A few weeks ago, Disney+ took a big step forward in terms of what shows it presents to audiences worldwide. Although most audiences were spending each Friday talking about the latest installment of WandaVision, that nine-episode limited series pales in comparison to the long-awaited arrival of The Muppet Show. All five seasons of the late-1970s variety show (save for two episodes from the fifth season) are available to stream on Disney+, with only a handful of episodes being slightly shortened due to music clearance rights. With The Muppet Show back in the news – for good reasons and for obnoxious ones, such as some commentators performatively getting mad about content warnings – it’s easy to wish that Disney would revive the series to a 21st-century audience.
Let me offer a slightly different wish: The Muppet Show should not be revived. But variety shows should be revived.
First, to be clear: in the experience of rewatching The Muppet Show over the last couple of weeks, it’s increasingly obvious that this is arguably one of the greatest TV shows ever made. That greatness isn’t simply in terms of its larger presence in popular culture moving forward – though Muppets like Kermit the Frog and Rowlf existed before the variety show, many of the characters we love now, such as Miss Piggy and The Great Gonzo, started here. But the blend of sketch comedy, upbeat performances, singing, dancing, puppetry, stand-up, and other performance styles is so distinctive and memorable. Every episode is a grab bag of artistic expression, along with backstage banter and subplots that often feel as creatively fresh as modern comedies.
So why avoid reviving The Muppet Show? On one hand, the concept of the program seems simple to replicate. All you do is hire a guest star for each week to do some jokes, try their hand at singing or dancing for a few minutes, and add in Muppet wackiness. Though the Muppets themselves have had some fallow periods in the last few decades, lots of celebrities (especially those we already associate with Disney, whether it’s through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Pixar, or Star Wars) would likely line up to share the screen with Kermit, Piggy, and the rest. And Disney hasn’t been averse to bringing the Muppets back, especially in the last decade, with films such as Muppets Most Wanted and The Muppets (the latter of which climaxes in a literal revival of The Muppet Show), the ABC sitcom The Muppets and the Disney+ series Muppets Now.
But there is an unavoidable aspect of The Muppet Show that simply cannot be replicated, no matter how hard anyone tries. It’s not simply that the tragic passing of Jim Henson reverberates through pop culture three decades later; both he and Richard Hunt (who performed as Scooter and Statler, among others) died far too soon, and few of the other Muppeteers from that era still perform. And while the Muppets themselves continue to perform, there’s something ineffably different about the current slate of performers. They’re doing their able best, but it’s still not quite the same as when Henson, Frank Oz, and others were there at the start.
The variety show, though, is a prime candidate for revival. In the last couple years, another traditional form of 70s-era TV has gotten a primetime revival – the game show, with ABC specifically bringing back Match Game, Card Sharks, Pyramid, and other familiar titles, now hosted by celebrities like Alec Baldwin, Anthony Anderson, and Joel McHale. If a network or two (NBC’s brought back games like Weakest Link) can breathe new life into a familiar if seemingly stodgy format, why not the same for variety shows?
A few years ago, NBC did attempt to revive the variety show with Maya & Marty, hosted by Maya Rudolph and Martin Short. Though the program didn’t last long – it aired just six episodes in the summer of 2016 – the network had the right idea. Not only are Rudolph and Short immensely talented, their talents are diverse and not limited to comedy. Of course, both are known for having been cast members on Saturday Night Live, which itself began as something closer to a variety show than a sketch program. (Do you remember how, in the first season, Henson’s Muppets were a regular fixture? They were, along with extended musical performances, sketches, comic takes on the news, short films, and more.)
A show like The Muppet Show could easily be a template for modern variety shows, in that the program was never just about the Muppets we know best like Kermit, Fozzie, Piggy, and Gonzo. It’s as much about showcasing the guests’ talents, from the obvious, as when Steve Martin performed parts of his stand-up act during an episode where Kermit auditions new Muppet acts, to the unexpected, as when Sylvester Stallone sang and danced. And some episodes’ guest stars came from different parts of culture, such as concert pianist Victor Borge, ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, and puppeteer Senor Wences. The word “variety” still shows up when the Emmys awards programs like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (the category is Best Variety Talk Series), but a show where you can watch A-list actors dance one week and a renowned pianist the next…that is variety.
So what would the modern variety show look like? Unlike the talk shows in the Emmys category, also including those hosted by Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah, they ought to steer largely clear of politics. The variety inherent in such a program would highlight acting, comedy, singing, and dancing. So you’d need a host known for at least a couple of those traits, such as a Maya Rudolph or a Hugh Jackman; a multi-talented performer would be necessary not only to show up in multiple segments, but to serve as a straightforward emcee for each week’s events, as well as a stable of weekly performers (possibly from the world of Broadway) to appear with a weekly guest star or two.
Watching The Muppet Show may make you wonder why we can’t just have new episodes again. But we have five seasons of this wonderful program to enjoy, featuring the original Muppets in their appropriate habitat. Use the show as inspiration, but leave it where it is. Breathing new life into old material is the right choice, but part of that new life has to be a new way of approaching the old format. As the industry continues to look backward for its new material, they ought to create some new variety into the variety-show format.
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