As I've written elsewhere, the Muppets were, in effect, the first comedians I ever loved. I just saw last year's The Muppets for the second time (on DVD), and was reminded of something Jason Segel repeatedly said during promotional appearances for that film: The Muppets were his "gateway drug for comedy." Exactly. And I think the Muppets are also part of the reason why, when I was ready to discover other comedians, I gravitated so strongly toward the Marx Brothers, whose work was an obvious influence on Henson, Oz, and company.
The whole spirit of the Marx Brothers -- anarchic, absurd, and, though I hate to use this word, zany -- is unmistakably with the Muppets, if you watch them and look for it. As if to acknowledge the debt, Jim Henson and his writers (principally Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns) frequently paid direct tribute to the Brothers.
First, a selection from the second episode of the first season of The Muppet Show. Connie Stevens was the guest star, and the show originally aired on February 28, 1977, when I was exactly three weeks old. So I must have seen it in reruns. What I know is that by the time I saw the Marx Brothers in At the Circus, and Groucho went into his immortal rendition of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," I recognized it instantly as a Kermit the Frog number.
At the Circus, as you know, is not one of the Brothers' great films, but "Lydia" is a truffle in the mud. It was written for Groucho by two great songwriters, Harold Arlen (music) and Yip Harburg (lyrics). The rest of their score for At the Circus is well below par for them, but give them a break; they wrote the songs for The Wizard of Oz that same year. Arlen's music for "Lydia" is a lovely, bouncing waltz, but it's Harburg's song. The wordplay, puns, and fanciful lingual stretching exercises are all hallmarks of his best lyrics. Whimsy with an edge. According to most accounts, the songwriters intended "Lydia" as a pastiche of Gilbert and Sullivan, knowing of Groucho's fondness for the Savoy Operas.
Here's the original:
I definitely remember seeing the original broadcast of The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson. It aired in November of 1990, six months after the heartbreaking, unexpected death of Jim Henson, and it was the first Muppet production of the post-Henson era. It was also the debut of Steve Whitmire's Kermit. In this clip, Rizzo (also Whitmire) touts a vaudeville act called the Merrill Lunch Hungerdunger McCormack All-Accountant Marching Society...
...which is a clear and loving tribute to the immortal Animal Crackers routine in which Groucho dictates a letter to his lawyers at the firm of Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, and McCormack. Did I leave out a Hungerdunger?
On the fourth episode of The Muppet Show's first season (the guest star was Ruth Buzzi), Kermit and a mechanical Kermit doppelganger performed a version of the classic mirror routine -- a bit used by countless comedians throughout history, but associated most with the Marxes, due to Groucho and Harpo's version in Duck Soup, still one of the high points in cinematic history.
(The Muppet version of the mirror scene is not embeddable, but you can watch it by clicking the above image, or this link; it starts at around 5:53 in the clip.)
On The Muppet Show, season two, episode thirty-one (guest star: Edgar Bergen), Rolf performed "Show Me a Rose," in one of the delightful Rolf piano solos that were common the show's early seasons.
"Show Me a Rose" was one of Groucho's signature numbers. It was written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, the songwriting team most associated with the Marx Brothers. They wrote the songs for Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup, and were principal screenwriters on the latter two; they also wrote a discarded musical number for A Day at the Races, a discarded early screenplay for Go West, and a good deal of specialty material that appeared variously in Groucho's repertoire.
In this late-sixties appearance from Dick Cavett's short-lived morning show, Groucho twice offers to sing a song, and Cavett requests "Show Me a Rose." In this rendition, Groucho manages to bungle the funniest line in the song, and get a bigger laugh than he would have with the real line. "Show me a rose and I'll show you a girl named Sam" has always been one of my favorite lyrics, and I wish I could tell you why. Partly it's just the sound of the words. It's enigmatic doggerel in a pining, romantic tone. But on this particular Cavett episode, Groucho briefly goes up on the line, and blurts out, "Show me a rose and I'll show you a man named Sam." Which makes just as much sense, I suppose -- maybe even more.