It’s official: the new Muppets movie is a hit! Not only that, but critics and audiences seem to unanimously agree that it’s the movie that returns the Muppets to their former glory. But despite our nostalgic adoration of Jim Henson’s beloved characters, the Muppets have starred in some pretty appalling stuff. Like this.
The Muppets: Sex and Violence
Yes, you read that title right. The Muppets have always straddled the line between kiddie fluff and adult satire with surprising agility, but this 1975 prototype for The Muppet Show hadn’t found its balance yet. It had rapid-fire gags a plenty, but it also had inappropriate jokes and pop culture commentary that would horrify parents even by today’s standards. The seven deadly sins were represented by their very own Muppets, for a weird “Seven Deadly Sins Pageant,” which the Muppets were preparing for throughout the half hour show. The curious can find it included as a special feature on the 2005 release of The Muppet Show: Season One on DVD.
The Muppets Go Hollywood
This so-bad-it’s-good 1979 TV special was made to promote the original Muppet Movie. Where else can you see the Miss Piggy dance alongside Raquel Welch and Cheryl Ladd, or Janice dance with Levar Burton? The usual cameos abound, but the guest list includes stars as all over the map as Christopher Reeve, Dick van Dyke, and Liberace. It might just be the Muppets’ very own “Star Wars Christmas Special.”
The Muppets at Walt Disney World
This TV special’s not actually all that bad, but it’s most memorable for being the last Muppet project from Jim Henson, who died a few days after it premiered on ABC in 1990. It’s watchable because Henson was behind it. It’s on this list because it was created so the Muppets could pimp Disney to its fans. You see, it was commissioned as Disney and Henson’s company were about to merge, making it essentially a “good faith” showing on Henson’s part, demonstrating how Disney and the Muppets were a good fit. But Henson’s untimely death caused negotiations to stall and later fall through. If that’s not embarrassing, I don’t know what is. (14 years later, after the Henson Company passed through several hands, Disney bought it outright from Henson’s children. They remained on staff to continue running the studio.)
An attempt in the late 90s to revive The Muppet Show that lasted only one season. It followed the same basic format as the original show, but was set at a TV studio instead of a theater, and was hosted by new character Clifford (voiced by Kevin Clash, aka Sesame Street‘s Elmo) instead of Kermit. Despite an endless influx of human guest stars like Billy Crystal, Sandra Bullock, Pierce Brosnan, and Garth Brooks, and some decent comedy bits, most Muppet fans felt it never achieved the heights of the original.
The Muppets Wizard of Oz
Apparently trying to channel The Wiz, Ashanti stars as Dorothy Gale in an abysmal new take on the classic film. With the Muppets filling in supporting players like the Scarecrow (Kermit), the Cowardly Lion (Fozzie), and all four witches (all played by Miss Piggy), this 2005 TV movie — which inexplicably premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival — was the last time the gang would release a (non-Christmas special) movie until 2011. And if you saw it, you know why.
It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie
It took $20 million to make what’s probably the Muppets’ worst production of all time. This 2002 clunker stars David Arquette as an angel (seriously) who gives a downcast Kermit the Frog his own It’s a Wonderful Life, enabling him to help his friends save the Muppet Theater (yep, the very same thing that’s in jeopardy in the new movie). Joan Cusack almost does okay for herself as a way-over-the-top villainess, but Whoopi Goldberg plays God as if God was exactly like Whoopi Goldberg. The real problem is the dreadful writing.
A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa
This 2008 TV movie finds Gonzo accidentally preventing three letters from reaching Santa Claus, and roping his friends into traveling to the North Pole to deliver those letters himself. Just marginally better than the 2002 Christmas movie, which isn’t saying much. But instead of Whoopi Goldberg dragging the whole thing down (she cameos briefly in this one as a cab driver), it’s Nathan Lane, who’s simply impossible to swallow as a policeman bully. (If you’re itching for a good Christmas special, you won’t find a better one than 1987’s charming A Muppet Family Christmas.)