One of my favorite Not the Nine O’Clock News skits of all-time begins with the Not Team relaxing at home, reading their newspapers. One after another, they read something amazing in the paper — “El Salvador Is Going to Be a Second Vietnam,” something about goats and artificial limbs and flamingos — but show little to no emotion. Finally one of them sees something in the paper that excites everyone: “Good Lord…there’s someone I’ve heard of guesting on The Muppet Show.”
The Muppet Show premiered in 1976, and 35 years later, many of its celebrity guest hosts have, like so many other millions from pop culture, been almost entirely forgotten. When was the last time you heard anyone mention Mummenschanz or Ben Vereen? Luckily, attracting mega-watt guest stars stopped being a problem at the end of season one, when the show’s popularity began to increase, and over the next four seasons, The Muppet Show attracted some of biggest — and best — celebrity names out there. Below I’ve ranked the nine (in honor of that Nine O’Clock News skit) greatest Muppet Show guest hosts from seasons one-three. Why not include four and five? Because they were never officially released on DVD and while most of the episodes are on YouTube, there are a few parts missing here and there. (So, um, Disney: considering the new Muppet movie gained back its budget in its first week of release, can you please put those seasons on DVD? Thanks.)
#9. Elton John (Season Two, Episode Fourteen)
Who Is He/She? Singer who has sold more than 250 million albums worldwide, behind such chart-topping hits as “Crocodile Rock,” “Bennie and the Jets,” and “Candle in the Wind,” the highest selling single of all-time.
Reason for Ranking: Elton is basically a real-life Muppet himself, with his loud and dazzling costumes and over-the-top personality. He looks totally comfortable dueting with Miss Piggy on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and being eaten by crocodiles at the end of “Crocodile Rock.” The ending’s really clever, too, with all of the Muppets dressed up like Elton, while Elton himself is wearing a simple suit.
Best Skit: Elton’s not even in it, but the one where Sam the Eagle complains about Elton (I have seen some pretty weird guests on the show but this Elton John borders on the revolutionary!”) dressing like a “stolen car” and that Mozart would never dress up in something so outrageous, only to be proven wrong, is great.
#8. Danny Kaye (Season Three, Episode Sixteen)
Who Is He/She? Singer, actor, and all-around funny guy, best known for his tongue-twisting, fast-talking, loose-limbed style of comedy. He won an honorary Academy Award in 1954 and had his own show, The Danny Kaye Show, from 1963-1967.
Reason for Ranking: The episode begins a little slowly, with Danny and Miss Piggy singing “Cheek to Cheek” together, and oddly, with Statler and Waldorf protesting the show because they think Kaye is the worst performer ever (even more so than “Clive Cahuenga, the singing civil servant”). But things pick up greatly when Kaye joins the Swedish Chef as his uncle, and the two try to cook a turkey together. It’s the first time a guest star on the show dressed up like one of the Muppets, and it’s hilarious hearing Kaye mimic the Chef’s speaking style. (He also calls the Chef “Tom,” something that’s never brought up ever again.) At the end of the episode, after Kaye sings his signature song “Inchworm,” it’s revealed that Statler and Waldorf thought the guest was clam player Manny, not Danny, Kaye, giving the whole thing a nice, tidy arc.
#7. Alice Cooper (Season Three, Episode Seven)
Who Is He/She? Singer who taught the world how to most effectively celebrate the ending of school and beginning of summer. Cooper was one of the first heavy metal musicians, and he, along with his original band, was nominated into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year.
Reason for Ranking: More than any other episode, the one starring the “talented, but frightening” Alice Cooper showcased that The Muppet Show was for adults just as much as it was for kids, if not more so. The first skit of the episode featured Cooper and the Vile Bunch singing “Welcome to My Nightmare” (young kids must have loved the “nocturnal vacation”/”unnecessary sedation” rhyme), and later, he literally calls Satan on the phone. Cooper’s totally game for every segment, and turning Miss Piggy into Beakie is actually one of the less weird things he’s ever done.
Best Skit: “Welcome to My Nightmare.”
#6. Vincent Price (Season One, Episode Nineteen)
Who Is He? Actor, best known for his voice and appearing in such horror films as Tower of London, House of Wax, The Fly, and House on Haunted Hill. His Egg Magic game occasionally comes without feet.
Reason for Ranking: This episode marks the first time the vibe of the Muppet Show would be tailored around its guest. In his intro, Kermit remarks that the show will be on the strange side, because of that evening’s guest, Vincent Price. Set around creepy-sounding songs like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” and “I’m Looking Through You,” sung by a trio of ghosts, Price sings a Phantom of the Opera-themed “You’ve Got a Friend” with Uncle Deadly and literally gives his hand to Kermit when the frog asks the audience to do the same for him. He also appears in one of the best “Talk Spot” segments, which ends with Kermit biting Price after revealing himself to be a vampire.
Best Skit: “Talk Spot”
#5. Paul Williams (Season One, Episode Eight)
Who Is He? Actor and songwriter who penned “An Old Fashioned Love Song” for Three Dog Night, “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” for the Carpenters, and with Kenneth Ascher, “Rainbow Connection” for The Muppet Movie.
Reason for Ranking: If I had included The Muppet Show in my “when did great shows have their first great episode?” list, this would have been my choice. (Emmy voters acknowledged it as such, nominating it for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy, Variety, or Music Series.) Paul Williams was a very good singer and an actor with impressive comic timing, something not every guest host could pull off, and he effectively used his large talent to sing “An Old-Fashioned Love Song,” with two Muppet versions of himself, and small stature to remark that he’s happy to finally be the tallest person in the room, before Sweetums, Thog, and a Mutation appear on-screen. This was Williams’ first interaction with the Muppets, and he would later work with Henson & Co. for The Muppet Movie, Emmett Otter’s Jug-band Christmas, and The Muppet Christmas Carol.
Best Skit: “An Old-Fashioned Love Song.”
#4. Julie Andrews (Season Two, Episode Seventeen)
Who Is She? Actress, Mary Poppins, Eliza Doolittle, Queen Guinevere, Maria von Trapp, etc.
Reason for Ranking: Some of the super-famous Muppet Show guests appear to be a little unsure of how to interact with the Muppets, and it hurts the quality of the entire show. While watching the Sylvester Stallone episode, for instance, you never totally get involved into any of his skits because it’s clear he still thinks of Kermit as a glorified puppet, which is true, of course, but that suspension of belief – the one that makes you forget a human is talking to a piece of felt directed by someone’s hand – is what makes the Muppets so special. Julie Andrews has no such problem. In fact, she began working with Henson all the way back in 1973 for the TV special, Julie on Sesame Street, singing “This Way to Sesame Street” and “Bein’ Green,” the latter a duet with Kermit. Four years later, she again worked with Kermit, this time at the Muppet Theatre, singing “Song for Kermit” for the frog. Her other segments include “The Lonely Goatherd” from The Sound of Music, “I Whistle a Happy Tune” while being surrounded by monsters in an eerie back alley setting, and a Talk Spot where she and Kermit literally watch a number of Muppets fly by. And she always looks right at home.
Best Skit: “I Whistle a Happy Tune.”
#3. John Cleese (Season Two, Episode Twenty-Three)
Who Is He? Comedian, part of the revolutionary comedy troupe Monty Python.
Reason for Ranking: Brian Henson provides an intro for every Muppet Show episode on DVD, and of the John Cleese-hosted episode, he says, “John particularly became very close with The Muppets and he immediately created a bond with the writers of The Muppet Show and he wanted to get involved in the writing. So together they came up with this ridiculous concept where John doesn’t want to be on the show so the great thing is this whole Muppet Show is about the Muppets trying to get John to be on the show but John’s trying to get off the show.” It’s amusing seeing Cleese getting upset at Kermit for making him perform old show tunes and work with pigs (he hates pigs and monsters, and “the ugly, disgusting one who catches cannonballs,” referring to Gonzo), and Cleese is at his best when he’s totally exasperated. He does work with Gonzo later, though, in a sketch where he attempts to make Gonzo’s legs and arms the same length (don’t ask) and hopelessly messes things up. But the best skit is the one where Cleese visits the Swinetrek, as Pirate Long John Silverstein with a parrot on his shoulder. It’s tough not to think of Monty Python’s famed “Dead Parrot” sketch, though this bird is much more talkative.
Best Skit: “Pigs in Space.”
#2. Gilda Radner (Season Three, Episode Four)
Who Is She? Comedian, best known for her time on Saturday Night Live from 1975-1980, where she created such characters as Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella.
Reason for Ranking: Watching it now, it’s more than a little heartbreaking seeing Gilda Radner sing “Tap Your Troubles Away” on The Muppet Show. Radner, who first came to fame on SNL and would later have a celebrated theater career and a memorable appearance on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, passed away from ovarian cancer in 1989, at the too-soon age of 42. I wasn’t alive when she was on SNL, nor when she hosted The Muppet Show, so I was all too aware of her fate when I first watched the third season episode, which ends with Radner dancing with Beaker and singing, “When your parachute strap is beginning to snap/Smile a big smile, and tap, tap, tap your troubles away.” (She also dances with a giant carrot in a different segment.) She’s just so likable and funny and wonderful, and this episode is a great introduction for those who are too young to appreciate her genius on SNL.
Best Skit: “Tap Your Troubles Away.”
#1. Steve Martin (Season Two, Episode Eight)
Who Is He? A little jerk of the bride who loves parenthood and hates automobiles. Also: one of the funniest comedians ever.
Reason for Ranking: The Steve Martin-hosted episode was unlike any other Muppet Show episode: it featured no laugh track and largely threw out the series’ putting-on-a-show aesthetic. Instead, Kermit informs the Muppet Theatre audience to go home because he misread the calendar and had scheduled auditions for that day. No one told Steve Martin, though, so he performs for Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, and the other regular cast members, now sitting in the mostly vacant theatre’s seats. The episode aired around the same time as Martin released his first album, Let’s Get Small, and many of the aspects that made the record and Martin’s road-refined stand-up so memorable – the balloon animals cover, “Ramblin’ Man” – also appear on The Muppet Show. It’s an incredibly joyous 22 minutes, and one of the show’s best episodes.
Best Skit: “Dueling Banjos.”
Josh Kurp would recommend watching the Star Wars episode from season four right now.