Second Union

Second Union

Dismissing The Muppet Show Controversy

It is difficult to fathom today’s children have never seen The Muppet Show, a program I watched every Saturday night when I was a child. Kermit the Frog is the central character of the program, manager of a cabaret-style theatre house providing weekly vaudeville, which invariably has more drama behind the stage than on it. He has to contend with wannabe-comedian bears, the smothering advances of Miss Piggy, crabby regular theatre patrons, homicidal chefs, livestock, not to mention making the weekly guest star feel welcome.

Lena Horne guests on The Muppet Show

Watching the episodes today one has to wonder what was more entertaining: the impressive array of celebrity guest stars or the off-beat comedic sketches and creative musical numbers. In one episode, Scooter sings a song using the names of celebrity guests who appeared on the program. In another episode, woodland creatures sing Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” while trying to avoid being shot and killed by hunters.

The program offers loads of entertainment from Johnny Cash, Billie Holiday, Rita Moreno, John Cleese, Julie Andrews, Liberace, Carol Burnett, George Burns, Petula Clark, Vincent Price, Roger Moore, Andy Williams, Jonathan Winters, Linda Ronstadt, Alice Cooper, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Hope, Lena Horne, Florence Henderson, Danny Kaye, Madeline Kahn, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

Debbie Harry guests on The Muppet Show

Worthy sequences worth finding on YouTube to watch are Liza Minelli performing “Copacabana” in a half-hour rendition of a Sam Spade murder mystery, Paul Williams and his Muppet imitators singing “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” Lynda Carter in a song and dance routine with “Orange Colored Sky,” Elton John avoiding being eaten by crocodiles in “Crocodile Rock,” Scooter in his rendition of “Six String Symphony,” The Country Trio in a clever rendition of “To Morrow,” and Rolf the Dog performing a hilarious rendition of “The Cat Came Back.” (Those last three are highly recommended.)

Waldorf (left) and Statler (right) as the weekly hecklers on The Muppet Show

Waldorf and Statler, the old hecklers in the box seats, are still hilarious as ever. 

WALDORF: They aren’t half bad.
STATLER: Nope, they’re ALL bad!

STATLER: Does this show constitute as cruelty to animals?
WALDORF: Not unless they’re watching it.

KERMIT: Fozzie gets over 200 letters a week!
STATLER: Yeah, but if he paid his bills, he wouldn’t get any.

STATLER: What’s wrong with you?
WALDORF: It’s either this show or indigestion. I hope it’s indigestion.
WALDORF: Indigestion will get better in a little while.

Loretta Swit is a guest in The Muppet Show

Among the best of the episodes is the second season entry with Milton Berle. Not only does Berle demonstrate his talent for heckling and exchanging barbs, but reminisces of his days at vaudeville, recites the lyrics to “The Entertainer” and performs a vaudeville comedy sketch with Fozzy Bear. You will never find a more entertaining 25 minutes on television today. Other notable episodes (in case you do not have time to watch them all) include Alice Cooper, Lynda Carter, Raquel Welch and John Denver.

Thanks to Disney Plus, all five years of the program is now available on the streaming platform. Well… there are a few exceptions. The streaming service has added a short disclaimer to 18 episodes because the “program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures,” adding that while the content remains intact they “want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.” This disclaimer is not uncommon. Multiple DVD releases of vintage cartoons offer uncut and uncensored classics with a similar disclaimer on the packaging or menu screen.

Johnny Cash guests on The Muppet Show

What is surprising is how a percentage of the viewing public, of recent, has cried foul over this move with theories running rampant (including one from Fox News blaming a “woke” generation engaging in “cancel culture”) but the real reason has nothing to do with politics at all. For The Walt Disney Company, an extremely large corporate entity subject to ridiculous lawsuits (often referred to as “nuisance suits”), such a disclaimer is to protect the company for legal reasons. And few forget that the ten second disclaimer is a trade-off compared to the alternative: the deletion of musical numbers through editing or digital cover-up. For purists like myself, the disclaimer is harmless as I can feel confident that I can watch the episodes as I saw them when I grew up, unaltered or edited.

The horrible (or fantastic) Star Wars episode with four cast members. You decide.

This is not to say those eighteen episodes are not unwarranted. Johnny Cash performs with a Dixie flag hanging in the background, Joan Baez sang her classic “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” while other episodes depict Muppets as Native American Indians and people from the Middle East. But today’s insensitivities are blown out of proportion as a result of the news media and social media. Blaming a generation of children as a whole, or any political party, is nonsense. But such claims create clickbait with headlines, Tweets, and accusations designed to infuriate the reader and create distance between other Americans who in fact love The Muppets.

In addition, two episodes are not included altogether (one for legal issues and the other suspected music rights that could not be signed off) while a musical number here and there could not be cleared for streaming. The following list contains those cuts:

Complete Episodes missing from Disney Plus:

Episode 5.06, with guest star Brooke Shields

Episode 5.19, with guest star Chris Langham for obvious legal concerns.

Segments deleted from the following episodes (mostly for lack of music clearances):

Episode 1.17, with guest Ben Vereen. Statler’s reaction to his pants on fire is cut.

Episode 2.01, with Don Knotts, the song “Lullaby of Birdland” was removed.

Episode 2.12, with Bernadette Peters, the songs “They Call the Wind Maria” and “I’m Five” was removed. 

Episode 3.16, with guest Danny Kaye, the song “Jogging” was removed.

Episode 3.21, with guest Roger Miller, the song “Down at the Old Bull and Bush” was removed.

Episode 3.24, with Cheryl Ladd, the song “There’s a New Sound” was removed.

Episode 4.15, with Anne Murray, the song “Dancing on the Ceiling” was removed.

Episode 5.05, with James Coburn, the song “Birdwalk” was removed.

Episode 5.13, with Tony Randall, the song “Ti-Pi-Tin” was removed.

Episode 5.17, with Hal Linden, the song “If I Ruled the World” was removed.

Episode 5.18, with Marty Feldman, the “Sesame Street Theme” was removed.

Episode 5.20, with Wally Boag, the song “The Ying Tong Song” was removed.

Episode 5.22, with Buddy Rich, the song “A Transport of Delight” was removed.

Elton John guests on The Muppet Show

For the record, a number of the episodes above including the Brooke Shields episode are available uncut (with all musical numbers intact) on previous Muppet Show DVD releases. And the reason why these segments are not included has nothing to do with a social cause: music rights need to be cleared and many times the owners of specific songs demand ransom prices. Oftentimes the cheaper method is to delete the music segment altogether. So rather than blame shift a “woke generation” or a political party, I am taking the moment to explain why real reason why the disclaimer and the minor edits.

Milton Berle guests on The Muppet Show

Watching one or two episodes every night routinely, I have found the most comical sketches are that with The Swedish Chef, and one has never truly seen the best of the series until they watch him properly prepare “Roosted Turkle.” (That is roasted turkey for those curious.) In that segment, he demonstrates with a Muppet Turkey how to properly stab a long metal spike through a turkey’s butt (much to the chagrin of the turkey).

Harry Belafonte guests on The Muppet Show

Jim Henson had a three-year contract with the network and agreed to a two-year extension. Afterwards, he wanted the show to end during the peak of its popularity and creativity – and it did. The final year featured the highest Nielsen ratings for the program. While Henson’s decision is respected, and probably justified, it is a darn shame the program did not continue beyond the five years. If you have access to the Disney Plus streaming service, or considering buying the first three seasons (now available on DVD), do yourself a favor and enjoy the return of vaudeville.

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