Monday, August 31, 2015

Muppet Monday

As the Muppets prepare for their new sitcom debut on ABC, here's a clip from the first time ABC was home to the Muppets: a clip from a 1964 episode of The Jimmy Dean Show, in which Rowlf and Jimmy discuss jazz.

Rowlf appeared as Jimmy Dean's sidekick in 7-10 minutes of each episode as long as it aired, from September 1963 to April 1966. It's an important step in the development of the Muppets; Sam and Friends had been a daily live show set to pre-recorded music, and it was really only available in the Washington, DC-Baltimore area. But here was Rowlf getting national exposure, and his time on the show not only allowed Jim Henson the opportunity to develop an original character over a significant period, it also taught him how to have a Muppet and human interact, how to write comedy for television, and how to perform in front of a live audience. It was also where Jim started to sing. (In the clip below, he gets to sing "You Are My Sunshine," one of his favorite songs.)

Having Rowlf on the show was actually Dean's idea; he needed a comedic sidekick, and Dean had seen some of Jim Henson's commercials and was inspired. Rowlf was so popular on The Jimmy Dean Show that Dean estimated that Rowlf got about 2000 fan letters every week. Watching the clip, it's easy to see why. Jim Henson (performing with Frank Oz as Rowlf's right hand, or possibly Jerry Nelson, or possibly both; 7-10 minutes is a long time for a performer to have their hand up in the air) was able to develop a full personality for the character. Rowlf is amiable and likable, but he's also his own personality, independent of the sketch.

You can't understate the influence of Jimmy Dean in the development of the Muppets, either, and I think this sketch also shows that. Dean treats Rowlf like he's real, and that interaction is key to making the Muppets personalities in their own right. This is also where Jim learned to ad lib (one of my favorite parts is where he cracks up Dean with a well-placed ad lib just as the song is starting, and Dean's reaction of genuine laughter as Jim Henson steals the scene). Neither one of them is pulling focus in a way that hurts the sketch itself, and the audience is enjoying it. You can really see the future of the Muppets beginning here, and it's wonderful.

Muppets, Inc. were involved with the Rowlf scenes, even though the show wasn't a full Muppet production. Don Sahlin not only built Rowlf, but also a lot of the sets used to conceal Jim Henson and Frank Oznowicz (as Frank Oz still was credited then) or Jerry Nelson, and Jerry Juhl would often assist in writing the sketches with the show's writers (including Dean himself and comedy writer Buddy Arnold).

A quick story I've always liked: while the show was on, Jim Henson offered Jimmy Dean nearly forty percent ownership of Muppets, Inc., and Dean turned it down, later saying "I didn't do anything to earn that [...] A lot of people have said, 'Well, I bet you're sorry now.' No, I am not. Because I couldn’t have lived with me. I’ve got to do things that let me live with me and shave my face in the morning."

1 comment:

Roger Owen Green said...

I'm old enough to have watched Jimmy Dean when it was on, and Rowlf was surely a big hit, certainly MY favorite part.