The Muppet Show: The Complete Third Season Review

There's always something strange going on at the Muppet Theatre. Whether it's spontaneously transforming into chickens or staging a surprisingly elaborate production of Robin Hood, you just never know what frogs and pigs and bears will find themselves doing. And not only is that part of the fun, it is the fun. Few programmes in television history can lay claim to being entirely safe while bordering on anarchic zaniness in the way The Muppet Show spit out joke after crazy joke each week for five seasons. Celebrity guest stars lined up to play along, even if it meant they'd no doubt be overshadowed by the wild sketches put on by a collection of puppets. Half the time the guests seem to be poking fun at themselves, and the other half the Muppets do it for them. Songs are frequently altered to reference the Muppet world or accommodate a fuzzy singing companion. If you've never heard Miss Piggy duet with Kris Kristofferson on "Help Me Make It Through the Night," then you've missed out on how the song was (never) intended to be heard.

That's one of the many reasons watching The Muppet Show now, almost thirty years since these episodes aired, is such a treat. The celebrity guest stars are forced to adapt to the Muppet madness instead of the other way around. Each episode features roughly the same format of Kermit introducing that week's guest, followed usually by a song, a couple of sketches, and two more musical numbers. Yet, it's never entirely predictable. The guest rarely gets the stage to him- or herself and is just as likely, in the case of Jean Stapleton, to encounter Crazy Harry blowing things up all over the set while trying to sing (or sometimes lip sync). When Harry Belafonte decides to belt out his immortal "Banana Boat Song" for the first time ever on television, he's repeatedly interrupted by Fozzie asking questions. The result may be a slight annoyance for those anxious to hear the full song, but it's undoubtedly something special - a unique version of a timeless classic explained by its most famous interpreter.

Even more impressive is the deservedly celebrated closing number Belafonte sings. Joined by Muppets in traditional African masks, the singer unleashed "Turn the World Around" and momentarily transformed the show into a still jovial, but suddenly substantial event, one of the more important and noteworthy in its history. Jim Henson was apparently moved to the point of declaring it a favourite episode, and Belafonte performed the song at Henson's funeral. Of the episodes in this third season set, Belafonte's was the only one where the traditional Muppet closing theme wasn't heard, replaced by that "Kumbaya"-like segment. There are other deviations from the traditional, but loose formula of The Muppet Show, however, and perhaps the strangest from this season was when the show within the show had to be moved to a busier-than-expected railroad depot because the Muppet Theatre was being fumigated. (Can you imagine the variety of insect critters lurking in that place considering what passes for "normal" there?)

That particular episode saw Loretta Lynn guest star and the entire Muppet crew seemed to make the trek out to the railroad set, including gluttons for punishment Statler and Waldorf. As funny as their one-liners usually are (and I frequently find myself laughing along with the little curmudgeons), just the presence of these two hecklers highlight another of the show's charming qualities, which is its focus on behind-the-scenes and other slightly meta aspects. Theoretically, the Muppets are putting on a variety show with music and skits starring characters like Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, and numerous others. Yet, the television viewer sees both the preparation of these sketches as Kermit tries to keep everything running as smoothly as possible and the reaction from Statler and Waldorf. In this sense, it's more like watching a sitcom about a troupe of puppets who are doing a show than it is simply seeing a television variety show.

Much of the humour comes through these peeks behind the curtain. Kermit narrowly avoids signing a Faustian contract with Alice Cooper. Gilda Radner's request for a seven-foot-tall talking parrot is mistaken for the same variety of a carrot, leading to a performance from The Pirates of Penzance that could only be found in the world of the Muppets. Sylvester Stallone encounters a talking (though encouraging) punching bag. Piggy sets up a wedding sketch with Kermit in which she plans on really marrying him, as boomerang fish thrower Lew Zealand repeatedly pops in and out of scenes. It's all inspired hijinks and frequently very funny, if for no other reason than the randomly bizarre nature of the sketches. This even carries over to the "real" bits of the internal show, where we see hilariously odd segments like a wig race that includes an interview with a wig trainer on "Muppet Sports" or the unabashed politically incorrect chain smoker Bobby Benson and his Baby Band. And I didn't even mention Marvin Suggs or his one-of-a-kind Muppaphone.

More recurring sketches like the crazy antics of The Swedish Chef (including one episode where Danny Kaye mugs along as the Chef's uncle), the faux soap opera "Veterinarian Hospital," and the not so gritty police actioner "Bear on Patrol" are all given their time in the spotlight. The humour can be goofy at times, though it's probably representative of appealing to a wide swath of potential viewers. Kermit comments in one episode that The Muppet Show is intended for adults, who'll presumably be more likely to appreciate what Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and head writer Jerry Juhl were doing, but the continued dumbing down of children's entertainment has kept the show's style of comedy refreshing and sincere. It's also entirely appropriate for people of all ages, and a pleasant diversion for parents to share with their children without awkward innuendo or questionable content. The elders may find themselves more entertained than the little ones, but that's not such a bad thing either.

Below is a list of all episodes in this Season 3 set, separated by disc and with mention of each guest star and the songs he or she performed:

Disc 1

3.1 Kris Kristofferson & Rita Coolidge - "Help Me Make It Through the Night" (Kristofferson and Miss Piggy), "We're All Alone" (Coolidge), "Song I Like to Sing" (Kristofferson and Coolidge)

3.2 Leo Sayer - "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing," "The Show Must Go On," "When I Need You"

3.3 Roy Clark - "Rocky Top," "Yesterday When I Was Young," "Sally Was a Good Old Girl"

3.4 Gilda Radner - "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General"/The Pirates of Penzance medley, "Tap Your Troubles Away"

3.5 Pearl Bailey - "My Soul Is a Witness," In the Good Old Summertime," Camelot medley

3.6 Jean Stapleton - "Play a Simple Melody" (w/Fozzie), "I'm Just Wild About Harry"

Disc 2

3.7 Alice Cooper - "Welcome to My Nightmare," "You and Me," "School's Out"

3.8 Loretta Lynn - "You're Lookin' at Country," Oh, Lonesome Me," "One's on the Way"

3.9 Liberace - concert dedicated to the birds consisting of "Chopsticks," "Misty," "Chopin's Nocturne No. 5," "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue"

3.10 Marisa Berenson - "Dance" (instrumental), "You're Always Welcome at Our House"

3.11 Raquel Welch - "Baby It's Me," "Confide in Me," "I'm a Woman" (w/Miss Piggy

3.12 James Coco - "Short People"

3.13 Helen Reddy - "Blue," "You and Me Against the World" (w/Kermit), "We'll Sing in the Sunshine"

Disc 3

3.14 Harry Belafonte - "Day-O (Banana Boat Song)," "Turn the World Around"

3.15 Lesley Ann Warren - "Just the Way You Are," "Last Dance"

3.16 Danny Kaye - "Cheek to Cheek" (w/Miss Piggy), "Inchworm"

3.17 Spike Milligan - "It's a Small World" sing-a-along

3.18 Leslie Uggams - "Hey There, Good Times," "Here You Come Again" "Love Will Keep Us Together" (w/guest star Big Bird)

3.19 Elke Sommer - "Animal Crackers in My Soup," "Row, Row, Row"

3.20 Sylvester Stallone - "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "A Bird in a Gilded Cage"

Disc 4

3.21 Roger Miller - "In the Summertime," "Hat," "Do-Wacka-Do"/"Dang Me"/"My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died"/"You Can't Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd" medley

3.22 Roy Rogers & Dale Evans - "Skyball Paint" (Rogers), "Deep in the Heart of Texas" (Evans), "Hazy Mountains"/"Tumbling Tumbleweeds"/"Happy Trails" medley (Rogers and Evans)

3.23 Lynn Redgrave - Robin Hood songs

3.24 Cheryl Ladd - "South Rampart Street Parade," "I Enjoy Being a Girl" (w/Miss Piggy), "Sunshine on My Shoulders"

The Discs

With seasons one and two already released in fine editions, Disney has now brought out The Muppet Show: The Complete Third Season onto DVD in all its Muppetational glory. The front cover of the set features a fuzzy Fozzie, though this packaging is limited and some pressings will just have a regular, smooth surface. Inside the case is a digipak with four discs stacked two per tray.

The season's 24 episodes are presented in the 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio. All four DVDs are dual-layered, but with ample unused space on the discs. The episodes are interlaced and exhibit some fairly minor combing. It could be worse, but there really doesn't seem to be an excuse for not making these transfers progressive. Oddly, the "Muppets on Puppets" special, which looks pretty rough otherwise, is progressively transferred. The good news regarding the image quality of the episodes is that they look exceptionally clean and free from any damage. Video is soft, probably a result of the significant limitations in the original production quality, but the weak image is mostly excusable. Colours look adequate. This is probably the best (aside from the interlacing) one could hope for and most fans will be very happy to have these episodes in restored versions.

Audio is in English only via a two-channel Dolby Digital track. There's really nothing overly impressive or upsetting here. It sounds clear and consistent. No hiss or pops could be detected. Dialogue, music, and applause all come through without issue and at a good level of volume. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are optional and pale yellow in colour, covering both words and song lyrics. They are also available for the extra features.

Episodes seem to be complete and uncut. There's no mention of any edits on the back of the case and each episode runs consistently around the 25:40 mark. The "UK spots" originally cut from the American television broadcast are all included.

Bonus features are scant, but what is here amounts to little pieces of Muppet treasure. Produced in the late 1960's and airing in 1970 on a pre-PBS public television station in Pittsburgh, "Muppets On Puppets" is a really interesting artifact for fans. The special is hosted by Jim Henson, written by Jerry Juhl, and features Frank Oz. It gives viewers a rare opportunity to see how the Muppets were created and controlled, as well as some puppet history and a couple of sketches. Rowlf is the lead Muppet star, but we also see Kermit and several less familiar characters. It runs 58:43 in grainy black and white, and has optional subtitles. A note before the special mentions a few audio dropouts as being inherent to the source material. These are fleeting and occur around the 14-minute mark. The new featurette "A Company of Players" (10:20) revisits some of the Muppet handlers and is a fascinating, too brief look at how the show was created, with emphasis on Jim Henson and Frank Oz (who unfortunately isn't interviewed). Finally, a quartet of black and white Purina Dog Chow commercials (2:34) from 1962-63 reveals an early version of Rowlf and his friend Baskerville advertising the "delicious and flavor charged" dry dog food.

Final Thoughts

If you have any interest in the Muppets or think you might enjoy their brand of zany humour, The Muppet Show is a great choice. This particular season is steadily brilliant and features a nice range of guest stars who were then up-and-coming, as well as some industry veterans. The DVD presentation here is solid, even with the weak image quality, and literally features hours of entertainment.

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