Long out of syndication, all five seasons of the 11-time Emmy-winning The Muppet Show are now available to stream on Disney+. The series ran from 1976 to 1981 and it is a testament to the genius of Jim Henson and company that the episodes haven’t really aged much. Henson knew that pop-cultural references would get old fast, but a joke like “Gonzo fiddles while George Burns” is funny forever.
The Muppet Show, which features the best “let’s put on a show” theme song since The Bugs Bunny Show’s “Overture,” remains the gold standard of family viewing in the best sense of the term. There truly is something for everyone in each episode. If one bit doesn’t get you, another will be along directly. And when all else fails, send in hecklers Statler and Waldorf. (“Wake me when the show starts.” “It’s been on for awhile.” “Wake me when it’s over.”)
Produced in England, The Muppet Show was a fourth wall-breaking onstage/backstage variety show with a weekly special guest. Prior to The Muppet Show, the Muppets had a brief and disastrous run on the fledgling Saturday Night Live — its head writer, Michael O’Donoghue, famously said, “I won’t write for felt.” Happily, a glittering array of legendary performing artists and stage and screen icons did not share his prejudice on working with the Muppets. Like on SNL, the guests may class up the joint, but as the series became more popular, it was the ensemble (Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo the Great) and such recurring segments as “Veterinarian Hospital,” “Pigs in Space,” “Muppet Labs” and “the Swedish Chef” that were the real draw.
Most of The Muppet Show’s 120 episodes have at least one indelible moment: Judy Collins singing “Send in the Clowns,” Gene Kelly being coaxed to sing “Singin’ in the Rain,” Ethel Merman and Miss Piggy’s diva-to-diva showdown on “Anything You Can Do,” and Gonzo’s seriously heart-tugging version of “My Way” in the Lola Falana episode. But which are the “most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational?”
Here, we have selected 25 essential episodes (presented chronologically), and reached out to several of the series’ guest stars to share their Muppet Show memories. Like the song says, “It’s time to get things started.”
Rita Moreno (Sept. 12, 1976)
This is the episode that put the “E” in Rita Moreno’s EGOT. The Emmy-, Grammy-, Oscar-, and Tony-winning actress pulls out the stops with two rather randy numbers, the first, a French Apache (pronounced “apatch”) dance and, the second, a scorching interpretation of “Fever” that is overwhelmed by Animal’s bombastic drum fills that throw the singer off her stride. Moreno was particularly tickled by the capper to the song in which she crashed a pair of cymbals on each side of Animal’s head. His response: “My kind of woman.”
Rita Moreno: “The Apache number was an idea that I had. Jim just loved it. He loved cartoon violence, and when I told him what an Apache was, he said, ‘Oh my God, we have to do that.’ Gillian Lynne did the choreography; she did Cats for Andrew Lloyd Webber. On ‘Fever,’ if you look very carefully, my nostrils are flaring, and the expression is not as it should be for someone who has just smashed somebody with cymbals. That’s me desperately trying not to laugh. What I love about ‘Fever’ is that the character I’m playing is taking herself so seriously. She’s very vain — look how sexy I am — and she gets completely ruined every time with the drumbeat. Animal steals the show; he was just hilarious. It’s my kind of comedy. I was having the time of my life.”
Paul Williams (Oct. 10, 1976)
When not performing his hit songs, “Sad Song (That Used to Be Our Song)” and “Just an Old Fashioned Love Song,” Paul Williams is game for several self-deprecating bits related to his diminutive height. This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Williams would go on to write the scores for the cult favorite Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas and The Muppet Movie, including the beloved song, “The Rainbow Connection.”
Paul Williams: “The way I would best describe meeting everybody in England for The Muppet Show is a line in a song I wrote for Gonzo years later: ‘There’s not a word yet for old friends who just met.’ We just clicked. I felt like I had come home in some way. There was an abundance of heart with a spice of silliness that felt like a good match. I have a favorite moment that I look at today and once again am touched by. It was when I sang ‘Sad Song’ leaning against the piano with the Muppets around me singing harmony. At the end of the song, Rowlf very tenderly closes the piano, like ‘that’s enough for the day,’ and pats it. That is the brilliance of the Muppet performers. It’s just so endearing and the sweetest little button on the moment, as if to say, ‘That’s enough for now, Paul. I know how it makes you feel.’”
Juliet Prowse (Jan. 16, 1977)
The Muppet Show’s first produced episode lays the foundation for all to come with a little world-building: the Muppet Theatre’s owner is J.P. Grosse, Miss Piggy is a diva-in-waiting, and there are displays of virtuoso puppeteering, as when Kermit sips milk through a straw. (“Think about this, friends,” he says). Juliet Prowse may be the most obscure name on this list (ask your grandparents if they ever watched the NBC sitcom Mona McCluskey). She is perhaps best known as Elvis’ love interest in G.I. Blues and as a tabloid fixation after her engagement to Frank Sinatra. Prowse banters flirtatiously with Kermit, calling him the Robert Redford of frogs, and performs a lovely dance accompanied by green gazelles to “Solace,” a Scott Joplin rag featured in The Sting. But this episode is notable for its definitive performance of The Muppet Show’s earworm song, “Mahna Mahna.” Expect it to play in your head now for the rest of the day.
George Burns (Sept. 30, 1977)
George Burns, 81 years old when he made his second season appearance, was enjoying a Burnsaissance after winning an Academy Award for The Sunshine Boys. The old vaudevillian is in his element here, drawing on his trademark cigar while sharing show business anecdotes, singing chestnuts like “Train Back Home” and playing straight man to Gonzo that recalls his absurdist exchanges with his late wife, Gracie Allen.
Madeline Kahn (Oct. 7, 1977)
Madeline Kahn, a veteran of Peter Bogdanovich and Mel Brooks films, is an absolute delight. She charms Gonzo, who poignantly develops a mad crush on her, sweetly talks a “beautifully awful” monster down to size, and delightfully sings “I’ll Never Forget Your Feet” with chorus monsters. Non-Khan highlights include a great Swedish-chef segment in which gun-toting lobsters free one of their own from the pot and Kermit tap dances to “Happy Feet.” Such is the artistry of Henson that the feat astonishes, even though we never see Kermit’s legs; just his dance hands.
John Cleese (Oct. 21, 1977)
Things tend to get rather silly on The Muppet Show, so John Cleese is in his element in one of the series’ funniest episodes (which he had a hand in writing). It begins with Cleese bound and gagged in his dressing room to assure his participation in the show and ends with desperate attempts to get him to perform a musical number. It may not be completely different, but it is euphorically loony, as when Cleese shows up as a pirate during an installment of “Pigs in Space” (listen for the reference to Monty Python’s “Parrot Sketch”), or going to work on Gonzo, whose arm becomes elongated after catching a cannonball.
John Cleese: “One of the happiest experiences I’ve ever had in this silly business. It’s about as much fun acting as I’ve had because those Muppets were so real. I have worked with actors who were less responsive. I’ll tell you how believable they are. I had to do a song at one point and I was dreading it, but once I more or less got it right on the third or fourth take, I was so delighted that when the director said cut, I patted Kermit on the head. I thought the sketch with Gonzo was one of the funniest things I ever did. I have to say this, though I shouldn’t, it’s very well performed. The atmosphere on set was very relaxed, everyone was happy. I think that helps the comedy. People are at their best when they’re relaxed and having fun.”
Edgar Bergen (Nov. 11, 1977)
Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wisecracking dummy Charlie McCarthy were around when the kind of punchline directed at Charlie (“You look a little wooden to me”) was brand new. It’s a joy to see them still in action. Fozzie has one of his best segments with his own ventriloquist act, which is stymied when his dummy, unlike Charlie, doesn’t talk. Bergen (father of Candice) was one of Henson’s personal heroes, and the cast is clearly honored to have him. Not for nothing did Henson later dedicate The Muppet Movie to Bergen’s “memory and magic.” Yes, Bergen’s lips move; get over it.
Bernadette Peters (Nov. 18, 1977)
Things can get raucous on The Muppet Show. Things explode. Weights come crashing down with Monty Python–like finality. But this is one of the more charming episodes as befits “one of the all-time, multi-talented beautiful ladies of the world,” Tony-winning Broadway icon Bernadette Peters. This episode’s backstage story involves Kermit’s six-ounce nephew, Robin, who feels unseen and unappreciated and decides to run away. Cue Peters’ lovely “Just One Person,” a series musical benchmark that was reprised at Henson’s memorial. Among the sillier highlights are chickens pecking out “Chopsticks” on a piano and a “Veterinarian’s Hospital” segment in which the patient is revealed to be a shoe (“It’s an 8 ½ triple D.” “That’s about the size of it”).
Bernadette Peters: “I was over the moon that I was invited to perform with them. It was very hard not to kiss the Muppets all the time. You forget that there is somebody beneath them; you just go with it. They say, ‘Please don’t kiss them because you have on lipstick and it stains the fabric.’ The songs couldn’t have been better. When I got ‘Just One Person,’ I knew what a very special song it was. It’s such an uplifting song and I love that about it. I grew up in the golden age of variety shows. That’s where I saw Tony Bennett, God bless him, singing with Lena Horne, Ethel Merman, and songs from Broadway shows. So many people did The Muppet Show; it will be so much fun to watch it again. Don’t you want to see Peter Sellers with the Muppets? What could be better? It’s so fun and exciting. I’m so glad it’s coming back. I wish they would make new ones.”
Steve Martin (Dec. 9, 1977)
A scheduling snafu causes Kermit to cancel Steve Martin’s episode so he can audition “new blood” for the show. Steve gets into the act and performs some now-vintage “Wild and Crazy Guy” bits, complete with arrow in the head. This 1977 time capsule glimpse of Steve poised for peak Martin-mania is matched in silliness with such acts as Marvin Suggs and His All-Food Glee Club performing, “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” and the rodent Lautrec Sisters dancing “The Garbage Can-Can.” As Scooter tells Steve at the top of the show, “You’re going to feel right at home here.” Best of all is that the usual canned laugh track is replaced with the actual laughter of the Muppet crew.
Julie Andrews (Dec. 25, 1977)
The Muppet Theatre is alive with the sound of Julie Andrews, who performs the Broadway standards, “Lonely Goatherd” and “I Whistle a Happy Tune” along with the sweet “When You Were a Tadpole.” Andrews and the Muppets go way back; she featured them on previous music specials, so she has an easy chemistry with them, as witness a segment in which a breezy conversation with Kermit is interrupted by Muppets blown hither and yon.
Julie Andrews: “I LOVED working with Jim Henson and his team. They were so creative, so original, so smart and the phenomenal Muppets gave us subtle life lessons, showed us our fallibilities with love and humor. Once we were on camera, I never once sensed the person behind the character, simply believed wholeheartedly that I was talking to Miss Piggy… and it was all such FUN. Singing a song with Kermit became a sweet interaction. How could I be so fond of a FROG? But I was … and always will be!”
Peter Sellers (Jan. 1, 1978)
Inspector Clouseau, a demented violinist, her late majesty Queen Victoria, and a Strangeloveian masseur; it’s all in a day’s work for consummate character actor Peter Sellers. It was said of Sellers that he was more at ease when in character. Which brings us to this telling exchange when Kermit mentions to Sellers backstage that he can just relax and be himself. Impossible, replies Sellers. “I could never be myself,” he explains. “No, you see, there is no me. I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed.” A nonplussed Kermit asks, “Can we change the subject?” Making this an extra-special episode is Kermit’s lovely rendition of his iconic song, “It’s Not Easy Being Green.”
Elton John (Jan. 8, 1978)
Elton John (“the greatest talent in the history of the universe”) was the first rock superstar to appear on The Muppet Show stage, and he came to play. He sings a quartet of his greatest hits, including “Crocodile Rock,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and with an assist from Miss Piggy in matching pink, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” Elton does not tone down the flamboyantly glam outfits, much to the distress of Sam the Eagle, who asks, “Why does he dress like a stolen car?” But that’s not the only piano magic on the episode. Rowlf and Fozzie duet on “Country Gardens” (better known to Alan Sherman fans as “Here’s to the Crabgrass”). A non-musical highlight is a literal running gag between the Swedish Chef and an elusive chicken. How they find themselves in “Pigs in Space” is, to quote “Bennie and the Jets,” weird and wonderful.
Rudolf Nureyev (Jan. 22, 1978)
At the time The Muppet Show’s most culturally classy booking to date is, in expectation, the episode of Sam the Eagle’s dreams: “At last to have a man of dignity, a man of culture on this weird, sick program.” Nureyev, introduced as “one of the world’s great masters of ballet,” lets his hair down so to speak, performing an excerpt from “Swine yes, Swine Lake,” dueting with Miss Piggy in a steam-bath set gender-reversed rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and channeling his inner Astaire with a tuxedo-clad tap dance to “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.” Highbrow and lowbrow were hilariously mismatched, and, according to show legend, the participation of the world’s most popularly known ballet dancer made it acceptable for other top artists to agree to do the show.
Cloris Leachman (Feb. 12, 1978)
The Academy Award and Emmy-winner, who died this year at 94, was fearless. In a 2011 Newsday interview, she said, “If it’s funny, I’ll do anything.” As witness this 1978 episode which boasts one of the series’ funniest conceits: a pig takeover of the show with porcine stand-ins for the core cast members. This puts Miss Piggy in a pickle: Save her Kermie or take this opportunity to star in the opening number? Leachman is a trouper, performing in an operetta, singing “Just in Time” to her desert island rescuer and giving out with a hog call. Like the opening number says, “That’s Entertainment.”
Zero Mostel (March 5, 1978)
When I spoke with Rita Moreno about her episode, she had one question: “Did you pick the Zero Mostel episode as one of the best? That was extraordinary.” This one does have everything: Lady wrestlers, the first Muppet Labs appearance of poor, put-upon Beaker, Sam the Eagle’s losing battle to make the show “morally upright, cultural and wholesome,” and Mostel, the promethean Tony-winning Broadway legend, performing “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” and an eerily funny recitation, “Fears of Zero.” By episode’s end, he has joined the ranks of the Muppet monsters. He doesn’t just feast on the scenery; at the close, he chomps downs down on Sam the Eagle’s beak.
Gilda Radner (April 2, 1978)
Gilda Radner, always the best of SNL’s original Not Ready for Prime Time Players at channeling her inner-child, is pure joy, whether reprising Emily Litella, bluffing her way through Gilbert & Sullivan with a seven-foot-tall talking carrot, becoming a reluctant human guinea pig in the Muppet Labs or tap-dancing with one shoe glued to her hand (don’t ask). The virtuosity of the puppeteers is on display in the “Lullaby of Broadway” number as performed by porcine Eskimos accompanied by a penguin, walrus, bear and a chicken (again, don’t ask).
Pearl Bailey (April 9, 1978)
The Muppet Show welcomed vaudeville veteran, variety and talk show staple and voice of Big Mama in Disney’s The Fox and the Hound, Pearl Bailey, who fronts a trio of great musical segments: a straight-ahead gospel song, a loose dressing room jam on “In the Good Old Summertime” and an elaborate production number recreating the jousting scene from Camelot, but, because of rights issues, using standards from other Broadway shows including Bailey’s Tony-winning signature tune, “Hello, Dolly!” Warm, sassy and in fine fettle, Bailey lives up to Kermit’s introduction as “one of the most wonderful stars of the whole entertainment world.”
Loretta Lynn (April 23, 1978)
“Us country singers can sing anywhere,” Loretta Lynn assures Kermit. In this fun format-breaking episode, “anywhere” is Platform Two at the railroad depot, which becomes a makeshift theatre while the Muppet facilities are being fumigated. You’re lookin’ at country as the First Lady of Country Music obliges with several great performances, including “Oh, Lonesome Me” from her dressing room (aka the broom closet) and—best for last—a baby-laden “One’s on the Way.” Recurring series set pieces such as “Veterinarian Hospital” lose nothing in the transition, proving you can stage The Muppet Show anywhere.
Loretta Lynn: “I think that every artist has that you-know-you-made-it-when feeling about when things happen in their career. When Jim Henson asked me to sing with the Muppets, that was my moment of knowing I’d made it! I’m glad I could be a small part of the incredible legacy Jim left behind for generations.”
Alice Cooper (Nov. 24, 1978)
It is a credit to The Muppet Show and shock rocker Alice Cooper that they met each other on their own terms. Sam the Eagle says, “You sir, are a demented, sick, degenerate, barbaric, naughty freak.” Cooper replies, “Why, thank you.”
Alice Cooper: “[The Muppet Show] was the No. 1 rated show in the world at the time, and I watched it every time it was on. I never thought they would ask me to be on it. When they finally asked me, I initially thought it might water down my image. They told me that Christopher Lee and Vincent Price had just done the show and then I immediately said yes. It was the most fun I’ve ever had doing anything. The funny thing about doing that show is the team of people behind the Muppets, they really ARE those characters. So when you’re in between takes you find yourself chatting with these pieces of felt as if they are alive and pretty soon you almost start to believe it. I’ve never actually disclosed this to anyone before, but Miss Piggy was coming on to me the ENTIRE time we were shooting. It got so bad that I had a man-to-frog chat with Kermit because I felt like he was getting really ticked off about it. He just looked at me and said ‘Hey, what can I say… she’s a pig’.”
Danny Kaye (Dec. 25, 1978)
Those who were dreading an appearance by Manny Kaye, the tuned clam player, will be relieved to learn that Danny Kaye is this episode’s special guest. I have yet to hear a veteran comedy writer say a flattering thing about Kaye on Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, but growing up, he had the most kid appeal of the entertainers my parents encouraged me to watch. On this episode, he makes with the funny faces, the funny voices (as the Swedish Chef’s uncle), the expertly-executed physical comedy (during a combative duet with Miss Piggy on “Cheek to Cheek”) and sings a lovely rendition of one of his most beloved songs, “The Inch Worm.”
Harry Belafonte (Jan. 5, 1979)
Of course he sings “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” but Harry Belafonte, who did not make frequent television appearances, worked closely with Henson and the writers to create an impactful episode. The song “Turn the World Around,” features Muppets wearing authentically-designed African masks. Belafonte reprised the hopeful song at Henson’s memorial service.
Harry Belafonte: “Jim Henson was a master contributor to the learning experiences of children. He constantly exposed his audiences to worthy worldly adventures to which they otherwise might not have been exposed. He brought imagery and challenge by constantly exposing the young to exciting information. Jim’s value system forced me to find the better parts of what I could do in addressing the needs of the young.”
Leslie Uggams (Jan. 26, 1979)
How versatile is Leslie Uggams? She’s an Emmy- and Tony Award–winner, a dramatic actress and a dynamite entertainer. She also proves to be a deft straight woman opposite a pun-happy boomerang fish-thrower. She also holds her own against one of children’s television’s biggest stars, Big Bird, Kermit’s friend “from the same neighborhood, Sesame Street.” When Bird meets Miss Piggy, sparks fly, especially when Big Bird doesn’t know who she is (he asks if the gold star on her dressing room is for perfect attendance). As Uggams sings, “Hey there, good times.”
Leslie Uggams: “Working with the Muppets was an amazing experience! I actually had conversations with them like they were real people. It was a little bizarre looking back on it. Jim Henson wasn’t really a very talkative man, but his Muppets certainly were. I loved Big Bird the most. He just saw the world in such a different way. He was always trying to find the good in people, in situations, and in life. I appeared with the Muppets four other times — three on Sesame Street and once on a Julie Andrews variety show in which we were all special guests. The Muppets always just felt so real.”
Liza Minnelli (Dec. 28, 1979)
“It’s all yours, Liza.” If anyone is up for The Muppet Show’s “Let’s put on a show” spunk, it’s Liza Minnelli. In this award-winning episode, the show breaks format to goof on the murder mystery genre. Minnelli does way more than “smile and show my legs” as actress Liza O’Shaunessy, who hires P.I. Kermit to find out who’s threatening to murder everyone in her upcoming show. But it’s Liza who kills with showstopping performances of “Copacabana,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and the poignant ballad, “A Quiet Thing.”
Liza Minnelli: “Jim Henson was wonderful to work with. You were talking to puppets, but then after about four minutes you thought they were real. It made you feel kind of stupid but just great at the same time.”
Mark Hamill (Feb. 29, 1980)
Luke Skywalker, C-3PO and R2-D2 make a smashing entrance backstage, or as Luke calls it, “some sort of comedy-variety show planet.” Their search for Chewbacca precludes them from performing, but Luke’s cousin, Mark Hamill, is eager to oblige. Unfortunately, Hamill’s talents are pretty much limited to gargling Gershwin. The farce is strong with this one, especially in the two-part “Pigs in Space,” featuring Gonzo as Dearth Nadir. Nine Star Wars films and not once did Chewie and Artoo dance.
Carol Burnett (Feb. 8, 1981)
The Queen of Comedy meets variety’s standard bearers and the collaboration exceeds all expectations (the episode won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing). Breaking format again, this episode stages a dance marathon during the show and doesn’t miss a step. Carol plays against type as a diva (“This is one of the three worst shows I’ve ever seen,” she tells Kermit, and is forced to confess, “There are no other two, I was just being kind.”) She is hilariously spared no indignity, from being partnered with Animal in the marathon to being promised and then denied the opportunity to do her famous ‘Lonely Asparagus’ sketch. Dare we say we’re so glad we had this time together?
Carol Burnett: “I really felt like I was talking to and playing with real live characters. Such fun! I also remember having my young daughter with me and that they invited her into their workroom and taught her how to make her very own Muppet. The whole experience was one filled with laughter… and love.”