Whoo! After more than six months, we’ve finally made it to the tenth and final entry in the “10 Things Brian Likes” series. On that sentimental note, I thought I’d end with a tearjerker.
Provided I ever actually finish my “Small-Screen 66 Countdown” over at Brian Terrill Movie Night, The Muppet Show is set to rank highly. The series, which aired from 1975-1981, took the form of a faux variety show, showing viewers both the “acts” and the Muppets in the wings scrambling to stage them. Episodes generally had some kind of overarching storyline going on “behind the scenes,” but the real reason to watch were the acts. These were mostly songs and short sketches, typically leaning toward comedy. But every once in a while, a touching, sad, or pensive song would work its way in amidst the zaniness. Here are ten such “Moving Muppet Moments” which have stuck with me as some of the series’ best segments. “Mahna Mahna” has nothing on these.
1. Scooter – “Six-String Orchestra”
Let’s start off with something relatively light. In this clip, theatre gofer Scooter performs Harry Chapin’s song “Six-String Orchestra.” The song’s narrator is an aspiring (but as of yet untalented) guitarist, strumming out off-key chords in his bedroom. Although the song is humorous, it’s tinged with loneliness and delusion. No matter how grandiose the guitarist’s dreams, the fact remains: He’s “nothing yet to make the folks write home.”
2. Whatnot Muppets – “Something’s Missing”
Now, an about-face, to one of the sweetest love songs I’ve heard. In “Something’s Missing,” a bizarre Muppet man missing one-half of all his features traipses through a similarly “halved” set, singing about his oddly off-kilter life. “I’ve got three strings on my violin and I’m an only twin,” he croons, also listing maladies such as having four toes on each foot and being called an orphan by his father.
But then, in the final stanzas, our narrator’s beloved stands beside him, and he is instantly whole. “Whenever you come close to me, my life is all complete,” he says. “Nothing’s missing, nothing’s missing, nothing’s missing.” If you’re anything like me, that dissolve transition into the now-completed set will have you bawling.
It also gives new meaning to this costume I sported Sophomore year of College:
3. Gonzo – “The Wishing Song”
#3 on our list is debatably the saddest song The Muppet Show ever did. As the Muppet Theatre’s resident eccentric performance artist, Gonzo “The Great” often faces ostracism. But when guest star Madeline Kahn rejects his spur-of-the-moment wedding proposal, the normally unflappable “whatever” is heartbroken. Gonzo sits, dejected, and sings Paul Tracey’s “Wishing Song,” in which the singer wishes for many things, but primarily to be “someone else but me.” Though in the second stanza he states that he’s ultimately content to be himself, the lingering feeling of sadness is far from dispersed. It’s a rare moment of pathos for one of the more “out there” Muppets, and gives Gonzo some emotional depth. Who among us has never wished for a greater lot in life, beyond the limitations of our selves? After all, it’s great to have your niche as “the weird, wacky one”…but it gets lonely.
4. Statler & Waldorf – “It Was a Very Good Year”
We shift now from the grieving of the heartbroken to the recollections of the elderly. Cantankerous hecklers Statler and Waldorf turn out for every Muppet Show performance, despite claiming to hate all aspects of the production. Here we see a rare moment of tenderness between the two, as the old codgers reflect on their lives gone by, in a performance of Ervin Drake’s “It Was A Very Good Year,” made famous by Frank Sinatra.
The song is all the more moving if you consider that Statler and Waldorf’s puppeteers, Jim Henson and Richard Hunt, would be the first lead “Muppeteers” to pass away, in 1990 and 1992 respectively. One can only assume they’ve spent the afterlife looking down on their fellow Muppet performers…and mercilessly jeering them.
5. Jim Henson – “Time in a Bottle”
As Dan noted, Jim Croce’s “‘Time in a Bottle’ has emerged as perhaps his greatest and most enduring song, with extra poignancy given his early death.” Well, Jim Henson sang it on The Muppet Show. The segment has Henson performing as an old scientist who gradually makes himself younger with a series of potions, but ultimately can’t fight the march of time.
Some 22 years later, in March, 1990, Henson died unexpectedly of a streptococcal infection, leaving his Muppeteer apostles to carry on his teachings without him. Like Croce himself, he was a man gone before his time.
6. Henson Memorial: Richard Hunt’s Eulogy
Though Jim Henson’s death was tragic, it led to the most moving memorial service I’ve ever seen. No one in attendance wore black, in accordance with Henson’s own wishes. Over the course of more than two hours, the lead Muppeteers and several honored guests delivered speeches. Richard Hunt, emulating his ever-ready stagehand Scooter, served as master of ceremonies. Less than two years later, Hunt would die of AIDS, following his boss into the great beyond.
7. Henson Memorial: Frank Oz
Frank Oz (director of several 100 Film Favorites inductees) spoke as well. Of all the Muppeteers, Oz was perhaps the closest to Henson – the Bert to his Ernie, and the Miss Piggy to his Kermit. In his speech, Oz shares a surprisingly personal, and hilarious, story. Yet his deep sadness is apparent, and he finishes abruptly and tearfully.
8. Henson Memorial: When the River Meets the Sea
Jerry Nelson, a lead Muppeteer best known for performing Kermit’s nephew Robin and Sesame Street‘s Count von Count, sang “When the River Meets the Sea.” The song originated in the 1978 special Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, in which Nelson played the lead role. The tune is in a traditional funerary style, and serves in the special to memorialize Emmet’s departed father. I hope whoever manages my funeral remembers to put it on the playlist.
9. Henson Memorial: It’s Not Easy Being Green
In yet another “Moving Muppet Moment,” Carrol Spinney takes the stage as Big Bird. He sports a large green bow-tie, and proceeds to sing “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” It seemed kind of weird to me the first time I watched it…”How can Big Bird know what it’s like to be green? He’s not green! Stop trying to appropriate another culture, bird!” After watching it again, however, I see it for what it is: a touching tribute. He’s singing Kermit’s signature song, but only because Kermit is no longer there to sing it. And the message of the song holds true regardless of whether we’re green or not. Sure, there are lots of ways in which we could be bigger and better…but there’s plenty to appreciate about who we are now.
10. Henson Memorial: Muppet Medley
Now, for the final item in the final installment of “Ten Things Brian Likes,” I give you the finale of Jim Henson’s memorial service, a fifteen-minute musical Muppet medley performed by the six remaining lead Muppeteers (Richard Hunt – Scooter, Janice; Dave Goelz – Gonzo; Frank Oz – Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Bert, Grover, Cookie Monster; Jerry Nelson – Robin, Floyd, Count von Count; Kevin Clash – Hoots the Owl and Elmo, soon to experience a meteoric rise in popularity; and Steve Whitmire – Rizzo the Rat, Bean Bunny). This medley is without a doubt one of the most emotional quarter-hours I’ve witnessed, simultaneously silly and heartfelt. Songs range from “Babyface” warbled by a chorus of chickens to a tearjerking rendition of “You Are My Sunshine,” the last verse of which the puppeteers sing in their normal voices. If you take one piece of advice from all of “TTBL,” make it this: Watch this performance through to the end. You won’t regret it. It’s one of the most powerful endings, not only to a funeral, but to any musical event in recent decades. And I totally just stole it to end this series.