Jim Henson has been gone for more than 30 years, yet his legacy is still being felt by many people who weren’t even alive when he passed, nor were their parents even an item. He would’ve been 85 if he was still alive today but many of the original Muppeteers have also passed. While Disney hasn’t been doing a very good job with the property lately. Airing the original Muppet Show on Disney-Plus was a smart move.
The Jim Henson Company was always good at mixing more adult-themed jokes (but still very clean) with images kids would enjoy. I’m not sure many kids would’ve known who Joel Grey or Rita Moreno were back when the show aired, but the parents probably sitting on the couch in the den or living room knew. One of the guest stars early on in the series run was Paul Williams, an actor and songwriter who would go on to collaborate more with Henson and the Muppets over the years.
This led to their collaboration on Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, quite possibly the best thing Henson and the Muppeteers ever produced. And yes, that’s taking into account the ground-breaking Muppet Movie and Fraggle Rock.
Airing on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Dec. 4, 1977, the special based on the 1971 children’s book written by Russell Hoban and illustrated by his then-wife, Lillian, was a retelling of “The Gift of the Magi” but with a mother and son, instead of a couple. Oh, and they’re otters.
Emmet (voiced by Jerry Nelson) and his mother, Alice (voiced by Marilyn Sokol but performed by Frank Oz) are living in poverty barely making ends meet with odd jobs. Alice does a lot of laundry for people as well as knit when she can to barter with other town resident. Emmet uses his late father’s toolbox to perform odd jobs around town.
While running errands in Waterville, Emmet spots an acoustic guitar that costs $40. He’s interested in it but they can’t afford it. And they come across a group that Alice refers to as “hooligans” from Riverbottom who terrorize a music shop and its proprietors.
The next day, Emmet hears about a talent contest in Waterville that’ll pay the winner $50. So, he works on assembling the Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jug-Band with his friends, Wendell Porcupine (Dave Goelz), Harvey Beaver (Henson) and Charlie Muskrat (Richard Hunt). But he’s conflicted because has to put a nail in the washboard Alice uses to pay a washtub bass.
At the same time, Alice has heard from Hetty Muskrat (Eren Ozker) about the contest, telling her she has a good singing voice and should perform. However, Alice wants to make a nice dress, but has nothing to sell for material, except Emmet’s toolchest. Both Emmett and Alice want to spend the money on each other. Emmet realizes he can use his share of the winnings to help Alice buy a piano while Alice can use the winnings to buy Emmet that guitar.
Unbeknownst either are performing, Emmet and his friends and Alice are surprised to see each other. But the jug-band has to quick rehearse another song “Brothers,” after they find out a performer is singing the same song “Barbecue” as them. They’re even shocked to learn the organizers let the Riverbottom Nightmare Band perform at the last minute. The band consist of the “hooligans” seen earlier, Chuck Stoat (Oz) Fred Lizard (Hunt), Howard Snake (Henson), “Pop-Eyed” Catfish (Goelz), and Stanley Weasel (Nelson) who end up winning much to the sadness of Emmet, Alice and everyone else.
But in the end, Alice realizes the song “Our World” she sung and the song, “Brothers” the Jug-Band perform can work together. They perform this outside the restaurant owned by Doc Bullfrog (Nelson) who hires them to perform for entertainment with free meals included in the pay.
It’s a sweet simple story but what works is how the Muppeteers were able to create a world in which it all exists. Henson said this was the first production they did without having a the set on a platform and using more three-dimensional sets. He said it was the most elaborate set they had done up until this point. With hand-puppets, marionettes, and even animatronics, they present a winter wonderland in which the animals co-exist even though I’m sure some are predators and others are prey. Also, it doesn’t explain why some of the waterfowl seen are regular animals. But who cares? You got to suspend some disbelief.
In the end, it works out better for Emmet and Alice as they’re able to get a steady job rather than having to rely on odd jobs that aren’t certain. They may have lost the contest but they’re making more money. Sometimes in life we may not win the big game or contest, but a better opportunity presents itself. We never know what will happen.
Kermit the Frog appeared as a bookend in the CBC special acting as a narrator. This was also the case when the show was run on HBO for American audiences. However, as the 1980s end, the show was never reran on HBO and seemed almost a memory by Gen Xers and Millennials. It was released on DVD that went out of print thanks to Disney’s ownership of Kermit. Then, a DVD was released in the mid-2000s that didn’t include Kermit. But in recent years, the special has been released on a new DVD with Kermit but not his narration. The show was rebroadcast on ABC Family. I think it’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Williams who wrote the songs for the special has called them some of the best he’s composed. That’s taking into account, he also wrote “The Rainbow Connection.” And you listen to them, you feel a happiness to them. The songs are catchy and memorable.
Despite some complaints that the performance by the Riverbottom Nightmare Band may seem too much for younger audiences, you have to remember it was the 1970s. A lot of Disney movies (both live-action and animated) had some pretty tense moments. I mean, Bambi’s mother got shot by a hunter and Mufasa fell to his death in both Lion King versions as Simba cried for him to wake up. A music performance that is a little trippy can be forgiven.
Sadly, Hunt and Nelson have since passed away with Jerry Juhl, who wrote most of the scripts for the movies and TV specials has also passed. But as most Christmas holiday specials go, they live on for many decades to come.