Our reviews of 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), Best Of The Muppet Show: Volume 3 (published March 19th, 2003), and Best Of The Muppet Show: Volume 4 (published March 19th, 2003) are also available.
The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational show on TV is back!
Hi-ho, and welcome again to The Muppet Show! To celebrate their 25th anniversary, Kermit and friends have lined up two discs full of classic moments, special guests, and surprises galore—well not really "galore…"more like "a smattering…"some of which aren't even funny. But hey, it's The Muppet Show finally on DVD! Now tell me again why Columbia didn't release the entire series? Or at least one season at a time?
Facts of the Case
Six episodes on two discs—uncut, digitally remastered, and each featuring a reminiscing introduction by new Muppet honcho Brian Henson. Let's skip the formalities and get right to the breakdown…
Elton John—A music-heavy episode from Season Two, featuring Sir Elton singing "Crocodile Rock" and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" with Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, "Benny and the Jets" for Scooter, and "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" as a duet with Piggy.
Julie Andrews—The Queen of Musical Theatre graces this Season Two episode, singing "Lonely Goatherd" (Sound of Music) in the Muppet Alps, "Whistle a Happy Tune" (King and I) to escape a gang of street monsters, and a love song written especially for Kermit. Oh, and there's a real cow loose in the theater.
Gene Kelly—The legendary entertainer does his best not to "perform" in this Season Five episode, claiming to be merely an audience member. However, he gets tricked into giving Kermit a dance lesson, sings a backstage duet with Piggy, and tries to outsmart Rowlf on the piano before breaking down and Singing in the Rain.
Mark Hamill/Luke Skywalker—Mark pulls double duty in Season Four as himself and his Star Wars alter ego. Luke, C-3PO, and R2-D2 are searching for the missing Chewbacca, winding up backstage and later about the Swine Trek before closing the show with a big star-themed finale—singing "You are My Lucky Star" and "When You Wish Upon a Star."
Paul Simon—Bad jokes and puns aside, the singer/songwriter lends his many talents to this Season Five episode, performing "Scarborough Fair," "It's Been a Long Long Day," and "Loves Me Like a Rock." Meanwhile, the gang honors Simon's music with interpretations of "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover," "Baby Driver," and a strange Gonzo rendition of "If I Only Could."
Raquel Welch—The sultry sex symbol shows off more than her physical attributes in this Season Three episode by singing and dancing her way through "Baby You Send Me," serenading an awestruck Fozzie with "Confide in Me Tonight," and performing an estrogen, pork-powered duet of "I am Woman" with Piggy.
By the time The Muppet Show debuted in 1976, Jim Henson's Muppets were a 22 year overnight success. Sprung forth from the imagination of an 18-year-old Henson, the Muppets evolved from a novelty act on local Washington D.C. television shows, to commercial pitchmen, regular appearances on the Today Show and Ed Sullivan, corporate training films for IBM, Sesame Street, Saturday Night Live, and guests on various star-studded holiday specials and national talk shows. Despite the exposure, Jim was frustrated. Due to the overwhelming success of Sesame Street, The Muppets had become typecast as children's entertainment. The wild humor and biting satire of Jim and his team (wife Jane Nebel, Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl, Don Sahlin, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Dave Goelz, and Michael Firth) was being stifled and lost. But all that was about to change.
In 1975, a series pilot entitled The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence was taped and aired on ABC. Despite the network's decision to pass on the series, the basic format and several new characters (Statler and Waldorf, Swedish Chef, Sam Eagle, and the Electric Mayhem) laid the foundation for future success. In hindsight, Jim found three elements missing from the failed pilot—a guest star on which to center the show, an enigmatic host (the pilot had a humanoid nebbish named Nigel), and network support. His wishes were about to be granted by an unlikely source.
A recent guest spot on Julie Andrews' holiday special left a strong impression on British producer Lord Lew Grade. Grade had long sought to tap into the American market and offered Jim a 24-episode syndicated package, with complete creative control—something the networks never would have granted. Leery of the second rate nature of syndicated television, Jim's fears were quickly alleviated by Grade's state-of-the-art production facilities in England and a commitment by five major market CBS-owned stations to air the show as a lead-in to their prime time schedule. Within two months, Muppet Inc. had moved to London, secured a production staff, written 24 scripts, and built numerous sets—five feet off the ground to accommodate the Muppeteers. The only thing they needed now were guest stars.
Since most celebrities avoided so-called "kids shows" like the plague, Jim called in as many personal and professional favors as he could to fill the first season's dance card. Looking back on it now, it took a full season for the show to find its footing and allow its new characters—Fozzie, Piggy, Gonzo, Scooter—and even veteran Muppet host Kermit to develop as unique, individual performers. Once they found their groove, the real magic began to happen. Much like a Gonzo stunt spectacular, the results were far different than anyone could have imagined—six feature films (seven if you count Dark Crystal), four television series (The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, Jim Henson Hour, Muppets Tonight), a theme park attraction (Muppetvision 3-D at Disney MGM Studios), and permanent residence in American pop culture.
These two discs—with any luck, the first of many—give you a taste of the highlights and lowlights of The Muppet Show's 120 episode, five season run. Much like any live theatre, you are going to wind up with some truly egg-sucking moments—but they're worth enduring to witness truly great television comedy. To refresh your memory—or for those who have never seen the Muppet Show—Kermit produces and directs a live, weekly, stage variety show. Think Star Search meets The Gong Show, without judges or prizes. Kermit's support staff and regular performers consist of a menagerie of animal, vegetable, humanoid, and otherworldly characters—including a woefully inept comedian bear, a diva actress/singer pig, a dimwitted masochistic daredevil, a psychotic foreign culinary expert, and a raucously eccentric house band. Through their efforts, the format of each week goes something like this—guest star is introduced, throw in a musical or comedy act, guest star spotlight #1, regular revolving sketch, guest spotlight #2, another musical or comedy sketch, guest spotlight #3, and close the show.
Now, while some of the show's guest stars have left truly memorable impressions (e.g. Paul Simon, Vincent Price), it's really the running sketches that we remember most—Pigs in Space, Swedish Chef, Veterinarian's Hospital, Muppet Labs, At the Dance, and Muppet News Flash. My disappointment in the six episodes selected for these discs is that they fail to capture the best the series had to offer. I mean, come on…Raquel Welch dancing with a hormonally challenged spider? Mark Hamill trying to sing? Where is Alice Cooper's "Welcome to My Nightmare," Debbie Harry's "One Way or Another," Gilda Radner dancing with a life-sized carrot, John Cleese, Peter Sellers, Jonathan Winters, the "Mah-Nah Mah-Nah" guy, or Kermit singing "It's Not Easy Being Green"? Previous VHS releases were more entertaining, although done in a clip format. These DVDs provide us with episodes in their entirety, with footage we may have never seen before. But it's not enough. These Best Of discs are like trick-or-treating on Halloween—out of all the candy you haul in, only a handful is the really good stuff. This, of course, is gone in a matter of minutes, leaving you hungering for more. C'mon Columbia, where's the rest of our fix?
Taking the emotional element out and examining the physical evidence, the shows themselves look great, considering they were shot on video. Much like many TV shows of the 1970s and early '80s, the image lacks the sharpness we have grown so accustomed to today. At times, it's like watching a Barbara Walters interview through several layers of soft filtering. However, Columbia has done an exceptional job of bringing the colors and blacks as close to today's standards as technologically possible. A little digital haloing can been spotted by the sharpest of eyes, but it does nothing to detract from your overall viewing experience. Presented in their original 1.33:1 full frame format, the episodes look better than they did first viewed on the 20-something inch TV sets of our past. On the flipside, the sound quality is not as hot. The original mono tracks have improved very little through Dolby Digital 1.0 remastering. Let's face it, they weren't recorded spectacularly to begin with, so digitally enhanced crap is still crap. Nitpicking aside, old and new generations of Muppet fans will find no fault in absorbing each and every minute of these episodes.
From a special features standpoint, there are some—just not enough. The well-crafted menus, complete with animation and music, are a nice start. Don't be fooled by the "special features" option on each episode menu, as they are, in actuality, all the same. As mentioned earlier, Brian Henson does a short intro to each episode, providing some interesting remembrances or things to look for. "Movie Mania" gives us a look at Muppet auditions for the role of Yoda in Empire Strikes Back—the funniest of all the extras—as well as a look at the new concept musical Flipperdance. "Muppet Moments" gives us two Gap-like ads featuring diva Piggy, as well as funkmaster Floyd and a different side of Kermit. "From the Archives" provides production sketches (big deal). An Easter egg in the form of Animal provides a couple of trivia tidbits (whatever). Throw in the obligatory theatrical trailers—Muppets From Space, Bear in the Big Blue House, and Kermit's Swamp Years—and you have what amounts to a hill of beans when compared with the vast quantity of source material generated by the Muppets over the past 47 years. Very disappointing for a lifelong Muppet fan such as myself.
Jim Henson was a true creative force whose life was cut way too short. However, his legacy has touched and enhanced the lives of millions of people around the world—and for that we should celebrate everything he has given us. The Muppets will live on forever with new creative talents taking them further than Jim could have ever envisioned. The Muppet Show is but one example of the power these felt and foam creatures have shown us. While my disappointment in their packaging may have skewed this review, these discs are pieces of Americana to be treasured. At $24.95, the price is a little steep, but still receive my highest "buy" recommendation. Like comfort food, The Muppet Show does something to warm our hearts and imaginations, providing a brief but much needed vacation from the stark realities of today's world.
This court extends is deepest appreciation to everyone at Muppet Inc. for giving us some of the most dynamic and entertaining characters ever captured on video or film. It also challenges Columbia TriStar to assemble a complete series or individual season release of these timeless classics, drawing on the Muppets' rich history for a bountiful harvest of special features. If this challenge is not met, studio execs will be sentenced to watch 72 continuous hours of Bear In The Big Blue House: Potty Time With Bear. And don't think we're kidding! This court now stands in recess.
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