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a very special christmas special, “John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together” (1979)

13 Dec

As you are probably aware, based on my previous posts about A Muppet Family Christmas and The Christmas Toy, and my yearly exultations that The Muppet Christmas Carol is the best and most faithful film adaptation of the original book A Christmas Carol despite being narrated by Rizzo the Rat and Gonzo the Great, the Muppets and Christmas occupy roughly the same spot in my brain.  It’s that soft, gooey, marshmallow-like cluster nestled at the back of my hippocampus, near the base of my occipital lobe.  If you were to poke it, I would involuntarily start waving my arms around like Kermit.

However, I have never actually seen John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together until today.  Part of this may have to do with the fact that it has never been officially released on VHS, and part of this may have to do with the fact that it came out the year I was born and I was too busy spitting up strained squash and eating stuff I found on the carpet to notice.   Either way, I found it on the Youtubes, and have decided to write about my experiences watching this holiday gem for the first damn time.

Aaaaaaand… push play.

Fade in on the late John Denver, sprightly and alive and in the middle of his “Oh, God” heyday.   Because ‘tis the glorious season of Yuletide, he’s dressed like a Dickensian gent, resplendent with his purple top hat and all.  At this point, things could really go either way – of all the M.O.R. artists ever to walk this Earth, John Denver is the M.O.Riest.  For every heartfelt, aching ballad like “Leavin’ On A Jetplane,” there’s an “Annie’s Song.”   For every “Rocky Mountain High”, there’s a Coors beer commercial where a bunch of people start singing “Rocky Mountain High.”   And, of course, there’s that big old slice of bitter irony pie you have to mention when you’re a heartless bastard like me and someone brings up John Denver: “Leaving On A Jet Plane” was written by a man who died when his private plane crashed.  Either the jokes make themselves or they really, really don’t.  I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

And, either this is going to be the most goddamn heartwarming thing I’ve ever experienced, or it’s going to be 2 solid hours of molten Velveeta cheese.  Things don’t look so good when ol’ John starts singing “The 12 Days Of Christmas”, a song that’s only tolerable when Muppets are involved.

Thank God there are Muppets involved.  Fozzie screws up his lines, Miss Piggy adds some “ba-dump-bump-bumps” to her FIIIIIVE GOOOOOLD RIIIINGS line, and all is right with the world.

 

There’s more, after the break.

After the credits roll, we find ourselves as a fly on the wall at the first table read for this big Christmas special the Muppets and John Denver are going to be putting together.  The Muppets have always been big on breaking the stage door down and letting you see the kind of thing that happens backstage.  For example, Miss Piggy arrives and takes umbrage to the phrase “Peace on Earth, goodwill towards men”, because women are left out of the equation.

Miss Piggy: “Why not ‘Good Will Towards Women?’”

John: “Well, we took it from the bible, Miss Piggy…”

Miss Piggy: “Jonathan!  The bible is FILLED with women!  This one begat that one, that one begat the other one, and…for all of the begetting that was done up to this point, OBVIOUSLY, there was a great DEAL of ‘good will towards women!’”

I love that they let this joke slip by.  Not only is it wonderful post-feminist theology, it’s also slightly dirty.  Like any number of things from The Muppet Show days, it’s the kind of thing you’d never ever in a million years see or hear in a family show now.  Part of what gave the Muppets their appeal to audiences of all ages was that slight sense of darkness and danger peeking out behind the curtain.  Think about the number of Muppet Show sketches that ended, for no particular reason, with something exploding.  Even the G rated Muppet Movie is all about Kermit trying *not* to be the spokesman for a company practicing what is tantamount to cannibalism in the Muppetverse.  When Jim Henson passed away and Disney took over, the Muppets became family friendly entertainment – pure and simple – and lost a lot of their edge.  People point to tangible things when they talk about the decline of the Muppets, like Kermit’s voice changing, but Steve Whitmore does just fine playing Kermit, and sometimes, you swear it’s still Jim.  What’s gone is a certain dark sensibility.  Not overwhelmingly dark, but certainly a sense that the world was dangerous and there were things you weren’t quite supposed to understand yet.

You see it later in the special where, during a very West End musical-style number, John’s dancing around full of Christms cheer and Stadler and Waldorf tell John he’s obviously got a “Rocky Mountain High.”  Later, we join Miss Piggy and John Denver in her dressing room, where Miss Piggy basically throws herself at John.  He protests “But I’m a married man!” and she insists that his wife – er – share him.  As a monogamous kind of fella’ myself, I can’t really speak to this, but I’m sure that if you asked any of my polyamorous friends, they’d tell you that this kind of arrangement takes an emotional maturity that I’m not sure Miss Piggy will ever have.

Then John sings to us about the environment, and the little Christmas tree that didn’t want to leave his animal friends.  Again, this is the kind of thing you’d never see in a family TV special nowadays, but mostly that’s because certain folks would natter on about the indoctrination of our children into a Pagan theology  and climate change propaganda being rammed down our throats.  Perhaps you remember the reaction to the otherwise innocent film Happy Feet.

COMMERCIAL!

I’m sorry – if E.T. told me the only way to help him get home was by playing his stupid, buggy, hateful, awful video game, I’d tell him he’d better get comfy here on Earth.  That game was notoriously crappy.  That game was so bad, in fact, that the badness of that one single game crashed the entire home video game market for about three years.  There’s a parking lot, somewhere out in New Mexico, that they paved over a landfill.  You know what’s in that landfill?  About 2,000,000 unsold and returned E.T. Atari cartridges.  True story, almost.

Anyway, the rest of the special is a montage of songs.  It’s hard to review in that there’s no real plot here, just a series of moments.  Miss Piggy and some of the minor Muppets sing “Christmas Is Coming, The Goose Is Getting Fat” in their dressing room and that’s fun, but it’s over too soon.  John and Rolf sing a duet of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” on a delightfully out of tune piano.  (Rolf, as Muppet fans will tell you, loves out of tune pianos.)  This is my favorite part so far.  It’s almost a foregone conclusion that my favorite part of any Muppet themed thing will involve Rolf.

Ok, then there’s this ridiculous thing, featuring John Denver and a bunch of other guys as toy soldiers and Miss Piggy as the toy doll that soldier John Denver is madly in love with.  It’s cute, but you can probably skip it.

And, finally, we’re all hanging out in John’s living room, and he’s brought his ol’ guitar.  He plays us a nice song, then tells us the Nativity story, as played out by odd-looking human-ish Muppets.  This reminds the audience of the reason for the season and all, and reminds this blogger that he should probably tackle The Best Christmas Pageant Ever sometime.

This is followed by the Muppets singing “Silent Night” in the original German, while John tells us the story of how the carol came to be.  This is all a lot more moving than you think it’s going to be.

So, that was John Denver and The Muppets: A Christmas Together.  It’s a big ol’ slice of wonderful ’70s cheese.  Not the best thing I’ve ever seen, but probably worth a minute or two of your time.  I certainly have more of an appreciation for John Denver now – it’s hard work being that M.O.R.

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