I watched the extras first--the pitch reel, a gag reel, and the pilot, then went on to a few episodes on the same disc (4) that I remembered very little or not at all. I used to watch the series every week when it aired in the U.S., but am not sure when I began watching, or how many times I missed it, given that I was eight years old in 1976, when the show first aired. My memory blurs a bit from the passage of time. Also, I saw some of the episodes again (such as the one with Ethel Merman) when I was writing my Master's thesis and they were airing on A&E, adding to the confusion.
The pitch reel made me laugh out loud more than once--it's a single muppet in a suit, with Henson's voice, giving the basics that soon become wildly exaggerated and irreverent. The simple backgrounds are a riot.
The pilot had its funny bits, but it didn't make me laugh nearly as much as the format they eventually arrived at. Nigel (who eventually became the orchestra conductor) is the lead muppet, though Kermit appears in one scene. Sam the Eagle and Floyd are the other main ones used. The skits shift sharply around with less of a frame, more like Monty Python than a variety show. There are a series of jokes with a puppet of the Mt. Rushmore carvings. Most of the scenes with Nigel, Sam, and Floyd appeared in the show's "control room," and I noticed background items changed in every scene. Statler and Waldorf appear, in armchairs in a posh study, telling each other jokes. The Band (Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem) have a couple of songs, one of which begged for explosions but didn't get them. There is muppet wrestling (brutal!) and the Swedish Chef. And a really great skit with birds who each have a single line to say, but there's an actual, simple plot to it.
I then moved on to Valerie Harper's episode, in which she shows her Broadway chops. Statler has a fabulous plotline, because he wants to meet her: old-fashioned gallantry and tired pickup lines. My favorite skit of this episode was the UK one; Rowlf and Sam the Eagle singing Gilbert and Sullivan's "Tit-Willow," with Sam saying "Willow, tit-willow, tit-willow." I nearly busted a gut on that one. Rowlf also had a funny poem.
Watching the Time-Life DVDs, which mix the seasons, have driven me crazy trying to figure which continuing skits go in which seasons. I can now make a list in my mind (yes, episode guides are on the Web, yes, I'd rather see than read). The opening is of course different, with four chorus girls and four chorus guys and, later, one of those elevator-cake-looking stages instead of the more familiar tall arched structure from later seasons. Vendaface is first season, as are Wayne and Wanda, and Muppet Newsflash and At the Dance (which survived for a bit). I also noticed that, in the eps I watched, there was considerably less "backstage impromptu"-style interaction between the guest stars and the muppets. The potential was there, for instance with Statler waiting backstage for Valerie Harper, but he doesn't have an actual scene with her until the epilogue in front of the curtain.
I watched the episode with Kaye Ballard next. She was again with the Broadway chops, especially in her fab dance with that big blue monster with the rolly eyes and flippy ears, and there was a cute running skit with the band wanting to quit because they were tired of playing that square theme song. My favorite skit was again one shown in the UK but not in the US, "Life Gets Tedious, Don't It?"
Before I went to bed, I decided to risk Twiggy's episode. She seemed into the hair-flipping, and I couldn't help compare her to the Janice muppet (who has a different, less funny voice in these early episodes). She sang a couple of songs and acted an A.A. Milne poem, which I actually remembered seeing, but probably from grad school. This is the one with "The Phantom of the Muppet Show," played by that blue gargoyle character they used a number of times later. The opening act was experimental puppets, one that was a ball of fuzz with big teeth, and a bunch of furry snakes on sticks.
We'll see you next time on The Muppet Show!!!
A most excellent episode guide.