Monday, November 21, 2011

The Land That "Not Ready For Primetime" Forgot

The Muppets had a cameo appearance on Saturday Night Live this past weekend and reminded the audience that they actually used to be a regular feature on the show.  However, aside from one screenshot, they did not go into the sticky history between Henson and the show.

SNL premiered in 1975, and one of the reasons it got on the air was due to the involvement of Henson and the Muppets.  Its cast of players were virtual unknowns, so a portion of each episode of the variety show would be devoted to the Muppets to bring in an audience.  Henson had already made a name for himself through talk show appearances and Sesame Street and this was one of his early attempts to prove that puppetry wasn't just for kids.  He came up with a recurring segment with its own cast of characters called "The Land of Gorch."

The first step to keeping children at bay is visually unappealing puppets.

Each episode would chronicle the adventures of King Ploobis (Jim Henson) and his right-hand creature Scred (Jerry Nelson).  Usually he would have some problem that children would not relate to, like relationship issues, financial woes, and migraines.  Each sketch would end with a trip to see the Mighty Favog (Frank Oz), a statue of a deity who would request chicken sacrifices and give out shoddy advice.  He also talked out of the side of his mouth with a thick Brooklyn accent.

He was a crowd pleaser.

The main writing staff and cast of SNL were not very fond of having to set aside time for the "Mucking Fuppets," as John Belushi called them.  It prevented screentime for the actors and the scenes were not fun to write for.  Henson would remain in the writers' room making heavy edits to the scripts in order to uphold uniformity among his Muppet franchise.  Unfortunately, the skits did not win over the audience very much either.  As time went on, the Gorch sketches pushed the envelope, crossing over into more adult themed humor with drinking, swearing, drugs, and sex.  This territory, had it been given time to develop could have resulted in a very different turn of events for the Muppets as we know them.

The one and only time you could have seen Muppet-on-Muppet action, officially.  It's surreal.

The hunchbacked servant Scred became a crowd favorite, and he would become the unofficial voice of the Muppets, often commenting on the growing rift between the puppeteers and the SNL crew.

Scred, mocking the recurring "Killer Bee" sketches, with Gilda Radner, one of the few people who liked the Muppets

As the Muppets were gaining notoriety elsewhere, they were often in demand and, one week, they had to leave to perform at the Grammy Awards.  This was the final week with the Gorch set, and Chevy Chase decided to have a little fun at their expense, with a short play entitled "Paying the Milkman."

Sadly for the Muppets, this was the funniest skit performed in the Land of Gorch.

After a multi-week absence while the puppeteers were in London starting up The Muppet Show, the Gorch set had been torn down and it was clear that Henson and his staff were no longer welcome.  However, the puppets decided to go out in style, building sketches and appearances around the behind-the-scenes turmoil.  Scred and King Ploobis would roam the SNL stage desperately trying to work themselves into the show, but they would only be met with cold shoulders.  The human cast did not mind the departure because the puppeteers still had bigger and better opportunities to perform in.  All that would really be gone were the Gorch characters.

And no one cared because they were "just puppets."

So, in one of the final scenes, Scred and Ploobis make their way into the basement of the studio and uncover the Mighty Favog covered in dust.  They ask what they should do and he tells them to accept their fate and get into the storage trunk with the other puppets.  Reluctantly, the two climb inside as they are constantly reminded of the fact that it makes no difference because they are just pieces of felt.  They have no feelings.  They don't need to breathe.

And the final words from the king to his subjects: "You're not alive."

The most depressing ending to an episode of SNL ever made.

This was the only scene written by Jim Henson himself, and it shows.  There is something chilling about this moment that has not been captured in any Henson production before or since.  Although the original skits were mediocre at best, Henson has captured the pathos of these lowly puppets, nay, of all fictional creations that ever were and ever will be, in that one single line.

*      *      *      *

The Gorch characters did make two more appearances following this (perhaps to give them a more upbeat ending), but it kind of ruins the mystique set up by that final image of the trunk closing.  However, there are a few interesting tidbits with the two "Still in Storage" sketches.

In the first, the Mighty Favog and Scred promise that if they are brought back on the show, they will be able to make the Beatles appear has guests.  Apparently, Lorne Michaels (the producer of SNL) had been trying his hardest to get them to no avail.  But of course, everyone was trying to get them.  This was an impossible task and was written as such.

Coincidentally, Paul McCartney and John Lennon were in New York watching this episode as it aired, and debated whether or not to show up at Rockefeller Center (where the show was being broadcast live, remember) as a surprising joke.  They decided against it, thwarting what would have been a historic moment for both SNL and the Muppets.

So close!

In the last ever Gorch sketch, in the second season premiere of SNL, the puppets wake up in the "morgue" (read, filing cabinets in the basement) and comment on how they are not "family friendly" enough to appear on the newly created Muppet Show.  Guest star Lily Tomlin tries to lead them in a Muppet-Show-esque sing-along that goes poorly.  So poorly that Tomlin forgets the punchline to the scene, walks off awkwardly, and the puppets all confusingly bid farewell.

Just smile and nod....

So, with one ending that fails to deliver an epic show-stopping finale and another ending that fails to deliver a coherent sentence, you can see why I preferred the original Henson-penned sendoff to these misunderstood creatures of Gorch.

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