The Muppet Show Hits Disney+, But Does It Hold Up After 45 Years?
The Muppet Show, an all-ages television series that ran in the late 1970s and early 1980s, just landed on Disney+. It’s the most complete release of the series on home video or streaming. (The show often gets caught up in licensing troubles due to the variety of songs performed.) Yet, The Muppet Show is a great addition to Disney+, if only because it is a weird time capsule of an era of television featuring stars young and old as guests. As delightful as Kermit, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and the rest of the crew are, one has to wonder if this series will make an impact on audiences beyond those nostalgic for it. Sadly, it’s a question I cannot answer, as I am the perfect age to have grown up hopelessly loving The Muppet Show.
By the time I was old enough to start forming permanent memories, the era of the network television variety show was mostly over. So, by the time The Muppet Show debuted, it was already outliving the genre it parodied. Yet, the show also hearkened back to vaudeville, where many stars of variety show got their starts. Guys like Milton Bearle, George Burns, and Bob Hope (both guests on The Muppet Show) got their starts there to become huge stars of the large and small screen.
What makes this series work for people not well versed in entertainment minutiae is the characters. The Muppet crew, from Kermit to elderly hecklers Statler and Waldorf all develop as characters over the five seasons of the show. They are the heart of this series, driving both the comedy and truly emotional performances.
There Is No Show Like The Muppet Show
Obviously, by deciding to create the Muppets, Jim Henson wanted his characters to appeal to children. However, unlike Sesame Street, The Muppet Show is meant for adults as well. There are often jokes that work on multiple levels and plenty of innuendo for the grown-ups. There are also corny gags and mugging for the camera, a staple of old variety shows. If one clip can encapsulate what the show is “about,” it’s this clip from the season 3 episode with Harry Belafonte. The guest star is there to do an earnest performance, and the Muppet players try to help and ultimately screw things up.
Most of the “story” happens on the backstage set, where characters will go through minor arcs. For example, in this episode perpetual failure Fozzie Bear is “writing” the script for the episode. Upset by his inability to do this well, he goes to Belafonte to talk about it. This leads into a mesmerizing sequence where Belafonte performs “Turn the World Around.” This mix of silliness, emotional character beats, and genuinely emotional performances are commonplace in the series.
In fact, recent attempts to duplicate the success of The Muppet Show fail to capture this delicate balance. Its not all gags nor is the “show within a show” premise what drives it. Rather, the earnestness of the Muppet characters are what audiences connect with. An episode can have a truly weird performance by a group of aliens from the Planet Koozebane and then a surprisingly emotional song from Muppet characters like Kermit’s nephew Robin. Everything is played seriously, but neither the show nor the characters take themselves too seriously. The show is sweet, sometimes very serious, and always pretty weird.
Is The Muppet Show Too Weird for Today’s Audiences?
Image via the Walt Disney Company
It’s always fun to see the Muppets. In fact, one of the best reveals from the 2020 Game Awards was the appearance of the Swedish Chef, Bunsen Honeydew, and Beaker. Yet, like many beloved things from pop culture past, there are moments of regrettable stereotypes. From Steve Martin breaking into gibberish, calling it “Chinese” to Johnny Cash playing a song with a Confederate battle flag hanging in the background. Yet, not all cultural goofiness earns a “harmful” designation. For example, the Swedish Chef speaks only in gibberish meant to sound like Swedish. Angus McGonagle is a ridiculous Scottish stereotype, with a long red tongue hanging out of his mouth. So, while the Muppets parodied many different cultures and demographics, some are far more regrettable than others because of non-Muppet-related history. For example, the design of the Japanese Pole-Vaulting Team puppets in the Bob Hope episode seems to draw from Yellow Peril stereotypes.
So, while it’s good that Disney+ did not edit nor censor these moments out of The Muppet Show, it is equally good that they acknowledge the moments when they happen. It also provides an excellent opportunity for a nuanced conversation about the way in which these stereotypes embedded themselves in our culture and how, despite that, the legacy of The Muppet Show is one of hope, inclusion, imagination, and love.
At Jim Henson’s funeral, Harry Belafonte talked about how he witnessed the Muppets bringing hope and joy to those across the globe who didn’t have either. Strip away the variety show veneer, the old-timey references, and all the human characters, and what you’re left with is the purity of the Muppets. It will be interesting to see if that breaks through to delight and enchant a new generation of fans.
The Muppet Show is currently available on Disney+.
What do you think? What are your favorite memories of the Muppets? Share them in the comments below.
Image via Jim Henson Company/Walt Disney Company
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.