The Muppet Show is finally streaming, with all five seasons landing on Disney+ last Friday. Thankfully these are the full episodes, many of which haven’t been seen in decades without various segments edited out, and some of which have never been released on home media before. If you know the Muppets from their movies, their YouTube videos, those cartoons where they’re babies, or their more recent TV shows, but have never seen the original Muppet Show, now’s your chance to see why these characters became so popular in the first place.
Now, keep in mind that this show is over 40 years old. It aired in syndication from 1976 to 1981, and although it’s an ingenious show, it’s still largely a product of its time. It’s a true variety show, and even though it makes enough fun of itself and that genre to seem much hipper than most ‘70s variety shows, it’s still full of musical performances and old-fashioned comedy that will probably seem corny to today’s audiences. Also, although it’s smart enough for adults and has a bit of a subversive streak rarely seen in family programming at the time, it’s also still a show that was made with kids very much in mind. It’s no Sesame Street, but don’t expect anything as “edgy” or transgressive as, say, the early years of Saturday Night Live, which ran concurrently with The Muppet Show. (It’s that lack of self-satisfied, network-approved “danger” that probably helps The Muppet Show hold up better today than those first seasons of SNL.)
With the return of The Muppet Show, the internet has seen a veritable flood of articles ranking the best episodes of the series. That’s cool, but there are so many of those articles out right now that we’re not doing a true best-of, at least not just yet. Instead we’re going to recommend a cross-section of episodes from throughout the show’s run that collectively show off the diverse range and scope of The Muppet Show, with one episode from each season. Some will be familiar from the best-of lists, whereas some make our list more because of how representative they are of the show and its willingness to change things up for the sake of a joke or a good musical guest. Together they provide a good overview of what made this show so special, and why fans of comedy, music, and good TV in general should still care about it over 40 years later.
I believe in picking things up from the start, but it gets a little confusing with The Muppet Show. There were actually two pilots that aired before the series started, but neither of them are on Disney+. Apparently the show had different broadcast orders in different territories, and it’s not clear if any of those lined up with the actual production order. All I can say is that the first episode listed for season one on Disney+ wasn’t the first episode produced, and most likely wasn’t the first episode aired in most markets, but it’s the first on Disney+, and that makes it a fine one to start with.
Rita Moreno’s talents make her perfect for variety shows: she can sing, dance, act, and tell a joke, and from the start fits in seamlessly with her Muppet co-stars. If you’ve ever wanted to see Rita Moreno seductively beat the heck out of a man-sized Muppet, now’s your chance. This isn’t the strongest episode of the show, but it’s a good introduction to its tone and rhythms, and Moreno is a constant joy to watch. If you’ve never seen The Muppet Show before, or aren’t familiar with ‘70s variety shows, this episode will let you know what you’re in for. Also it’s important to start with what is a fairly traditional episode of the show, so that you can see how some of the following episodes on this list play with that formula.
Two of the most defining sketch shows of the late ‘70s were Saturday Night Live and The Muppet Show, so it makes sense they shared a number of guests. Steve Martin, who hosted SNL so many times that many people erroneously think he was once a cast member, was at his peak in popularity as a stand-up comic when he hosted The Muppet Show in 1977. His brand of goofball absurdity plays both shows perfectly, especially since this episode dispenses with the standard format; instead of The Muppet Show, it’s a series of auditions for potential new acts. The sketches are shorter, the bits and jokes come faster and more frequently, and Martin pops up throughout doing various riffs on his well-established stand-up persona. From a comedy perspective, this is one of the best episodes of the whole series, with multiple running gags and a single-minded focus on humor above all else. Also there’s something heartwarming about Steve Martin’s lifelong commitment to the banjo. His love for it is as true and pure as the Muppets themselves.
The Muppet Show normally has a strong “putting on a show” energy, but this third season episode jumps headlong into the homemade by moving the action from the Muppet Theater to a railroad station. Expect an entirely different opening sequence, with altered lyrics for the theme song, and regular interruptions from passing trains. The new setting gives this one a unique vibe, with recurring bits like the Muppet Newsman (who gives his broadcast from the depot newsstand) and Statler and Waldorf (who heckle the show while perched atop luggage) freshened up by the change in environment, and more train jokes than you’ve probably heard all century. Country superstar Loretta Lynn puts it all over the top as the guest star; her musical performances are excellent, and make the whole thing kind of resemble Hee Haw, the massively successful country music variety show that was one of the most popular shows in syndication at the time. The Muppet Show featured a diverse array of musicians over its five seasons, with country being one of its go-to genres.
Speaking of diverse music, here’s a late-series episode hosted by a legitimate jazz legend. Today it’s hard to imagine a show as mainstream—and as nominally kid-focused—as The Muppet Show spotlighting jazz, but both the ‘70s and this specific show were different like that. Gillespie’s performances—he plays his trumpet, obviously, but also sings and scats a couple of numbers—are marvelous, and his substantial charisma makes it obvious why he’d be picked to host the show. Unlike most of the ones on this list, it’s a fairly traditional episode, with a Veterinarian’s Hospital sketch, a Fozzie stand-up bit, Gillespie performing a few songs, and a couple of other musical interludes featuring Muppet bands. It does feature a fun running Statler and Waldorf gag; Statler’s home sick, so Waldorf brings his wife, who looks exactly like Statler in drag.
The final episode we’ll recommend today is the rare one with an episode-length story. When Carol Burnett shows up to host, she learns that the Muppets are simultaneously hosting a dance marathon throughout the theater. Every sketch and segment touches on that marathon, including recurring bits like Pigs in Space, with the Muppets always trying to work in the fact that they’re dancing the whole time. Burnett’s an ideal host for this show—her iconic sketch series The Carol Burnett Show is about as close a spiritual match to The Muppet Show as you can find—so it’s interesting that instead of presiding over a “normal” episode she guested in one of the show’s more conceptual ones. She kills it, of course; the show avoided repeat guests, but if they had brought anybody back, Burnett should’ve been at the top of the list, alongside Steve Martin.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.