The Cartoon Couch: The Other Muppet Shows
Most of us are familiar with Jim Henson’s groundbreaking and much beloved series The Muppet Show….
…and it’s for that reason that it’s NOT fit to be covered on The Cartoon Couch. TCC pays tribute to the lesser known, less celebrated, obscure and forgotten shows, so we won’t be covering The Muppet Show today. But did you know that Henson Associates tried rehashing the Muppet Show formula on 2 separate occasions? They did, first with MuppeTelevision in 1989 and again with Muppets Tonight in 1996. These are the shows we’ll be spotlighting today.
NOTE: Since by now nearly everyone’s familiar with the Muppet Show formula, both of these summaries are going to be very rapid-fire and abridged; I’ll only be giving brief overviews of each. Having said that….
MuppeTelevision regularly occupied the first half of The Jim Henson Hour, a short-lived television series that aired on NBC in 1989, modeled after the old Walt Disney Presents specials. It was an updated version of the classic series The Muppet Show, the new twist being that the Muppets were now running an entire cable television network rather than a single variety show. The Muppets broadcast their network’s programming from a unique control room called “Muppet Central”. The station was capable of picking up television signals from throughout the universe, and it was up to Kermit the Frog, who served as director, to decide which shows the viewing audience would see. Most of the acts were viewed on television monitors, while backstage antics happened in the Muppet Central control room. Just about every act would be introduced from the control room, in contrast to the previous Muppet Show, where characters would come on-stage to introduce acts. Regulars included past favorites Kermit the Frog, The Great Gonzo and Link Hogthrob in addition to new characters Digit (a malfunctioning robot), Leon the Lizard (who insisted that he and Kermit were related; he constantly called Kermit “Cuz”), Lindbergh the Kiwi, Vicki (a young intern who was a fan of the original Muppet Show when she was a kid, making us all feel old), Clifford, Waldo C. Graphic (the first computer generated Muppet), and Jacques Roach (a parody of Jacques Cousteau). Also appearing as a series regular was Bean Bunny, who had previously starred in the HBO TV special The Tale of the Bunny Picnic, parodying the treacly cuteness he was originally created to embody.
The house band for MuppeTelevision was called Solid Foam, taking the place of the psychedelic Electric Mayhem band that had appeared in most previous Muppet projects. The band included:
Digit on keyboard
Flash on saxophone and vocals
Clifford on bass guitar and vocals
Beard on guitar and vocals
An unnamed Female Drummer
Here’s Solid Foam in action:
Among the recurring segments on the show were “Bootsie and Brad”, a Barbie-esque fashion doll and her clingy Ken-like boyfriend, played by human actors Jennifer Lee and Andrew Wilson, and “Merlin the Magician, M.D.”, a variation on the “Veterinarian’s Hospital” sketches starring Rowlf the Dog as a very Dr. Bob-esque Merlin, using his magic to cure people’s medical problems, making jokes and slinging puns all the while.
MuppeTelevision also tends to get interrupted on some occasions by an illegal TV station called Gorilla Television run by Ubu the Gorilla, Chip, and Zondra.
Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy appeared only intermittently, as their performer Frank Oz was busy with a directorial career. Now I’m neutral towards Fozzie; he’s never been my favorite Muppet but I have no qualms with him, however the lack of Miss Piggy didn’t cause me to shed a single tear. I’ll say it: I’ve never been a huge Miss Piggy fan. Miss Piggy has always been one of those characters that I never really liked but just tolerated, like Big Bird (urgh, don’t get me started on that feathered moron). As a kid, it was my opinion that Miss Piggy was an overbearing, over-hyped, scene-stealing, temperamental [RADIO EDIT] who just took screen time away from better and more deserving characters who unlike Miss Piggy, were actually team players.
…But I mean that in a good way. Moving on…
Muppets Tonight ran on ABC from March 8 to July 14, 1996, with reruns on Disney Channel from 1997 to 2000. As of 2015, it is the last television series to star The Muppets characters. The premise of Muppets Tonight was that Clifford (one of the band members of Solid Foam from MuppeTelevision) was the host of a variety show on KMUP (mainly because no one else wanted the job). Most of the shows stuck closely to the Muppet Show format of various skits interspersed with some sort of backstage story (usually a crisis). The show featured a laugh track, similar to the one used on The Muppet Show. One big difference between the two shows is that on Muppets Tonight, it was much more common for audiences to only see half of an on-stage act (especially musical numbers), as many acts would begin and shortly afterwards would cut to a backstage scene (or a comment from Statler and Waldorf). Another difference is that while each episode of The Muppet Show only had one or two featured guests, and no additional humans appearing on-screen, many episodes of Muppets Tonight often featured cameos by celebrities in addition to the featured guest star. Some of these celebrities also took part in episode subplots. Also, while it was rare for any scenes on The Muppet Show to take place outside of The Muppet Theater, many episodes of Muppets Tonight had scenes taking place outside of the station.
Trivia Time: On Muppets Tonight, Clifford was featured with Muppet eyes in place of his usual sunglasses, he went back to wearing sunglasses in later Muppet projects as revealed at MuppetFest.
New Muppet characters included Miss Piggy’s very, very, very stupid nephews, Randy and Andy, Pepe the King Prawn (making his debut here) and his buddy Seymour the Elephant, elevator operators in the first season and commissary workers in the second, who are constantly hoping to become performers, but their efforts always seem to suffer a mishap of some kind, Johnny Fiama, a Sinatra style crooner who lives with his mom, and Sal Minella, his hot-tempered monkey bodyguard. Among the regular sketches were “Bay of Pigswatch”; “Pigs in Space: Deep Dish Nine” (a spin-off from The Muppet Show’s “Pigs in Space”); “EIEIO-R”; “Tales from the Vet”, and “Great Moments in Elvis History”.
Here’s the opening:
Not surprisingly, with the theatrical release of The Muppets in 2011 and its’ sequel Muppets Most Wanted in 2014, now fans are hoping that we’ll get a new Muppet series somewhere down the line. While overall I’d prefer to see studios make new shows and properties as opposed to this avalanche of reboots and relaunches, I wouldn’t be against such an idea, although if I can make a small suggestion: maybe in the future Henson Associates could consider not using the totality of the Muppet cast in every single new project. Maybe they could designate say about 3, 4 or 5 central characters and only use them in each project, while the others either take momentary rests or be used separately in their own projects. I understand that HA regards the Muppets characters as a troupe like the Marx Brothers, and that works fine, when there’s only a small number of them. Also, don’t just rehash the Muppet Show formula again. of these 2 shows, I preferred MuppeTelevision because it broke the mold more (plus I just like the high-tech, space age, intergalactic feel that show had), Muppets Tonight, while enjoyable, played things too close to the original formula. Don’t be afraid to change things and mix things up a little; if you just rehash everything, the franchise just gets old and that shortens the life span.