Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Classic Movie Stars on THE MUPPET SHOW

Thanks to Disney Plus, viewers can finally enjoy all five seasons of The Muppet Show, and at my house we've been delighted to have access to the long-awaited fourth and fifth seasons, which were never available on DVD. The release has created some controversy about Disney's decision to include content warnings on a handful of episodes (which are, in some cases, painfully necessary), but for Muppet fans the more pressing questions often involve trying to figure out who the guest star is, since some of these folks might have been famous in the 1970s but are truly obscure now. Luckily for classic movie fans, the guest list also includes some fantastic stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and their appearances on the show offer a delightful snapshot of these stars as they appeared in the late 1970s. 

For many viewers who were kids in the 70s, these guest spots might well have been their first introduction to entertainers from their parents' or grandparents' eras, which means that Gen Xers in particular might have been meeting Milton Berle, Edgar Bergen, Danny Kaye, and Gene Kelly for the first time. Other stars were much more familiar to the average 10 year old of 1978, including Mark Hamill, Don Knotts, and Rich Little, while many of the British guests would have baffled American children and adults alike (the show was filmed in London, so British guests were much easier to acquire). Of course, today even the "current" stars of 1978 look like classic ones, but every season of the show mixed classic stars, current American celebrities, and British talents to provide a weirdly educational cultural smorgasbord for unsuspecting child viewers. Singers and dancers had obvious appeal, as did comedians, but that didn't stop the show from featuring action stars like James Coburn and Roger Moore or magician Doug Henning. The classic movie stars were just part of the mix.

Each season has at least one classic star, although some were better known in the 70s than others thanks to musical careers, television roles, or later film roles. In Season One, you can see Rita Moreno, Lena Horne, Peter Ustinov, Vincent Price, and Ethel Merman. Season Two offers Don Knotts, Milton Berle, Edgar Bergen, George Burns, Julie Andrews, Peter Sellers, and Bob Hope. Showing up in Season Three are Danny Kaye, Harry Belafonte, and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Season Four is comparatively light on classic movie stars but includes Liza Minnelli, while Season Five ends the series with James Coburn, Tony Randall, and Gene Kelly. Each of these is worth watching, but the episodes with Moreno, Price, Andrews, and Belafonte are particularly good, so start there if you're a classic film fan but not someone with a lot of previous experience with The Muppet Show

A handful of the classic film stars who appear on the series also have cameos in the original 1979 film, The Muppet Movie, where you can spot Bob Hope, Milton Berle, and James Coburn along with Orson Welles, Telly Savalas, and many younger stars who also appeared as guests on the show. Many of the Muppet films are also streaming on Disney Plus, so if the classic stars on The Muppet Show whet your appetite for more of Kermit and the gang, there's plenty of content available. 

Want to know everything there is to know about The Muppets? Head on over to my friends at Tough Pigs to find news, articles, podcasts, and commentary! You can also check out the essay anthology, Kermit Culture, that Anissa Graham and I edited; it's available in paperback and Kindle editions at Amazon. Our second anthology, The Wider Worlds of Jim Henson, looks at films and other productions like The Dark Crystal, Fraggle Rock, and Labyrinth.