The Muppet Show!
May 22, 2005 7:08 PM   Subscribe

It's time to play the music, it's time to light the lights, it's time to ask some questions about The Muppet Show tonight!

The Muppet Show is far more surreal than I remembered. A few questions, on the off chance that someone here might really know:

(A) How scripted were the shows, typically? It seems to me that many of the guests are just winging it, or have been very selectively filled-in on what's going to happen.

(B) How were scripts created? Obviously, good drugs were involved. But were the guests? Did they have a hand in developing their roles in the show?

(C) Were there any (non-Henson) historical predecessors to TMS? Or was TMS the first truly surrealistic television act?

(D) Was TMS in its day as controversial and upsetting as, say, Family Guy and Southpark have been in our time?

And finally, (E) I love TMS, Family Guy, Meet the Feebles, and other surrealistic, cartoony, trippy shows. What others should I watch?
posted by five fresh fish to Media & Arts (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I expect others to be better help than I, but here's a couple thoughts to get things started:

D) I don't recall anyone ever considering The Muppet Show controversial. My whole family would watch it, mainly because it was "kid friendly". If there was any controversy it passed without me noticing it.

E) ALF? Mork and Mindy? Yellow Submarine?
posted by forforf at 7:16 PM on May 22, 2005

Don't know the answers to A - D, but you clearly need to watch Peewee's Playhouse, repeatedly.
posted by dersins at 7:19 PM on May 22, 2005

C) HR Pufnstuf. Even as a little kid I knew there was something not quite right about it.
posted by cali at 7:35 PM on May 22, 2005

C. The Muppets had been around for a long while before the Muppet Show, both on Sesame Street, and as occasional "guests" on variety shows of the sixties and seventies.

D. The Muppet Show was in no way controversial (take it from an old fart)

E. If you really want to go to the mother of television surrealism, check out The Ernie Kovaks Show.
posted by curtm at 7:38 PM on May 22, 2005

I think you might be being won over by good performances. My impression of the Muppet Show, based on things said by Jerry Juhl and other writers in interviews, is that it was generally carefully written, with little improv. One thing is that every episode was shot in just two days, which makes planning essential. To me, as an adult, all the bits seem very well written, and definitely in advance.

As for B), on the Time-Life Muppet Show DVDs, Brian Henson gives an introduction to each episode, and in several, he talks about how some guest stars did get involved with the writers, John Cleese and Peter Sellers in particular. Apparently, the plot of John Cleese's show (where he is refusing to be on the show throughout the episode) was an idea he brought to the writers. One thing to note is that Brian Henson presents this as remarkable; it clearly was not common. Obviously, guest stars would see scripts in advance, so they could be prepared, but not necessarily be creatively involved.

This is a relic of a different era in television when everything was tightly scripted and well performed. I've read an embarrassing amount about the Muppet Show, and I've never seen references to the sort of improv you're talking about. It seems that most of the free form stuff was muppets in the background (Like Jim Henson's trumpet-playing pig leaning backwards over the balcony in the Juan de la Gusta number) or the conversations muppets would have in crowd scenes, or during the credits.

Muppet Central is a good place to while away several hours finding out more about the Muppet Show.

As for C), I think there was definitely some way-paving done my Sid and Marty Krofft, through, most notably, H.R. Pufnstuf.
posted by ulotrichous at 7:38 PM on May 22, 2005 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I don't recall it being controversial, either. I also don't consider Family Guy controversial. Yet I know there are people who are outraged that it is allowed to air.

ALF's and M&M's premises were unusual but the actual episodes were very bog-standard conventional. There are things done in TMS that are completely unconventional, not to mention wholly original concepts and art forms. Intensely original work, to the point the mind boggles.

Bits of Family Guy do that: sudden, irrelevant, and disjoint forays in between storyline sketches. Surrealism. An acid trip of visuals and bizarre ideas. You sit back and go, whoa! what the hell was that all about?

Dunno about Peewee's Playhouse. I think it might make the grade.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:43 PM on May 22, 2005

A friend of mine recently clued me into just how whacked Green Acres was. Yes, Eddie Albert, Eva Gabor, Arnold the Pig, THAT Green Acres. Although I pretty much wrote it off when I was a kid, viewing it now as an adult, the WTF factor is almost off the chart.
posted by mischief at 7:49 PM on May 22, 2005

Pufnstuf? I'll see your Pufnstuf and raise you a Lidsville. The Kroffts outdid themselves with this one. Charles Nelson Reilly as Hoo Doo terrorizing a village of talking hats simply has to be seen to be believed.

Lidsville manages to out-Pufnstuf Pufnstuf as far as engendering the feeling of "something's not... quite... right here..."

They showed it on TV Land last summer late at night. I alternated between being awestruck confused and laughing hysterically. No substances required.

I think my favorite episode would have to be the crossover one where Hoo Doo and Witchiepoo from Pufnstuf get together. :p
posted by Kosh at 8:30 PM on May 22, 2005

What others should I watch?

The most surreal, crazy, mad-capped, insane children's show ever made is most likely Gimme Gimme Octopus. All these others mentioned are mere pretenders to the Octopus crown.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:41 PM on May 22, 2005

"The Electric Company" and a few of the skits (especially the animated ones) on 1970's era "Sesame Street" were pretty bizarro, too, definitely tapping into that same anarchic/trippy vibe you get from some of the Muppet Show stuff (like the infamous "Mahna Mahna").

The digital cable channel Noggin used to show, circa 1999-2001, the very first season of "Sesame Street" at 2 AM every weeknight, and the choice of programming and time slot must have been aimed towards us stoned college students, because a lot of it was really damn weird. Many of those interstitial bits were repeated over the years in later episodes, interspersed with sugar-coated Grover and Elmo sketches, but seeing them all together at once in the early episodes was quite trippy. If Sesame Workshop ever releases the first season as a DVD set or if Noggin ever decides to show them again, I highly recommend watching.
posted by Asparagirl at 9:15 PM on May 22, 2005

E) Rocko's Modern Life, Ren and Stimpy, Cow and Chicken and (although not a cartoon) The Adventures of Pete and Pete, very out there and one of my favorites of ALL TIME (they just released the first season on DVD!!!). You might also want to check out the slightly less trippy Fairly Odd Parents, which is still running.

Please watch Pete and Pete, please please please!! You will love it.
posted by ebeeb at 10:30 PM on May 22, 2005

ah, the muppets, the singing chickens, sigh.
posted by Cranberry at 11:17 PM on May 22, 2005

Yet another vote for "not controversial", as recalled. I loved that show as a kid. I love seeing it now. It's suprisngly sophisticated, but not cloying or overbearing.

I think it slipped under the conservative and/or witchhunting radar because it just seemed so harmless or "just for kids", but maybe I'm being too cynical.

Perhaps it just won everyone over with it's charmingness and love of life and joyfulness. It was just infectious. I need to get me some of those DVDs.

RIP Jim Henson. He's one of a very, very small handful of "celebrities" I've ever shed a tear for or toasted to upon their passing.

As for question "E", since it hasn't been mentioned, and all the non-ironic* shows I would care to mention have been: Mr. Rogers. Yeah, old Mr. Fuddy Sweaters himself. If The Muppet Show is "Mushrooms, Peyote and Acid (Almost All the Time!)", then Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood is "Thorazine, Soma, Xanax, DXM, and Morphine Drips."

It plods almost all the time, but there's something really, really bizarre about that show, especially watching it as an adult. I almost always fall asleep and wander off into weird dreamlands. Being cynical, it's hard for me to accept that he's really just this simple, friendly guy. He kind of creeps me out, as though he's an extremely skilled neurolinguistic programmer and hypnotist with nefarious deeds in mind.

But even on the surface, taken at an innocent face value, the placidity of the whole experience is just weird.

(*Non-ironic would exclude things like Meet the Feebles, but then, if we're excluding Meet the Feebles, we could probably also exclude the adult fare of Family Guy and American Dad and the like.)
posted by loquacious at 12:54 AM on May 23, 2005

Can't think of anything about the show that could have been controversial. It was considered a kiddy show, a category of television program that was (and as far as I'm aware, still is), by definition, harmless.

Perhaps the quality you're seeing as risque-ness is actually just a lack of didacticism. So many kids programs were determined to cram some lesson or another down the throats of America's youth. TMS, on the other hand, was purely for fun. In comparison, it seems almost decedent.
posted by Clay201 at 1:14 AM on May 23, 2005

Gimme Gimme Octopus! Thanks C_D, I've been wondering what the hell that was called.
posted by squidlarkin at 5:15 AM on May 23, 2005

come on over! i bought Pete & Pete yesterday! took me forever to find it though....
posted by ShawnString at 6:26 AM on May 23, 2005

It might be a little too instense surreal rather than happy surreal, but Aqua Teen Hunger Force is crazy and great.
posted by frenetic at 6:37 AM on May 23, 2005

It's hit or miss, but there's always Wonder Showzen.
posted by drezdn at 7:14 AM on May 23, 2005

Does anyone else remember Today's Special?
posted by crapulent at 7:26 AM on May 23, 2005

I dunno about the Muppet Show, but I always loved Rocky & Bullwinkle on the "is it controversial" front.

There was always a subversive undercurrent in there to keep the parents from getting bored, and make the kids say "why are you laughing, Daddy?"

It was almost a barometer for how far your kids had grown up...
posted by baylink at 7:46 AM on May 23, 2005

E) Robot Chicken. I'd link to torrents but it appears just went tits up.
posted by furtive at 7:52 AM on May 23, 2005

As for (C), I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned Monty Python's Flying Circus, the world's finest experiment in surrealistic comedy (or comedic surrealism, if you will). They pretty much invented the pointless sketch -- routines that never reach their punchline, but constantly diverge into abrupt and irrelevant digressions and interruptions and general insanity.
    "Nonono, it's spelled 'Raymond Luxury Yacht', but it's pronounced 'Throat Warbler Mangrove'."
The only other comedy show that, in my mind, matches (albeit in their own unique way) MP's surreal brilliance is A Bit of Fry & Laurie (Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie). Less outrageous, but more literate.
    "Good evening and welcome to 'Realizing I've Given The Wrong Directions To...'. Tonight I shall be Realizing I've Given The Wrong Directions To Rabbi Michael Leibovitz. Sadly, Rabbi Leibovitz is unable to be with us tonight. Till next time, goodbye."
Oh, and I second the Robot Chicken recommendation. Annoying at times, but usually hilarious.
posted by gentle at 8:45 AM on May 23, 2005

Contemporary with HR Puffenstuff, The Banana Splits were also pretty weird. Great theme song, though.

There's was never anything controversial about TMS, except (maybe) Miss Piggy's aggresive feminism. Muppets are always Good Clean Fun.
posted by Rash at 8:47 AM on May 23, 2005

loquacious, I definitely feel you on the Mr. Rogers thing. Not that he's particularly creepy, but that I used to watch the show after I had long passed out of the target audience, and found it incredibly calming, in a way that I would actually get pleasant electrical waves going through my body, like I was in some kind of "state". The only other show that had this effect was a show on bridge, which had the same kind of quiet, soporific manner.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 8:49 AM on May 23, 2005

Mr Rogers was simply one of the nicest people ever to walk the earth. Don't hate.

Every personal account of dealings with him backs that up. A friend of mine lived in Pittsburgh in childhood, and used to see him a lot when he came to her uncle's restaurant. This is a girl who usually refers to everyone as "dude" or "fool", but never failed to talk of Fred Rogers in reverential tones.

I suppose his show seems especially weird now because he's calm and not selling anything and not trying to short circuit your attention span, like almost all childrens' programming of today.

TMS was great. Anybody catch the "Muppets Wizard of Oz" on TV this past weekend? Quite entertaining. My favorites were always Statler and Waldorf. They remind me of some of the posters on MeFi :)
posted by First Post at 9:22 AM on May 23, 2005

First Post, I totally caught the Wizard of Oz movie this weekend! While overall I thought it wasn't their best, I loved Jeffrey Tambor as the Wizard, and also Pepe the King Prawn as snarky Toto: "Kansas? 80s band. Toto? 80s band. We're on a journey...80s band!"

Still, though, the newer movies don't have the magic of the classics like The Muppet Movie or The Great Muppet Caper.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 9:44 AM on May 23, 2005

Second the recommendation for Lidsville. Freaky stuff. And it just came out on DVD.
posted by Vidiot at 10:02 AM on May 23, 2005

Response by poster: I'd forgotten Rocky and Bullwinkle!

Is it just me, or is Aqua Teen Hunger Force a show that utterly fails to be innovative, subversive, or even particularly amusing? I've watched a couple episodes, and it's just plain dumb, imo.

Mr. Rogers is awesome. It is a shame children don't have that quality of television any more.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:09 AM on May 23, 2005

« Older Text communication devices   |   Where to donate thousands of comics? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.