Our reviews of Best Of The Muppet Show: Volumes 1 and 2 (published October 21st, 2002), Best Of The Muppet Show: Volume 5 (published March 2nd, 2004), Best Of The Muppet Show: Volume 6 (published March 2nd, 2004), Best Of The Muppet Show: Volume 7 (published April 27th, 2004), and Best Of The Muppet Show: Volume 3 (published March 19th, 2003) are also available.
"Lagies and genklefans, welgum again to the Muppel Shoks! My name is Kermit the Forg!"—As written by Fozzie Bear
In the early 1980s, the Muppets, under the guidance of Jim Henson, reached a creative peak, and a museum tour entitled "The Art of the Muppets" crisscrossed the country. I got a chance to see the exhibition, with its collection of Dark Crystal props, a Doozer structure from Fraggle Rock, and even the original Kermit from Henson's "Sam and Friends" show. The Muppet Show was still in reruns in those days, and you could turn on your television to catch Shields and Yarnell or George Burns laughing it up with the gang.
It is a sign of changing times that the current owners of the Muppets, a German consortium, is offering the vestiges of Henson's empire (except the Creature Shop, which is still in demand) at rock bottom prices, so low right now that you and your friends could probably put up a legitimate bid with pocket change. What went wrong? The answer is obvious: since the death of Jim Henson, the Muppets have slipped creatively to the point where all they have left to cash in on is nostalgia. Hence, Columbia TriStar has put together its Best of the Muppet Show DVD series, culled from the show's five season run from 1976-1981.
The disc in question here contains three episodes that might be loosely dubbed "Popular Music" and is the third volume in a ten-volume series originally released through Time/Life Video. You have probably seen the infomercial. The standout episode features Harry Belafonte, who performs his famous "Banana Boat Song," a drum duel with Animal, and an African-themed number ("Turn the World Around") with singing tribal masks. Belafonte, who became a lifelong friend of the Henson family after this show, and even performed "Turn the World Around" at Jim Henson's funeral, is clearly having a great time, and surprisingly, he sings live (rather than lip-synching). Throughout, the episode has a spontaneity that only an accomplished group of performers can create: the timing in the comedy bits is sharp and the sketches clever. So far, so good: this is indeed one of the show's best episodes.
Things slip a bit with a fifth-season episode featuring Linda Ronstadt. While she is as sexy as ever and has a crystal voice, her comedy material falls flat, the victim of stiff writing, and her musical numbers feel too reverent. Her torch songs, especially "Blue Bayou," are good, and she can sing "The Shoop-Shoop Song" better then Cher, but the whole affair feels routine. The best part is a bizarre and borderline sadistic rendition of "The Cat Came Back" by Rowlf that I remember vividly from the show's original run. So, why was that cat wearing an eyepatch?
The third episode (from season four) stars John Denver, who comes across as earnest and can deliver a punch line. The theme of the episode is environmentalism (Denver would shoot a television special with the Muppets several years later along similar lines), but a Muppet rendition of "Why Can't We Be Friends" with an anti-war theme fits nicely.
All three episodes are introduced by Brian Henson, whose eyes practically beg for a corporate bailout. Extras are thin: a single design sketch of Statler and Waldorf, a brief recent sketch with Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, and some recently produced parody "screen tests." Each episode also incorporates a sketch cut from American syndication (although often the sketch, like the "Gloomy Song" in the Ronstadt episode, is no big deal). But the disc is worth the low price for two strong episodes (Belafonte and Denver) and great musical numbers all around.
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