Muppets Tonight introduced a large number of new characters, partly because two relatively new puppeteers were joining the core group. Oz, Nelson, Golez, and Whitmire were all hold-overs from The Muppet Show and Kevin Clash established himself as a key player during The Jim Henson Hour but five people were not enough to sustain a show. Brian Henson (who was mostly a director and producer that had minor puppeteering roles) and Bill Barretta (who had joined the company in 1991 and worked heavily on The Animal Show) were the fresh new duo. And like their predecessors, they formed a bond that was evident through their characters' relationships.
Bill and Brian had two main puppet teams for the show, and today we'll look at Seymour the Elephant and some other minor character no one has heard about named Pepe the King Prawn.
They're two of a kind!
Yes, Pepe was probably the biggest star to breakout from Muppets Tonight. He started having major roles in the movies and he became a pivotal member of the main group. Seymour...was not so lucky.
The odd pairing stemmed from an original idea to have an elephant and mouse comedy team. But since that animal pairing had become cliche, the mouse was turned into a prawn (with a Spanish accent based on Barretta's wife's aunt who ended every sentence with "okay?"). Despite the change in species, the duo's dream remained the same. They wanted to become big vaudeville comedy stars. But for now, they were stuck working as elevator operators.
(Side note: Muppet elephant operators were a common occurrence during the '90s for some strange reason. Sesame Street had their own working in the Fuzzy Arms Hotel. But unlike Seymour, this elephant had found his dream job.)
Anyway, Pepe and Seymour wanted to break free from that elevator. They wanted to be moving up, without having to continually return back to the ground level. They got their first big break in "Episode 107: Sandra Bullock" when a terrorist was threatening to blow up the television station if their ratings dropped beneath 50. Scrambling to find an act, Gonzo puts the pachyderm and prawn team onstage. What follows is comedy gold.
Intentionally corny jokes don't make for great television. Explaining those jokes makes for even worse television. Yet, Pepe's increasing rage, Seymour's innocent patience, and the slack-jawed audience awaiting the punchline makes the bit work. Bad comedy had been mined time and time again with Fozzie Bear on The Muppet Show and in order to save the bit, Waldorf and Statler's heckling became the focus of those acts. But there is a genuine quality to this version. The audience isn't hostile or upset. They are on the edge of their seats and just too slow to catch the joke.
This unfortunate move sets Pepe and Seymour's non-existant career several steps back. They keep their catchy theme song, as they've realized it's the only part of their bit that works, but they can never move on from there. They do eventually get out of the elevator and into the commissary as cooks. In "Episode 202: Rick Moranis," Canada's sweetheart Rick Moranis convinces the duo to start their own cooking segment on the show. And thus, "Hey What Smells So Good? It's Time to Cook with Seymour and Pepe" is born!
They couldn't really fit that all on their sign, though.
Once again, the team fails in their endeavors (as all good Muppets must) and once again, it is not entirely their fault. Some shenanigans with a "shrink" ray from Muppet Labs get involved as a bread monster threatens to destroy the studio and we end up with a giant Pepe, taking up the entire stage.
See, Pepe was the one destined to be big all along.
You're a star, kid!
Seymour was a very pleasant character, but Pepe had an edge. Plus, with Barretta's improvisational abilities, he could have Pepe talk for hours about anything. Seymour was only there to give Pepe someone to talk to. Pepe took on many more traits, fancying himself as a Don-Juan-esque womanizer thanks to his unique Latin flavor (who would mispronounce everyone's names since he had become too cool to care). Yes, he may have become a little overexposed, and many were worried that he would take a large role in The Muppets despite not being in the original cast, but fortunately he was given a cameo, which allowed him to remain present and funny without being overbearing.
That is one spicy shrimp.
Love him or hate him, there is no denying that Pepe had a spark that Seymour just didn't have. Show business is a cruel game. It can put you on top of the world or throw you away when it no longer needs you. Despite starting on the same foot, Pepe succeeded and Seymour failed. And that's the way life goes.
It's okay. A Muppet elephant's natural habitat is in an elevator anyway.