Kieran Moore – When I put together my mammoth 150th birthday chart (yes, I really am that old!), I was reminded of an occasional series I started years ago looking at guest star performances from The Muppet Show. Because my lists have been very Sesame Street heavy recently, and because these charts are fun to write, I thought I’d get out my Season One boxset and put together a list for The Muppet Show’s freshman year. The production team famously had to flick through their address books and call in a few old favors to fill up the spots in their premiere run of episodes, but this means we have a great mix of unexpected faces, Muppet pals and veteran performers to enjoy today…
As always, I’m using the original British transmission dates – as a Brit myself, they’re dear to my heart. You can find them here: http://www.epguides.com/MuppetShow/
10 – Try To Remember – Sandy Duncan
One thing you’ll notice about the songs on today’s list is that they tend to fit into two categories – the first is madcap, raucous and energetic; the second is calm, sweet, tender and full of wonderful harmonies. This is quite clearly in the latter camp. Thinking about the mix of music in season one, it’s interesting to see right from the start of the show that the creative team were looking to make this a fully rounded entertainment experience with comedy, craziness, emotion and heart all taking an equal share of the screen time. It’s this ability to turn on a dime as rounded characters that has made the Muppets endure the way they have.
9 – Mr. Cellophane – Ben Vereen
It might be a controversial opinion, but when I saw the movie “Chicago” (my first real exposure to the show) I thought there were too many songs. Afterwards I was trying to work out what I’d remove and sad to say this song was the obvious choice – even though it would kill me to do it as it’s one of the few times the show/movie shows any real heart. And we see heart a-plenty in Ben’s version here. I love his unassuming manner and the expressive faces he pulls to convey it. The singing and dancing are top notch, which we’d expect from such an accomplished performer, and that combined with it’s unusual (for The Muppet Show) staging makes this a moment to take note of.
8 – Just An Old Fashioned Love Song – Paul Williams
It’s kind of fun to watch this clip/episode with the knowledge of just how entwined in Muppet folklore Paul Williams would become. He’s such an important part of their legacy now. This simple song doesn’t do his overall contribution justice, but that’s not to do it down in anyway. Paul really is a fantastic songwriter and this is very much up there with his best. I particularly love how it manages to mix so many genres with it’s jazzy beat being augmented by a downhome country feel. They say in the episode that Paul is basically a Muppet himself because of his size, but it’s also down to his fuzzy little heart!
7 – Happy Together – Florence Henderson
I’ll admit I might be a little biased on the placement of this song, but it’s always been a favorite tune of mine in any form. I just love it’s singalong chorus and the way it builds. The Muppet Show version might just be the very best example of that. It starts simply enough with Florence joined by Jerry Nelson as “Lizard” and Richard Hunt as Snake Frackle before expanding into a full blown group number as more monsters enter the fray. It really shows off the performers’ ability to sing in character. The other thing I really like about this is it’s simplicity. If you didn’t know better you could easily think this was whipped together in the downtime between shooting other scenes. I appreciate that sense of spontaneity – it’s perfect for the Muppets.
6 – The Entertainer – Phyllis Diller
I’d like to say this is The Muppet Show at its silliest, but we know that’s not true. It’s not even the silliest moment of the episode (Exhibit A: Hugga Wugga), but it sure is silly. And funny! I honestly don’t know if any season one guest star makes me laugh as much as Phyllis. Her bar room scene with Rowlf is a masterclass in hilarity with both performers showing why they were comedy veterans (or comedy veterinarians) by this point. One of the best things about this performance is half the time it’s impossible to tell who’s out and who isn’t. It’s genius. It takes a really accomplished set of musicians to make this work – you can only get stuff this wrong when you know how to do it properly. Make sure you watch this and don’t just listen to it. Phyllis’ facial expressions are a sight to behold.
5 – I Got a Name – Lena Horne
Lena Horne is one of my favorite Muppet guests – whether that’s on The Muppet Show or Sesame Street. I recently praised her when writing about the latter for her ability to carry an emotional song, and boy is she doing that here. Her voice leaves us in no doubt as to the meaning of this song, but there’s something incredible in her eyes too. They are so expressive. Right alongside Lena here is the rest of the Muppet cast who, despite being a very random season one assortment, are in fine voice and add an extra level of gravitas to this wonderful piece.
4 – Put Another Log on the Fire – Candice Bergen
When I started compiling this chart I didn’t expect to be listing a song that didn’t feature the guest star either singing or playing an instrument, but here we are anyway. I think it’s hard to deny that Candice is the star of this song – even though it’s Jim Henson doing most of the singing. She’s expressive, commanding and very funny. First, as the put upon wife running around after her slacker husband (who may or may not be cheating with her sister); and then as the angry, finally-had-enough woman who is about to leave and knows her ex isn’t worth a bullet. It’s a great performance that really shows off Candice’s talent for the comedic.
3 – Make A Song – Avery Schreiber
I mentioned earlier that the first season of The Muppet Show was very silly, and as far as guest interactions go this might be the apex. This is nonsense from start to finish and is abstract and weird and loopy and zany and just about any other word that means bizarre you can think of. I once ate too much cheese and had a dream exactly like this song! Actually, I’m not sure even the strangest cheese dream could compare to this cacophony of random sounds. It might be completely daffy, but it’s also wonderfully musical and you can’t help getting drawn in as you listen. Avery is clearly having fun with the Muppets and they seem to be having just as much fun with him which ultimately translates into a fun time for the audience!
2 – Fever – Rita Moreno
I could probably write a whole article on just how amazing this performance is. It’s absolutely iconic and ranks alongside moments like Elton John’s Crocodile Rock as one of the most recognisable scenes from the show. Rita won an Emmy for her performance on this episode of The Muppet Show and for the show to get such recognition early on its run surely helped it become the juggernaut it went on to become. This song is smooth, silky, sultry, (dare I say it) sexy and even a little dangerous. It’s also hilariously funny. One of the things the Muppets do best is burst the bubble of anything that takes itself too seriously and instead of allowing this to be performed straight they have to take it down a peg or two. That Rita, as the guest star, ultimately wins is perfect.
1 – In My Life – Twiggy
There are probably plenty of people who think the previous song should be number one, but I’ve always loved this track. After I put this chart together I checked it against my 1976 list to see if anything had popped up unexpectedly. This song was number two then, so I’m very happy it gets to be number one now. I think this is one of those occasions where I actually prefer the cover to the original – itself a very nice Beatles track. Twiggy has a really sweet voice and it suits this piece perfectly. She manages to get just the right amount of youthful innocence and experienced reflection in her interpretation – as someone who had a whirlwind life at an early age that was probably pretty easy. Not that I’m diminishing her talents… Twiggy is someone who works brilliantly with the Muppets. It’s turned out that each performer only has one song on today’s list, but the closest anyone got to having two was Twiggy with Ain’t Nobody’s Business But My Own. Both songs are totally different, but are carried by Twiggy’s star quality and rapport with Kermit & Co.
It wouldn’t be right to wrap up this week’s chart without a mention of Charles Aznavour, who died earlier this week aged 94. As someone who appeared on The Muppet Show in 1976 he was eligible for this chart, but just missed out on a top 10 spot. I did contemplate adding him in once I heard the sad news, but that didn’t seem fair. Instead he’s getting an honorable mention. His version of Inchworm scored 90 out of 100 when I ranked these songs so it definitely deserves to be heard now.
So all that remains is for me to say my customary thank you to everyone who appeared on today’s list or contributed in some other way. Without you, we might not be here writing/reading this very sentence! Thank You.