The Muppet Show first aired in September 1976. The variety show marked a major move up the ladder for Jim Henson’s misfit band of chaotic critters. They moved beyond the public access Sam and Friends, the appearances on late-night TV and commercials, and one-off specials like Sex and Violence. The Muppets stood on the precipice of becoming a mainstream pop culture phenomenon that continues even today.
The show’s earworm of a theme song begins with the line “It’s time to play the music.” And for good reason. The irreverent comedy and lovable characters contribute to the charm and longevity of the Muppets. However, there’s something truly electric about the show’s musical numbers. And since we here at Nerdist love us some Muppet songs, we thought it might be time to praise the music. Here are our choices for the best musical numbers in the show:
5. The Muppet Country Trio – “To Morrow”
This Kingston Trio homage is one of the show’s more simply staged musical numbers. The twangy little music group has a special power over us though. That’s because the three band member puppets look like their puppeteers, Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and Jerry Nelson. While all their personalities, as well as their collaborators’, was all over the show, the trio serves up an extremely clever bit of reverse fourth-wall-breaking.
4. “Time In a Bottle”
As zany as the show could get, sometimes the things that stick with us the most are the extremely poignant numbers. Especially ones like this cover of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.” It depicts an aged scientist’s futile attempts to reclaim his youth. The song is a deep and moving look at accepting our own mortality, made all the more bittersweet given the tragic early deaths of both Jim Henson and Croce.
3. “Mahna Mahna”
Do doo de-do-do.
2. “In The Navy”
The Village People expertly served up gay anthems as disco hits for the masses. That made seeing even the most conservative of grandmas thrusting their hands into the air in the shape of the YMCA on the dance floor at your cousin’s very straight wedding a common sight. Henson and company were no doubt extremely aware of the subversive nature of the group’s music. They served it up even further by taking “In The Navy” and making it work perfectly for their all-ages variety show.
1. Harry Belafonte – “Earth Song”
Jim Henson loved the power of puppetry far beyond the realm of the Muppets. Some of the best moments on The Muppet Show were when they would expand into puppets that weren’t their primary design style—like this number with Belafonte. It’s hard to find the long version of this song online these days, which is sad because the entire sequence is beautiful. Belafonte gently reassures Fozzie while he struggles with his creativity by telling him a story from African Folklore that inspired him. That leads into a performance with puppets that breaks out of the typical Muppet mold. It allowed Belafonte to share a cultural element that often wasn’t seen on television at the time. Or still today. The song was such a favorite of Henson’s that Belafonte sang it at his memorial service.
Honorable Mention – “Just One Person”
This performance technically didn’t happen on The Muppet Show (although Bernadette Peters and the rest of the company performed another version of the song). This came from the ending of the tribute special released to honor the passing of Jim Henson. The special gave young fans a way to say goodbye to him and understand his loss. As a child at the time that it happened, it remains a defining memory for me. This song will never not make me cry as I remember sitting in front of my family’s TV hearing the Muppets sing it, as well as the performance at his televised memorial service.
As an adult, knowing that real people coping with the loss of someone who they truly loved is underneath the stage using the world Henson created to help others say goodbye makes it all the more powerful.
Reactions to Muppets music can be personal. So we know that this list might not match up perfectly with your own. What are your picks?
Featured Image: Arista Records