When the TV special “Emmet Otter” returns to screens (and even hits the big screen) this Christmas, it is best to know that it has aged well because the producers and Muppet masterminds knew they were taking great risks with their growing family of viewers. However, The Muppets themselves were originally synonymous with using this special to push boundaries and test new ideas.
The original ’70s run of Muppet mania is centered around two axis – Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. Working with the Children’s Television Workshop, “Sesame Street” immediately used puppets, live actors and a daily program to set the standard for children’s programming for the next 50 years. Jim Henson wanted something more than a kids’ program.
In 1973, he proposed a pair of pilots to ABC which were overlooked. The sizzle reel for CBS failed to catch fire. Finally, Henson’s edgier ideas found a home on NBC and their new weekly live show “Saturday Night Live.”
The distant “Land of Gorch” became the Muppets’ first rung of “adult” television as it shocked audiences with alcohol consumption, sexual innuendo and death. Critics were inflamed. The writers of SNL refused to write sketches and they were removed from the show.
Across the pond in London with the support of British syndicated TV tycoon Sir Lew Grade, “The Muppet Show” was developed and their fortunes quickly changed. Formatted like the prime-time variety shows of its day (with musical numbers, special guests and recurring segments,) it became a huge hit worldwide. This larger audience led Henson to the CBC in 1977, where they sought to develop a standalone Christmas special that stood out from the Muppet empire. Adapting the book by Russell Hoban and leaving out all known Muppet characters to capture its reality, “Emmet Otter” became their most elaborate production yet.
Music truly helped bring the storybook to life, as Grammy-winner Paul Williams came aboard to compose the music for the songs. Over a two-week period in March 1977, the players recorded the music in LA and filmed the special in Toronto. Watching the rough cuts, the crew began to use radio-control puppets creating action as characters moved through the set. This groundbreaking idea would present a fountain of ideas to be followed in The Muppet Movie and The Dark Crystal.
CBC audiences were thrilled, and American TV execs took notice. Seen as too dark and not as resonant as other common holiday specials, the three networks passed again. HBO picked up the special in 1978 where its success would lead to the development of Fraggle Rock.
The American broadcast was preceded by a familiar face. Kermit The Frog introduced the story and audiences were thrilled. HBO would continue to air it as their holiday programming through 1980.
By the end of the ’70s, 16 million American homes had cable; 4 million of those homes subscribed to HBO. In 1980, ABC bought the rights to it and its broadcast on network television earned Henson and his crew four Emmys in 1981. For years to come, Emmet Otter and his songs lived on video and eventually made it back to cable in the ’90s.
However, dated it may have seemed at the time, clearly the old-time Americana developed a following. Now as a Christmas present to Muppet nerds, “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” will be shown on the big screen in theatres for two days this month. Their technical expertise and the heartwarming story and songs like “Barbecue” and “When The River Meets The Sea” (which was performed at Henson’s memorial service in 1990) will be finally available on vinyl this Christmas as well.
Mik Davis is the record store manager at T- BONE's Records and Cafe and a GED instructor.