The penultimate episode of Saturday Night Live season 46 included a parody of The Muppet Show that earned the ire of Muppet fans online. The sketch also seemingly affirmed that the Muppets and Saturday Night Live are a bad combination, due to their completely contradictory styles of comedy. It’s a truth that has been apparent ever since Loren Michaels first started Saturday Night Live in 1975, and the series included a recurring series of Jim Henson sketches, “The Land of Gorch,” set on a barbaric alien planet.
While Muppet creator Jim Henson and his creative team were hired to design the setting and characters of “The Land of Gorch” and to puppet the characters, Writers’ Guild rules prohibited them from writing their own material. This led to the “Land of Gorch” sketch-writing duties being assigned to whichever writer that week drew the short straw, as most of Saturday Night Live’s writers at the time were of the opinion that puppets belonged on children’s shows. The audience hated “The Land of Gorch” as much as Saturday Night Live‘s writers hated writing it and Henson’s team hated performing it. Thankfully, Henson negotiated the deal that led to The Muppet Show being produced for ATV later that year, allowing Michaels to free Henson from his contract with NBC and “The Land of Gorch” to be brought to an end after 16 sketches.
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This conflict of comedic styles was made apparent in a sketch produced for the new season of Saturday Night Live, which presented what was said to be a classic rerun of The Muppet Show on Disney+. The sketch opened with Kermit the Frog trying to interview special guest Lily Tomlin (Melissa Villaseñor) while enduring the heckling of Statler and Waldorf, the two old men who came to watch the Muppet Show just to make fun of it. This led to two security guards (played by cast member Kenan Thompson and guest host Keegan-Michael Key) stepping out to tell the hecklers to be quiet, before finally beating them senseless.
The skit did not sit well with many Jim Henson fans, who felt it was mean-spirited in a way that, while typical for Saturday Night Live parodies, was unrepresentative of the Muppets’ brand of comedy. Fans disliked that most of the sketch’s humor came from the idea of two old men being beaten up. Ignoring the moral implications, it was also the sort of lazy Punch and Judy comedy that Henson spent his career trying to avoid, dismissing it as far too easy. Additionally, the sketch also broke the fourth wall in a way that was counterintuitive to The Muppet Show style, with the guards attempting to remove Statler and Waldorf from the theater only to discover that they had no legs. The two guards immediately placed them back in their seats, apologizing for fear that they had been mistreating two veteran soldiers.
Beyond just being cruel, the Saturday Night Live sketch also missed the mark in how The Muppet Show handled its celebrity guest stars and how many of them reacted to working with the Muppets. Lily Tomlin’s interview in the sketch largely consisted of Melissa Villaseñor talking to herself out-loud, intentionally avoiding looking at Kermit the Frog and indicating she didn’t want to be there, asking “Why do I always say yes to stuff like this?” While The Muppet Show often roped its special guests into skits they didn’t want to do, it only did this with actors who were either playing up to their image as a prim and proper authority figure (as with Monty Python founder John Cleese) or playing a jerkish parody of themselves, such as Jack Black in 2011’s The Muppets. It was always reluctance played up for the sake of comedy, never reality. Depicting a professional like Lily Tomlin acting like it was beneath her to talk to a frog wasn’t true to the spirit of The Muppet Show and it was also patently unfunny, proving that Saturday Night Live should steer clear of trying to imitate The Muppets.
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