Wednesday, September 17, 2014

J Is for Johnny Fiama

I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Johnny Fiama. Johnny was one of the new characters that debuted on the short-lived Muppets Tonight series, and one of my favorite Bill Barretta characters (and most of that guy's characters are gold--Pepe the King Prawn, Bobo the Bear, Big Mean Carl, and now he even does Dr. Teeth, the Swedish Chef, and my favorite Muppet of all, Rowlf the Dog). I kind of worship Bill Barretta as a key and incredibly talented figure in keeping the Muppets alive and active during those dark decades when they didn't seem to be around much anymore. They were, if you knew were to look, but they certainly weren't appearing in Jason Segel movies...

Anyway, Johnny Fiama is a crooner in the style of Tony Bennett. He has a monkey assistant/bodyguard named Sal Minella who gets hot-tempered with anyone he thinks is in Johnny's way. Here are the two in a commercial for Johnny's album, Johnny. We Hardly Heard Ya.

Johnny is a lampoon of a certain old-fashioned, sexist attitude from the past. In this clip, he proclaims 1996 "The Year of the Chick" and tries to romance an audience member. Unfortunately for him, she hates his music...

You know, I think part of the reason I find Johnny so funny is that he reminds me of my wife's Italian-American family, particularly her grandmother, who is from the generation Johnny seems stuck in. (My wife, for what it's worth, loves this character and misses him.) He also seems like an answer to the brief resurgence in the mid-nineties of swing music and those guys who went around using Rat Pack slang and wearing trilby hats and rings.

In Muppets Tonight episode 6 (which you can find on YouTube in three parts), Johnny gets to meet his hero, the one and only Tony Bennett.

Hilariously, Johnny has a life-sized automaton of Tony (played by Tony, of course) that he sings with. He's too full of hero worship to sing with the actual Tony!

In this sketch, Johnny attempts to open a theater of his own, with typically Muppet-y results.

And I also have to include this sketch where Johnny and Sal attempt to help Dr. Bunsen Honeydew zhoozh up his image, which is especially wonderful just for Johnny singing "Pretty Bunsen" on the soundtrack.

Johnny's Muppets Tonight stardom culminated in the final episode of the show (which is also on YouTube), "Johnny Fiama Leaves Home," where Johnny and his beloved mother have a fight so big that he tries to move out and live at KMUP, the studio where Muppets Tonight is put on. Fellow crooner Johnny Mathis even gets into things by serenading Mama Fiama.

A lot of the Muppets Tonight characters fell by the wayside after the show ended. The show wasn't successful, and a lot of the characters weren't very popular. (I have never seen a Muppet as maligned as Kevin Clash's Clifford in my entire life. Wow, people are put off by Clifford.) But some of them continued making appearances, in large part because so many of the older Muppet performers weren't around as much to continue their older characters. (This was before so many of them got revived by newer performers.)

Barretta's characters were generally the ones that connected most (Pepe seems like an integral member of the gang now, for which I'm glad), and Johnny continued to make appearances in projects. He had a fun appearance alongside Sal on Larry King Live, and then appeared in Muppets from Space and It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. He even appeared in tie-ins, like the video game Muppet RaceMania and in the line of Palisades Toys action figures. (Yes, I have a Johnny Fiama action figure.)

His last major appearance was in the (in my opinion, quite unfairly) maligned Disney Channel movie The Muppets' Wizard of Oz, where he served Miss Piggy's Wicked Witch of the West as the leader of her biker gang, and clearly had a thing for her. He did have an unplanned cameo in the great "Bohemian Rhapsody" video the Muppets did back in 2009. According to Barretta, Johnny and Sal were accidentally shipped over with the other puppets being used in the video, and he thought it would be fun to throw them in there. I remember my wife's shocked delight at seeing them.

I think the last time I saw Johnny was probably in the comics. When Boom! Studios did their all-too-brief line of wonderful Muppet comics, Johnny played Prince John in Muppet Robin Hood.

I don't know why Johnny never shows up anymore. Bill Barretta seems to have his hands full now with the revivals of Dr. Teeth and Rowlf the Dog. Plus, Maybe he just doesn't seem as much fun without Sal, whose performer, Brian Henson, doesn't work with the Muppets anymore. Maybe Barretta is just done with him; he originated as a character that Barretta used to do in films about the Fiama Brothers with his brother Gene, so maybe he feels like he's done Johnny and doesn't need to anymore. Maybe the character's just too thin to keep holding up, too specific a parody, but I personally don't feel that way. I loved Johnny while he was around and I hope we'll get to see him again one day.

ABC Wednesday


Roger Owen Green said...

Johnny seems like a mix of all those Rat Pack guys, and the would-be guys like Vic Damone and early Tony Bennett, so often parodied. I love it.


Reader Wil said...

The Muppets are always funny and therefore I like them.
Well done.
Wil, ABCW Team

Joy said...

The Johnny and Tony Bennett sketch sounds so funny. Maybe Johnny is now on tour with Tony;-)

mrsnesbitt said...

Fonzie was my favourite! Still is.
Denise ABC Team

fredamans said...

I still watch The Muppets on Youtube. I love the old farts on the balcony, but really Kermie is my fave. I have a thing for frogs and toads. :-)