Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Land of Gorch

For almost 32 years, Saturday Night Live has been a staple of late night TV. Every few years NBC will do an anniversary special. They run bits of classic sketches and highlight the various performers and classic characters, but on those specials you will never see even a hint that the Muppets were once regulars on SNL. It's something Lorne Michaels and company tend to sweep under the rug, even more so than the 1985-86 season...remember Anthony Michael Hall folks? During the show's first season "The Land of Gorch" was a recurring series of sketches featuring some Muppet characters that were created with adults in mind. The sketches barely lasted the season, and rarely showed up in sydication in the years that followed. With the release of the complete first season of SNL on DVD, many Muppet fans have their first chance to take a look at this unique chapter in Muppet history.

Even Jim Henson and his crew admitted that the sketches just didn't quite work. However, these segments are certainly worth looking at, especially since the puppets themselves really represent one of Henson's first steps toward the type of puppets that would be created in his Creature Shop years later. There is some very skillful manipulation going on in Jim Henson's portrayal of Ploobis and Jerry Nelson's performance of Scred. Perhaps the finest puppetry displayed is Frank Oz's character, The Mighty Favog. Favog is a stone idol of sorts, so it has limited movement. The mouth opens, there is some slight head movement, and one of the hands can make small gestures. But Oz being Oz hits upon a great character trait, he makes the puppet sneer when it talks. Imagine a stone version of Billy Idol. This simple piece of manipulation partnered with a wonderful voice makes for the most interesting character in the sketches...and he can't even move!

So there was some great puppetry, but where did things go wrong? I think a lot of it has to do with the sketches themselves. The sketches were written by the SNL writers rather than Jerry Juhl and the rest of the Muppet crew. Writing for puppets is not the same as writing for humans. It seems that perhaps the writers got a bit caught up in the notion of seeing puppets, which many people associate as being for kids, doing things that are most definately not appropriate for family viewing. We see the characters getting drunk, doing drugs, having affairs, reading The Joy of Sex, and so on. It seems as if the writers were trying too hard to have the puppets doing adult humor.

The thing is "adult humor" and "humor that appeals to adults" are not necessarily the same thing. A year later, Henson, Juhl and the rest proved this when "The Muppet Show" premiered. Much of the material on "The Muppet Show" appealed to the adults in the audience just as much as it did the kids. In fact, there was a level of humor that ran throughout "The Muppet Show" that was aimed squarely at the adults in the audience. I would even say the same was true of "Sesame Street."

I believe classic Muppet sketches such as "Mahna Mahna" and Marvin Suggs' rendition of "Lady of Spain" would have been right at home with the Samurai, the Bees, and the Coneheads. These pieces are funny, no matter how old you are. But, truth be told, I'm glad the Muppets ended up having the chance to create their own comedy TV classic.

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