When reviewing one of The Muppet Show‘s previous incarnations I mentioned the show’s fleeting debt to Laugh-In. How little I knew. One of the (scant) extras on the first of Buena Vista’s long-overdue full season DVD collections is the original pilot episode, subtitled “Sex and Violence,” which all but rips the hippie stripshow’s joy-buzzer format wholesale. A few steps closer to outright surrealism than the resultant CBS series, the running gags of the pilot episode betray the darkly anarchic side of Jim Henson, who could’ve passed for a resident in Fred Rogers’s neighborhood were it not for his sporadic (at best) earnestness in telling parables or his taste for slapstick violence and implied interspecies fornication.
It’s worth noting that Kermit, the show’s chipper MC (both master of ceremonies and mediator of craziness), is only a bit player in the pilot, which is instead dominated by the yin-yang of Sam Eagle and Crazy Larry (oh, and that bland orchestra conductor is also present, dulling up a number of linking skits), who are trying to piece together a pageant that pits plush representations of the seven deadly sins against one another. The episode runs out of time just as Sam is preparing to crown the winning sin, but if the evidence of the rest of the first season is any indication, gluttony won out. Muppets are constantly depicted eating each other, devouring inedible props, biting and gnawing guests, and chewing the vaudevillian scenery…not to mention the introduction of the show’s own larousse gastronomique, the Swedish Chef.
Lust must’ve been a strong runner-up, though, given not only Piggy’s burgeoning obsession for Kermit, but also the frequent fawning over the guest stars (who in the first season included such sex symbols as Phyllis Diller, Bruce Forsyth, and…brrr…Avery Schreiber) and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew’s impure attraction toward a flaccid dinner plate he treated with tenderizer. Pride comes in third with the wounded pride of both Fozzie, whose stand-up comedy routine is routinely dressed down by those coots in the box seats Waldorf and Statler, and Gonzo, who in these early episodes is notably less oblivious (and a lot more sensitive) toward his audience’s puzzled reactions to his goon show parlor tricks, yelling back “Rubes! Yokels! No respect for the artist!” before sulking morosely backstage. (Apparently he hadn’t yet found his sweet release in the seductive plumage of Camille the chicken.)
Still, Henson’s sermonette impulse isn’t completely absent from the season. Though the collection kicks off with “Mahna Mahna,” the most enduring musical number (a reprise from a Sesame Street bit, to be sure, but “Mahna Mahna” was on Ed Sullivan first) was undoubtedly Kermit’s own “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green,” the quintessential anthem for the “Free to Be…You and Me” generation. (Though I personally identify most with the feather dusters shimmying to what sounds like a discofied version of “Nowhere To Run.”)
The shimmering video effect that American Muppet Show fans have come to know and love can be traced back to the fact that the show was videotaped in England (and, implicitly, in PAL format). So this is probably as good as we can expect from a DVD collection on this side of the Atlantic. Mostly weak colors (excepting the occasional Fruit Loops blast of psychedelic oversaturation, usually reds and oranges), foggy focus, and persistent image combing dominate the video presentation, but it probably looks comparable to how it initially aired. The sound mix is tricky as ever, with the laugh track threatening to drown out a number of punchlines, but thankfully the set comes with a surprisingly accurate set of optional subtitles. (I had to use them for Rita Moreno's bilingual guest spot.) This is probably as good a place as any to mention that there are five or six musical numbers that were cut from this DVD set (with the most devastating loss probably being Vincent Price's rendition of "You've Got A Friend") due to, you guessed it, problems clearing music rights.
There's not really too much in addition to the aforementioned pilot episode. There's an amusingly irreverent two-minute pitch reel in which a hyperbolic announcer baits potential investors' breath by describing all the different demographics The Muppet Show has the potential to reach, including kids, egghead college students, and "filthy hippies." There's also a couple minutes' worth of TV spots for the show, which were unique each week. Finally, there's an exhaustive alternate set of captions revealing a number of factoids about the show. Apparently, Honeydew was a loving satire of Lew Forde, the head exec of ITC Entertainment.
Though not 100% uncut, Muppets fans have been waiting for a collection like this for a long while. Now let's see how long it takes them to clear Piggy and Elton John's "Don't Go Breaking My Heart."