Monday, February 27, 2012

Can the Laughter

Before the A.V. Club started their weekly Muppet Show reviews, they focused on a singular episode that they felt best represented The Muppet Show as a series.  Since I don't like to repeat other people's reviews, I have strayed away from reviewing full episodes of the show, choosing to instead focus on smaller moments, characters or recurring themes.  But this week, I wanted to look at the five episodes that I consider to be the greatest the show had to offer.  While most episodes of The Muppet Show are a patchwork display of unrelated sketches, songs, and guest stars, these five episodes are unique and shouldn't be picked apart.  In these cases, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The first episode I wanted to feature was the A.V. Club's "Very Special Episode," "Episode 208: Steve Martin."  Noel Murray does a great job of explaining why this episode works, but as a representative of the whole series, I feel it is an odd choice.  For this episode lacks one thing found in every other episode in the entire run of the show: a laugh-track.

The laughs have to be earned this time, not spoon-fed.  (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

To simulate the feel of a vaudevillian stage-show, Henson felt it was necessary to have an audience's laughter punctuate every joke.  Even though the show obviously isn't filmed in front of a live audience, the home viewers are willing to suspend their disbelief, ignoring impossible visuals that couldn't happen live in order to replicate the idea that this is just like any other variety show on television.  To warrant the canned laughter, an audience filled with Muppets is often shown reacting to the antics on stage.

When a show uses canned laughter, many people dismiss it, saying that it assumes the viewers are morons who can't tell when something is funny unless they hear laughter.  Other's feel that it was once a necessary tool to help audiences get used to home entertainment, easing the transition away from live theater events and movies (where a large vocal audience was often found).  As time passed, television no longer needed canned laughter.  In fact, many brilliant television comedies are able to fit in more material when not having to pause for laughter.  But many comedies still use it because it has become familiar to us.  As seen with the Sex and Violence pilot, shows that we are used to with a laugh track sound weird when it is taken away.

For Steve Martin's episode, the writer's tried something new.  The premise of the episode is that Kermit is canceling tonight's show in order to audition new acts.  The familiar Muppet audience is forced to leave (meaning the episode starts with the laughter intact before it is taken away).  Even Statler and Waldorf stay quiet.  The usual cast sits out in the audience instead as a series of acts are performed.

And they are less than enthralled.

Four of these acts, however, are performed by Steve Martin.  It is during these moments that we hear a noise that is rarely heard on the show: genuine laughter.  Although the crowd has dwindled response is quieter, when the characters laugh, it is a natural response.  Martin performs select bits from his stand-up routine and Henson and his crew are having a great time.  Even when you see a stand-up perform a live special, there is a huge crowd supplying the laughter.  But here, it feels more like an intimate private comedy club that we are allowed to sit in on.

Steve Martin knows how to please a crowd.

Fozzie in particular is having the time of his life.  Throughout the episode, he is worried that Kermit is trying to replace him with another comedy act.  But this fear mysteriously disappears when Martin does his schtick.  When Martin banters with the audience, Fozzie is usually the only one to respond.  He reacts with such glee that it's not hard to imagine that it is actually Frank Oz who is enjoying the performance, instead of the bear.

The rest of the episode is filled with references to the old vaudevillian days, including the "stage hook" that is used to cart off poor performers.  The other recurring bit in the episode involves a young girl named Mary Louise who has a singing act with a frog (who can only ribbit).  Miss Piggy, however, doesn't need any competition, so she constantly yanks the frightened performer away.

It's been done before.

Also, Statler and Waldorf, who disappeared since the beginning of the episode, take the stage with a vaudeville routine "The Varsity Drag."

And they are heckled right off the stage.

And finally, there are a series of novelty acts, including my favorite "Yes, We Have No Bananas" as well as the show-stopping Flying Zucchini Brothers!  Their malfunctioning human cannonball act literally stops the show.

Silly accents and a silly stunt.  Lew Zealand would be proud.

All of this leads to a closing number in which Martin displays his banjo skills by performing "Dueling Banjos" with one of the Muppet Show's many jug bands Lubbock Lou and his Jughuggers.

All of these acts, when shown together, remind us that the point of the show is to showcase talent and comedy.  We don't need false laughter to provoke us into enjoying what we see.  The art should stand on its own.  And this episode certainly stands apart as a wonderfully crafted collaboration of Muppet humor and a guest star's talents so that neither one outshines the other.  While Martin usually based his comedy around over-the-top fakery, it was best to have his Muppet Show appearance grounded in genuineness.

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