Kieran Moore – When it comes to examining a year in the life of the Muppets it’s often a case of feast or famine. Across my previous yearly charts there have certainly been a few times where the pickings have been slim. Thankfully this isn’t one of them. After Jim Henson’s death the Muppets quickly picked themselves up and got on with it – after all “it’s what the boss would have wanted”. 1996 could easily be described as the peak of that work ethic with the gang appearing in not only a feature film, but also their regular return to primetime TV after almost a decade away.
Needless to say all this excellent material (as well as Sesame Street, the Dr. Seuss series, a Christmas special…) has made my life difficult in the best possible way this week. I could have easily produced a top 30! So let’s not delay. After all, “here come the Muppets, here come the Muppets, here come the Muppets tonight!” (Cha Cha Cha).
10 – The Boulevard of Broken Dreams – Muppets Tonight!
As I compiled this chart there were several themes that started to emerge and this song hits a couple of them. First of all, it’s from Muppets Tonight! Secondly, it features a non-Muppet singer – well over half of today’s songs can claim the same. Where this song does differ from many others here though is in tone. Despite a handful of funny moments, this track is music noir (is that a thing?) at its very best. Try as we might, it’s impossible not to compare Muppets Tonight! to The Muppet Show and as I watch this I’m trying to think if this piece has a direct comparison There were certainly thoughtful, introspective moments in The Muppet Show and some very seriously-staged guest star numbers (with extra Muppetness thrown in), but I can’t come up with anything concrete. That doesn’t particularly matter, but it does illustrate right out of the gate how similar, yet different, the two shows are. Sal and Johnny were two of the breakout stars of the Muppets’ 90’s output and I’d love to see them back again sometime.
9 – Bats the Musical – Muppets Tonight!
This song once again hits the two themes I mentioned above, but adds a third – Muppet craziness. As we go through this list you’ll see in the mid 90’s the Muppets were all about showing off their wacky, madcap side. I guess putting this period in context, after the death of Jim Henson and Richard Hunt (and the more soulful Muppet Christmas Carol) it was perhaps felt the Muppets needed to get daffy again. I have mixed feelings about this to be honest. It’s absolutely right that the Muppets are rather leftfield sometimes (see “Hugga Wugga” and “Rag Mop”), but that was just part of the rich tapestry of who the Muppets are. At certain points around this time, it started to feel a bit forced and as his star was in the ascendency, Gonzo often seemed to bear the brunt of this. It became less character-driven and more Krazee with a capital “K”. The infamous chilli pepper shirt springs to mind… All that said, this clip is genuinely funny and musical and clever, and feels very much at home in the Muppet canon (Did somebody say cannon? – [sorry I’m contractually obliged to make that joke])
8 – Cabin Fever – Muppet Treasure Island
I guess I should have saved that piece about craziness for this song, but never mind! I guess in true “Cabin Fever” style I could write the whole thing again and hope no one noticed?! Muppet Treasure Island is a slightly schizophrenic movie in many ways – flipping from heartfelt moments with Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver to ridiculous jokes about rats on a cruise with barely time to pause for breath. This balance is one of the things I love about the Muppets. This song might seem a little over the top, but it’s in context with what’s happening in the story and serves to lift a slower point in the film, so it’s ok with me. I love two things about this in particular. The lyrics are hilarious and never go quite where you think they might. Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann do wonderful things in this movie and are unfairly forgotten in the Muppet-verse I think. Finally, as much as this is an ensemble piece, it has Jerry Nelson’s stamp all over it. In fact, for a movie where he had very few major characters, he is all over the Muppet Treasure Island soundtrack.
7 – Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend – Muppets Tonight!
I haven’t had a rewatch of Muppets Tonight! for quite a while and I think I must be due another one. In my head I seem to remember being quite disappointed with the show when I watched it in 1996. I think a lot of long term Muppet fans felt the same. For me it was the often spun line about established characters being sidelined in favor of new ones. There is certainly an element of that. I also think at times the show didn’t know how new it wanted to be so we get a halfway house of an updated version of Pigs in Space and replacements for Veterinarian’s Hospital and Muppet Labs. It seems Muppets Tonight! wasn’t brave enough to go “all new”, but wanted to be up to date and fresh at the same time. That was always going to be tough. Anyway… one of the main reasons I think I need to give the show another go is this episode with Whoopi Goldberg. She’s always worked well with Kermit and Co. and this is no exception. She and Piggy have great onscreen chemistry and despite my earlier postulating, this number feels very old school Muppets.
6 – Sound of Music Medley – Muppets Tonight!
Every time I watch this I just find myself grinning from ear to ear. I suppose this song and the previous one form another (smaller) common thread that is running through this list, but hadn’t really occurred to me until now. Here we see Miss Piggy falling out with yet another female co-star. It’s almost as if she’s really insecure under all that karate-chopping bravado. This dichotomy (that’s a big word) is one of the reasons I’ve come to really appreciate the Divine Miss P over the years. As a youngster I often found Piggy annoying, but I’ve learnt to understand her better over the years and she’s much more sympathetic than I first thought. In this song, the female co-star she’s falling out with is the wonderful Michelle Pfeiffer. Michelle often plays femme fatale or hard-hitting roles so it’s fun to see her portraying a maternal Maria Von Trapp type here. This is as good as Muppets Tonight! ever was and along with the previous song brings to mind the classic Raquel Welch episode of The Muppet Show.
5 – Give Your Friend an Easter Egg for Christmas – Elmo Saves Christmas
Our first (and only) Sesame Street visit today comes courtesy of not just this fantastically musical special, but also the unique musical stylings of Harvey Fierstein. Harvey is hilariously funny, oozes charm and is about as perfect as a Muppet guest star can be. His voice could grate granite, but that only adds to his charm. Having the Easter Bunny sound like he smokes several cartons of cigarettes a day is probably one of the most genius things Sesame Street has ever done! Add to that his ability to sound like a New York street hustler who’s hawking his wares and you see he really is perfectly cast. Speaking of New York, this song sounds like it wouldn’t be out of place in most Broadway shows. I know the idea of a Muppet musical gets trotted out every now and again (and obviously there’s Avenue Q.), but a Sesame Street musical would really work if it were filled with songs like this.
4 – Professional Pirate – Muppet Treasure Island
From one superstar guest to another… Tim Curry is so perfect here; it makes me sad we haven’t seen more of him with the Muppets. Still at least we have this wonderful song to enjoy – and there’s always time for him to narrate their next Christmas special. I’d love to see that. Tim is chewing scenery like he hasn’t eaten for months and I just love his performance – not just in this song, but throughout the movie. I think he’s one of the main reasons I cite Muppet Treasure Island as one of my favorite Muppet movies. I know that’s controversial, but I’d much rather watch this than any other 90’s Muppet movies (and I do include Muppet Christmas Carol in that). I’d always been a big fan of any version of the Treasure Island story (even Treasure Planet) until I read the book. As much as I enjoyed it, the original story is hands down the worst incarnation of this classic as far as I’m concerned. Sorry Robbie. This song is a previous number one and is well deserving of such a position; it’s got so many parts I love. From the gentle humming to the rabble-rousing finale, this song is simply fantastic.
3 – Love Led Us Here – Muppet Treasure Island
Kermit/Piggy love songs aren’t present in every film, but there are certainly enough of them that they form a decent enough sub-genre. One day I’ll no doubt tackle a chart based on them and this could be a strong contender for the top spot. This might just be my favorite of their duets, although “In Spite of Ourselves” is up their too. What links those two tracks is a level of emotional honesty that you just don’t get from your average love song between a farm animal and an amphibian. There are real feelings on display here. I’m sure over the last 21 years many couples have identified with the intent behind these lyrics, but it’s the strength of the performances that really sell this piece. It’s sung brilliantly by Steve Whitmire and Frank Oz. Compare their emotional rendition to the dire pop version that Disney felt this movie needed. Helen Darling and John Berry sound positively bored through most of it.
2 – Sailing for Adventure – Muppet Treasure Island
On paper (especially if we’re following the 90’s Disney template) this is a moment where a song isn’t really necessary. We’ve had a number that sets the scene and the “I want” song. With Cabin Fever taking the “Under the Sea”/”Be Our Guest”/”Topsy Turvy” spot this could be seen as surplus to requirements, but I’d argue that the film would be so much less without it. Sailing for Adventure sets up several threads that come along later, helps to introduce the pirates and is just plain old funny. One of my favorite things about Muppet songs is that every now and again we get treated to a ridiculous lyric and “Margaritas at the Midnight Buffet” takes today’s prize, no contest. I love that everyone reprises that line like it’s the most sensible thing in the world. Once again, I have to congratulate the songwriters for combining wonderful lyrics with infinite sing-ability. If you don’t find yourself humming this later I’ll be very surprised.
1 – Treasure Island/Shiver My Timbers – Muppet Treasure Island
I’ve melded Treasure Island and Shiver My Timbers together in the top spot for two reasons. First, they work so well together to set the mood for the pirate adventure that is to come that it’s nearly impossible to separate them. Second, I just had to praise this movie’s fantastic score. These days Hans Zimmer is better known for scoring another pirate movie (or four), but I like to think it was the Muppets that made the whole thing possible. Hans seems to be a man who is definitely in touch with his inner pirate. Shiver My Timbers is about as good as a movie song gets for me. It’s atmospheric and pitched perfectly. Muppet movies all have fantastic opening numbers that let the audience know what is coming. From Rainbow Connection to We’re Doing a Sequel, everyone is a winner. This is sung with incredible gusto and again Jerry Nelson is all over this. He’s a man of many voices and it sounds like all of them are performed here at some point. I get goosebumps at his “You can bet your boots there’ll be treachery” line. This isn’t just sung well though; it’s also puppeteered with amazing style and precision. Every element of this number is perfect. I can’t think of a better end to this list than Shiver My Timbers (except maybe “hand in hand with a friend”).
I’ve had so much fun looking through the songs from 1996 – I honestly thought Muppet Treasure Island would take as many spots as there are songs, but I could very easily have produced a top 10 list just from Muppets Tonight! and been perfectly happy with the result. I can’t wait to get started on 1997 now, but first I must say a quick thank you. 1996 was such a creative year for the Muppets and all the people behind the scenes, if you were involved in any capacity then I heartily thank you for making 1996 one of my favourite ever years.
Join me next week as we make a return visit to the KMUP studio and drop in to say hello at a certain Big Blue House…