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Muppets Take Nickelodeon : The syndicated series, now available on cable, is as fresh and funny now as when it was produced in the '70s and '80s.

HOWARD ROSENBERG

April 06, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Kermit filled in as host of CNN's "Larry King, Live" Friday night. You know, Kermit the Frog. Green felt body? Curved spine? White golf balls for eyes? Red mouth? Falsetto voice? Right, that Kermit.

King took the night off. So, in one of the more exotic chapters of talk show history, there was Kermit--the most famous of all the Muppets created by the late Jim Henson and his collaborators--perched where King usually sits, interviewing, of all people, Ted Koppel. And later quizzing Carol Alt and Hulk Hogan, stars of the syndicated series "Thunder in Paradise." It was historic, the Frogster and the Hulkster sharing a studio. To say nothing of the Tedster.

"Kermit the Frog, Live" was also great entertainment--\o7 not\f7 .

It would be great fun to report that Kermit asked better questions than King, that even he would have been tougher on Ross Perot. But \o7 fun \f7 is not the operative word here. Perhaps it was the absence of Henson, who \o7 was\f7 Kermit. Perhaps it was something else. For whatever reason, the attempted whimsy fell like a brick, and even a surprise call from the fabulous Miss Piggy could not rescue the hour from its doldrums. You could almost hear the Muppets themselves calling for the return of King.

As it turns out, not only King but the Muppets of old have returned this week.

"The Muppet Show," Henson's wondrous, enormously successful syndicated series that was produced in London from 1976 to 1981, is now available to cable viewers at 11:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. weekdays on Nickelodeon. The revival began Monday.

Henson's shaggy animals and monsters have been an industry unto themselves, achieving superstardom through "Sesame Street" on PBS, headlining a couple of theatrical movies and starring in "The Muppet Babies," an imaginative Saturday-morning kids program on CBS in the 1980s.

There are many old series that deserve rerunning and chances to find new audiences. "The Muppet Show"--whose furry and rubbery marionette-puppets (hence the name Muppets) each week welcomed guests ranging from George Burns to Steve Martin--is near the top of the list, thanks not only to Henson and his puppeteering associates, led by Frank Oz, but also to the writing of Jerry Juhl and directing of Peter Harris. Still fresh and funny after all these years, these half-hour slabs of exquisite satirical foolishness possess at least as many goodies for adults as for kids, something that network programmers never comprehended when unsuccessfully pressed for a regular spot in prime time.

In a sense, this is a show about the making of a show, with the amiable Kermit starring as host of a variety program that inevitably disintegrates into absolute chaos, largely because of high jinks of his unruly fellow Muppets. Each week the ragged Muppet chorus sings:

\o7 It's time to play the music,

It's time to light the light,

It's time to meet the Muppets on "The Muppet Show" tonight.

\f7 And they were off on a "celebrational, Muppetational" ride featuring not only Kermit, but of course the ever-hamming, ever-lusting-for-the-spotlight, ever-tyrannical Miss Piggy (Oz), who throws herself at every male in sight.

And the resident band, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, featuring the very cool Floyd the guitarist and Animal the drummer.

And Rowlf, the shaggy canine pianist.

And hook-snouted Gonzo, who futilely attempts to open each show with a great flourish on his trumpet.

And the berserk, chicken-chasing Swedish Chef, whose dialect is so thick and mushy he can't be understood.

And the two gray geezers, Statler and Waldorf, who critique each show, aiming awful one-liners at the participants from box seats overlooking the proceedings.

And Sam the Eagle. And Fozzie Bear. And Kermit's assistant, Scooter. On and on they go, all of them bizarre, lovable and, beneath the child-targeted fuzzy creature exteriors and corny joking, extremely witty and often very subtle.

Part of the show's genius was its ability to integrate people and puppets in ways that didn't seem foolish. Liza Minnelli is on the screen, singing her heart out with her arms wrapped around Kermit, and somehow, illogically, incredibly, it works.

Yet no matter how big were the human stars that appeared on the show, they were inevitably upstaged by the Muppets themselves. Monday's Nickelodeon debut, for example, found a young Elton John in his wild costume phase--bright feathers, big sunglasses and jeweled aviator's cap--singing "Crocodile Rock" to a chorus of crocodiles. And later, his hit "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart" with Miss Piggy.

But it was the running soap opera "Pigs in Space"--starring Capt. Link Heartthrob, Dr. Strangepork and Miss Piggy--that swiped the show, as the starship Swinetrek was invaded by mysterious aliens who turned out to be the Swedish Chef and his clucking chicken. "Tune in next week," a voice announced, "and be bored again by 'Pigs in Space.' "

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