Hey, Muppet fans: Excited to see Kermit and the gang back on TV with ABC’s new sitcom The Muppets? Good! You should be. We’ve seen the first two episodes, and they’re a lot of fun. But we’re also old enough to remember that this isn’t the first time ABC has tried to revive the Muppets in primetime… although they’d probably prefer we forgot all about it.
Back in the mid-'90s, ABC brought Kermit and company back with Muppets Tonight — a faux-variety show in the Muppet Show vein that, while undeniably charming, was hampered by a few key missteps. Despite the shiny Muppets brand name, it only lasted one season on the network. With The Muppets premiering this week, we’re examining what went wrong with Muppets Tonight, as a sort of cautionary tale for the new show to learn from.
Muppets Tonight came along at an odd time in the history of the Muppets. Jim Henson passed away in 1990, and the franchise was on shaky ground. Two post-Henson films, 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol and 1996’s Muppets Treasure Island, were met with a lukewarm reception, and it made sense for the Muppets to return to the medium that first launched them: TV.
Debuting on March 3, 1996, Muppets Tonight took us behind the scenes at television station KMUP, where the Muppets put on a weekly show filled with comedy skits, wacky talent-show performers, and big-name guest stars. All your old favorites were there: Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Rowlf, Animal, Rizzo the Rat. But they weren’t always front and center… and that leads us to maybe the show’s biggest misstep.
Instead of having Kermit host the weekly show-within-a-show (the natural choice), Muppets Tonight handed the reins over to a relative newcomer: Clifford (performed by the man behind Elmo, Kevin Clash), a dreadlocked, catfish-looking musician who had appeared in a scattered few Muppet productions prior to the show. Declaring himself “your homie made of foam-y” (groan), Clifford was fine, we guess — although, looking back, he seems like an unholy mash-up of Jar Jar Binks and Poochie from The Simpsons — but even the most charitable Muppet fan would tell you he’s no Kermit the Frog.
But executive producer Brian Henson (Jim’s son) said at the time he wanted to use Muppets Tonight to “create another sort of experimental, very creative atmosphere that could grow new characters.” So along with Clifford, we were introduced to Pepe the King Prawn (a sassy elevator operator), Bobo the Bear (a hapless security guard), and Miss Piggy’s dimwitted nephews Andy and Randy (who frequently bumbled their way onto the show).
That old Muppets spirit is still there, though: Looking back through old YouTube clips, Muppets Tonight is actually pretty enjoyable. Sure, a lot of its references are dated (the first episode alone features a Miss Piggy infomercial and a Baywatch parody), but the timeless humor and heart shine through. And the show did land some great guest stars like Sandra Bullock and Billy Crystal; hey, where else are you gonna see country mega-star Garth Brooks perform Shakespeare and do his best Tom Jones impression?
That wasn’t enough to keep Muppets Tonight on the air, though; plagued by low ratings, it only lasted for ten of its 13 episodes before ABC yanked it off the schedule. The show lived on, though, with the Disney Channel picking it up and airing an additional season, bringing it to a total of 22 episodes. Muppets Tonight officially ended in February 1998; it still hasn’t gotten a proper home-video release.
Was the decision to focus on newcomers like Clifford a fatal miscalculation? Was it an awkward fit in ABC’s TGIF lineup coming in at midseason? Or was it just too soon to try to recreate that Jim Henson magic? Whatever the case, Muppets Tonight stands as a strange footnote in the overall Muppet legacy.
Actually, its biggest contribution might be those new characters it introduced: We don’t see Clifford much anymore, but Pepe the King Prawn went on to become a beloved member of the Muppet family, and is actually quite the scene-stealer on The Muppets as a writer on Miss Piggy’s late-night talk show. Bobo the Bear joins him there, too, and both feel like full-fledged members of the ensemble.
So even if Muppets Tonight didn’t last very long, its legacy continues to delight us to this day. And hey, maybe we can come full circle and get Garth Brooks to appear on the new show. Does he still have that Tom Jones wig?
The Muppets premieres Tuesday, Sept. 22 at 8 p.m. on ABC.