The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)

So there was this girl in college. There always is.

Her name was Samantha, and she thought the Madison Avenue advertising frogs were about the funniest things ever created. We spent several months asking each other to lunch by saying “A little something from the grill, Jill?” and responding appropriately. Once she explained it to me, anyway. I had never seen the movie.

When I hit teenagerhood around 1984 and was at my most insufferable, the Muppets were among many, many things I lost interest in, as teenagers often will. So I passed on The Muppets Take Manhattan. I didn’t see this movie for many years and, to be honest, I found it really disappointing when I finally did. Watching it with our son this morning didn’t change my mind. It’s a very mediocre outing for the gang, easily the least of the first three installments. It is punctuated with some incredibly funny moments, as it should be, and our kid howled with laughter several times, but by the end – possibly in part because of that endless end – he was halfway to tuning out.

Focusing on the bright moments for now, there are the advertising frogs, who really are hilarious. There’s Joan Rivers, painting makeup all over Miss Piggy. There’s the narrowed-eyes variant of Miss Piggy, finally losing her temper after several raging incidents of jealousy, going after a mugger on roller skates. In point of fact, Miss Piggy is really the best thing about this movie, and the mugger scene comes to a brilliant climax with one of the funniest moments in any Muppet outing ever, when Gregory Hines attempts to mediate / escalate their argument. If we woke the neighbors roaring over this sequence this morning, we apologize.

When I put the calendar for our blog together, I couldn’t have known that this would come up in the rotation right after Disney+ added 118 episodes of The Muppet Show to their rotation. We’ve watched a few over the last several days – the triumphant and utterly amazing Marty Feldman appearance, the uncut Vincent Prince show with its closing number restored – and Manhattan badly sags after the explosive 27 minutes of lunacy in even the worst of the TV episodes. The movie starts introducing the generation of Muppets I never liked: Rizzo the Rat, the bears, the Muppet Babies. (I swear the voice actors in that cartoon were going out of their way to make every single character sound like nails on a chalkboard!) I wish I liked the human actors, but I don’t.

The Muppets Take Manhattan may be a lackluster movie, but there’s still some Muppet spirit in it. For example, during the closing wedding scene, some doves are released. Our son asked “Where did those birds come from?” and I replied “The Creature Shop.” Wokka-wokka-wokka!

The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

I do love it when our son enjoys a film more than I did. “That was comedy gold,” he exclaimed. I don’t love it when I enjoy a film a lot less than I once did. I honestly remembered 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper as being far more full of laughs than I found it this morning. There’s still a lot to like, but I was more amused by things that I probably wouldn’t have noticed when I last saw this, many years ago, like the costumes.

So for this outing, Kermit and Fozzie are investigative reporters who have followed the famous fashion designer Lady Holiday back to London to interview her about the theft of some of her jewels. Lady Holiday designs the ugliest things women have ever worn: bridesmaid dresses for ladies who hate their bridesmaids. It’s a beautifully unstated running gag, never acknowledged onscreen, while you just know Jim Henson had to keep sending back draft designs with kind notes that the ideas were simply not hideous enough. Lady Holiday’s brother, the irresponsible parasite Nicky, wears the worst men’s clothes in London. Even his socks are shocking.

I wondered how much of the script originally came from Henson, Oz, Rogers, and Goelz just sitting around with their characters improvising. There’s a hysterical moment where the Muppets break character and Kermit starts critiquing Miss Piggy’s performance. Piggy protests that she’s going for eighty emotions, and Kermit sighs that then surely she can get one of them right. The kid didn’t find this as funny as I did. Later on, Oscar the Grouch and Peter Ustinov bemoan their very brief cameos and I giggled for a full minute.

But the first of this movie’s two big problems is that the guest stars keep stealing the show from our heroes. I’m not sure it should be like this. Honestly, my favorite scene by a mile is when John Cleese and Joan Sanderson, who had played Cleese’s mostly deaf nemesis in a brilliantly funny Fawlty Towers a couple of years previously, have their dead pets and dismissed staff lifestyle intruded upon by a pig climbing the outside wall. Cleese begins hunting for the intruders with a fireplace poker and ends up recommending a supper club. But the problem from a Muppet perspective is that they aren’t amusing in response to anything the Muppets can do; their scene would have been every bit as hilarious if Tim Brooke-Taylor had played the wife and Marty Feldman had broken in.

This goes on all through the film. Diana Rigg and Charles Grodin, playing the Holidays, are far more interesting than Miss Piggy. Michael Robbins has a tiny scene as a museum guard who does not like pepperoni, and my eyes were on him, not Kermit and Fozzie. And then there’s Peter Falk, playing a tramp with a coat full of used wristwatches. Maybe he isn’t actually credited at the end because he felt bad for walking away with the movie entirely.

These probably don’t read like “problems,” but they are in a Muppet movie. The Muppets get in the way of the funniest stuff. In no universe should that ever be the case. Actually, the funniest Muppet moment is the first appearance of the running gag of everybody talking at once, and shushing at once, except for Janice, who’s in the middle of a mildly risque anecdote. Many of the later-day Muppet Show cast, including Pops and the Electric Mayhem’s trumpeter, Lips, are in this movie. Since it seems unlikely that seasons four and five of the Show will be seen again, at least in full, due to music rights issues, this is one of the few chances to see these characters right now.

That said, the other problem is that Paul Williams didn’t write the music. In The Muppet Movie, the songs are all great and they never overstayed their welcome. These songs aren’t and the film stops dead twice for very, very old-fashioned dance numbers. One’s all top hats and tails and the other is a water ballet with synchronized swimmers. The first could have been edited at least in half and the other should have been abandoned completely. Almost none of the other songs are in any way memorable; it’s been an hour and I’ve forgotten them already.

The exception is the Mayhem’s number, “Night Life.” This was actually a minor revelation to me, because I really just remember Lips’ trumpet being added to the TV show’s end credits music and didn’t remember what he added to the Mayhem’s sound. Granted, one part of my professed Electric Mayhem fandom is me being silly, and another part is just loving Floyd being such a smartass all the time, but Henson and company really did give the Mayhem some fine songs to play, and that trumpet in this song is awesome. I don’t know that Lips actually has much of a character, but he can play.

So it’s by no means a bad film, but I think it’s seriously flawed and about ten minutes too long. The kid loved it to pieces, because it’s full of slapstick and goofy lines and surprises and stunt drivers. At one point, Beauregard drives a cab right into the Happiness Hotel’s lobby, and I thought this might be our son’s favorite moment because he was laughing so hard that he was clutching his sides, and then, when he should have reversed out, he doesn’t. So it’s a great film for nine year-olds, and a pretty good one for their nitpicky parents.

The Muppet Movie (1979)

Sometimes it just takes kids a while to fall in love with the Muppets. Some adults never quite manage it. Once upon a time, one of my colleagues at the museum where I used to work confessed – and “confessed” is the right word because we’d just lunched with our counterparts at the Center for Puppetry Arts – that she found the Muppets monotonous.

“They’re what?” I said.

“Monotonous,” she said.

“Manna-wha?” I said.

“Monotonous!” she yelled. And of course I sang “Doo doo doo-doo-doo,” and she looked at me utterly baffled before it hit her and she gave me a death glare. I do miss her.

And our son, he didn’t get them either when we first showed him the program around age four. It probably didn’t help that we started with the first season of The Muppet Show, which honestly isn’t really all that good, but he found the normal-sized Muppets creepy and strange and the full-sized monsters horrifying. After a few days, we skipped ahead to season two, which is infinitely better thanks in no small part to the addition of Jerry Juhl as head writer, and because I adore Madeline Kahn, we watched that episode. She did a sketch with one of the big monsters, Doglion, and it scared the absolute life out of him and he’s had no time for the Muppets ever since.

I’d say that maybe he was too young, except my older son was loving the Muppets when he was four. He drew a picture of Elton John surrounded by his adoring food after watching that one in 2001 or so. You can never tell.

So this morning it was time to push the issue and he didn’t sit down to this movie with very much enthusiasm. Making matters worse, there’s a great big ungainly Criterion package of classic Godzilla movies just sitting on the shelf he could be watching (be here next Sunday). So we sat down to watch something he really didn’t want to watch, and apart from giving me a death glare for joining in with Floyd Pepper on some of the verses in “Can You Picture That?” – I do tend to draw those – he had a really good time apart from the slower songs. It could have been worse. I really wanted his mom to sing Janice’s part. Get back to me in about nine years. I bet when our son’s seventeen he would not find our singing along to what may well be the best song released in 1979 in any way funny.

Incidentally, I completely love Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. They’re the best band-within-a-fiction that’s ever been. And while “Can You Picture That?” is the centerpiece of this movie for me, the other six songs are every bit as flawlessly crafted. I’d mentioned Paul Williams’ curious luck when we ran into him in a 1977 episode of The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries; it remains absolutely bizarre to me that the fellow who wrote these great, great songs for the film never had hit singles of his own. Sure, a couple of these aren’t the sort of songs I’d listen to regularly, but it’s a weird, stupid world when “The Rainbow Connection” loses out on an Academy Award to… errr… “It Goes Like It Goes.”

So anyway, the film’s infectious mix of goofball puns, how’d-they-do-that effects, and incredibly lovable characters won our son over and he really did like the movie and laughed a lot. For us grownups, there’s also the astonishing number of cameo appearances by big celebrities, like Kahn again, and Telly Savalas as her tough boyfriend. Only Steve Martin and Mel Brooks try to steal the film from its stars and they’re both hilarious, but I also love James Coburn owning the only bar in the world too tough for James Coburn, and, in perhaps the greatest stupid gag I can think of – because I can’t think of it without smiling – Carol Kane answering “Yeth?” whenever anyone shouts “Myth!” I fed that to Marie last night and she left me hanging. I’m still shaking my head.

And of course even though we try to watch movies without interruption or comment, our son had been chuckling at Animal so much that I couldn’t resist because the puns were so infectious. They got parked in that ghost town and when Floyd says he needs to walk Animal, I asked our son whether he wishes Animal had a bigger part. Was what happens next his favorite part of the movie? Do bears go “Moving right along” in Studebakers?