Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Stuck In Everything BUT the Same Old Routine

An unofficial mantra that The Muppet Show regularly stands by is "Expect the unexpected."  Very rarely does the straightforward occur on the show.  Traditional songs are covered in non-traditional scenarios, abstract creatures speak made-up languages, and sketches don't end without something going horribly wrong.  The show became increasingly bizarre because the writer's always had to top what had appeared the previous week.  By the third season, Henson and his crew had to change the game.  And that game-changer appeared with the introduction of a seven-foot-tall carrot singing tunes from The Pirates of Penzance.

And this is just the first act of the show! (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

"Episode 304: Gilda Radner" is considered by many to be a classic due to the presence of its guest star.  Known for her work on Saturday Night Live, Radner was one of the few cast members who actually appreciated Henson and the Muppets when they worked on the show in its first season.  She happily brought her comedic charm to the set of The Muppet Show for the chance to work with her old friends again.  And while she is a great asset to this episode, a guest star cannot carry an full episode by his or herself.  She is just half of the reason this episode is fondly remembered.

The episode starts right away toying with expectations.  Radner appears as her classic character Emily Litella who, like many SNL characters, has a common schitck.  Litella often mishears key words and gets worked up into a repressed outrage over her misinterpretation before being corrected and stating sheepishly, "Nevermind!"  This time she confuses "Muppets" for "Muffins" and the audience would be so familiar with this routine that they could say her catchprase in unison with her.

Easing the audience in with a smile.

The opening number involves a classic bit of Muppet misdirection where "a traditional Eskimo lullaby" turns out to be the "Lullaby of Broadway."  Songs like this are so common to the show that it'd be weird if they actually did sing an Eskimo luallaby.

Lulling us into a false sense of security.

Then, we get our first hint that this show will be different.  Radner prepares for her first number, and discovers her singing partner for the "Parrots of Penzance" number is here for the "Carrots of Penzance."  As Kermit says, "I introduce 'em, I don't explain 'em."

It's a shame this character never appeared again.

It would have been typical for The Muppet Show to include a giant parrot for this bit, but taking the pun one step further into a non-sensical outcome is "a terrible joke, but it's worthy of us," as Henson stated.  The number goes on much longer than the average song as it includes squabbling amongst Radner and the carrot as they attempt to prove to the other that they can sing better.  Having just the carrot perform would have been enough, but making him this vain operetta singer ready to allow his duet partner to look bad on stage takes this segment into a whole new territory.

And when there is one singing vegetable, more can't be far behind.

Contining with the theme of "unlike anything we've seen before," we are introduced to the first "Muppet Melodrama."  This was intended to be a recurring segment, but it only appeared once after this (possibly because there was only one joke and it worked well the first time it was told).  In a rare collaboration of characters, the trio of Miss Piggy, Uncle Deadly, and Wayne (of "Wayne and Wanda" fame) would reenact classic moments similar to The Perils of Pauline (the inspiration for Dudley Do-Right and any scenario where there is a dashing hero, a mustachioed villain, and a damsel-in-distress).

The Perils of Piggy

The plot is so obvious that it barely gets past the introduction of the hero for expectations to be thwarted.  Wayne appears and immediately bonds with the villainous Deadly over their shared passion for flamenco dancing.  And Piggy falls to her watery grave below, provoking her to reprimand her co-stars with some swift karate chops after the scene is finished.

Justice is served, with a side of bacon.

This is followed by a return appearance of the cruel ringmaster Marvin Suggs and his abused Muppaphones, but, in yet another reversal of expectations, Suggs gets a taste of his own medicine.


We have reached the halfway point of the episode, and despite all the wackiness, everything is par for the course on The Muppet Show.  Up next is an installment of the reliable recurring sketch, "Muppet Labs."  Bunsen will invent something, and Beaker will suffer as a result.  We're used to the routine.  But wait, what's Gilda Radner doing?

I don't make these episodes, I just report on them.

For the first time, a human guest star is appearing in a "Muppet Labs" sketch (not counting Peter Ustinov's appearance in the second one which was in the non-canon pre-Beaker era).  Since celebrities are always able to pick which Muppets they want to appear on screen with, it is evident from this arrangement that Radner's favorite Muppet was Beaker.  And when you choose Beaker, you're going to get stuck with him.  Literally.

As Mac Davis would find out in a later episode.

Bunsen invents super-adhesive glue and of course, the glue ends up everywhere.  Gilda gets trapped in Beaker's exercise equipment as Bunsen starts attracting all of his desk supplies.  Driving home the theme of this episode, Bunsen remarks, "It wasn't meant to go this way!"  Normally, this would be the end of the sketch but this small action affects rest of the episode permanently.

It's like the Butterfly Effect. 

Rowlf and Zoot can't put down of their musical instruments,...

...the Newsman is glued to his seat during a riveting news flash,...

...all of Piggy's dreams start coming true,...

...and Gonzo can't keep his eyes of the television set!

The show runs "normally" in an attempt to compensate for this added nuisance and it all leads to Radner's show-stopping final number "Tap Your Troubles Away."  This is an amazing spectacle as it greatly combines the comedy of both the Muppets and Radner perfectly.  There is a gracefulness to the mayhem and it is easily one of The Muppet Show's finest moments.


After all is said and done, the cast remains stuck together for their bows and Kermit tries to keep things under control by ironically stating, "Okay, that just about does it for another regular, nothing-out-of-the-ordinary, everything-under-control Muppet Show."

...Perfect.

This episode was far from ordinary and it knew it.  Up until this point, episodes were either a hodge-podge of moments or a small story involving the characters.  But now, the writer's started looking at the bigger picture.  It was as if Henson and his crew were turning a page, realizing that they not only should they avoid the limits set by others, they should avoid the limits set by themselves.  Many times, the crew conflicted with the artistic vision of the guest stars, many of whom had little imagination (which is a terrible thing to bring to The Muppet Show).  It took a brilliant comedienne to help raise the stakes, proving that there are always expectations to be subverted.  Creativity doesn't stop when the ideas run dry.  You just have to dig a little deeper.

Because at The Muppet Show, you never know what you'll get yourself into.  And that's where the fun begins.

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