Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show—the one and only—is finally going to be more easily accessible to fans with its arrival on Disney+ this week. You might be so excited you’re just going to dive in headfirst, but if you’re down to skip around a bit, we have some suggestions for the best of the best.
While Disney’s more recent movies and series starring the Muppets have been varying degrees of extremely OK, the original Muppet Show is still understandably considered some of the strongest storytelling starring the characters. That’s in no small part because of Henson’s direct involvement.
Because of the way The Muppet Show was originally produced in the UK before being sent out to various regions across the world with no clear mandate about how the episodes were meant to be ordered, it’s been difficult in the past to watch the show sequentially, unless you got your hands on a VHS or DVD box set of seasons one through three. Additionally, The Muppet Show’s fourth and fifth seasons were previously only available to the public as their initial broadcasts and were not released as home media, likely due to issues with music rights.
All of that’s changed, though, now that The Muppet Show’s come to Disney+ in its entirety. There’s plenty more to The Muppet Show than these 20 episodes, but they’re a perfect place to start whether you’re new to the series or looking forward to revisiting some of their greatest hits.
One of the most notable things about the earliest episodes is how generally tight and put together the entire production was, considering how new it was as a series. Part of this can be attributed to the multiple pilots that ABC turned down before The Muppet Show was eventually greenlit for television, and that a number of the characters and its sense of humor were things Henson had been crafting for years.
By being one of The Muppet Show’s first celebrity guests, Connie Stevens played a pivotal role in setting what would become the standard for the Muppet/human interactions that have always been the spotlight of the franchise’s best storytelling. The show’s focus on a celebrity whose appeal might not have been as strong with younger audiences was also part of its ability to offer up something that would appeal just as much to adults as to children. What’s interesting to see here and in other episodes is how The Muppet Show doesn’t go out of its way to make a clear distinction about who its target audience is.
One does not need a special reason to watch anything starring Rita Moreno, but her appearance on The Muppet Show did mark one of the earliest appearances of a full-bodied Muppet—a person in a larger, complicated puppet suit—interacting with talent. The episode’s variety of sketches also settle into a pacing and style that give characters like Piggy, Fozzie, and the Swedish Chef opportunities to shine as stars among the cast.
During her visit to The Muppet Show stage, The Brady Bunch’s Florence Henderson became the—in retrospect, wholly unsurprising—villain after running afoul of Miss Piggy. How? By making a number of remarks that began as jokes about Francis Bacon before devolving into wild remarks about the taste of pork. By this point in the series, Piggy’s signature personality was always in sharp focus, and it’s great to see her in action like this in her prime.
In The Muppet Show’s second season, the show’s growing popularity was reflected in a broader pop-cultural scope, and episodes like this are excellent examples of how one see the Muppets’ path to doing a cinematic musical based on classic stories way back in the late ‘70s.
Though Bernadette Peters was the episode’s guest star, it actually stands out as one of The Muppet Show’s best chapters focused on Statler and Waldorf. The duo is given a much larger role here as their fondness for criticism ends up making them pawns in Piggy’s war against the week’s visitor.
There’s an argument to be made that Elton John was a Muppet before the Muppets were a thing, which could be why the legendary performer worked so well alongside the felt creatures, even though he didn’t spend all that much time trying to portray characters other than himself.
It’s difficult to imagine a time when Gonzo wasn’t disturbingly obsessed with chickens. But up until The Muppet Show’s second season, the creature had a rather difficult time articulating just what it was that he was looking for in a partner. Julie Andrews’ presence in the episode’s a lovely bonus, also.
Much as it may pain Miss Piggy’s loyal fans to admit it, Kermit the Frog has a rather storied history of, at the very least, contemplating whether he might be better off working closely with pigs other than her. Before Denise the Pig, there was Annie Sue, a singer who Miss Piggy saw as a rival despite Annie Sue seeing her as a role model. Like many of the other Muppet pigs, Annie Sue’s never really gotten her due, and her spotlight episodes are definitely worth rewatching.
While all of the other Muppets have always been game to be ridiculous and goofy, Sam the Eagle’s been a reliable source of palate-cleansing seriousness—perfect for when guests like Alice Cooper swing by to get in on all the comedic shenanigans. Along with Sam’s keeping a sharp eye on the show’s rocker guest, this episode also featured one of The Muppet Show’s handful of in-universe callbacks to earlier episodes (Julie Andrews’ in this case) establishing a sense of continuity.
One can easily imagine Sam’s feelings about Liberace, but it’s the way the piano man’s presence whips the rest of the featured cast members into a tizzy that makes this episode special. As the birds all preen and pluck in attempts to snag spots in Liberace’s bird-themed concert, The Muppets Show becomes that much more a show about the production of a show, an idea that would only go on to define The Muppets franchise.
While Harry Belafonte was known for being particularly discerning about what kinds of television projects he would agree to, he was excited to appear on the show. He wanted to work closely with Henson’s team to ensure that his episode would be a memorable one meant to expose audiences to elements of African cultures not often celebrated on television. Both Belafonte and Henson were open about how uncommon it was for The Muppet Show’s creative team to bring guests into the scripting process, but both ultimately felt that their collaboration led to one of the series’ best episodes.
By The Muppet Show’s fourth season, the series had become the sort of cultural phenomenon that made stars like Mark Hamill’s appearances almost foregone conclusions. But rather than simply reveling in the fact that the Star Wars man was playing around with the Muppets, the show very much treated Hamill like another celebrity who was expected to be game to fit himself into the Muppets’ world, which he did and then some.
Many of The Muppet Show’s jokes about Christopher Reeve likely wouldn’t fly today given that Disney isn’t exactly in the business of drawing attention to what Warner Bros. has been up to with DC Comics IP. The episode’s references to 1979's The Muppet Movie, however, are precisely the sort of jokes you’d expect to hear the Muppets making now, as they’ve become part of one of the most powerful, sprawling multimedia companies in world history.
Theatrical as you might expect Diana Ross’ episode to be, it was actually one of the series’ more down-to-earth entries that focused more on the process of how the show all comes together and the stresses Kermit deals with as stage manager.
Episodes in which Kermit’s—or any Muppet’s, really—legs appear are always worth paying attention to because of the technical artistry that goes into pulling the practical visual effect off. When Gene Kelly comes to visit, Kermit’s given reason to get up and dance in his special way, and it’s a feat that’s worth just as much praise as his hand flailing thing.
You can always tell when a celebrity guest was especially jazzed to work with the Muppets—as was very much the case with Carol Burnett, who spent her episode portraying both herself and the Muppets’ janitor. Burnett’s willingness to see and interact with the Muppets as if they were fully-realized, living, breathing people is precisely why her episode is one of the series’ most memorable. It’s exciting so many people are going to have the chance to see it for the very first time.
As the Muppets scramble to figure out how they’re going to put on a show with the roof of their theater rotted through, Gladys Knight shows up ready to recruit some of the felt performers as her “Mup-Pips” for a last-minute show that pushes them to pull out all the stops.
As one of the only musical guests to perform on both Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, Johnny Cash is every bit a part of both series’ histories as the puppets themselves. While Cash wasn’t quite as actively in on the jokes as some of his celebrity peers, his repeated presence in the Muppets’ lives, both in person and as the butt of jokes, is reason enough to give this episode a viewing.
The Muppet Show starts streaming tomorrow on Disney+.
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