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Friday, January 31st, 2014

Watching as The Muppets Go Hollywood For the First Time

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

At the beginning of 2014, I reflected on the past year of this column and cited a compilation of Jim Henson’s early work as being particularly inspiring. I found it so inspiring, in fact, that I’ve been reading/devouring the new Jim Henson biography written by Brian Jay Jones, a remarkably detailed look at pretty much every facet of the man’s life. As one reads about his career, you come away with two important facts: he never stopped creating new things to work on and he was always ready to move on to the next big thing. It took him some time, but in 1976 he successfully managed to get enough interest in his very own Muppet Show. The show was almost instantly an enormous hit and a mere three years later, Henson and the rest of his crew were able to create The Muppet Movie. It too was a success and the Muppet train kept on rolling.

Today we look at an artifact of the promotion for the movie: an hour long special entitled The Muppets Go Hollywood. It’s not quite the movie and it’s not quite The Muppet Show, though it shares elements of both. Airing on May 16th, 1979, a month before the movie was released in the United States, the special is quite a lavish affair, featuring many celebrity cameos from the time period as the Muppets take over the Coconut Grove for the night.

As The Muppet Movie’s release date came closer and closer, Jim Henson (and Kermit) went on a whirlwind promotional tour, guest hosting The Tonight Show, appearing in a Cheerios commercial and producing this special. The Muppets crew always seemed to work quickly, filming entire episodes of The Muppet Show in six days or so, but according to Jones’ aforementioned biography, this hour-long special took just four weeks to produce from the writing of it to the final production. A production that features Muppets driving cars, performing four separate musical productions, dancing with (or in Animal’s case, chasing madly) dozens of celebrities at several different locations in the vast, and thoroughly packed Cocoanut Grove.

Though such a program would not exist for several years, The Muppets Go Hollywood is basically the Henson version of an E! red carpet affair. However, instead of Joan and Melissa Rivers we get Dick Van Dyke and Rita Moreno as our correspondents. Rita, if you’re not familiar, was the winner of the Best Supporting Actress for her work in West Side Story, and the third person ever to win an EGOT.

Admittedly, a lot of the special is fluff: a major section of the show’s opening is setup as if it is an award ceremony pre-show with Dick and Rita announcing what celebrities are arriving, such as Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Dom Deluise, and others, without anything for these folks to do but smile and wave. Eventually Statler and Waldorf drive by in their car to heckle (which the obviously continue to do throughout the night). Ultimately, the show doesn’t really get started until eight minutes in or so when a number of the larger, full-body monster Muppets perform a growling rendition of “Hooray for Hollywood” on stage at the Grove.

But that’s not to say there’s no entertainment to be found in the special. In fact, it’s a pretty darn good time capsule of what Hollywood might have looked like in the 1970s. Where else are you going to see Raquel Welch, Twiggy, and Cheryl Ladd dancing with a pig puppet? Or Rowlf and Johnny Mathis (look him up) perform “Never Before and Never Again” with a full brass band? Animal chasing after multiple starlets? Or Miss Piggy being carried into a room by four shirtless men on an Egyptian-themed chaise lounge? (To be fair, on that last one a lot of the entertainment value comes from staring at the lounge and trying to figure out how Frank Oz has squeezed himself inside of it.) The fact is, this is the only example of a Muppet show that was performed in front of a live studio audience at this scale, and it’s kind of dazzling to see how well it works, even as these Muppets are transplanted out of their imaginary theater and brought into a real one.

A couple of clips are shown from the film, including one introduced by Jim Henson himself who was hanging out at the Muppet party, featuring Paul Williams singing “Rainbow Connection.” Ultimately, however, this special is very clearly an hour-long commercial for The Muppet Movie and doesn’t work as well as it’s own thing. It’s definitely fun to watch Dick Van Dyke dance with Miss Piggy as he serenades her with “You Ought to Be in Pictures,” but the special lacks the wackiness and Muppet sense of humor that makes their productions so entertaining. Instead, the special floats from production to production, with brief linking material from the two hosts to connect from one piece to another.

But maybe you’ll disagree with me. Luckily enough, some YouTuber with a working VCR has captured the full special and placed it online for you to watch and decide for yourself. Please scroll down and enjoy.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries, "Ramsey Has a Time Machine" just premiered a new episode featuring Julie Klausner.

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