For all the guest stars that floated through the third and middle season of The Muppet Show—from newly-minted idols like Sylvester Stallone and then in-the-zeitgeist comedians like Gilda Radner to old school entertainers like Liberace and living legends like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans—none seem to have been accorded the same level of celebrity as was foisted on Big Bird, who crashed poor Leslie Uggams’s day in the footlights. Not surprisingly, by the time the third season rolled around, the entire Jim Henson company had become bigger stars than some of the people signed on to anchor individual episodes. (Had the show ever invited anyone with a more obviously short celebrity shelf life ahead than Leo Sayer?) Even as the show’s stock routines started to feel a tad rote, the entire lot of them were also concurrently taking their corny vaudeville act to the silver screen with The Muppet Movie, in which no less than Orson Welles gives them a nod of approval. By this point, the Muppets and residents of Sesame Street were clearly big enough for their britches, and thus a visit from Big Bird (the only felt-and-feather-covered sock puppet who could rival Kermit’s Q scores) surpassed all meta commentary into the realm of sheer star synergy. Or it could just be a cute in-joke shifting characters between Henson’s two concurrent productions. By this point, the stars aren’t necessarily even contributing to the show’s legitimacy as much as they are benefiting from its popularity. The skit that best encapsulates the Muppets and their place in the world of entertainment circa season three is Elke Sommers’s performing “Animal Crackers in My Soup.” Following up the opening number in which a bunch of cute but ill-tempered babies kazoo their way through “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” Sommers naturally presumes that performing her song in the style of Shirley Temple, all knock-kneed and pouty, would be the optimal route. Kermit interrupts her and tells her that she’s performing for the wrong audience, that Muppet Show now caters to an older, more sophisticated demographic. A quick costume change and she restarts the number in a skintight evening gown and platinum blond wig, aping the vocal cadence of Marlene Dietrich. Kermit stops her again and says, “Why don’t you do it in the style of the Muppets?” Another curtain, and Sommers emerges as a disembodied head atop four loosely flapping pipe cleaners approximating limbs. Moral of the story (and the season): The show, which began its run by bringing back the cheapjack razzle-dazzle of yesteryear’s vaudeville tradition, had suddenly become a tradition unto itself.
We're still more or less in the same boat as the last two seasons. Hazy, harsh, overexposed white levels throw just about every other color in the spectrum out of whack. Textures are slippery, just as they are with almost every other 1970s TV show on DVD. The sound is only just acceptable, but considering how many musical numbers there are in any given episode, that's not enough. The laugh and applause tracks threaten to drown out dialogue (no matter how bad) at any given moment. But it all comes with the territory.
I'm not sure whether there's a lot or a little in the way of archival materials from the early years of Muppet effluvia, but Buena Vista does a nice job divvying them up between what will eventually be five sets. This time, it's a nice hour-long tutorial (of sorts) on the art of puppetry from 1968, which shows you a young Jim Henson, Frank Oz and others revealing the secrets of their craft. Like Bob Ross and Fred Rogers, it'll lull you into a pleasant stupor. It also opens up the possibility that Henson tagged his characters "Muppets" because of his seeming inability to pronounce the word "puppet." On the same note is "A Company of Players," a new featurette which gives the puppeteers the spotlight. Plus a collection of Purina commercials that look about as old as TV itself.
It's amazing how much male pigs are attracted to Sly Stallone.