Jarrod Fairclough – Welcome to Muppets Tonight: Today, a new series where we take a look back at the 1990’s version of a new Muppet Show, which was cancelled by ABC after 10 episodes, only to have the full 22 episodes run a year later on The Disney Channel. The series can be found ready to download on various torrent sites.
Today’s review focuses on Episode 2, guest starring singer Garth Brooks.
Episode 2 of Muppets Tonight had a big task ahead of it – it had to show fans of Episode 1 that it could maintain the things it promised, and it had to show detractors what else would be on offer throughout the series. And it certainly achieved both, becoming way weirder in the first few moments than the pilot episode ever was when Garth Brooks decides to dance the Mambo.
With Jim and Richard gone, and Frank only around occasionally, the show had to rely on all new characters, and even the background What-Nots became brand new. Even then, they aren’t even What-Nots – they’re all new unique looking characters, many of which are still in rotation in Henson’s Puppet Up improv shows. There’s aliens. There’s weazels. There’s Bill The Bubble Guy. But there’s a significant lack of recognizable characters in the first 4 minutes, which was a crucial reason this show didn’t work. There’s a reason Dr Teeth is still around after 50 years. There’s a reason Scooter stole the show at the O2 this month. Yes, their performers were gone, and yes, it may have been too soon to recast, but perhaps that’s easier to see now in hindsight. With that said, there are a few of the brand new characters that work wonders.
For example, this is the very first time we ever see Pepe the King Prawn, a fan favorite now for over 20 years. Though his role is one line in the whole episode, what we do see is a great peek in to the character and what he would become over the next 2 decades. Plus, he says ‘Okay’, so… Then there’s the return of Andy and Randy, two divisive characters I can’t say I’m overly upset aren’t around anymore. They were an attempt to keep pigs around when Piggy was gone, but now that she’s back, they’ve been made redundant.
One character this show got right – Dr Phil Van Neuter. Brian Henson is every bit as talented as a performer as he is a director, and his job here as the manic mad scientist shows off just how well he follows in his fathers footsteps. There’s almost a Guy Smiley-esque panic in his voice. Tales from the Vet became a recurring segment over the 2 season run, and leads to one of my favorite moments from the entire series in a later episode (we’ll get there).
Speaking of Guy Smiley, the closest this episode comes, for my money, to The Muppet Show is during Swift Twits, the game show where Big Mean Carl gets to eat a puppy dog. It’s one of their classic tropes for a reason – it’s always funny to see someone eat someone else. Cannibalism – making us laugh since 1976! While I’d have loved to see an established character host the show (Gonzo comes to mind), Bill’s Snookie Blyer is a fun addition to the show.
Muppets Tonight knew how to do one thing as well as The Muppet Show, and that’s how to use a guest star well. In fact, besides a very small handful of exceptions, The Muppets have always been able to use their guest stars to their fullest potential. And it’s a testiment to the brand that guest stars are always willing to throw themselves in head first, showing that they trust the people behind (and under) the scenes. Already in 10 minutes, we’ve seen Garth Brooks in a Mambo outfit, an unflattering Shakespearian outfit, and in a Tom Jones costume, kinda killing it at ‘It’s Not Unusual’. Nope, sorry, I mean killing ‘It’s Not Unusual’, and my ear buds. But, for a singer to purposely go out and poorly sing, that’s dedication to comedy. Cowboy hats off to you, Brooks!
Again experimenting with new characters, we get a new generation of Pigs In Space, which can’t hold a candle to its predecessor. Sure, the characters are amusing enough, but the whole thing feels like a ‘straight to DVD’ rip off of the original. It also doesn’t help that Captain Pighead looks eerily similar to Link Hogthrob, and is about as bright as him too. We do get a cute cameo by Leonard Nimoy though.
This episode marks one landmark – the very first speaking role for Rowlf since Jim’s death in 1990. It’s literally just line of ‘Oh yeah’ and a chuckle, but it’s music to our ears, and it was the first time we knew Rowlf would be okay. Bill Barretta’s Rowlf is one of the best recasts in Muppet history, and I still have trouble distinguishing his voice and Jim’s.
All in all, this episode showed fans of Episode 1 that it could still do all the silliness it promised, while it gave detractors a few more things to look at, including perhaps better use of a guest star than the still outstanding Michelle Pfieffer got. Muppets Tonight was bizarre, but rewatching it now it seems that it understood what it was, and didn’t try to be anything else, like the fans expected it to be. I haven’t watched this series in years, so I’ll be interested to see how it goes from here.
Episode Highlight: Dr Phil Van Neuter’s plug for his and Mulch’s new play ‘Under the Yum Yum Tree’, a musical romp for the whole family.
Episode Lowlight: “We have just scanned Quadrent Metaphor Point 8”
“No, we have just scanned Quadrent Metaphor Point 9”
“I keep telling you two, stop mixing your metaphors”
Wocka Wocka, I guess?
Most Valuable Muppet Performer: Bill Barretta does some fantastic work here not only debuting his Rowlf, but with Carl, Snookie Blyer, and my personal favorite – Howard Tubman. More Tubman in the new stuff, please!
Most Classically Muppety Moment: The cold open when Garth Brooks rips off his outfit to reveal a Mambo outfit and dances away could have been directly out of an episode of The Muppet Show.
Oddest Moment: Clifford and Rizzo do a whole thing during the opening about stretching because of Garth Brooks’ choice of sketch, but then go right in to it anyway, leading me to wonder why the did it in the first place.
Did You Notice: Large Marvin Fraggle is in the audience of the show.
Update: We’ve just learnt that Kirk Thatcher filled in for Brooks in the Kabuki make up due to the fact that they ran out of time. Did you notice?
One More Thing: Kermit appears very little this whole episode, which probably wasn’t the best idea. A lot of people were looking to this episode hoping for more of their classic Muppet pals, and while they got Piggy and Gonzo in great roles, Kermit needs to be more central to the goings on. Thankfully this was rectified pretty quickly.