For those that don’t know, I’m a massive fan of the Muppets, in particular The Muppet Show. I used to get up at 5am to watch an hour of reruns on weekdays before getting ready for school at a time when I had few friends, and the batch of weirdos on the screen made me feel alright.
Of course, to most people Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show is just a show, and an old one at that. The concept of the variety show is now relegated to late night television in the United States, but in the late 1970s American TV was flooded with them, which made The Muppet Show something of a parody. To fans, every episode of The Muppet Show is good, each with at least one entertaining sketch or musical number, but for most people my age the guests are unknown and dull. So what if you want to experience The Muppet Show but don’t want to wade through 120 episodes? I’ve got you covered with five of the best and most acclaimed episodes of one of my all time favorite pick-me-ups.
A word of caution before diving into this list with children. It is important to remember that The Muppet Show was intended for college students in the 1970s, which is to say that it’s not meant for kids. That’s not to say kids can’t enjoy some of these episodes, but don’t automatically assume they’re okay and go in blind.
#1) Harry Belafonte (Season 3 Episode 14)
If you’re only going to watch one episode of The Muppet Show, make it this one. Jim Henson attracted individuals like himself, and he and Harry Belafonte shared an interest in racial unification and the power of love and compassion to end pain. Every segment of this episode is outstanding, from the unexpectedly hilarious performance of “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”, to the climax performance of “Turn The World Around”, which is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful musical numbers in Muppet history. Definitely one to share with the whole family.
#2) Peter Sellers (Season 2 Episode 19)
I love Peter Sellers, and if you’re familiar with his work then it’s no surprise that he fits right in with the Muppets. When Disney released The Muppet Show on Disney+ people discovered that some of the episodes started with content warnings. This might be a shock from someone as socially minded as the creator of Sesame Street, but times change and prejudices are recognized. Some of the episodes with content warnings seem to be for relatively minor things, but in the case of the Peter Sellers episode the content warning is for… well, just about everything. Sellers was at his best when doing accents, and he does almost nothing else in this episode. Notably the opening number would have been considered fine ten years ago, but now is a bit painful. Still, it’s a classic episode, and Gonzo’s musical number is a personal favorite of mine.
#3) Vincent Price (Season 1 Episode 19)
Special Mention: Alice Cooper (Season 3 Episode 7)
It’s no surprise that someone who loved costumes and performance as much as Jim Henson would love Halloween, and in The Muppet Show’s first season they featured the king of Halloween himself, Vincent Price. This episode is a must-watch on the holiday at my house, and it’s fun for all ages with just enough comedy to take the edge off for little kids. Plus you get to hear Vincent Price sing, which is something. (It’s not great, but it’s something.)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the second Halloween themed episode of The Muppet Show (because of course there are two), which stared none other an Alice Cooper! Yup. Alice Cooper, the “Godfather of Shock Rock” paraded around with a bunch of felt puppets and it’s excellent. The opening number is, of course, “Welcome to My Nightmare” with some specially created monstrous Muppets as the band. One highlight of this one is Gonzo eagerly selling his soul to the Devil. (It’s a weird episode.)
#4) John Cleese (Season 2 Episode 23)
The story goes that when John Cleese was approached to be on The Muppet Show he requested to help write the episode. As you’d expect, the Monty Python member was a massive fan of the mad cap antics of the Muppets. While brainstorming someone hit on the idea that maybe John, a massive Muppet fan, would be doing the show reluctantly. This was the kind of comedy Cleese loved, so the underlying concept of the episode is that John Cleese is doing the show against his will. This episode really highlights Cleese’s comedic and acting talents, and is a fun watch. It’s worth noting that the motif of the reluctant host was repeated in 2011’s The Muppets feature film, with Jack Black (frequent Sesame Street guest and Muppet fan) playing an identical role to Cleese.
#5) Mark Hamill/Star Wars (Season 4 Episode 17)
By season four The Muppet Show was a massive success. So was Star Wars. Jim Henson already had a connection with George Lucas through Frank Oz (who performed Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Sam Eagle, Cookie Monster, Bert, and Grover, among others) performing Yoda. Though ostensibly a Mark Hamill episode, “Luke Skywalker”, C3PO, R2D2, and Chewbacca all show up. This one is a must for Star Wars fans, and meta comical for its prophetic closing number.
Some very cool news on the writing front: one of my short stories was the inspiration for an album! Indy synth band Amae created a soundtrack for my Lovecraftian horror story 8-Cube.
“But wait,” you say. “I’ve never read that story before. Where can I get it?”
The story is now available exclusively as liner notes to the album. If you purchase 8-Cube (the album) on Bandcamp for a meager fee, you get a PDF of 8-Cube (the story) as part of your download. What a bargain!
Click the album art below to head over to Amae’s Bandcamp site where you can stream the album for free, or purchase it to play on whatever device you want and get an exclusive copy of my story. Good tunes and Lovecraftian horror, how are you going to beat that?
Every few years the old “I don’t want my musicians to be political” rant crops up, almost always from conservatives. Songs are essentially poetry set to music, and like any form of writing, many of the best and most endearing songs have something to say. Of course, only in our modern polarized political climate would art with a social message be “political.” If the present Covid-19 crisis has taught Americans anything, it’s that “wearing a mask during a pandemic” is somehow political.
Songs with social messages go back at least as long as audio recordings opened the possibility of a message reaching a mass audience. Just like there wasn’t much use in writing essays critiquing social structure before the printing press allowed you to reach people outside your immediate social bubble, mass distribution of music made it possible for original art to spread to a broad audience. The 1960s and 1970s saw the creation of some of the most timeless songs of women’s empowerment, from Aretha Franklin’s Respect to Helen Reddy’s I am Woman. Songs of acceptance and love took many forms, from the simple beauty of Harry Belafonte’s Turn the World Around, to the more subversive Lola by The Kinks which got many in the 1970s to sing along to transgender acceptance. I personally can’t think of protest music without Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth popping into my head, and those lyrics have come to me a lot these days.
Unsurprisingly, the blues genre has a long history of speaking about black oppression in America. Billie Holiday’s song Strange Fruit, based on a poem by a Jewish civil rights activist, brought a lot of heat down from white audiences in the 1940s, and even from the US Federal Government. Holiday’s clean tones and passionate singing evoke a strong poetic image.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
There is presently an explosion of social messaging across all music genres, which is undoubtedly a reflection of our times. Childish Gambino’s This is America, and the music video that goes along with it, is a masterpiece. Janelle Monáe’s albums contain a wealth of social messaging (one of the many reasons I love her work), and one of my favorites is Americans with this amazing stanza
I like my woman in the kitchen
I teach my children superstitions
I keep my two guns on my blue nightstand
A pretty young thang, she can wash my clothes
But she'll never ever wear my pants
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite modern artists who was taken from us at the height of his career by stomach cancer. Charles Bradley was heavily inspired by funk, in particular James Brown. In The World (Is Going Up in Flames) he desperately asks the listener who is to blame for all the world’s troubles. “Is it you? Or you?” before turning to himself and asking “Me?” then cries at the implication that it is his fault, representing the blame that a black man carries in America.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.