Day 15: The 12 Days of Christmas by John Denver and The Muppets
I’m bringing back Muppet Mondays as part of this countdown. In 1979, John Denver and The Muppets got together to create a Christmas special. The special no longer gets played on TV and has never been released in any kind of home media format. Luckily, many families (mine included) taped a lot of stuff off of TV in the ’80s, and the special lives on courtesy of YouTube! The special opens with a rousing, Muppety version of The 12 Days of Christmas. This version is slightly different than the version found on the album, and is worth a view if you’ve never seen it. Watching John Denver try his best not to crack up as Fozzie forgets his lines and Miss Piggy over enunciates (Fiiiveeee gooolllddd riiinngggsss BA DUM BUM BUM) is a joy. By the way, this year, the cost of all of the gifts mentioned in the song in 2014 is over $116,000!!!!
I mentioned in last week’s Muppet Monday post that The Muppet Show was my introduction to a plethora of great music. With the lovely weather we’ve been having in our area lately, I was reminded of another one of those songs that I first heard via The Muppet Show: “Blue Skies.”
The Irving Berlin tune was penned in 1926 for Betsy, a Rodgers and Hart musical. The musical was a flop, but the song was a smashing success. It became the first song ever to be heard in a “talkie,” when Al Jolson performed it in The Jazz Singer. It has been covered by anyone and everyone over the past 88 years. Of course, no one will ever be able to touch the snappy and harmonious version performed by these adorable prairie dogs on episode 322 of The Muppet Show:
Wishing everyone Blue Skies from now on!
The last new episode of The Muppet Show may have aired over 30 years ago, but thanks to the wonders of VHS and cable TV, children growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s still got to enjoy Muppets gracing their living room screens. As a kid, I spent countless hours in front of the TV watching best-of compilations and Muppet specials that my mom or grandfather taped for my brother and me. I also caught episodes as they aired in syndication over the years on TNT, Nickelodeon, and the Odyssey Channel (though sadly the show hasn’t been on TV since 2001). In addition to syndication, Time-Life released a number of Best-of DVDs, featuring 3 episodes a piece, and Disney has released seasons 1-3 on DVD (though Seasons 4 and 5 are mysteriously still in the vault). Thankfully we live in the age of YouTube and many nice people have uploaded their copies of the episodes for our viewing pleasure.
Somewhere along the line, Muppets got a reputation for being childish and cutesy. Sure, most of the puppets are downright adorable, which is certainly what first grabbed my attention as a child, but adulthood has given me a whole new appreciation for the wonderful but WEIRD entertainment that Jim Henson and his fellow performers gave us with The Muppet Show.
Here are 10 of the weirdest sketches that have stuck with me for one reason or another through the years:
This sketch’s simplicity is its best asset, and it seems to have been a favorite of Jim’s, as it was also performed over the years on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Today Show, and The Tonight Show in addition to its performance on The Muppet Show. It features a bendy, tubular puppet dancing in rhythm to jaunty trumpet music, but the puppet becomes frustrated by a smaller variation of itself, who can’t calm down and stay in rhythm. The larger puppet continuously kicks the smaller one out of the frame. Just as you start to feel bad for the little guy, he brings the sketch to a rousing close by blasting his larger counterpart away. As Henson himself once said, “It all ends in one of two ways: either someone gets eaten or something blows up.” We’ll see some more of that theme in this list…
2. Hugga Wugga
Talk about bizarre. This sketch, set in a steamy, swamp-like environment, begins with a mean-looking alien marching around like he owns the place, singing his Hugga Wugga song, which sounds like a war chant. A second alien appears and sings a different song until he is bullied into singing the Hugga Wugga song by the first alien. Suddenly a third alien appears—a cute, yellow creature, who completely changes the tone by singing a sweet version of “You Are My Sunshine.” He refuses to be intimidated and taunts the first alien, who eventually blasts his head off! But that is not the end of our little yellow guy! The seemingly headless alien continues to sing his song, perplexing the bully, who ends up getting blown away himself in the end. Our yellow friend proudly finishes his song-“Do not take my sunshine away”– providing yet another win for the little guy. To this day whenever I hear “You Are My Sunshine” I picture that yellow guy. Fun fact-The yellow creature makes a cameo appearance in Muppets Most Wanted as the “thingy-thing” that Constantine gives to Miss Piggy in “I’ll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu).”
This Muppety take on Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem is just as weird to me now as it ever was. “Have you SEEN the scene? Even when you know what it is, you don’t know what it is!”
That about sums it up, thanks Scooter. Burble burble.
5. I’ve Got You Under My Skin
The Muppet Show loved putting weird twists on old standards. In this sketch, the Cole Porter tune that Frank Sinatra made famous becomes a duet between Behemoth (Who now goes by the name of Gene) and his still-living lunch, who is trying desperately to fight his way out. This sketch really creeped me out as a kid. It kind of still does.
6. Mahna Mahna
This is one of the most popular sketches associated with the Muppets, but it’s definitely weird. Like “Java,” it was performed on other programs both before and after it appeared on The Muppet Show. In a theme somewhat reminiscent of the Java sketch, the Mahna Mahna Muppet is expected to stay calm and do his part in backing up the cutesy pink Snowths as they do-do-do-do-do along. Whenever he tries to improvise, they give him the glare of death until he calms down. I’m sure many significant others who have been on the receiving end of a death stare can sympathize. Mahna Mahna gets the last laugh as he leaves the stage and exits the building, then puts a call in to Kermit, who brings the phone out to the stage, which allows our fuzzy pal to utter one final “Mahna Mahna.” Many people mistakenly believe that this catchy tune is an original Muppet song, but (and here’s where it gets even weirder) it actually debuted in a “pseudo-documentary” about wild sexual behavior in Sweden. The song accompanies a sauna scene in the movie. Here’s a safe-for-work excerpt: Now you will probably never hear that song the same way again.
Rowlf the Dog gets uptight Sam the Eagle to participate in this song, under the guise that it is cultural because it’s from Gilbert and Sullivan’s light opera, The Mikado. Rowlf performs most of the song while Sam plays the role of “Dickey Bird” and must repeatedly say “willow… tit willow…tit willow.” Sam feels increasingly awkward about it, but never quite gets the joke and ends by asking, “Why are they laughing at me?” All Rowlf can do is cover his face as he giggles. Cheeky! The song actually made it onto The Muppet Show soundtrack, which I had in cassette form and listened to all the time as kid. I didn’t get what was funny about it then and found the song boring, so I usually fast forwarded the tape to something else. I’m glad I’ve rediscovered this strange and silly clip, and that is part of what makes The Muppet Show even better as an adult. I love discovering gags I didn’t understand as a child, and finding new meanings in sketches.
8. All of Me
Another wacky interpretation of a standard. The character who sings the song literally takes all of his parts off of his body one by one, handing them over to his lover, who giddily enjoys stuffing them in a box until there is nothing left to give except the shell of his body. So of course, he jumps into the trunk as she seals ALL OF HIM inside. Sure, it’s presented in a humorous manner, but adult-me sees an abusive, one-way relationship. We’re staring to get a little bit more serious here…
9. Windmills of Your Mind
As a kid, I found the “screaming thing” in this sketch strange, but also ridiculous and funny. As an adult, the simple act of watching this sketch now gets my anxiety revved up within the first 10 seconds. The Muppets took a haunting, Oscar-winning song and turned it into a frantic, psychotic plea for help. We start with the screaming thing telling us “I’m very relaxed. I’m terribly calm and tranquil, and very, very relaxed indeed…(cue fast music) ON THE OUTSIDE, BUT ON THE INSIDE…” and he proceeds to sing the song with ever increasing speed while his legs flail about and the world goes in circles around him until he crashes into an actual windmill. He starts shaking like he’s about to have a nervous breakdown and reassures us that on the outside, he is very calm—but then he screams and runs away and ends up flinging himself off of Statler and Waldorf’s balcony! Whoa dude.
10. Time in A Bottle
This was my first exposure to the Jim Croce classic (The Muppet Show was actually my introduction to many great tunes), and it has remained a favorite of mine over the years. As a kid, I liked the pretty yet haunting melody, but as I grew older I gained an appreciation for the longing and pain that the song invokes. In the sketch, a scientist sings the song as he makes and takes potions that make him increasingly younger, but he goes too far and returns to his older self in the end, because no matter how hard you try, you can’t save time in a bottle and you can’t recapture your youth. Sad!
I don’t want leave you on such a depressing note, so enjoy this bonus weird clip which features a scantily clad Raquel Welch doing a sexy dance with a giant spider. There are plenty more weird sketches in the Muppet catalog, so feel free to comment if you have a particular weird sketch that sticks in your mind.
I’m trying to start some regular features on my blog to inspire me to write more frequently. My first regular feature will be “Muppet Mondays.” I am a huge fan of all things Muppets and Jim Henson, and have been for as long as I can remember. Here I am as a wee little tyke with my Kermit Muppet Baby on Christmas Morning, and on my most recent trip to Walt Disney World at the Jim Henson hand prints at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Every Monday I will try to blog about something Muppet or Jim Henson Company related. Today I’m discussing two Muppet books I have in my possession: One for children, one for adults.
I picked up the Children’s book Jim Henson: The Guy Who Played with Puppets on a whim when I saw it on sale at the gift shop of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History last summer. The book is written by Kathleen Krull, with beautiful illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Francher and is suitable for ages 5+. The very first page features a famous quote from Henson—“When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world”—along with his picture. The book is meant to inspire children to chase their dreams, just as Jim Henson did. Almost half of the 35-page book (which features the standard children’s book setup of one page text/one page illustration) focuses on Jim’s early years. It shows how he turned his dreams of being involved in television into a reality that far surpassed anything he could have imagined. The only mild criticism of the book is that it comes to a sudden ending. After covering most of Jim’s biography at a nice pace, including four pages of text covering Sesame Street, Henson’s other projects only get one page of text before the reader is confronted with Jim Henson’s death. Page 32 ends with “Not everyone loved those serious movies like The Dark Crystal or Labryinth at first, but his experiments seemed endless.”
Page 33 features a lovely illustration of Henson and Frank Oz puppeteering Miss Piggy and Kermit dancing together, seen on the left. Everything is happy-go-lucky until you turn the page and read “It was heartbreaking to everyone who knew him—and to millions who didn’t—when Jim Henson died unexpectedly, after a short illness, at the age of fifty-three.” Henson’s death and memorial service are handled nicely, but it’s just a bit of an abrupt transition for a children’s book. All in all, Jim Henson: The Guy Who Played with Puppets is a wonderful book, and a great way to introduce children to the world of The Muppets and Jim Henson.
On the other end of the reader demographic spectrum, we have Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones. I was very excited to delve into this book, and I finished it in less than a week (I had a lot of time to kill on my flights to and from Walt Disney World in January). Jones definitely takes the great man, myth-building type of approach, which is pretty typical of biographies. Though I am a huge fan of Jim Henson and always name him as one of my heroes, he was, after all, only a man, and certainly had some faults. I couldn’t help but notice that Jones tread very lightly around things that might paint Jim in any kind of negative light. We get many behind the scenes stories about Jim Henson the Entertainer that will delight any Muppet fan, but Jones misses opportunities to probe more deeply into Jim Henson the Man. By most accounts, Jim was a fun, easygoing guy who everyone loved to be around. His biggest flaw was his struggle to outwardly show his emotions. This manifested itself both in his work, with his struggle to give “attaboys” to colleagues who strived to please him, and at home through troubles with his wife, Jane Henson. I admit I had no idea that Jim and Jane grew so far apart over the years– that she allowed him to “go out” on her with other women, and that eventually they became legally separated (but never divorced). Their marriage comes off as more of a savvy business partnership with some benefits rather than a real love story.
Jones gives lots of tidbits about most of Henson’s productions, but seems to spend the most time explaining the thought, time, and effort that went into less successful ventures like The Dark Crystal, Labryinth, and The Jim Henson Hour. Not every single production is covered. Something in particular that stood out to me came up during a section devoted to the various ideas for future projects that Muppeteers would toss around. Jones briefly mentions that Richard Hunt had an idea for a show where the puppets came to life on their own, which immediately made me think of The Christmas Toy; however, there is zero coverage of The Christmas Toy anywhere in the book. This popular 1986 Christmas special featured toys coming to life when children left the room, long pre-dating Toy Story by almost a decade. (Later, a TV Show featuring The Christmas Toy characters called The Secret Life of Toys would run for a season.)
Of particular interest to Disney Park fans is an entire chapter devoted to the original failed Disney deal. Through his thorough research, Jones is able to shed new light on the negotiations. Jones really lets Michael Eisner off the hook and paints Jeffrey Katzenburg as the baddie who tried to short-change Jim and pull the wool over his eyes. One thing that stood out to me the most was that from day one, Jim Henson told the Disney executives that Sesame Street and its characters would never be part of the deal; yet, Disney’s internal memos reveal that the negations were code-named “Project Big Bird.” Ahhh, Disney. Henson was very excited by the notion that Disney would be able to keep his characters alive for generations to come, and loved tossing around ideas for theme park rides. The original Disney deal fell through with Jim’s sudden death in 1990, with Muppet*Vision 3D being it’s only lasting testament. Disney finally did acquire rights to the Muppets in 2004 and was criticized heavily for leaving them in limbo for many years. With the release of The Muppets in 2011 and the upcoming March 21, 2014 release of Muppets Most Wanted, The Disney Company finally seems to be going all-in with the Muppets, giving them the care and attention that they deserve and introducing them to younger generations, just as Jim Henson had once hoped.
One last thing that struck me was how much of a workaholic Jim Henson was. Jones had access to Jim’s journals, so he is able to trace Jim’s travels quite thoroughly. The man was constantly flying across the country and even around the world. One day he’d be overseeing production of The Muppet Show in England; the next he might need to fly to New York City for meetings or to film some bits for Sesame Street; the day after that he’d be off to Vermont for a ski vacation with his family. When he first became ill with the infection that would end up killing him, he didn’t think much of it. He was a man who worked hard and played hard, and in his mind, he simply didn’t have time to get sick. Jim was also on the cutting edge of technology. One can only wonder how much more he would’ve been able to accomplish had he been around to experience the massive technological boom of the 90s.
All in all, a Muppet fan of any degree will certainly want to give this a read. Whether you are simply a casual fan, or an uber fanboy, there will undoubtedly be new stories for you to discover in this almost-500-page book. In the words of Jim Henson, “Please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody. It’s a good life, enjoy it.” Jim Henson certainly did.
Bonus pictures: From Jim Henson: The Biography, a picture of a young Jim Henson charming a “snake” and the lovely illustration of the same event from Jim Henson: The Guy Who Played with Puppets. Simply adorable!