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by Walter Chaw In a summer whose renewed interest in variety shows has brought us embarrassing spectacles ranging from a peculiar celebrity dance competition where ex-heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield does a Karloff in tuxedo pants to the hard-to-witness disinterring of moldy oldsters and one-hit-wonders croaking out their old hits and covering new ones, look back to the heyday of "The Muppet Show" and wonder how something like it ever made it to the air. The themes that Jim Henson's electric Kool-Aid acid trip tackles through its tacky sketches, instantly-dated guest stars, and cobwebbed musical interludes run the gamut from loneliness (a disturbing rendition of Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle" in which a Muppet mutilates and pickles himself) to war (a version of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" sung by forest animals being terrorized by mad redneck hunters) to exotic burlesques that predict the melancholia lacing The Dark Crystal and the eternally underestimated The Muppet Movie. Running concurrently with Jimmy Carter's presidency (1976-1981), it's the product, as it can only be, of the Carter administration in the United States: all goofy good intentions, bad fashion, rampant hickism, and confusion.
Find three episodes of the series apiece collected on "Best of The Muppet Show" DVDs. Henson's son (and heir to the empire) Brian introduces each volume, on which the shows themselves are compiled in no logical order. (On the disc discussed herein, the first episode has as its guest star George Burns, the next Dom DeLuise, and the last Bob Hope, making the "best of" appellation one that only a grandfather could appreciate.) The hippy-dippiness of the whole thing is thrown into sharper relief by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, in particular, who stand out as a product of Timothy Leary's closet of bad trips, man. What's missing from modern revivals of these hale characters--Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Scooter, Beaker and Honeydew, the Swedish Chef, Peter Gallagher the boomerang-fish-thrower, and so on--is the general lack of countercultural edge brought them by the bearded, kind-eyed Henson, in whom hid the heart of a true revolutionary. Consider Gonzo playing a violin for Burns, declaring, "Gonzo fiddles while George burns." It's a joke that no one under a certain age will get and no one of any age without a particular education will get, either--and an example of the sort of thing Henson threw on the fire just to see if it'd spark. Nobody would expect a primetime puppet variety show to reference Nero, but they got away with it because nobody that mattered got it, anyway.
The overwhelming feeling I get from watching "The Muppet Show" again for the first time since it first aired is not so much nostalgia as a sort of nauseated disquiet. You're pretty much a member of the entrenched ruling class as a kid, and "The Muppet Show" was nothing if not a corrupting agent mailed from the far left. I compare the sensation to revisiting the BBC's "Doctor Who" in that you feel as a child watching them that your brain chemistry is being changed--you're aware, if only barely, that a good 80% of this series wasn't intended for you at all. The bloated laugh track feels like satire now and damned if some of the Muppets aren't actually mocking the fossilized vaudevillian hosts. They're only capable of deadpan takes, after all, the perfect straight men and the logical companions to comedians butting up against the end of their careers. It's the Johnny Carson circuit; I wonder if the blue-hairs thought they were going crazy, busting a gut over a briefcase full of talking carpets taking the wood out on DeLuise's fatuousness, Burns's embalmed Catskills lounge novelties, and Hope's rambling rimshots. It's an evisceration of show business behind the scenes and before the camera--and it's no wonder, really, that it couldn't survive Reagan's morning in America.
The former Columbia TriStar releases this particular "Best of The Muppet Show" in a decent fullscreen presentation that's soft on detail and colours but looks no worse than any other TV series of the era. The Dolby 2.0 mono sound is flat, though not distractingly so--it is, as they say, what it is. Under each episode's scene menu, the far right option opens an identical "Muppet Extras" sub-menu that breaks down the bonus material into three categories: "Muppetisms," "Movie Mania," and "From the Archives." "Muppetisms" sees Kermit laughing at his own joke, "Movie Mania" contains a one-minute series of "screen tests," and "From the Archives" features a production sketch; as these were created expressly for DVD, not only are they a waste of time, they're a friggin' stupid waste of time. In addition to the three 1-minute Brian Henson intros (wherein Henson relates a short anecdote about that episode's guest star without offering anything in the way of historical context), trailers for The Swan Princess, Annie's Special Edition, Matilda's Special Edition, and "The Berenstain Bears" round out the disc. Originally published: June 30, 2005.