The Muppet Show: Twiggy (1976)
     directed by Peter Harris
          starring Jim Henson, Frank Oz, & Jerry Nelson

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The first television show review for the Phantom Library, and it's the Muppets! Given that the Muppets are a semi-regular feature in Phantom adaptations, somehow, it's a good place to begin.

For those who aren't familiar, The Muppet Show was one of the biggest and most successful ventures of Jim Henson's puppeteering entertainment career (the other, at the time this aired, was Sesame Street). Presented as an old-fashioned vaudeville variety show that was put on by a motley group of puppets of various species and talents each week, it started airing in the 1970s and became a classic for its quirky presentation, its light-hearted comedy, and its specific brand of Weird Nostalgia. One of the conceits of the show was that it had a different celebrity guest star to do a few acts each week, which is why you'll see British supermodel Twiggy's name up there as this week's feature.

Episodes of the show didn't have individual titles, but this one is often affectionately referred to "The Phantom of the Muppet Show", which eventually also became the title of the 1988 children's book based on it a decade later. The Phantom-story-related part of the plot is pretty easily summed up, but this is a variety show, so it happens in the nooks and crannies between harried showgirls rushing to their cues and a stage manager wringing his froggy little hands about schedules and superstition.

The first act, which features a bunch of floppy disco noodles with teeth frantically noodling about the stage, isn't especially related to the Phantom plot unless you consider their only lyric, DANCE, to be a command passed on from a resident micromanaging ghost, but the action starts when Scooter, the theater's gopher, uses his first line to outright refer to a Phantom of the Muppet Show that he believes is haunting the place, adding that he saw a ghoulish face in Twiggy's dressing room. The scene is very similar to the gossiping of the ballet rats in Leroux's novel, although costumer Hilda's strident argument against this and claim that he probably just saw her going about her business is more similar to Madame Giry's attempts to protect his secrets. Of course, no one believes this until one of the showgirls runs screaming out of her dressing room to declare she's also seen the Phantom before fainting.

No time to dwell on that, though, because we have a sketch to get on with now! Like many of the acts in this show, it's vaguely related to the Phantom idea, with Twiggy giving a press conference as a supermodel only to be confronted with a reporter who has a physical disfigurement and has experienced discrimination about it (this is the Muppets, so his problem is that he has two noses, ironic when the Phantom doesn't even have one). Her ensuing song, "In My Life" by the Beatles, probably isn't especially related but is still nice.

Statler and Waldorf, two Muppet staples whose gimmick is that they sit in a balcony box reserved for them every night and complain about the acts, are almost too easy to fit into a Phantom story - between the obvious parallel to Box 5 and the crochety complaints that nevertheless never seem to stop them from being here constantly their entire lives, they're half Phantoms themselves. At the moment, they're making a joke about how Twiggy makes their hearts sing but their pacemakers are out of tune, but then again, that's musical, too!

Backstage, paranoia has begun to sweep the cast and crew; comedian Fozzie Bear and avant-garde performance artist Gonzo the Great are both frightened after another sighting and demand that the stage manager, Kermit the Frog, do something about it. Kermit, who has been trying to keep this trainwreck in motion all night and barely hanging on by the skin of the teeth he doesn't have, scoffs at this, but the audience gets to know he's wrong right away when the Phantom himself pops up from behind the railing near the dressing rooms and cackles before disappearing again. His line is "What fools these Muppets be!", a slightly mangled quote from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which it is spoken by the mischievous fairy Puck while he encourages his king to watch the comical mess he's made of several pairs of lovers' attempts to woo one another. There isn't much wooing going on here, but the use of a Shakespeare quote is a signal that the Phantom is A Very Serious Actor. (He does not appear to be a singer, incidentally, but since this is a variety show, he could be perfectly at home doing a lot of different kinds of acts without being out of place.)

The Phantom never wears a mask, hood, or any other concealment in this; he's just out there with his face being terrifying to everyone, which is of course the Phantom's original power move when meeting with the managers in Leroux's novel. Given that this Phantom apparently doesn't care much about the audience and is just here to harass the folks backstage, the fact that he never bothers to wear a mask makes this a sort of elongated managers' dinner with bonus puppetry. He appears as a sort of strange little grey and blue dragon or troll, with glowing eyes reminiscent of the original Phantom's, a long toothy snout, and a number of distressing whiskery things growing out of his face; of course, this would be hard to pull off with a human Phantom, but this is a Muppet so he can look as weird as the imaginations of the workshop want him to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He's got a vibe, is all I'm saying. It's also worth noting that this is not the first appearance of the puppet Phantom; he was in the episode immediately prior to this one as well, in which the guest star was Vincent Price and a number of monstrous and ghostly new puppets were designed for this especially spooky event. (The fact that Vincent Price was never a Phantom feels like something went wrong somewhere in the universe, so it's nice to at least see him tangentially related to one.) The Phantom puppet wasn't named in that episode and had no individual lines, appearing in ensemble scenes among many other monsters, so it was easy enough to reassign him to a specific role later.

After a detour to an attempted sketch singing "Let It Snow" that had to be aborted after snow buried the performers, Gonzo is single-handedly setting the previous story's time period for us in the next act by being in bed, wearing an old-fashioned sleeping cap with a long tassel and reading by candlelight with his dog. He and Twiggy do a performance of A.A. Milne's comic poem "The King's Breakfast", which isn't particularly related to anything but DOES feature enormous super-sized puppets who look like alien humans, so it's hard to argue witih it.

The ballroom sketch is up next, a recurring feature on the show in which various couples go ballroom dancing and use the opportunity to tell each other jokes, but given the night's theme, the ballroom's overabundance of crystal chandeliers is more ominous than usual, especially when the sketch ends with Kermit literally being thrown into one. A loud blonde Muppet also makes a joke about recording albums of lullabyes that never sell; the joke is that she's loud and no one would find her restful, but it's also got a whiff of echoing Leroux's Meg referring to Christine as singing like a crow.

A few other wacky things happen - Rolf the Dog plays the piano, Fozzie uses a vending machine that dispenses psychiatric advice, Statler falls out of the balcony and has to hang there for half the show - before we return to the plot, with the once-stoic Hilda now also screaming that she has seen the hideous Phantom. The joke is that she actually just saw Gonzo and his always weird face, but when Kermit once again declares that there's no such thing, the Phantom gets offended enough to actually show himself. The joke, which goes "What has a skull-like head, fiery green eyes, and a torn cape? I don't know either, but it's right behind you!" describes both the puppet and the Phantom fairly well, although we don't get an explanation for what's going on yet as Kermit, understandably, runs for it instead of having a conversation.

Another sketch or two, including one containing the on-the-ball Phantom comedy of an exchange where one Muppet asks, "Is this lady making a fool of him?" and the other answers, "No, he managed it all by himself", and we finally get our capstone scene, in which the Phantom appears in Kermit's office and introduces himself this time as Uncle Deadly, better known as the Phantom of the Muppet Show. He explains that the theater is his home and has been for a long time, since he was a popular actor himself (he especially claims he was a great Hamlet, which adds to the Shakespeare quote from earlier), but that he has been in hiding since his performance of Othello was critically panned (given that the role has been a famous target of blackface performances, especially in opera, it's probably for the best we don't find out exactly why).

So, he's been haunting the place ever since because he swore no one else would be allowed to perform here, either, and has been intentionally up to hijinks to drive everyone away, as Phantom's usually do. Less common is how physical he is, actively grabbing and shaking Kermit around when he threatens him, but then Muppets tend to do a lot of physical comedy.

Amusingly, a few minutes later the janitor, George (who I guess is vaguely our Joseph Buquet for this one but only vaguely), shows up and reveals that he found and old mask and cape in the cellar and used them as fodder to spread a rumor of a Phantom as a joke, so he is not having any more fun than anyone else once he realizes that his prank is actually a reality.

The show has come to an end, and like a lot of Muppet Show installments, it doesn't really resolve much; Uncle Deadly appears on stage for the sendoff only to be rejected by Twiggy, who does look very Christine-like with her blonde hair and wafty nightie, and that's all she wrote. The other Muppets to appear to be hugging and talking to him as the credits roll, so it's most likely that he'll keep doing what he's doing and theyll just roll with the punches whenever he scares someone's pants off.

Obviously, this is a throwaway plot on a comedy variety show about performing animal puppets, so we're not getting much substantive analysis out of it. But like other Muppet plots, it's fun, pays a nice homage to the source material, and sets up a future toolkit for other Phantom-like encounters, and if you enjoy any of those things, it's an enjoyable half hour of television.

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