February 20th, 2007
The Muppets exploded into worldwide popularity in the 1970s as regular performers on Sesame Street. But as pop culture changed, Jim Henson and his company found even stranger creatures to parody by mingling with real-world celebrities. The five-year run of The Muppet Show set the weird tone for a tradition they've continued to this day. These 5 online videos show what a long strange trip it's been.
1. Star Wars: the Muppets Strike Back
Just two years after the Stars Wars Christmas Special, and a forgotten appearance on the Donny and Marie variety show, the "stars of Star Wars" made a special guest appearance on the Muppet Show. (In one surreal moment, Mark Hamill attempts to do a Fozzie Bear impersonation, unintentionally reminding everyone how much Fozzie always sounded like Yoda.)
Kermit the Frog tries to lure Hamill and his droids into performing a musical number, noting to C-3PO that "your little garbage can friend wants to." But when the big finish arrives, it's a hunt for Darth Vader — assisted by the intrepid cast of "Pigs in Space." After a crash-landing ("You forgot to push the stoppy thing"), they discover a much shorter Darth Vader — played by Gonzo, with Miss Piggy standing in for Princess Leia. The spectacular dialogue about phasers is interrupted by an appearance by Angus McGonigle the Gargling Argyle Gargoyle, until — sure enough — the cast breaks into a poorly-explained music number.
2. Kermit meets Blondie?
Not only was Deborah Harry a punk rock singer and new wave pioneer — she was also a guest on The Muppet Show. In a surreal moment, Harry sings Call Me — the theme to American Gigolo — for an audience of cheering frogs, while new wave muppets with multi-colored hair lay down a background of synthesizers and electric guitars. Harry even performs One Way or Another with a muppet version of Blondie (wearing skinny ties and black and white suits), its chorus of "getcha getcha getcha getcha" dramatized by monsters behind doors (including a one-toothed blue fan named Mulch.)
The most inspiring moment was when the punk pioneer corrupted a band of boy scouts — played by frogs. ("The pogo? Would that get us our punk merit badges?!") They bop to muppetty punk rock until a concerned Kermit checks in on the troop. ("Does Mrs. Applebee know you're in here?")
After all the jokes about colored hair and safety pins, Deborah Harry joins Kermit in Rainbow Connection, acoustic banjo joining high new wave voice. Deborah Harry sings this one with sweet sleepy bewilderment. But maybe she's just surprised that she's harmonizing with a singing frog.
3. The Goo-Goo Dolls vs. Elmo
The Goo-Goo Dolls had two #1 songs on their 1998 album Dizzy up the Girl when they payed a call on Elmo's World, adapting the lyrics for Slide to the child-like muppet. ("Elmo whisper in my ear. I really want to hear / The things you did today / that satisfied you...") Inspired by their rock star cool, Elmo imagines himself in sunglasses and a black leather jacket — and bobs innocently in time to their catchy alterna-pop.
What's surprising is how well it works. The song's original cryptic lyrics finally make sense, and the tune's uplifting melody complements their message of self esteem. ("Let those good thoughts fill your head. You are furry proud and red...") Of course, probably the last thing Elmo needs is more people stroking his ego. His top-muppet status has already introduced him to an impressive string of celebrity A-listers, from Robert De Niro to Mike Huckabee, and even Norah Jones dropped by to sing a torch song to the letter of the day. (Y.) In 2004 Elmo topped it all off with a cameo on the West Wing.
When it comes to raw popularity, he's the king. Or as the Goo-Goo Dolls put it: "Elmo. No one can touch him..."
4. Love songs with Alice Cooper
Alice Cooper bit the head off a chicken and drank its blood onstage, the legend went. (And Frank Zappa advised him to never deny it.) The 70s shock rock star performed notorious live stage acts which included a boa constrictor and a guillotine — until his alcoholism led him to a stint in a sanitarium. And then he sang love songs to a muppet.
As a pioneer in music video, it was inevitable that Cooper would want to experiment with Jim Henson's creatures. Wearing his trademark "black snake-eye" makeup, he performed muppet-enhanced versions of his three biggest hits, and more than 25 years later, YouTube music videos have turned up to document the legendary meeting. During School's Out, a gang of giant, fanged monsters bully Cooper — wearing a cap and gown — in a bizarre dance number. During Welcome to My Nightmare, Cooper arises from a coffin (to the recorded sound of an applauding audience, followed soon by recorded laughter for the antics of a puppet skeleton).
When Cooper finally culminates his appearance with You and Me, his top ten love ballad, he's joined by an enormous green bird with rainbow hair and a studded beak. "I wanna take you and squeeze you til the passion starts to rise," Cooper sings, as they stare deeply and meaningfully into each others eyes. The strangeness works, ultimately emphasizing the song's message — that that's enough for a working man.
5. The Jim Henson connection
Looking back to the early days, probably the strangest thing of all is to see Kermit the frog with Jim Henson's arm attached, as he did in one of his last appearances ever on The Arsenio Hall Show. But in 1974, Henson had performed an even stranger trick— cycling through a series of different voices to throw off the panelists. (Which stumped Arlene Francis and Dr. Joyce Brothers — but not puppet enthusiast Soupy Sales.)
16 years later Henson was performing the same trick on Live with Regis and Kathy Lee, and it would be his last public performance with the frog before his death of pneumonia at age 54. So it's re-assuring to travel back in time and see the gentle puppeteer enjoying the reaction from delighted interviews — and showing just how much of his personality he projected into his work.
On "What's My Line," host Larry Blyden had jokingly addressed a question to Kermit the Frog, asking "How long did it take you to finally get Jim Henson right?"
Kermit replied that "The beard was the hardest part."
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