Thursday, May 27, 2021

Of Marxes and Muppets


I am continually in a mood to watch and learn about the Marx Brothers.

I am also continually in a mood to watch and learn about classic Muppets.

Due to some new book and blu-ray releases for the former, and streaming accessibility for the latter there has been a recent vaudeville conjunction in my life that made me realize the classic Muppets are the true heirs to the Marx legacy, and that connection spotlights what has been off about recent Muppet attempts.

First an important aside.
To those individuals complaining that the Muppets have been cancelled:

Stop it.  

There is more of the Muppet Show easily available now than ever before in the history of Muppetness, including when it first aired, because instant selection of any episode wasn't an option then.

Aside from one episode removed due to unpleasant crimes of the guest star, the single other episode and occasional songs that are missing are due to legal rights and copyright laws.  In other words, free enterprise and capitalism.   In a few cases there's a note indicating content made today probably wouldn't use the over the top, rude stereotypes that appear.  If sitting through those few seconds of text removes your enjoyment of one of the greatest shows ever made, you are a weenie.  

So knock it off.

Heck some of the Marx Brothers' jokes that were "cancelled" following their original airing once the Hays Code was introduced have been restored on the gorgeous high definition transfers of the Paramount years' Blu Rays.  If anything, stuff is being uncancelled.

Hey, speaking of those Paramount films, here's another aside. I had my opinion vindicated by Marx experts who wrote the new books I got and did the commentary on the Blu Rays. Two of them said what I have always thought. While some more respected ones are better overall movies Animal Crackers is their favorite, as it is the best showcase of the Brothers themselves. Even the best MGM films were based on Irving Thalberg telling them they could make twice the money with half the laughs, creating films that appealed more to general audiences. I prefer the "more laughs" and focus on the chaos of the Brothers in the films more geared to Marx fans. (Plus the later efforts lack Zeppo, true Marx fans understand he's important to the dynamic.)  The Coconuts had too much adjustment to the new medium of talking pictures, Monkey Business and  Horse Feathers are missing Margaret Dumont.  Duck Soup is overrated (but still fantastic) compared to the other Paramount films. It's director worked with Laurel and Hardy before and steered the comedy more that way, plus it's missing Chico's and Harpo's solos.   That first set of films are the closest we'll ever get to what the ever changing performances were like on stage, and Animal Crackers is by far the best adaptation of the two based on Broadway Shows.  It is truly outstanding the comedy in a movie that is Ninety One years old, (and based on an older play) still holds up hysterically today.

Back to where I was originally going. 

Having completed watching all five seasons, of The Muppet Show  there are amazing similarities between the Henson creations and the Vaudeville trained, Broadway hit, golden age of Hollywood film brothers.  I think it comes from the fact that many other comedy teams performed and honed their one specific act as they traveled the country.  Due to the ability of their Mother Minnie to realize that they'd get more money for originally larger groups with multiple performing skills,  and eventually entire reviews and plays rather than single acts, the Brothers' absurd humor came in many varieties, with a plentitude of artistic off shoots.

My original intent was to demonstrate that classic Muppets follow directly in the well known  Marx Brothers footsteps.  However, my daughter was sadly proved right when I asked an entire group of fresh out of college engineers if they knew who the Marx Brothers were, and with the exception of one saying, "The communism guy?" the answer was a resounding no.

Therefore, since the Muppet Show is easily streaming, I will instead say, 
"If you enjoyed the Muppets, you should look into watching Marx Brothers movies."  
I will also talk about why more recent revivals of the Muppets haven't reached the quality levels of the classic show and movies, because I'm old and bitter. 

Here are the similarities:

Unlike other teams that specialized in one area, the Marx Brothers were adept at physical, verbal and musical comedy.  This may stem from their roots as initially a music act,  again, building into an entire review and Broadway shows.  Similarly the Muppets have had music as a key ingredient since their inception, doing lip synch and dance bits on Sam and Friends with verbal comedy and slapstick in the Wilkins and other commercials. They are equally adept at all three types of humor, and Jim Henson and Frank Oz should ALWAYS be listed among the greatest comedy teams of all time.

One other important point about comedy music that the Marxes and Muppets shared- in order to be able to make doing things badly, musically funny, it takes an amazing amount of real musical talent.  Therefore one never knows if a number will be played straight or goofy.  Rowlf's solo performances ranged from the heartfelt "What a Wonderful World," to instrumentals with talking statue or flying candelabra sight gags, to the outstandingly loopy "You and I and George."  That lines up with Groucho sometimes singing straight songs ("Sing While You Sell," "Riding the Range") up to the the lunacy of things like "Hello, I Must be Going."  It also matches Chico's varying piano solos, combining adept musical skills with comedy gold. ("I cant' think of the finish.")

Harpo was normally wacky to the point that he seemed to be in a different film back in the Paramount  days and acted as a complete agent of chaos, equally likely to intentionally help or hinder his brother's efforts.  Yet he dropped all comedy to perform his beautiful harp pieces. Similarly, Gonzo, the Muppets resident weirdo (which is a high bar indeed) sings some of their sweetest songs. ("Going to Go Back There Some Day," "The Wishing Song," and "My Way.")  

It takes a huge amount of talent to have that range. There's a reason Spike Jones recruited only top level artists into the musical mayhem of the City Slickers.

The music is missing from much of modern Muppets and it detracts from the core of who they are, in the same way that is was mostly missing from the Marx's attempt to adapt into a play not specifically written for them in Room Service.

Speaking of Room Service, that's another aspect they share.  The characters work best when they play themselves, even when doing adaptations.  Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo are unchanging in their best efforts regardless of environment they occupy, or names they use.  Similarly, the Muppets are like that in adaptations, from episodes of the show (Robin Hood, Alice in Wonderland, etc.) to various films.  I still think Muppet Treasure Island is the best of the post Henson movies, because the characters are the most consistent, and there's music throughout that the Muppets themselves are a large part of. 

Having Tim Curry practically be a Muppet helped a great deal.  He can join Avery Schriber, Leo Sayer, Christopher Reeve, Mark Hamill and a few others, including surprisingly Debbie Harry,  with that honor.

Deviation from the original characters is a huge problem.  With the exception of Harpo's backstage acrobatics in Night at the Opera the big stunt filled climaxes of the MGM films could have been done by any other comedians' stunt performers.  This is why switching performers for Muppets is a much bigger deal than changing cartoon voice actors.  So much of the performer's personality goes into the Muppet.  Kermit was getting flustered in the one episode of Muppets Now we tried and it reduced Anabelle to screaming, "WHERE'S THE SCRUNCHY FACE!!!?!?!?!"   

It was evident in the original show.  When the band was in the background and Scooter (performed by Richard Hunt) was in the foreground, Anabelle often pointed out that, “Janice (normally Richard Hunt) isn’t feeling’ the music like she usually does. “

It’s seen very clearly in Gonzo's evolution as one of the last characters with his original performer. When the Muppet Show began, Dave Goelz was just starting as a performer from working in the creature shop. Gonzo is lovably creepy but mostly withdrawn with moments of artistic outrage. ("RUBES! YOKELS!)   Goelz admitted that early on he'd sneak out another door when a big name guest star came in.  Over the course of the show he, (and Gonzo ) became more self confident, turning Gonzo  into the character who believed all his off the wall ideas were wonderful, and loudly yelled "HA HA" (or random Spanish phrases) as he ran into a scene and assumed everyone would love his chicken acts, dancing cheeses, or whatever.  Now, Gonzo is kind of the elder statesman of weirdness for the Muppets, wearing loud clothes but being much more laid back about things.  

However, in the new ones, his eyelids don't move, removing subtleties of expressions.  That's something that really expanded his emotional range after the series' first season. It's another point missing from the new Muppet versions, subtlety.  Like Groucho's eyebrow wiggles, Chico's lightning fast pun pile ups in normal conversation, and Harpo's background moments, there were a lot of subtle things in the Muppet Show, along with the obvious craziness. Watch the periphery of any production number or backstage moments for mountains of hidden laughs.   Animal is a ironically good example for subtlety. He's mostly wild eyed and frantic in the new versions. Originally, he spent most of the time breathing heavily with his eyes almost all the way closed, only exploding here and there to much greater comic effect.

I always felt his defining moment (not counting "Fever" with Rita Moreno) was in the Dudley Moore episode when the band huddles up to decide if they should return to play the gig. The whole time Animal has his eyes lidded and is quietly repeating, ""  until Floyd looks up and says, "Okay." Animal opens his eyes all the way wide and starts bouncing around and yelling "OKAY! OKAY! OKAY!"

The power of the characters, and their versatility plays into the big areas why I feel these two groups are connected.  It comes down to constantly providing the unexpected.  Most comedy teams have a standard comic and straight man dynamic. In both the Marx Brothers and Muppets its hard to ever predict what will happen, and what role each character will take. 

Almost every time the camera cuts to Statler and Waldorf, they spin an old joke or insult each other or the proceedings.  Then, shortly into season four, they knock out a sweet and tender version of "A Very Good Year," with no warning.    

The Marx Brothers share that unpredictability.  Sometimes even Harpo is the straight man.   Its very telling that there are more and longer uninterrupted music and dance numbers in "Day at the Races" than there are in "Night at the Opera."

The mix is SO important, and gets missed by almost all later version of the Muppets.  The craziness was always surrounded by beautiful artistic moments, just like in Marx Brothers movies.  The audience never knew what was coming, and each was enhanced by being placed in sharp relief by the other.  

Harry Belafonte's first television  performance of his signature tune, "The Banana Boat Song," was filled with irreverence, foolishness and goofing around.  The he ended the show with "Turn the World Around," one of the most beautiful moments on television.  The Muppets combine this unpredictability with subtlety and consistency. The Electric Mayhem is the main band, and there's a slight difference between them the pit band due to musical functions of the two. Yet, when they have a guest star that uses a type of music neither of them would normally provide, a different Muppet combo is used.  And the memories are long.  Floyd plays the vibraphone with Don Knotts at the start of season two, then again with Linda Ronstadt at the end of season five.  As for subtle motions, they're included in the musical styles and reactions of the bands.  Watch the Elton John episode. The Electric Mayhem are clearly IN AWE to be performing with him.

There's a lot of respect for their roots in the Muppets, but never at the expense of unpredictability and showmanship.  Ethel Merman begins "There's No Business Like Show Business," as a heartfelt, reminiscing, spoken word section back stage, while the gang respectfully looks on.  It then erupts into a Broadway style show stopper.  However, when Milton Berle started "Top Banana" the same way, it morphed into he and Fozzie doing a classic Baggy Pants vaudevillian routine.   That mix of respect and irreverence was a key point of the true Muppets.

On what could be a similar note but is entirely random, I have managed to work, "Gonzo Fiddles While George Burns" into normal conversations a ridiculous number of times in the past four decades.

Why do I go on about this?
(If you're not asking , my family surely does, constantly.)

One reason is, obviously, because I love this kind of rapid fire, never know what's next mix of beautiful moments and absurd comedy.  I have obsessed about vaudeville style performances and history most of my life.  (Why else would I try tap dancing lessons?)  

But the other is- I feel its a very important art form, and my proof is that there is always an outlet for it.   Radio,  Movies and TV may have killed vaudeville, but many performers migrated into those mediums and took their acts with them.  Most early television was basically filmed stage shows, complete with an actual stage and bits done in front of the curtain.

Ed Sullivan, mixing comics, bands, dancers, acrobats and everything else brought vaudeville into peoples homes for twenty-three years.  Benny Hill (from the British Music Hall version of Vaudeville, which directly inspired portions of the Muppet Show) was a huge international hit and on in some form for forty-four years.  There was the constant stream of variety shows in the seventies that followed the same format.  During that time and beyond most sit-coms and some dramas would have a talent show or musical dream episode.   Laugh In and other sketch comedy shows had a similar vibe.  (Saturday Night Live always has serious  performances by a musical guest.)  The Laugh In legacy led to children's vaudeville based shows, like Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and You Can't Do That On Television.

While many of these offshoots are gone today, the genre still exists in all those "Got Talent" and performance competition shows, where a group of dancers, singers, funny people, and weird stunt performers appear in everyone's living rooms on a regular basis, and do something completely surprising. 

Vaudeville is a key part of our culture which is why it has, and will continue to return in some form.   The Marx Brother's were the best of the comedy teams to come out of that tradition, and the Muppet Show was the best television version of it.   

This is why yet another post has expanded enormously, but also why I spent time specifically only on the words. Though pulling up pictures would have been fun, I really wanted to spend the effort striving to convince people to experience this show and these films for themselves, because they're brilliant and absurd and artistic and insane and wonderful.   


Jesse said...

Whoa! So much in this post! You make some great comparisons. I’m so glad you pointed out Gonzo’s eyelids - it makes such a difference! Harpo/Gonzo is an interesting comparison... I think I would have said Harpo/Animal, but now I’m not sure.

Jeff McGinley said...

Thank you, for reading and the compliments. There's so many more Muppets than Brothers, I don't think there's any real one to one comparisons, more like situations. Animal's got Harpo's penchant for chaos, but doesn't really settle down when he plays his instrument. Gonzo doesn't line up either, but was a good example of straight musical moments coming from an unexpected source.

thanx again