Show Business: Those Marvelous Muppets

How Kermit, Miss Piggy & Co. captivate 235 million people a week

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The most convincing reason for taking notice of the Muppets, however, is that they are funny. In fact, with Laugh-In long gone, theirs is, give or take Saturday Night Live, the funniest show on television. This year the Muppets won an Emmy Award as TV's "outstanding comedy, variety or musical series." A gentle but consistent satirical breeze blows through The Muppet Show and saves Jim Henson's creatures from the grisly danger of being too lovable. Mostly the satire turns inward, joshing show business (the assumption that frames the series is that the Muppets are members of a theatrical troupe, trying frantically each week to put on a variety show) and Muppet nature itself.

The Muppet Show opens, always, with a knock at a dressing-room door. Scooter, the company's errand boy, sticks his head inside to announce curtain time. He is a human boy caricatured, and thus is a representative of one of the show's three main species. Human Muppets are featured players: Floyd, the supremely groovy guitarist; Janice, his girlfriend; Zoot, the blue-faced sax player who has seen it all; Animal, the out-of-control drummer who must be chained to the wall; Crazy Harry, the special-effects man who is fond of explosions; the incomprehensible and meatball-brained Swedish Chef; and such peripheral loonies as Lew Zealand, manager of a boomerang fish act.

The stars are the animals: Kermit, the pure and reasonable frog; the ineffable Miss Piggy, every circumferential inch a lady; Rowlf the Dog, a philosophical pianist; Fozzie Bear, the can't-stand-up comic; and The Great Gonzo, the magnificently inferior creature whose inventors insist, despite damning evidence, that he is not a turkey. Monsters are the remaining important category of beings: such enormities as Sweetums, who is about 9 ft. tall and covered with a three-day growth of brownish shag, and Thog, who is a good deal bigger and still growing, lend chaos to the goings-on but don't say much. Other apparitions, such as the 7-ft. carrot with whom Gilda Radner of Saturday Night Live sang a duet from Gilbert and Sullivan, fit messily into miscellaneous.

Scooter's curtain-time alert is for the flesh-and-blood human being who is the weekly guest star: Raquel Welch, for instance, looking scholarly in spectacles as she practices Shakespeare. Scooter guesses that she has decided to change her image, and he says that this is fine; she doesn't need to wear any of those scanty, revealing costumes on The Muppet Show.

"Well, thanks, Scooter..." "... unless you want to."

Immediately, half a dozen heavy-duty monsters thrust themselves through the door to beg in plaintive unison, "Oh, please want to!" The joke works nicely, because these are Muppets, and their voyeurism is acceptable. It is the kind of gag that evokes queasiness when it is given to middle-aged bandleaders on variety shows.

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