It’s a good day, friends, and that’s because after years of waiting, The Muppet Show is finally available to watch in full on home media. Though The Walt Disney Company has had the rights to the Muppets for a long time, it only ever released on DVD the first three seasons of the ’70s-era variety show that turned the felt creations of Jim Henson and friends into worldwide sensations. Now, you can watch all five seasons streaming on Disney+. (It’s worth noting that music clearance rights often held up previous seasons from being available, and as of the writing of this list, it’s unknown if the streaming versions offer the full, unedited episodes.) But with 120 episodes to binge-watch, you may want to know where the best place to start is. Let’s run down the 12 best episodes – listed here based on when they aired – of the inspirational, Muppetational The Muppet Show.
Guest Star: Before we knew about the rainbow connection, singer/songwriter Paul Williams appeared on the first season of The Muppet Show to fool around and perform with the Muppets. This is a great episode to start with – the sixth episode to air – because it not only offers a glimpse into the working partnership between Williams and the Muppets, but because it showcases how the Muppets displayed joy as much as sadness, as in Williams’ performances of “Old Fashioned Love Song” and “Sad Song.”
MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): This time, it’s Kermit. Though we think of Kermit now as being the well-meaning, sometimes hen-pecked straight man of the Muppets, he could give as good as he got, as in this brief comedy bit where he teases Williams for his short stature and does a vaudeville-style joke about elevator shoes. Kermit had spunk.
Must-See: This episode is a must-see because it offered a clear template of how celebrities of all stripes could joke around with the Muppets, and how the Muppets themselves really did offer emotional variety on the show.
Guest Star: Few names are more synonymous with horror filmmaking than Vincent Price. The legendary figure served as the host for the season one finale, embracing the setting and his fellow characters with gusto. He’s just as much at home with some of the goofier bits, as when he demonstrates how to turn into a vampire in front of Kermit only to find out how quickly the frog can do the same thing, as he is with some of the performance sequences. Some hosts were better suited to the Muppets than others, and Price is one of them.
MVM: This is a joint one that goes to all the Muppety monsters who appear on this spooktacular episode. There were more to the Muppets than just a frog, pig, bear, and a…whatever Gonzo is. And this episodes lets them all shine.
Must-See: Vincent Price and Uncle Deadly doing a duo of the Carole King song “You’ve Got a Friend.” Sometimes, you don’t need to say anything else. Just watch it.
Guest Star: Some episodes of The Muppet Show operate as a fascinating time capsule as well as proof of how much respect Jim Henson had for all sorts of performing arts. The season one episode hosted by the mask-theater troupe Mummenschanz – who Kermit dubs “distant cousins of the Muppets” – is about as perfect a mix of those episodes as possible. The various acts in which Mummenschanz shows off its joint craft are remarkable in their own way, while also serving as a reminder that we don’t get much of that kind of world-renowned performance anymore (the closest modern corollary, and it’s a stretch, is the Blue Man Group).
MVM: Gonzo and Miss Piggy get the prize here, for their running sketch throughout the episode. As the show continued building out the characters, it was fun to see unexpected pairings like these two.
Must-See: You can find lots of things on Disney+, but (presuming it’s made it to streaming) there’s only one show where you can watch mime performers playing around with paper-face masks. This one’s curious and entertaining all at once.
Guest Star: It didn’t take too long for the Muppets to shake up the premise of their own show. In this season two episode, Steve Martin is the guest but there’s one problem: Kermit has decided to audition new acts all day, just…without warning Martin. So the episode eschews the usual style: there’s no audience except the Muppet performers themselves, and their genuine laughter adds a fun twist to the various gags. It’s worth noting that this episode aired before Martin’s movie stardom, and his stand-up bits are just as funny on the Muppet stage.
MVM: Statler and Waldorf, and not for the reasons you think. They audition in this episode, singing and dancing to “The Varsity Drag” with Fozzie sitting in the balcony. It’s a fun role reversal, and just very charming to see the two old codgers out of their booth.
Must-See: Steve Martin is at the early height of his comedic powers here – just watch his “Ramblin’ Guy” bit, with the Muppets egging him on. This is one of the very best episodes the show ever had.
Guest Star: By the end of the 1970s, John Cleese had two massive comic touchstones to his name: having served as one of the stars and writers of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and as the lead of Fawlty Towers. His anarchic style is well matched by the Muppets themselves in this comic highlight of the series. Cleese would go on to appear briefly in The Great Muppet Caper, but his best work with the Muppets came in this half-hour installment.
MVM: The entire crew of pigs gets this one jointly, in part because they serve as the bridge too far that Cleese doesn’t want to cross: he refuses to work with pigs until he sees that another Muppet has gobbled up his agent.
Must-See: John Cleese has many comic gifts, but perhaps none greater than his ability to act aggrieved. And that’s the real setup for the final sketch of this episode, where the Muppets try to get him to sing and he tries his hardest to resist. The madcap style of the Muppets matched Cleese’s frustration perfectly.
Guest Star: From the moment he became a world-renowned performer, Elton John felt larger than life. His outrageous costumes, his bombastic style, and his catchy music makes him a perfect choice for hosting this season two episode of The Muppet Show. Though no one would mistake John as a comic actor first, he loosens up with the Muppets from the first instant. It’s not just that the songs he’s performing here are all unimpeachable classics. It’s that the combination of John and the Muppets is too good to ignore.
MVM: The ever-hapless Scooter gets this one, as a big enough fan of Elton John that he gets to kick off “Bennie and the Jets” before the musical guest takes over.
Must-See: Though there are four excellent Elton John numbers in the episode, the must-see portion is when he sings (what else?) “Crocodile Rock” with Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. It’s flamboyant and unforgettable.
Guest Star: Harry Belafonte is a titan of 20th century music, and his presence on this season three episode of The Muppet Show helped cement it as one of the show’s very best installments. Belafonte has a lot of fun – or he sure looked like he was enjoying himself – as he fools around with all of the Muppets, especially our MVM winner for the episode. Belafonte’s work is synonymous with other popular culture (when he performs “Day-O,” it’s hard not to think first of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice) but his hosting work here stands out as one of the most important and entertaining chapters of his and the Muppets’ career.
MVM: Of all the Muppets to pair with the host, Fozzie Bear may not seem like the likely candidate, but the bear’s pathos ends up making for a charming byplay with Belafonte during his guest spot.
Must-See: A song that’s gained added resonance over time, “Turn the World Around” isn’t just one of Belafonte’s best, but it’s a high water mark for the Muppets as well. This performance features Belafonte and a series of Muppet creations with tribal masks singing and dancing the same song that the actor/singer would perform at Jim Henson’s funeral over a decade later.
Guest Star: It’s rare for the Muppets to have a fully themed episode, but the season three finale featuring Lynn Redgrave broke from the typical style. In an episode that portends films such as The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, the Muppets and Redgrave do an episode-long riff on another beloved story of English literature, that of Robin Hood. Here, Kermit plays the dashing hero with Redgrave as his Maid Marian. There are plenty of songs throughout, but everything from the songs to the Muppet Newsman are redone here to fit within the Robin Hood theme. If nothing else, this one’s worth watching to see the characters go against the grain.
MVM: This time around, the award goes to Kermit himself, for stepping into such a major role and pulling it off with aplomb.
Must-See: One song that gets a reprise is the boisterous “Hey Down,” a fun and bouncy number that showcases the infectious, exuberant fun of watching the whole Muppet group perform with each other.
Guest Star: For a time in the 1980s, the Muppets collaborated with actor/singer John Denver on a pair of Christmas specials. But first, Denver had to make his initial appearance as guest host of this season four episode of The Muppet Show. Denver’s low-key, easy-listening style winds up being a nice counterbalance to the mania that the Muppets represent. But the variety show was also very effective at switching tones to something calmer, fitting in perfectly with Denver’s style. If nothing else, this episode is worth watching as the start of a beautiful friendship between Henson and Denver.
MVM: One of the Muppet standbys is the gibberish-spouting Swedish Chef, who gets a brief segment in this episode as he tries to showcase how to make squirrel stew. It ties into the camping theme of the episode, and is just generally (predictably) hilarious.
Must-See: Though Denver performs a number of songs in the episode, the one worth watching now is “Grandma’s Feather Bed.” It’s a fun, upbeat country number that proves Denver’s ease in interacting with the Muppets, even (or especially) in the strangest of positions.
Star Wars cast
Guest Star(s): It’s one of the strange coincidences of popular culture that the Muppets crossed paths with Star Wars years before Disney gobbled them both up. A few months before the release of The Empire Strikes Back, Mark Hamill, Peter Mayhew, and Anthony Daniels (the latter two as Chewbacca and C-3PO) stopped by to host the episode before we all met that strange little Jedi named Yoda. Now, you don’t have to be terribly tuned in to realize that Hamill has a wicked sense of humor that fits right into the Muppet sensibility. But it’s still kind of charming to watch Star Wars cast members at a time when their long-term stardom wasn’t entirely cemented, goofing off with Kermit and friends.
MVM: There can be no appropriate selection for the Most Valuable Muppet of this episode than Link Hogthrob of the “Pigs in Space” sketch. The pigs get a lot of screen time here, and Link in the spotlight is just a big hoot.
Must-See: There may be no more delightful or strange coincidence in this episode than the final section of “Pigs in Space,” where Luke Skywalker and his friends Chewie and Threepio end up singing with the pigs in a medley featuring…”When You Wish Upon a Star.” Some things must be seen to be believed.
Guest Star: One of the recurring themes on The Muppet Show is that Jim Henson and his team were deeply respectful of the various ways in which puppetry can be performed. One of the great vaudeville favorites is none other than Señor Wences, with his treasure trove of smaller puppets, many of which don’t go much further than the edges of his fingers. Episodes like this were proof of how popular The Muppet Show was even in its final season – they didn’t need to pick super-famous hosts to make a good episode.
MVM: Each episode of The Muppet Show has at least one familiar friend interact with the guest host. This time around, it’s Lew Zealand, slightly lesser known than bigger names, who gets to fool around with Señor Wences, leading to an unexpectedly funny guest spot.
Must-See: What makes this episode worth watching is that it serves as a reminder that even the most basic-seeming puppets can turn into enormously funny entertainment. The bit with Wences and Cecilia the chicken is at turns cheesy and extremely hilarious.
Guest Star: It’s funny to watch some episodes of The Muppet Show with hindsight, like the Star Wars one mentioned above. In the early 1980s, the Muppets and Disney weren’t yet a partnership. But Jim Henson clearly had a lot of love and respect for some of the Disney Cast Members, like Wally Boag. If you know the Disney theme parks, you know Boag’s voice at least (he’s the voice of Jose in the Enchanted Tiki Room). But you may also know him as one of the original performers at the Golden Horseshoe Revue at Frontierland in the happiest place on Earth. Boag’s consummately silly style fits right in with the Muppets, even if he’s not one of the most famous performers to meet these creatures.
MVM: There was a deep lineup of Muppets from which to choose to get some spotlight time over the course of 120 episodes. For this one, we must go with the Flying Zucchini Brothers, who demonstrate how to get themselves off the ground during one scene, and how badly they can ruin another song in another.
Must-See: The high point of the show is the finale, where Boag sings “Pecos Bill,” the Disney song about the tall-tale cowboy. (For now, you’ll have to make do with this version of him on the Frontierland stage.) Just as in the Golden Horseshoe Revue, Boag’s version is literally toothy. It’s goofy and joyous and weird, just like the Muppets themselves.
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