In the beginning, the role of Kermit the Frog was played by a character more like Schleppo the Orange Felt News Anchor with a Comb-Over. (He looked like a Paul Giamatti Baby, and his name was Nigel.) Miss Piggy was an Italian stereotype (a mob boss of sorts, though it's hard to tell what her burly personality had been stitched to). Pigs in Space wore bondage gear. There was no Fozzie Bear, no Gonzo.
Bert from Sesame Street made a cameo, dancing a waltz with his partner Ernie (launching decades of rumors about the pair that refuse to die). The patriotic Eagle was even more humorless than he'd become, and Dr. Teeth and his band of washouts, Electric Mayhem, played prog rock.
The Muppet Show that Jim Henson first delivered was by no means typical family programming - and it definitely wasn't cuddly. In that pilot, never aired in this country, and available for the first time on The Muppet Show: Season One (Buena Vista, $39.99), Henson didn't have a guest star and the title wasn't "The Muppet Show." It was Sex and Violence:
The Muppet Show, and during the opening credits, that title was blown to pieces by the Muppet mad bomber (a character who wouldn't make the cut today, for good reasons).
The very first line spoken:
"Ladies and gentleman, this is the end of Sex and Violence!"
The Muppet Show: Season One is a warm trip into the perverse world of kiddie programming in the 1970s, but what it glaringly omits is any context or timeline. There's a pop-up factoid option (that includes shameless pitches for Disney products) but no explanation of how Sex and Violence transformed a year later into the Muppet Show we know today.
And there's no history of Henson or the Muppets themselves, who until 1976 (the year the series debuted) were mainly known for Sesame Street and their guest spots on variety shows. (Kermit, in fact, made his first TV appearance in 1957 on Steve Allen's old Tonight Show.)
But Season One, aside from a handful of nice extras, still works because of the first 24 episodes of that '76 season - episodes so low-key and low-budget today, until I watched this four-disc set I had forgotten that after Kermit pokes his head through the giant "SHOW" in "Muppet Show" and announces that week's guest celebrity, his puppeteer (Henson, of course) would almost always accidentally nudge the flimsy set and send it rocking precariously.
Which was sort of perfect.
Kermit presided over chaos.
The show had no real format, and the sketches, watched today, have a daring randomness. The very first skit, actually, was the great "Mahna-Mahna" song, a duet between aliens and a caveman (and impossible to remove from your head for hours after). And I got the warm and fuzzies (or make that, fozzies) just settling back into a period when Paul Williams singing "Old Fashioned Love Song" was prime-time entertainment.
Because The Muppet Show lasted until 1981, there are still sets to come with guest spots from Steve Martin, Peter Sellers, and Elton John. But at the moment, Rita Moreno, Ben Vereen, Vincent Price, and Florence Henderson will do fine.
Incidentally, if you're a little younger and prefer your Muppets with slightly more production value, Fraggle Rock: Season One (Hit Entertainment, $44.99), that huggable HBO series from the '80s, is due Sept. 6.
BRING US YOUR HUDDLED: One of the best little-seen documentaries of the past few years is Josep M. Domenech and Carles Bosch's Balseros (Docurama, $26.95), discovered at Sundance in 2002 and nominated for an Oscar for best documentary feature. It's on video for the first time. The title is slang for the thousands of Cuban rafters who piled onto rickety boats and pushed off for the Florida coast.
In August of '94, Fidel Castro made a surprising announcement: If you wanted to leave Cuba, he wouldn't stop you. For 15 days, 50,000 people took him up on the offer. You might remember the news photos of ferries impossibly overloaded and a half dozen people clinging to a single inner tube. When President Bill Clinton reached an agreement with Castro, the tide stemmed, and a lot of those people were in a lurch. Some were stopped and taken to the naval base at Guantanamo Bay.
Many others landed.
Domenech and Bosch, with a reporter's luck and a storyteller's patience, were in Cuba when the exodus began and didn't let up when it ended. Their film follows seven Cubans and their epic journeys right though the turn of the millennium.
It's a fascinating look at a country from the outside in, and not just America, but Cuba. The filmmakers, having established where the rafters land, come back five years later to show what happened not only to their life but to the families they left behind. If you have a weakness for sprawling Hoop Dreams-esque tales of life that unfold over years, don't miss it.
WET NOSES: Pity the parent who grew up in the 1960s or 1970s. After you've sat your child down and explained the modest, non-computer-generated pleasures of The Muppet Show, after you've lectured on the sophistication of classic Looney Toons compared with that Dragonball Z junk - how do you explain Kung Fu Hustle (Columbia, $28.95) will have to wait until they're older? Even harder to explain is why this Roadrunner-meets-Hong Kong amalgam wasn't half the hit it was expected to be. Legs windmill. Eyes bug out. Chases wind across hills in a cloud of cartoon dust. It's violent and shallow and a next generation Roger Rabbit.
Anime without animation.
And if it still makes you feel old, Because of Winn-Dixie (Fox, $29.95) should have you longing in no time for a childhood you never had. It's the simple affecting story of a girl and her dog, with a great cast (Jeff Daniels, Cicely Tyson, Eva Marie Saint) and a restraint (courtesy of director Wayne Wang) rare in the broad-minded world of kiddie pictures. And by the way, if the lead munchkin looks familiar: AnnaSophia Robb is currently unrestrained as Violet Beauregarde in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org