Muppet Monday

Above is a neat homage to the iconic, oft-mimicked Robert Freeman photograph used on the cover to 1963's With The Beatles and early the next year for the US release Meet The Beatles! It's from a recent Parade article titled "Meet the Muppets (Again!)" — which is also the general theme of this post.

I'm of the first generation to grow up with Sesame Street, which is where I first met the Muppets. Perhaps because I was an early reader, however, Sesame didn't have much to teach me in terms of letters and numbers; I was better suited to its PBS companion The Electric Company. The Muppet Show was actually much more like The Electric Company or the grown-up SCTV than like Sesame Street, with its conceit of showing us not only a series of skits and songs but the backstage antics that were taking place in the fictional universe where the Muppets themselves — rather than the human Muppeteers, production crew, et al. — were staging the production.

Sesame Street can still fill me with nostalgia, however, and what's more it can still hold my interest whenever I check in on new episodes. I took a student-taught class on Sesame at Oberlin — it was one of the most popular courses in the ExCo (Experimental College) department, which I later co-chaired, and I think I gained a greater appreciation for the show as an adult than I had as a kid. A TV special called Sesame Street: 20 and Still Counting aired on NBC the year before (Sesame and I, born in 1969 and 1970 respectively, are both in our 40s now); that special was followed by the debut of the short-lived series The Jim Henson Hour, an anthology whose segments included The StoryTeller (which later ran on HBO) and an unsuccessful Muppet Show update called MuppeTelevision.

Part old-time vaudeville, part contemporary primetime variety series, The Muppet Show also came with a heaping dollop of the irreverence found in the more counterculture, postmodern sketch projects of the era like SCTV, Monty Python's Flying Circus, and Saturday Night Live. Yet it could also be eminently sincere, and that's a large measure of its charm — the rascally but reassuring Muppet spirit abounded whether Steve Martin was goofily guest-starring or the show was staging a surreal sketch around Harry Nilsson's "[Put the Lime in the] Coconut" or Kermit the Frog was duetting with Helen Reddy on her endearingly schmaltzy single "You and Me against the World" (penned by Paul Williams, who co-wrote "The Rainbow Connection" for The Muppet Movie).

There's a short video accompanying the aforementioned Parade article in which Kermit and Miss Piggy offer some gift-giving tips. Over at the Muppets Studio YouTube channel, among the most recent content is "Animal's Holiday Guide"; while the spot is little more than another promo for The Muppets, any excuse for a dose of Animal is all right by me.

With the winter holidays almost upon us, I thought that I'd round out this post with some recommendations of my own for the Muppet enthusiasts in your life. Links in bold below go to pages on the unofficial but insanely informative Muppet Wiki, and the Amazon links are there in case you're moved to make a purchase. The blog (in the form of, well, me) will get a small cut of any purchases made when you click over; I promise to spend my earnings — already in the triple digits, if you count decimal places — on stuff to be reviewed here.

My sister loved the first DVD set of Sesame Street: Old School, covering 1969-1974, which I got her for Chanukah sometime after its 2006 release. I've yet to see it, because she has the nerve to live on the other side of the country, but she periodically threatens to bring it when she visits. The only thing keeping me from getting it for myself (or putting it on my Amazon Wish List) is the fact that I already have so danged many things metaphorically if not literally queued up to watch.

The above link goes to a disambiguation page on The Muppet Wiki, from which you can read more about the content of the Vol. 1 CD set, Vol. 2 CD set, Vol. 1 DVD set, and Vol. 2 DVD set, all orderable from Amazon.

I suspect that I'll be moved to get ahold of the Old School packages when I find time to read Michael Davis's Street Gang: The Complete History of 'Sesame Street'. Among the many official and unofficial items released before and during the show's 40th anniversary, it was quite well reviewed, and I picked up a remaindered copy at Borders last year. I've always loved reading behind-the-scenes stuff, in print and these days online, sometimes more than I enjoy reading or watching the stuff that's being written about.

You can read more on the book at (say it with me now) The Muppet Wiki via the above link. The 2008 hardcover is currently on sale at Amazon at a bargain price, cheaper than the 2009 softcover, but the latter apparently corrects some errors and looks cooler. Audio versions of the first edition are available, both abridged via Audible and unabridged on CD — read by Carroll Spinney, performer of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

For a more comprehensive look at Sesame Street's history than the Old School efforts provide, there's the 2009 set Sesame Street: 40 Years of Sunny Days. The bonus features that complement the best-of excerpts on this pair of discs, which also comes with a commemorative booklet, sound awesome. And where else can you find Batman, Alicia Keys, Pixar's Luxo Jr., Fonzie, Pee-Wee Herman, Robert De Niro, and Madeline Kahn all in one box of educational goodness? Order now!

One more DVD to note before we move on from Sesame Street is the set The Best of 'Sesame Street' Spoofs!, released this past summer. It contains song parodies like "Hey Food" and "Rebel L"; such TV spoofs as "A's Anatomy", "Hill Street Twos", and "RSI: Rhyme Scene Investigation"; and, as a bonus feature, Grover's "Smell Like a Monster", which I linked to here a year ago last month. Amazon has Vol. 1 available as an instant video purchase as well as the two-disc collection of Vols. 1 & 2.

When The Muppet Show: Season One was released on DVD in 2005 for Kermit the Frog's 50th anniversary, I was thrilled, only having seen compilation VHS cassettes on occasion since the series went off the air in 1981. I'm still waiting to get ahold of it (as well as later seasons) and dig in; the home-video release of the new Muppets movie next year might be just the occasion.

At the link above, of course, you'll find a breakdown on The Muppet Wiki of just what's in the Season One, Season Two, and Season Three sets, all available at Amazon. The site also offers a set of the three seasons, but it's almost twice as much as the three individual sets cost in total, and there doesn't appear to be any special packaging or exclusive features. Season Four was announced for 2010 release and then postponed; no word on when it or Season Five will be released at The Muppet Wiki, which notes on its Season Four page that Walter of The Muppets fame pleaded with Disney to put them out in a promotional interview for the film. You'd think that the film's own release would be the perfect time, because not only is there a resurgent interest in everything Muppet but The Muppet Show itself is a plot point in the movie.

I have no idea why the later sets have Miss Piggy's, Fozzie Bear's, and (tentatively) Gonzo's faces on them, but Season One just has Kermit's collar and tummy.

I'd already planned on trying to carve out some time for rewatching the first, original, accept-no-substitutes Muppet movie, 1979's The Muppet Movie, and its successors when The Muppets arrives on DVD. The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, and Muppets from Space were all either rereleased in 2005 or (in the case of Manhattan and Space, whose distribution rights apparently rest with Sony rather than Disney, and which are also paired in a double-feature DVD set) rereleased in 2011 as Blu-Ray/DVD combo packs. I suspect that it doesn't pay to get the 2005 versions of previous films with The Muppets itself coming to home video soon, however, especially if you're a Blu-Ray viewer, as the time would seem ripe for new editions.

Last month a cousin of mine who may well one day join the ranks of creative folks at Disney, Pixar, or Muppets central (if he doesn't launch his own company instead) received from me as a birthday gift Henson's Place: The Man behind the Muppets. I haven't seen it yet, but the 2010 DVD available on Amazon gets rave reviews and sounds great; it's a documentary made in 1984 covering Henson's career from his first TV series, Sam and Friends — which debuted in 1955 and introduced Kermit in pre-frog form — through the planning of the feature film Labyrinth, with of course attention paid to Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, the first two Muppet movies, Fraggle Rock, and The Dark Crystal.

Of course this only scratches the surface of Muppet material out there, but I hope that it points you in the direction of discovery (or rediscovery) — whether you're shopping for a Muppet maven or looking to treat yourself. The comments section is open for reactions and further recommendations. Happy holidays!

All images are the intellectual property of their respective rights holders, used for identification purposes; no infringement is intended or implied.

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