There’s nothing quite like a plush floppy critter singing — which of course explains the breakout success of John Denver. It also, to perhaps a lesser extent, accounts for the marvel of musical treasures which was the Muppet Show. Below are some of the highlights. [And visit our previous piece that charts some of the best performances of muppets and (wo)men on Sesame Street].
“Mahna Mahna” debuted on Sesame Street in a prototype and then went big time on the Ed Sullivan show in 1969 with the familiar shaggy muppet and the cowlike pink Snowths. “Mah-na Mah-na” (with hyphens) was originally composed by Italian Pierro Umiliani for his Swedesploitation film, Sweden, Heaven or Hell. In the Muppet version, scandalous Scandinavian sex is replaced by scandalous scatting as the irrepressible be-sunglassed beat muppet provokes the Snowths snouts into escalating moues of disapproval. The skit was reprised as the first number on the first episode of the Muppet Show, a version which includes poor Kermit being mahna mahnaed by telephone.
The Mahna Mahna singer does a similar act in “Sax and Violence,” a skit also featuring saxophonist Zoot.
“You’ve Got a Friend”
Vincent Price, in perhaps his scariest role of all time, wears a hideous green jacket, terrifying neckware, and a hairstyle-that-should-not-be to lugubriously desecrate Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” Henson and company break out a whole murder of endearingly ugly muppets, but, as is his wont, Price emphatically steals the show. His expression of sweetly demented joy at :41 is almost as irresistible as his plodding off-key singing. Indisputably the best version of this song ever recorded.
“I’ve Got You Under My Skin”
This is another performance from the excellent Vincent Prince episode. A giant orange monster and a small frightened muppet duet on Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” while the former attempts to eat the later. Perhaps the best thing about the skit is that the violence in the song comes so naturally; you listen and realize, yeah, this...this is a creepy stalker song. “Don’t you know little fool/ you never can win!” the monster declares, and the poor tiny muppet trembles. As well he should, because that’s a really unpleasant way to declare your undying affection to the weird beak-nosed darling of your dreams.
“Orange Blossom Special” and “Jackson”
Johnny Cash does a medley of two of his biggest hits, assisted by Miss Piggy standing in for June Carter Cash. The buck-toothed hayseed muppet puffing like a train is pretty great, but of course the duet is the main thing. Johnny swivels his hips in a unhealthily lascivious manner when the pig makes her appearance resplendent in purple hat and green scarf. She reciprocates by heartlessly drawing attention to his coiffure (“go comb your hair!”) which looks like one of her fellow muppets has crawled up on his scalp and expired.
Cash’s performance of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” with Gonzo as cattle-herder is pretty great too.
“In the Navy”
After a brief selection of soothing flute music from the Peer Gynt Suite, we launch into the Village People classic performed by marauding Viking pigs. The usual Muppet Show protocol is to have the puppet-performed numbers voiced entirely by people who can’t sing. This skit, however is distinguished by being voiced almost entirely by people who can’t sing — there’s one guy there who can actually belt it out. You can hear him at 1:37 — “Can’t you see we need a hand!’ he declaims with some almost professional vibrato while everyone around him stomps forward like they’re in a skit involving marauding Viking pigs and nobody cares whether or not they’re on-key.
Of course, the “nobody can sing” dictum doesn’t apply to house-band the Electric Mayhem in general, or to Janice in particular (here voiced by Richard Hunt.) Though you might miss it behind the goofy interpolations and the cadaverous looking shuffling robin, this tune is actually a strikingly effective arrangement of this Jackson Five classic. The slick Motown R&B delivery system gets changed into a swinging jump blues, with some tasty bass and a soulful drum/gutbucket saxophone interchange. Plus you get to hear Animal yell “Tweet! Tweet! Tweet!”
Janice also sang “With a Little Help From My Friends,”. It’s even sillier...but still manages some musical integrity, I think.
Lynn’s version of her it-sucks-to-be-a-woman lament is adorned with some of the most disturbing muppets ever created. Giant leering toothy monster muppets are cute...but these human muppet babies with their twisted little apple faces and gaping contorted mouths...eesh. If this were more widely marketed it could single-handedly solve the population crisis.
The baby muppets were featured in a number of other skits as part of Bobby Benson’s Baby Band, always to nightmarish effect.
It’s a little hard to believe how thin Kenny Rogers’ voice sounds on this — it was a sad twist of fate which caused him to attain stardom before the Auto-tune. The Gambler needs no vocal enhancement, though; he appears to be simultaneously channeling John Wayne and William Shatner. The old adult-sized human muppets aren’t as viscerally horrifying as Loretta Lynn’s babies, but there is something profoundly wrong about the scene where the Gambler’s spirit steps out of his hand-sewn body and begins spectrally shuffling while his withered seat mates launch into a shaky chorus. The skit is also notable for the muppets’ human hands, and for the fact that what they do with those hands is smoke and drink. You can be Disney isn’t going to let that happen again anytime soon.
Over the last couple of years the Muppet Studios have put together a number of viral videos. A split screen “Ode to Joy” featuring multiple Beakers was a major success, as was this everyone-and-their-chickens production of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Admittedly, for fans of the old show, the relatively slick production values are a little hard to take — and of course with Henson gone many of the voices don’t sound like they should. In addition, the recycling of favorite skits, from "Mahna Mahna" to Beeker meeping seem a little forced. But everything is forgiven for the segment where Animal calls plaintively, “Mama? Mama? Mama mama mama mama mama mama mama!” He’s such a sad and lonely psychopathic beast-creature. Even Freddie Mercury would have shed a tear.
There’s endless more clips worth watching; Beaker fronting the Electric Mayhem on “Feelings”; the epic Animal vs. Buddy Rich drum battle; Joan Baez singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to a family of rats; Marvin Suggs and the Muppaphone; while being manhandled by monsters Alice Cooper performing “School’s Out”. You can surf from skit to skit endlessly on Youtube...or if you want an unbeatable catalog of all things muppet, check out the amazingly thorough Muppet Wiki.