by Marty Demarest

I have to admit, it's taken me a long time to get around to dealing with the conundrum that is The Muppet Show. On one hand, there's something hilariously subversive about these characters and the jokes that they convey. On the other hand (forgive the puppetry pun) is a bunch of spazzy puppets telling corny jokes. How much you like any particular part of the show depends mainly on how much you like either one of those things, and how well they were used. Fans can opt for the box set (with 12 episodes on four discs), while more moderate viewers may want to select from the dozens of episodes available on numerous individual DVDs.

Like Saturday Night Live, The Muppet Show is made up of a series of comedy sketches that feature the various cast members. Being puppets, however, the Muppets already have a built-in joke (the basic one of watching a grown-up show starring fabric-covered-hands), so each humorous addition to the sketch takes the entire thing toward the absurd. When this works, the result is spectacularly surreal, such as when Diana Ross dances with enormous, psychedelic Muppets while singing "Love Hangover," or when Miss Piggy battles Linda Ronstadt. It's television making fun of itself long before The Simpsons.

It's a fair warning, however, to say that not everything works so well. The appearance of Chewbacca on the episode starring Mark Hamill (Luke in Star Wars) ruins the character's coolness. Suddenly, shorn of George Lucas' Star Wars world, the Wookie is just a big Muppet, too. And too many segments feature generic-looking animal Muppets sitting in one spot on a badly painted soundstage swaying back and forth, singing along with the guest. At moments like that, the show is nothing more than Hee Haw! for hippies.

But what those hippies put into their show is still fascinating. It was no secret then that the Muppets were just the next logical franchise to adopt when kids were getting too old for Sesame Street. But Henson and the other Muppet creators took kids seriously, and there are a surprising number of kid-friendly jokes that are clever and culturally smart. There are also plenty of references that adults will catch easier than kids, though nothing is ever too explicit. In other words, the Muppeteers' hearts were in the right place even when their hands were up to no good.

Publication date: 06/10/04

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