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Retro : The Latest Muppet Caper


A collective fuzzy feeling is settling by now over the homes of TV viewers plugged into Nickelodeon and the idiosyncratic, lovable--and very human--behavior of the Muppets.

The furry inventions of the late puppeteer Jim Henson are back and critics are doing handstands about the revival that began two weeks ago. Though "The Muppet Show" had one rerun on TNT after its 1976-1981 production in London ended, it's the show's appearance on Nickelodeon that's caught both an old and new audience's attention.

"The Henson company, the Henson name and the Muppet characters were one of those unique things in entertainment," says Herb Scannell, senior vice president of programming for the cable network. "For parents, it means quality. For kids, it means fun."

With its vaudevillian staging, complete with cranky and ecstatic audience members, "The Muppet Show" offers irreverent, campy fun the whole family can enjoy.

The Muppets had no trouble booking their show or filling the theater. The stars came out in droves, including Elton John, George Burns, Steve Martin, Diana Ross, Julie Andrews, Carol Burnett, Candice Bergen, Linda Ronstadt, Harry Belafonte, Ethel Merman and George Burns. None of the stars minded chiding--or being chided by--Jim Henson's foam-and-fabric creations.

With emcee Kermit the Frog at the mike, the Muppets--Henson's own name for his combination puppets and marionettes--made much merry. The syndicated show spawned three feature films and an animated program called "The Muppet Babies."

There was comedy, singing and dancing. Popular and standard tunes were given a new edge. Look for Kermit again belting out "Lydia, O Lydia, The Ta-tooed Lady."

The show's appeal was universal. At one time it had an estimated 235 million viewers in 100 countries.

Explains Scannell: "The adult guest stars were a way for parents to get the humor, which was both sophisticated and simple, with the slapstick stuff. That humor appealed to parents. Kids were attracted to the physicality of the show and were amazed by the Muppetry."

Nickelodeon is presenting 65 of the original 120 episodes, airing them daily at 11:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.

"It's important that this show is airing in two slots," says Scannell. "The kids watching during Nick Jr. are typically a very young audience, and that's very meaningful. They will be attracted to the puppetry. Parents look at it as the kind of thing that TV does well."

The early evening airing, which was the show's original time slot, is equally important to Nick. "The show was created for and is the perfect 7:30 p.m. show," Scannell adds. "This was meant to be a time of transition to prime time, when kids and parents are together, where kids could bring their parents to TV or visa versa. Not like all the tabloid shows on now."

The animated "Muppet Babies" will remain in its 11 a.m. time slot, thus creating the "Jim Henson Muppet Hour" during the "Nick Jr." time period between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.

"The Muppet Show" airs weekdays at 11:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Nickelodeon.

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