In the offseason of ranking things, one reader has suggested Muppet Show sketches, which Poseur and I quickly turned into a discussion of the best overall episodes -- some have a great sketch or two, but don't hold up as well. After some intense deliberations (somebody tell Poseur to trim his nails), we came up with the 10 best hosts/episodes of maybe the greatest musical variety show in television history.
1. Rita Moreno (Billy)
Honestly, the "Fever" closing number may have thrust me into puberty.
You have the cool factor of Floyd just thumpin' out that bass, plus Rita just being Rita, Animal doing Animal things and her threatening him in Spanish to not ruin her bit. The show had some great sketches, but nothing that touches this.
And the thing is, the rest of the episode is fantastic as well. There's the very first Veterinarian's Hospital sketch, the always solid At the Dance and a backstage running gag. Moreno was a really talented, versatile performer and the show kind of hit on all of her talents, from singing to dancing to comedy. She even won an Emmy for the episode, making her one of the few to win all of the big four: Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Emmy.
2. Harry Belafonte (Poseur)
Usually, when a star agreed to host the show, the writers just pounded out some sketches and the only input from the guest was making sure they got to work with their favorite Muppet (Animal was the most popular request). Harry Belafonte rarely made TV appearances, so he only agreed to work on the show if he got to work on the script itself. He brought a tape of music from around the world to Jim Henson, and they crafted an episode centered around world music, probably most of the audience's first exposure to African folk music.
Since Henson was no fool, he also made sure the first number was the Banana Boat song, Belafonte's most recognizable song. With the hook baited, Animal and Belafonte engaged in an epic drum battle. And then came the final number, perhaps the single greatest sketch in Muppet Show history, "Turn the World Around" with African mask puppets. Henson was so moved by the sketch, his family asked Belafonte to sing it at his funeral. It is Belafonte's voice, but it is the spirit of Jim Henson.
3. Vincent Price (Billy)
Price was known as the king of horror -- if you're my age you grew up with him doing guest spots on Scooby Doo and such and kind of lampooning it, but in 70s when this show debuted, Price was not somebody you expected to draw laughs. He also allowed the show to do something that, to that point in season one, hadn't happened -- run through a common theme of horror.
You get to see his real range as a performer with some wonderful singing bits. Likewise, the "Under My Skin" sketch is a perfect piece of Muppet performance. You also get to meet the first truly evil Muppet: Uncle Deadly.
4. Carol Burnett (Poseur)
The Muppets weren't the only variety show in town back in those days. The show clearly owed a huge debt to Carol Burnett, who helmed the biggest variety show on TV, which essentially made her the biggest star in TV at the time (yes, kids, there was a time that variety shows were the biggest thing on TV... the Seventies were weird). But the Muppets had the last laugh, as this episode won the Emmy... over Carol Burnett's own show.
The show itself was thrown into chaos when Gonzo decides to run a dance marathon. Kermit and Burnett are left without partners, so instead of pairing them up, Gonzo finds Animal for Burnett and himself for Kermit. Eventually, Burnett outwits Gonzo, and closes out the show by finally getting to do her Lonely Asparagus sketch.
Piggy gets eaten by alien as well, which is always a plus. It also has one of my favorite exchanges during a Kermit sit-and-talk:
Carol: "Kermit, I really don't want to hurt your feelings, but this is one of the three worst shows I've ever seen."
Kermit: "What were the other two?"
Carol: "There are no other two. I was just being kind."
5. Milton Berle (Billy)
I mean, this sketch is IT. The whole episode. Milton Berle taking on Statler & Waldorf was a rap battle before America knew what that was. Meek Mill and Drake ain't got nothin'.
If you weren't a member of the Rat Pack, you did not heckle Milton Berle. You can even hear Waldorf's voice crack a little bit from nerves.
6. Madeline Kahn (Billy)
I have a soft spot in my heart for Madeline Kahn, who was absolutely hilarious in everything I've ever seen, and taken from the world too soon.
She brings all the things that made her great in this episode, looks timing, singing, everything. And because you probably haven't cried today, here's Gonzo's wish song from the backstage subplot between he and Madeline.
Also, this episode features one of the great Swedish Chef bits -- LOBSTER BANDITOS!
7. George Burns (Billy)
Five words are all you need: Gonzo fiddles while George Burns.
Honestly, one of the things I love about the Muppet Show is that you get to see some of these older performers, especially guys like Burns, whose roots go all the way back to vaudeville, and just how talented they really were. George Burns was just a really old comedian I heard talked about as a kid, and this episode really showed me that they don't make ‘em like him anymore.
8. John Cleese (Poseur)
An episode so great, it got a callback during the recent Muppet movie reboot. Cleese is suckered by his incompetent agent into doing the show, and he tries to get out of working with the pigs and the monsters, so the Muppets decide to kidnap him and tie him to a chair. He is literally roped into doing the final number.
Cleese is one of the few comics who really could sell the idea that he is not enjoying himself while getting paid to be goofy, and he spends the episode dripping with disdain. Also, this is one of the perfectly constructed episodes: Pigs in Space, the jug band does a number, Rowlf does a musical number with a chicken (normally, she’s great, but tonight she laid an egg), and Gonzo performs a stupid stunt. Gonzo catches a cannonball in the opener, extending his arm to freakish length, causing much consternation backstage. Cleese solves the problem by stretching out Gonzo’s other limbs to match.
This is about as funny as the Muppets have ever been.
9. Liza Minelli (Billy)
Henson really let the show take some chances with the format in later years, and the Minelli episode is another great example, with a noire-style murder mystery. And for somebody like me with almost no musical theatre knowledge, you get to see just what made Liza such a big deal.
10. You Are All Weirdos (Poseur)
One of the great things about The Muppet Show is that they were unafraid to let their freak flag fly, and try some really bizarre things, particularly for network TV in the three-network era. Two episodes really stand out for Sam the Eagle's famous admonishment, and tie for tenth:
Kermit read his calendar wrong and had no show prepared, so he sends the audience home to audition new acts. Scooter had already recruited Steve Martin to guest host, so he sticks around to audition for the show, along with other random acts. The episode is the only one to not feature a laugh track (as Kermit sent the audience home) and instead has the Muppets laughing at the bits.
Aside from being a great deconstruction of the show, it allowed the puppeteers to literally put up any idea they could think of onstage. It also showed the Muppets doing what they do best: bicker. Fozzie worries about getting replaced by another standup comic. Kermit reassures him and tells him the benefit of checking out new acts... only to see the next audition is for a new emcee.
Jim Henson believed in the art of puppetry, and he used his network show as a way to promote other acts and up and coming artists. In its first season, the show first struggled to book major acts, but suddenly caught on midway through the season. In order to build on this momentum, for the season one finale, instead of hiring a guest star, he brought in the profoundly weird act from Switzerland.
The first major challenge is that Mummenschanz do not speak. Heck, even if they did, they do not speak English. This lead to a "talk spot" with Kermit in which they speak by having ping pong balls and bubbles fall out of their masks. The show closes with a clay mask sketch, which really has to be seen to be believed. Just a fantastic episode, and one that scarred me deeply as a little Poseur.