Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Crooner and the Chimp

The world of the Muppets is like opening a child's toy box.  Teddy bears mingle with Barbie dolls and action figures from various playsets.  None of the characters fit together, but for the child, this is their population of inanimate friends.  A kid can pick up a dinosaur, call it "Batman" and have it fight a giant stuffed rabbit and it still makes sense.  Species, gender, and race have no say in the relationships between a child's toys.

It is by this logic that Johnny Fiama and his bodyguard Sal Minella came to be best friends.

What a cuckoo combination.

Johnny Fiama, the jazz lounge singer who was an amalgamation of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Tony Bennett, was actually a Bill Barretta creation long before Muppets Tonight premiered.  Based on the personalities of his father and grandfather, Barretta formed the Fiama character alongside his brother Gene, who portrayed Frankie Fiama.  The two made a short mockumentary about the two crooners called The Last Swing in 1993.  The production quality is cheap and the comedy never reaches the heights of a Christopher Guest movie, but it's clear that Johnny was a fully realized character by the time they started filming.

Barretta as the human Johnny Fiama, alongside his brother.

Barretta, when given the opportunity to create new Muppets, pulled Fiama out of retirement and gave him a makeover.  Fiama was going to be famous once more!

Johnny Fiama, next to his original concept sketch.

So how does a monkey fit into this scenario?

The idea to pair the two arose from a pre-production retreat in which the cast had an opportunity to try out all the new puppets to find their voices/characters.  In the middle of the tomfoolery, Barretta began to sing with Johnny Fiama, but everyone remained distracted by their own characters.  So Henson picked up a random background chimpanzee puppet and yelled, "Would you all quiet down and listen to Johnny Fiama?!"

And the annoying confrontational ape was born.

The incongruity of the duo's appearance led to their charm and memorability.  Most Muppet pairs are designed to complement each other visually (Ernie and Bert, Andy and Randy, even Seymour and Pepe) and those that later became pairs (Kermit and Piggy, Bunsen and Beaker) at least appear to inhabit the same physical world.  But Johnny is a Muppety caricature that seemed to have walked right off of Sesame Street while Sal would have been more at home with the more realistic puppets of The Animal Show.  The idea of putting them together seems wrong, but as soon as they made their introduction, it was clear that they belonged together.

Johnny Fiama's was a complex creature.  His appearances hinted that he was at the end of his career, attempting to stay relevant, yet he always remained calm and collected about it.  Sal, on the other hand, would take on (and cause) most of his stress, imploring that others give Johnny the respect he deserves.

Two episodes of Muppets Tonight were devoted to the pair.  The first, "Episode 106: Tony Bennett" found Johnny at his weakest.  The man who always maintained a strong composure started to fall apart when his idol Tony Bennett appeared as the night's guest.  After blowing his chances to sing with him, Tony and Sal come up with a plan to lift Johnny's spirits and retry the duet.  The fact that his hero saw him as an equal was a great victory.

And it proved that he really could croon.

But the second episode had more importance behind the scenes of Muppets Tonight.  During the second season, the show was experimenting with dropping the headliner guest stars and sticking with smaller cameo roles.  The results were hit-or-miss, but the final episode produced "Episode 212: Johnny Fiama Leaves Home" managed to get the formula right.

It had been established that, like most Italian-Americans, Fiama deeply respected his family, especially his mother.  So much so that despite leading a successful singing career, he still lived at home with her. And she hated when other women tried to date her little Johnny.

You won't like her when she's angry.

Fed up with her constant interference, Johnny moves out and into the KMUP studio.  Once again, Sal attempts to rectify the situation, and eventually, the two reconcile.  Until Johnny Mathis moves in.

As long as a smooth singer named Johnny is living there, it's all the same in the end.

This episode departed the most from the usual Muppets Tonight format.  The sketches were still in place, but the main conflict moved out of the studio and focused on actually developing these characters' lives.  No longer did the show feel like a retread of old Muppet Show episodes.  It now had it's own voice.  And what a mellow voice it was.

Unfortunately, that was the last episode and the crew didn't get a chance to explore this new theme of deep characterizations.  Several of the new Muppet characters would survive and become firm members of the Muppet community, and fortunately Johnny and Sal were among them.

They reminded us the Muppets have souls and can form bonds beyond their wacky appearances.  In no other show would a brash chimpanzee and a retired lounge singer be considered as inseparable pals.   Remember, the Muppets are special.

Now here's Johnny and Sal, singing "Bohemian Rhapsody," like true friends should.

1 comment:

  1. That monkey scared the crap out of me. I used to have nightmares about it as a tot.