Now, I have just given the address to this journal to my beloved Aunt Susie. (Say hi to Aunt Susie, everybody!) In fact, Beloved Aunt Susie has spent a fair amount of her life as an actual by-Gods puppeteer, and she knew Jim Henson personally. (Not [i]well[/i], I'm given to understand, but I'm also given to understand that puppetry is a pretty insular field.) And so in her honour, and because I didn't actually get around to watching anything today (I've got a Japanese drama about sexual liberation coming up real soon, though), let's talk Muppets.
In the first season, Jim Henson had a pretty hard time booking guests. I'm sure you can imagine. After all, he was trying to encourage people to go on a primetime puppet show. This was not [i]Sesame Street[/i], which had been on the air for about seven years when [i]The Muppet Show[/i] launched. That was educational; you could say you were doing it for noble reasons. There is nothing noble, at least on the surface, about what happens in the Muppet Theatre. This was a variety show with puppets.
And indeed, the range of guests in the first season has a lot more in the nature of "people you've probably never heard of." Or "people you've heard of if you were alive in the '50s." (Not that it's bad to have been alive in the '50s, mind, and it was much closer to the target demographic at the time, but Connie Stevens, for example, was not exactly in the prime of her career in 1976.) People my age probably know [i]Jennifer[/i] Grey, but Joel? Generally if you explain him as "Jennifer Grey's dad." And at that, you probably have to mention that she was Baby in [i]Dirty Dancing[/i]. But even first season, there are a few notables. Rita Moreno. Lena Horne. Sir Peter Ustinov, ye Gods. Even Vincent Price, admittedly not at the peak of his career, either. Generally speaking, these were people someone working on the show knew personally or could in some other way convince that it was a good idea. None of these people expected it to be much of a boon to their careers.
Lena Horne is sometimes given credit for the change in status of the show, but more frequently, that credit is given to second-season guest Rudolf Nureyev. Either way, second season has a broader range of the familiar than the first. Yes, there's Rich Little, who sounds astonishingly like Rich Little in all of his impersonations. But still, in the first season, where we got Candice Bergen, her fame in front of her, now we get [i]Edgar[/i] Bergen, admittedly with most of his fame behind him. We get Steve Martin, George Burns, Sir Elton John, Dame Julie Andrews, Peter Sellers, Bob Hope, and of course not-yet-Sir John Cleese. Many of these people were then in the first flush of fame, but that first flush for, say, Sir Elton was pretty strong.
The writing quality improves some as the shows progress, and the voices solidify. Indeed, in season one, Miss Piggy was not always voiced by Frank Oz (whom she now credits as her greatest supporter). Janice had not yet settled into her Valley voice. Many of the Muppets we've come to know and love either didn't exist or didn't exist in their finalized forms. Then again, many others did. The Swedish Chef hasn't changed much. Statler and Waldorf. And the main difference about Kermit (at least until 1990, anyway) is that he no longer wears a purple tux. Then again, he, Rowlf, and a few others weren't actually new in 1976, the year the show and I debuted. The shows do keep getting better, but many of the elements that made it truly great were there from the beginning. The songs. The humour. The interactions.
Oh, the songs . . . one of my favourites is in season two, in an episode wherein Gonzo falls hopelessly and, of course, unrequitedly in love with Madeline Kahn. He overhears her telling Kermit that she isn't exactly planning to marry Gonzo and join the PTA (actually part of his elaborate dream), and he sings a touching, genuinely moving song. That is one of the things I've always loved about the show. Yes, it's absolutely ludicrous to picture Gonzo and Madeline Kahn married and living in the suburbs, but you cannot mistake the depth of his sentiment. It's fleeting, but in that episode, he's really in love with her, and it comes out in one of the best, least-known songs of the series.
The thing is, these aren't kids' shows. They are [i]family[/i] shows. There's silliness enough for small kids; older kids can enjoy the musical numbers--and often the guests (see later seasons for Luke Skywalker, et. al.). The parents can enjoy some of the slyer humour, the stuff that the kids won't necessarily get. The Muppets have a reputation of having been for kids, and I don't think Jim would've particularly liked that. He wanted, I think, for families to be able to [i]share[/i] these experiences. Otherwise, for example, why put [i]Casablanca[/i] jokes in [i]Sesame Street[/i]?
Incidentally, while the actual show quality of season two is generally superior to that of season one, there is one place where season one is better, and that's in one of the special features on the DVDs. For season one, you can choose to overlay the show with trivia, generally about that episode but also about the performers in general, the guest star, and the original airing and filming dates. There is also a moment wherein you are instructed to look for (I believe) Richard Hunt under a chicken. This is clearly a great loss for season two, which does not.