The Muppet Show
UK, ITV (ATV/ITC), Sketch, colour, 1976
Starring: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson
Arguably the most successful TV comedy show of all time - certainly so in terms of international sales: it has been screened in more than 100 countries - The Muppet Show was the brilliant realisation of Jim Henson, an American puppeteer with a wild imagination and sense of humour that was both childlike and of appeal to adults. Embracing the same simple theme as The Jack Benny Program in earlier decades - a show about putting on a show - The Muppet Show depicted the antics of some wacky marionette puppet (hence the word Muppet) troupers onstage and backstage as they inter-related, hurried about their show business, overcame difficulties by the thousand and dealt with interfering or awkward or in any other sense problematic guest stars.
Despite the impressive roll-call of human guests, the star of the Muppets was Kermit, a kindly frog whose job as MC was to keep the show on the tracks while boosting the wavering confidence of his players, trying to live with their insufferably large egos, put up with their occasionally off-beam pranks and thwart the amorous advances of the show's sow fatale, Miss Piggy. Without any redeeming features save her irrepressible self-absorption, Miss Piggy considered herself the principal star of the show, and her aggressive or fawning treatment of guests was as unpredictable as her unrequited affection for Kermit was constant.
In all, there were scores of Muppet characters, but the other chief players were the hopelessly unfunny comedian Fozzie Bear; Gonzo The Great, a failed trumpeter with a fetish for chicken; Rowlf, an unkempt piano-playing canine; Scooter, who served as Kermit's factotum; a huge rat named Rizzo; loony scientist Bunsen Honeydew; a mighty monster called Sweetums; resident rock band the Electric Mayhem, with out-of-his-head guitarist Floyd and mad drummer Animal; and, up in a private box at the Vaudeville Theatre, two ageing hecklers called Statler and Waldorf who liked to think that their put-downs of the stage-show were witty. There were recurring sketches like the Star Trek send-up Swine Trek; and, without fail, every human guest star was ignobly treated or put into surreal situations - Rudolf Nureyev danced to new ballet Swine Lake, for example, Elton John duetted with Miss Piggy on 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart' and sang 'Crocodile Rock' with a choir of crocodiles, and Peter Sellers performed from Richard III in the manner of Sir Laurence Olivier while holding clucking chickens under his arms.
One of the great strengths of The Muppet Show was that no guest intimated that the puppet characters were anything other than human, conversing and interacting with the furry creatures as if it was perfectly normal. By placing a strong emphasis on its American TV exposure as well as global sales, the biggest names in show business accepted invitations to appear: among those to guest in the 120 editions were Julie Andrews, Shirley Bassey, Milton Berle, Victor Borge, Carol Burnett, George Burns, Ruth Buzzi, Johnny Cash, John Cleese, James Coburn, Alice Cooper, Dom DeLuise, Marty Feldman, Bruce Forsyth, Valerie Harper, Debbie Harry, Bob Hope, Glenda Jackson, Elton John, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly, Chris Langham (the British comic actor who also co-wrote many editions), Cloris Leachman, Liberace, Rich Little, Steve Martin, Ethel Merman, Spike Milligan, Liza Minnelli, Dudley Moore, Roger Moore, Zero Mostel, Rudolf Nureyev, Vincent Price, Gilda Radner, Tony Randall, Lynn Redgrave, Leo Sayer, Peter Sellers, Paul Simon, Sylvester Stallone, Jean Stapleton, Loretta Swit, Peter Ustinov, Nancy Walker, Raquel Welch and Jonathan Winters. Quite a roll-call. On the back of The Muppet Show, Jim Henson's creations quickly permeated every aspect of show business - not only TV but films, books, magazines, records (a British number one album and two hit singles), audio and video tapes, commercials and every conceivable kind of merchandise item, with particular emphasis on the green-felt frog Kermit and the 'glam' Miss Piggy.
While The Muppet Show was, by all appearances, an American show - the accents, the characters, the majority of the writers - it was, in fact, a British production. The American TV networks were unconvinced that Jim Henson's idea would have any adult appeal and, after ABC aired a single half-hour pilot episode there on 19 March 1975, and NBC failed to realise the possibilities after Henson's Muppets appeared in early editions of Saturday Night Live they passed up the opportunity to produce a series, much to Henson's frustration. It was then that the British impresario Sir Lew Grade, the chairman of ATV, stepped in. Henson's creatures had appeared in three light entertainment specials made by ATV for American sale (two starring Julie Andrews, the other featuring musician Herb Alpert) and Grade could see the Muppets' wider appeal where the American TV executives could not. Grade invited Henson to move his entire production workshop to Britain - writers, puppeteers, producers and more - to make The Muppet Show at ATV's studio in Borehamwood, just north of London, working with British designers and directors. Most of the 120 guest stars were American but they too flocked to Borehamwood to tape their contributions. Shrewdly, Grade was then able to sell The Muppet Show back to America, where, vastly popular with children and adults, it was screened in first-run syndication from late September 1976, proving that the network executives, not for the first or last time, had made a costly error of judgement.
But although one can lay a good deal of credit at Sir Lew Grade's door, and tip the hat to the major creative contribution of Frank Oz (who voiced Miss Piggy and several other characters), The Muppet Show owed its all to Jim Henson, who ranks alongside Walt Disney in terms of creative genius. Born in Greenville, Mississippi, on 24 September 1936, Henson was fascinated at an early age by TV and puppetry in equal measure, and first combined the two in Sam And Friends, a series of a five-minute shows that aired locally on WRC-TV in Washington DC from 1955 to 1961. Henson introduced Muppet characters, including Kermit, for the first time in this programme. Sam And Friends led to Henson and his then colleague Jane Nebel producing 160 Wilkins Coffee TV commercials and then making guest appearances for the Muppet characters on The Tonight Show, The Jimmy Dean Show, The Ed Sullivan Show and other top shows. But it was in 1969 that the Muppets became internationally famous, when Jim Henson was invited to bring his puppets into a new entertainment and education show for pre-school children, Sesame Street, made by the Children's Television Workshop, an American non-profit organisation established to provide informative, fun TV programming for young children, particularly the financially and racially disadvantaged. Still on air at the time of writing, Sesame Street has provided a perfect platform for Muppet characters like Big Bird, the Cookie Monster, the Count, Fozzie Bear (the only original Sesame Streeter to graduate to The Muppet Show), Bert, Ernie and Grover. The Muppet Show grew out of Henson's desire to produce, alongside Sesame Street, less didactic and more mature material, and its success, in turn, allowed Henson to branch out into other TV enterprises and the movies. Jim Henson died on 16 May 1990, age 53, but his creative spirit lives on and his son Brian is at the helm of the still ultra-busy Jim Henson Productions.
*Notes. These dates refer to the London-area ITV transmissions - however only 23 of the 24 first-series episodes were screened in the capital. All 24 were broadcast in the Midlands (ATV's own area), beginning on 5 September 1976, seven weeks ahead of London, but ending on 23 April 1977, three weeks after. Forty-five of the 120 episodes were screened by BBC1 from 8 February 1986 to 7 October 1987.
BBC2 screened a one-hour celebration, I Love The Muppets, on 1 April 2002.
Researched and written by Mark Lewisohn.