The Muppets on Saturday Night Live: Final (full) appearance on January 17, 1976
Originally published January 20, 2015.
When Lorne Michaels first conceptualized Saturday Night Live in 1976, he imagined it as a live variety show. There would be sketch comedy and music, but also stand-up comedy, short films, and puppets. Michaels was a gifted producer with a great eye for talent, and he’d seen Henson’s Muppets on commercials and more mainstream variety shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Jimmy Dean Show. The humor on those shows was generally fairly cornball, vaudevillian humor. Jimmy Dean’s show was written by old vaudeville comedy writers, which was fine with Jim. He loved the silly, pun-filled stage humor filled with misunderstandings and sarcasm. But there was a technical wizardry to his puppetry that made the humor stand out. His puppets could do things no other puppets had done before, and the audience‘s “how did they do that??” amazement made the humor that much sillier, by contrast. Henson had always believed that Americans could learn to see puppetry as an adult art form, the way Europeans had viewed it for centuries. Henson’s first professional work was a daily show called Sam and Friends, which ran for fifteen minutes before the evening news in Washington, DC. Ed Sullivan and Jimmy Dean were his follow-up attempts to put puppetry in the adult mainstream, but all of the humor in these shows had been family-friendly. When Henson was approached by Joan Ganz Cooney to provide the puppets for Sesame Street, his main concern was that it could relegate puppetry to “art for children” in the minds of the American public. And he was right; it did. By 1976, Lorne Michaels was ready to challenge that perception. Not only could Henson do family-friendly humor, he believed Henson could competently create puppet comedy specifically for adults. Puppetry with a political and a sexual edge to it. For Jim, it was the culmination of a long-held dream.
Unfortunately, it was not the dream of anyone else at Saturday Night Live. The cast was embarrassed to share the stage with puppets. The writers despised having to write “for felt”, as Michael O’Donoghue described it, and found Henson’s attempts to defend the characters both precious and pretentious. Worse yet, the live audiences were primed for a specific laid-back, Second City-inspired “cool” comedy; laughing at puppets wasn’t on the “cool” radar, and would happen only sporadically. Still, Michaels liked the idea, and “The Land of Gorch” appeared in each of Saturday Night Live’s first ten episodes. The Land of Gorch was a mystical land filled with archetypal characters that the writers and puppeteers would use to satirize popular culture. There was an overblown King Ploobis, who rules through arrogance and insatiable appetite. Ploobis’s shallow, shrewish wife Queen Peuta was constantly nagging Ploobis and was too self-involved to catch Ploobis’ ongoing sexual trysts with her “sexy” (by Gorch standards) female handmaid Vazh. Scred, King Ploobis’ sycophantic majordomo regularly inflated the king’s ego enough to scheme behind his back. And Prince Wisss was the stoner son who spent his time huffing toxic crater gases. In skits, they would refer to drinking, drug abuse, masturbation, infidelity, gluttony, governmental waste, and sex toys. Unfortunately, “refer to” is the depth of The Land of Gorch skits. While the rest of the show was infused with truly edgy satire, the writers would draw straws to see who had to write the Muppet sketch each week. The losers would toss together a traditional mix of silly slapstick peppered with bawdy references and corny jokes. It was a recipe for mediocrity, and far from the satirical edge of the rest of the program. After ten episodes and plenty of strained relationships, Michaels cut “The Land of Gorch” sketches from the show. For the remainder of the first season, puppeteer Jerry Nelson would pop up with the breakout puppet Scred, begging for The Muppets to be rehired. The season finished out with The Muppets as a running gag for failure, and Jim’s hopes for mainstream adult acceptance of puppetry dashed.
Watching the first season of Saturday Night Live today, Jim Henson and The Muppets were the butt of a joke. A joke told by a world that didn’t want to change. But Jim Henson was the kind of dreamer we all should aspire to emulate. Because forty years later? The joke was clearly on the world, not Henson. Dreams can do that, if we’re brave enough to stick with them.