Chase Pritchard - The Muppet Show is always regarded as one of big tent-poles to Jim Henson's legacy. It proved that Henson and friends weren't simply child's play to a specific audience, but rather, just as Henson wished for, entertainers that were capable of contributing to all facets of popular culture just as well as contemporary comics at any given decade. So it shouldn't be any surprise that some of those same entertainers wound up being on The Muppet Show, serving as a bridge of celebrity mayhem that feels timeless. And that's just beyond the jokes that defined the Muppets beyond those guest figures; the real meat everyone remembers fondly about.
But how much of an impact did they, the guest stars, really have on the show, or on that same Muppet mayhem? I've been thinking about that aspect when Jerry Juhl, the fairy godfather of Muppet writing, said the following about working with Gene Kelly in an episode of The Muppet Show in a late 90s interview:
We said, "Let's recreate the old Singin' in the Rain set and do something with it!" We had this entire show constructed around this set, around this piece. Jim was really good with it, saying, "Gene, you don't have to do this. It's not a dance thing. Just do this. Walk through the set. It's like a little poignant kind of moment. Just cross the set while you listen to the music." And that's what we did, and he said, "Okay, I'll do it once. That's all. I don't want to hear about it." We said, "Right," and we rolled the camera. He walked across the set, and of course, right at the very end, he did a wonderful dance step.
With that context, I began thinking about the structure that formed The Muppet Show, and how the relationship of any given guests formed the stories that followed each episode. True, no shenanigans on The Muppet Show were really alike, at least to a casual viewer, but while each episode sees Miss Piggy gazing for love and Kermit announces each guest star either with ease or pain, the show, at a fundamental level, usually revolved around one of the following points, or a combination of points:
1. The premise is crafted around what everyone in the show knew about the guest star, so everyone has to fight to get the show running smoothly not for the audience, but for that guest star. That way, the guest star can interact with the talking animals as comfortably as possible, allowing the illusion to stay strong for everybody watching. So if, say, Roy Rogers was the guest, the show was country based, allowing the Muppets to don cowboy gear to satisfy both the guest star and their audience if they desire. This point generally sets the template for the majority of gags throughout the show.
2. The guest and the storyline are totally apart from one another. The gags of a particular storyline has to carry the entire episode as the guest star does his or her routine. The storyline can be as silly as it wants to be, but the guest star cannot start the idea for the duration of the episode. They can comment on the situation or they can be a part of a gag or a sketch reacting to the story, but unless the guest star sincerely wants to be a part of the mayhem/story, or feels okay letting the Muppets upstage them in one particular sketch, it's best to leave him or her out of it. A lot of Season 1 episodes usually favored this outcome.
3. The guest, while not a direct source of an event, becomes heavily involved with a sketch or the backstage plot, leading them to go along with what the writers wanted to do and go nuts with the concept. The guest may participate in a sketch without having a hand in it, but if they want to an active part of the writer's idea, they must contribute their strengths to plot that might not reflect their career. This point begins to pop more frequently during the second and third season, but started to appear, in a regular rotation, in the fourth season onward.
4. While rare, there are plots where both the writer's idea for a story and the guest star come together and create an episode where this organic structure dictates the flow of an entire episode. This comes at a point where some of the recurring segments reflect this structure and adjust its gags to make comedic sense.
With these points, an average episode of The Muppet Show generally followed a few general story principles everyone went through: let the guest star do their own thing, let the puppeteer do his/her own thing, write around the guest star and allow the puppeteer to breath, then figure out on how to stitch them all together and create the humor that is the show. We all know how the results went, but which episodes apply to each point? Join me next time, because I think Gene Kelly might be a good way to start.
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, firstname.lastname@example.org