–but there’s also something fascinating about this approach, because it isn’t an approach. It’s just entirely natural behavior from a woman who grew up in this situation.
Her interactions with Kermit in the Talk Spot are a perfect example. A trained photographer, Bergen attempts to take candid shots of Kermit, who keeps self-consciously posing, even as she keeps asking him to act naturally (which is both fitting and ironic). It ends with Sweetums interrupting, enquiring as to whether she has a good camera, and then eating it once she confirms it is. It’s hard to pinpoint what it is about her performance but she takes it all in such effortless stride that, although it isn’t the most colourful guest star appearance, there’s something very appealing about its simplicity.
Wire for Kermit the Frog!
Unfortunately, there’s also hardly any structure whatsoever holding the episode together. Of all of the rudimentary backstage plots that Season 1 provided, this is one of the most skeletal. It literally consists of Fozzie delivering a number of pun jokes to Kermit. This is the general idea: Fozzie calls out that he has something for Kermit, in the style of a delivery boy, and then whatever he gives him turns out to be a completely literal version of said thing. For example: ‘Letter for Kermit the Frog! Letter for Kermit the Frog! Are you Kermit the Frog?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I have a letter for you.’ At which point, he hands him a foam letter R. Or ‘Wire [aka telegram] for Kermit the Frog!’ and then he hangs a wire hanger on his nose. Near the end, Kermit tries to ‘get’ Fozzie instead but it backfires on himself. It’s only during the curtain call that he manages to hit Fozzie with a pie in the face. And that is literally it.
‘Rita Moreno‘ was the only other episode with such a non-existent plot, but that one happened to still skate by as one of the best of the season because it contained such a strong assemblage of segments and Moreno was so beyond-words fantastic. Bergen unfortunately doesn’t bring that same level of excitement and the episode doesn’t have as many ‘wow’ sketches, although there are many wonderful moments. But it’s not enough to make this feel anything more than a hodgepodge.
There is, however, a welcome thread of feminism running throughout the half-hour. During his introduction at the top, Kermit refers to Bergen as a ‘well-rounded person,’ at which point Statler and Waldorf yell out a crude line about her indeed being ‘well-rounded’, hooting and catcalling. But Kermit instantly shuts them down. He declares that ‘Miss Bergen’ is a feminist and that there will be ‘no male chauvinist pig jokes while [she] is out here’! Piggy then marches on stage, declaring that she’s ‘tired of any kind of pig joke’! Then, she segues flawlessly into asking Kermit why, whenever there is ‘a beautiful girl on the show’, he forgets about her. Now, my immediate reaction was to worry that this would undermine the feminism, as Piggy doesn’t always have a great track record of being friends with other women, particularly beautiful ones. However, it actually goes in a different direction than I expected. At first, Kermit clarifies for her that it has nothing to do with Bergen’s looks. ‘We could have a seal act on the show and I might forget about you,’ he says. Without skipping a beat, our dearly deluded diva replies, ‘He tries so desperately to hide his love for me,’ but don’t think that means she’s gone soft. A second later, she’s giving him one of her patented threats.
‘What Now, My Love?’
But what’s most notable about this particular threat is that, instead of pitting her against the ‘beautiful’ guest star, we discover that she has actually allows Candice to take her under her wing. According to Piggy, ‘Ms Bergen said I should stand up for my rights! Either I open the show, or Ms Bergen and I walk!’ making this both the first time we see Piggy frame one of her demands as a consciously feminist act, as well as work with another woman to achieve success. And, notably, it leads to arguably Piggy’s first big star spotlight number ever.
Technically, it isn’t her first. She sang in ‘Temptation’, but in that case, Richard Hunt was performing Piggy’s voice and, although she sang lead, it was as part of the Muppet Glee Club. She was also the solo singer for ‘(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song’, but that was a UK-only spot that most of the world didn’t get to see. So this is really the first time that Frank Oz’s Miss Piggy as we know and love her today, performs a song for a worldwide audience. And although, this being The Muppet Show, it doesn’t go perfectly smoothly for her–she starts off as royalty in an Arabian Nights setting, but suddenly the 3 male Muppets acting as her backup turn into literal monsters and converge upon her, eventually leading her to have to flee the stage–she does finish the song in grand style, which, by Muppet standards, is a total triumph.
After at least a handful of uneven episodes–sometimes due to not utilizing a great guest star to their best advantage and other times due to a middling performance by a guest star dragging the proceedings down a bit–The Muppet Show finally finds its footing again with the Sandy Duncan episode, which benefits from a delightful celebrity who enthusiastically embraces every moment she gets with the Muppets, along with an actually terrific story thread which might not yet be developed enough to qualify as a plot but is one of the first season’s best examples of a running gag that actually holds it all together well. Even better, that gag springs from character and allows Fozzie to continue his development from the previous episode.
Now, I’ve said before that one of the most important things about The Muppet Show is that its success isn’t reliant on the human celebrity, and that remains true. There’s a reason that, unlike other variety shows such as SNL, they are specifically referred to as “guests” rather than “hosts,” and that is to establish right off the bat that they are supporting the Muppets, not the other way around (the flip side is one of the reasons some post-Jim productions such as The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island have faced some criticism). Practically every episode of The Muppet Show has at least a few great and/or classic moments regardless of the guest star. However, a weak guest and/or a guest not used well can undermine the structure of an episode, making it feel more like a mixed bag collection of moments rather than a solid whole. Luckily, Duncan’s high-energy vibe and sweet nature are a joyful, perfect match for the Muppets, which helps the whole thing feel more cohesive, and that’s then further solidified by the aforementioned “plot”.
Again, it’s a fairly simple one: a newly confident Fozzie takes to the stage early on in the episode and not only doesn’t let Statler and Waldorf get to him but absolutely kills, provoking an uproarious response in the audience unlike he has ever commanded in the past. Upon returning backstage, he explains to Kermit that he has a new comedy writer, “the legendary Gags Beasley,” someone who Kermit has never heard of before but who, in the world of the Muppets, is apparently a comedy giant (Hilda describes him as being “what Mozart was to music”!), largely thanks to his “famous banana sketch,” which is specifically what slayed Fozzie’s audience earlier. Kermit asks what the banana sketch is, and everyone responds in shock. How could Kermit–of all frogs–have never heard of the banana sketch before?! One by one, over the course of the episode, characters such as Fozzie, Scooter, Hilda, Gonzo, Piggy, and even Duncan herself can barely process this.
Gonzo can’t believe that Kermit doesn’t know the famous banana sketch!
Although no one has the exact same reaction to it, most end up in laughter of some sort, either over the simple fact that Kermit is so ignorant about this one clearly key piece of entertainment knowledge or because just thinking of the banana sketch makes them lose control of themselves. The best example of this is in the Talk Spot, which starts off just between Kermit and Duncan, as per the norm, but then is “intruded” upon by Fozzie, who begins a conversation with Duncan about Gags Beasley that leads to Fozzie and her collapsing into utter hysterics, which gets even worse when she desperately tries to explain the sketch to Kermit but can’t even get the words out because she’s laughing too hard, which subsequently makes her laugh even harder. Naturally, as the episode goes on, Kermit grows more and more frustrated about this, completely losing his froggy cool, as he goes from feeling left out to stubbornly refusing to believe the sketch even exists (they must all be pulling his leg!) to finally surrendering to the fact that he’s just never going to be in on this particular joke.
There are just so many great things about this entire conceit. Firstly, whether or not it was intentional, Fozzie going from Bruce Forsyth helping him succeed against Statler and Waldorf’s taunts in the previous episode to another total comedy triumph on-stage in this one creates a wonderful arc and sense of forward momentum for his character. Our lovable bear feels like he’s finally starting to come into his own, gaining in confidence if not actually in talent. Secondly, that is further cemented by him actually being in on something that Kermit isn’t, a fabulous turning-of-the-tables the sort of which is where great comedy comes from, flipping our expectations on their heads.
In most cases when Kermit loses his temper, it’s because everyone around him is behaving chaotically/erratically and so we’re generally on his side. The special magic of this situation is that–even though we as viewers are never privy to the banana sketch either–just the fact that we are being constantly reassured by everyone else that it is actually that funny and that it is incredibly strange that Kermit doesn’t know it basically fools us into agreeing with them, particularly when Duncan reveals herself to also be a big fan of the banana sketch, too. The human knowing it too gives it a sense of legitimacy that keys us into it not just being a case of all of the Muppets but Kermit being crazy.
And the particular scene in which Duncan demonstrates her knowledge is one of the best examples up to this point of a human guest being entirely complicit in the Muppets’ reality. Duncan’s hysterics with Fozzie seem so natural and real that it never feels anything less than two actual friends sharing an in-joke. And that laughter is so infectious that we can’t help but laugh uproariously along with them, with Kermit’s exhausted bemusement providing the icing on the comedy cake.
Duncan can’t believe Kermit doesn’t know the famous banana sketch.
But what ultimately makes Kermit, Kermit is that he isn’t a mean or spiteful character. Upon realizing that no one is ever going to be able to adequately explain the banana sketch and why it is so funny to him, by the end of the episode, he just graciously gives up, having Fozzie present Duncan with a lovely bouquet of bananas to signify that there are no hard feelings, and revealing that he does indeed have a sense of humor about himself, which is just lovely. We see the full gamut of Kermit’s more extreme emotions here–his sometimes short temper balanced with his genuinely good-natured kindness.
I’d also just like to make note of the fact that this isn’t the only first season episode that revolves around a single joke to which we as viewers and some of the characters aren’t privy. In many ways, it’s reminiscent of the Paul Williams episode, in which Scooter convinces a reluctant Fozzie to do the “telephone pole bit”. The banana sketch is superior for multiple reasons. The most important is that we never see the banana sketch. The writers wisely realize that they’ve deliberately built it up so high in people’s minds that nothing could actually live up to it. The second you present a real joke, it creates the problem that many people won’t find it as funny as they’re meant to, and this solves that issue.
With the Bruce Forsyth episode, we have yet another mostly lackluster celebrity appearance. This isn’t helped by the fact that, despite Kermit extolling his virtues and calling him a “one-man variety show,” his singing, dancing, and comedic stylings fail to impress–or at least fail to impress a modern eye. I don’t know much of Forsyth outside of this appearance (other than that, in his later years, he was accused of being racist numerous times, but I’m sure British viewers could enlighten me further) but at least here he seems to be of the breed of male song-and-dance entertainers of the mid-20th-century who never seem more than adequately talented when viewed today.
As with the Harvey Korman episode, a lot of the schtick here seems to play up how uncomfortable Forsyth is around the Muppets but without any of the genuine bite and zing of Korman’s performance, so instead of the force of nature we got with him, the episode is instead pervaded with the slightly unpleasant feeling of something just not gelling correctly. His discomfort, while scripted, seems to play as actual discomfort. Instead of letting loose with the Muppets, it feels as if he never really allows himself to be won over by the illusion. There’s a lot of mugging to the (non-existent) audience rather than engaging with the Muppets as believable people themselves.
This is particularly apparent in his dance number from Gypsy (“All I Need is the Girl”) in which an enormous Gawky Bird takes a liking to him and he tries to fend off her advances. The puppetry as she advances on her “prey” is astoundingly good but he doesn’t seem to have the comedic or acting chops to make his reactions feel genuinely funny or deliberate. And his singing and dancing aren’t anything to write home about.
The climax of the scene, however, still has a great, classical bit of Muppety subversion when the Gawky Bird and her sister back him into a birdcage, the birds turning the tables on the human, who takes refuge in something that is meant to lock birds in for the amusement of humans rather than keep humans safe from birds. But, again, that comes from the Muppets and their writers, not from anything Forsyth brings to the table.
He’s equally unimpressive in his Talk Spot with Kermit. Again, he exudes a rather unpleasant vibe that makes it seem like he either considers himself above the Muppets or just genuinely doeesn’t know how to react to them. To be fair, it doesn’t feature The Muppet Show‘s most sparkling writing, so there isn’t much to work with. It starts with him calling the show strange. “I’ll buy the fact that you’re a frog who can talk,” he says. “I’ll even buy the chicken who shares my dressing room…” at which point Kermit responds, “She’s not for sale,” having misinterpreted Bruce’s usage of “buy”.
But then things take a bizarre turn. Instead of correcting Kermit, Forsyth explains that doesn’t want to buy a chicken but he would lease a duck, at which point Kermit shows him that they do have a duck he could rent, and they start negotiating for how much it would cost. Kermit tells him a pig and two chickens. Forsyth responds that he has a pig but no rabbits. Does he have change for a rat? And so on and so forth.
While there is something strangely amusing about how far into knots the sketch twists itself to justify this pun and itself, it doesn’t really work, and ends on yet another unpleasant note: Piggy karate chops Forsyth for disrespecting pigs, and in response he sticks his fingers in her snout and chops her back, a bit of violence that feels uncomfortable to watch, particularly given the rather sexist tone that pervaded his previous song-and-dance number. Piggy may be a puppet but the optics are that of a larger male physically attacking a much smaller woman. Florence Henderson fighting Piggy was funny because not only was she also a woman but it was also so at odds with her clean-cut Brady persona. With Forsyth, there’s no contrast to his perceived personality. He seems like a bit of a jerk already, and so his behavior here just seems vicious and unfortunately gendered.
And, as with a lot of the episodes of this era–and this is a point I feel like I’ve made ad nauseum by now–the guest never appears backstage and is only tangentially related to its rudimentary plot, which is about Fozzie practicing to handle Statler and Waldorf’s heckling with stinging retorts of his own. But naturally, he isn’t very good at it, although there is a great moment where he responds to Kermit berating him (he’s asked him to help him practice) by simply taking out a rubber chicken and whacking him on the head with it. “Too subtle?” he asks. (Fozzie’s rubber chicken would later come to be one of the props most associated with him.) Ultimately, Kermit tells him he won’t have to worry about heckling tonight–because he’s given Fozzie’s comedy spot that night to Bruce Forsyth! Fozzie faints in agony.
Now, I’ve also spoken at length about how Fozzie too often comes across as a sad sack in the first season, and while most of his appearances in this episode do little to fix that issue, a positive step is made in the right direction during Forsyth’s comedy bit, which Fozzie mercifully interrupts. For a little while, Forsyth actually does perform a routine which, despite possibly taking up only a minute or less of screentime, seems to drag forever, being largely dated, cheesy, and unfunny. Even a few interruptions from Statler and Waldorf and his subsequent responses do little to break up the monotony…until Fozzie comes out in awe over how well Forsyth handled their rudeness. To clarify, Forsyth really didn’t handle it that well, but for the purpose of the narrative and Fozzie’s character, it’s easy to pretend he did. In fact, given that Fozzie’s taste in comedy usually ranges towards the creaky, his being so impressed with Forsyth’s rather tepid display is entirely in character.
But anyway, Forsyth encourages Fozzie that he has the ability to get Statler and Waldorf himself, as well, which, via his pep talk, Fozzie is finally able to do, to the point that the two old men eventually wave a white flag of surrender. Now, as per usual in this season, the writing isn’t good enough for us to fully believe that Fozzie’s not-so-great zingers should be impacting the old codgers quite as effectively as they do, but it’s also such a delight to see Fozzie become emboldened by his newfound ability to stand up for himself–“This is the happiest moment of my life!” he cries out–that it’s easy to forgive. Oz performs Fozzie in such a lovably enraptured state here, and it works beautifully. This then comedically culminates in the curtain call at the end of the episode, in which Fozzie is riding so high on his triumph that he becomes cocky–the bear just can’t stop himself!–even heckling Kermit, who finally has to threaten his job to provoke Fozzie into going back to his old, obsequious self.
Forsyth and Fozzie duet.
And so ultimately this is a good episode for Fozzie. It’s good to see him really trying to overcome Statler and Waldorf’s taunts and even ultimately succeeding, and it’s even good to see him go a bit too far, before being reined back in. A confident Fozzie is a wonderful thing to see at this stage. The problem is that Fozzie is really doing all of the work, playing off of a guest star who never really sells that he’s an adequate mentor. And, again, his involvment in the plot, such as it is, doesn’t occur until its climax, and it’s all completely stagebound. This is probably a good thing when it comes to this episode, since I’m not sure if I could’ve taken much more of Forsyth, but it does bring the quality down a bunch of notches.
Speaking of which, Piggy gets her ultimate comeuppance against him for his assault in his final spot in the episode (not counting the bows) when he sings a duet with her at the piano–actually the first time that Piggy is the main Muppet singer along with a celebrity guest!–and she utterly upstages him, overshadowing his big finish with some outrageous scatting that firmly establishes her as one of the true major stars of The Muppet Show, not just in her own head, which is particularly cool for a character who is still technically being shared by two vocal performers (although by this point, Hunt’s version of her only appears once, in “At the Dance,” not in a scene with any legitimate character work).
Other things of note:
–Speaking of Piggy, the episode also features the Snerfs performing “In a Little Spanish Town,” a Muppet bit that was first seen on the British TV special, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, which was most significant for featuring Miss Piggy’s first-ever appearance. The Snerfs made their first appearances on Sesame Street and The Great Santa Claus Switch.
–The Muppets’ commitment to running gags continues in this episode’s “At the Dance,” as we get yet another two more iterations of the “Do you like Kipling?”/”I don’t know. I’ve never kippled!” joke! Mildred asks George if he likes duckling to which he replies that he never duckled, and even better, a male pig asks Hunt’s Piggy about her interest in American history, and when he brings up Franklin, she tells him that she’s never Frankled!
–This episode also has yet another fantastic installment of Veterinarian’s Hospital. A lot of the season 1 sketches built solely around deliberately lame gags fizzled out in later years, but Veterinarian’s Hospital would endure and I think a large part of that has to do with how enthusiastically Rowlf, Piggy, and Janice deliver their terrible lines, and how uproariously they laugh at their own jokes. There’s something infectious about it. And here, in particular, there’s actually a terrific rhythm to the hacky humor, which revolves around the group operating on a duck, which they keep incorrectly referring to as a chicken. Each time the duck corrects them with “Duck!” they misinterpret and physically duck. That is until Piggy notices the lamp on the ceiling is loose and about to fall and she yells, “Duck,” but Dr. Bob doesn’t believe her and so, while Piggy and Janice get out of the way, he gets hit on the head!
Then we get this fantastic exchange:
Dr. Bob fails to duck.
DR. BOB: What kind of doctor do you think I am?
DR. BOB: I should know better than to ask a chicken.
DUCK: (exasperated) DUCK!
And they all duck again! What’s so great about this sketch is that the puns fly so fast, loose, and effortlessly, and everyone’s reactions are so perfectly timed. In many ways, it’s the opposite of the earlier sketch with Kermit and Forsyth, which ironically revolved around the same duck! But whereas that one relied on a much more forced pun/scenario, this one flows beautifully and utilizes four “performers” all completely committed to selling it.
Next time: Sandy Duncan!!
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