1980 was a great year to be Diana Ross. This banner year would bring her a platinum smash LP, diana, and two major singles, “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out.” She’d also provide the theme song to the movie It’s My Turn, leading to a third trip to the top 10. This work led to American Music Award wins, another Grammy nomination, an a new generation of young fans who weren’t even born when the singer had gotten her start as a Supreme. A decade into her solo career, Miss Ross had never been hotter commercially, something proven by the fact that she’d soon sign a record-setting contact with RCA Records which afforded her a new measure of creative control.
1980 was also a great year to be a Muppet. The iconic puppets created by Jim Henson and gang had been TV stars for four seasons, and had just scored a major hit with The Muppet Movie, which became one of the top grossing films of 1979. 1981 would bring more motion picture success with The Great Muppet Caper. Muppet merchandise was also about to skyrocket, with the Fisher-Price Dress-Up Muppet Dolls of 1981 and 1982 becoming staples of Christmas stockings everywhere. Kermit The Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and the rest were already stars, and by the time the Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies cartoon took over Saturday mornings in the mid-80s, they were bona-fide superstars.
Thus, it makes perfect sense that in 1980, Diana Ross and The Muppets would team up for an episode of “The Muppet Show.” Following a long list of guest stars including Lena Horne, Rudolph Nureyev, and Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross took over the title of guest star for Episode 24 of the show’s 4th “series” (or season). Not only was it a good promotional opportunity for the star; it was apparently a decision driven by motherhood. According to The Jim Henson Company’s website (www.henson.com): “Like so many celebrities who come to work with the Muppets, Diana Ross said she did it for her kids. Her three daughters, ‘…are big Muppet fans and they were over the moon about me working with all their favorites,’ Ross explained.”
“The Muppet Show,” of course, was a mock-variety show; each episode took place in The Muppet Theatre, and involved the puppets and human guest star putting on a series of skits, along with showing the “backstage” chaos, too. Miss Ross’s episode is notable for a few reasons; for fans of the singer, it’s a very rare chance to hear her sing her 1973 top 20 hit “Last Time I Saw Him,” possibly her least-performed hit ever. It’s also interesting technically; according to Jim Henson’s son Brian (in the DVD introduction to The Best Of The Muppet Show, Vol. 8), “In this episode, she performs ‘Love Hangover,’ which features the largest Muppets ever made. They’re called the Gawky Birds and Bossmen. The Bossmen are the really tall ones.” It’s certainly fitting that one of the biggest stars of the time would require the tallest Muppets ever built!
Opening with a cute moment in which Scooter (the Muppet stage manager) gives Diana pre-show gift of a “fan club” — a giant club covered with little spinning fans — the premise of this episode is that, in Brian Henson’s words, “the audience is so packed with Diana Ross fans that they hate everything except for her.” This means most of the Muppet production numbers, like the wildly creative opening “Flying Down To Rio” and Fozzie Bear’s comedy routine, are cut short and greeted by boos from the Muppets in the audience; Diana’s reception is so warm, however, that she constantly comments on how great the audience is, much to everyone else’s chagrin. Diana’s first number, the aforementioned “Love Hangover,” comes just a few minutes into the show, and is an incredibly compelling and bizarre imagining of her 1976 #1 hit. It’s an odd choice for Miss Ross to perform such a sophisticated and adult song on a show filled with puppets (although, to be fair, “The Muppet Show” certainly wasn’t a children’s show), but the fact that it’s so “loose” structurally makes it a perfect number in which to interact with the Muppets around her. The Gawky Birds and Bossmen flapping and dancing around her are colorful and impressive, especially knowing that they’re being controlled by puppeteers in black suits who are standing right on the stage and blending into the backdrop. Diana replaces the sexy, husky quality of her recorded performance with a sweetness here that works well; her rendition is perfectly pitched, and she looks great while dancing around the stage in a glittering gold jumpsuit.
After a few more failed acts, including The Gills Brothers (a fish barbershop quartet) and “Pigs In Space” (the recurring sketch starring the fabulous Miss Piggy, a fellow diva if there ever was one), Diana returns with a fantastic rendition of her 1973 top 20 hit “Last Time I Saw Him,” accompanied by Muppet band Dr. Teeth And The Electric Mayhem (featuring Rowlf on piano, Animal on drums, Janice on guitar, and Sgt. Floyd Pepper on the bass among others!). The choice to include this song is genius; the bouncy, over-the-top country/pop composition already kind of sounded like a Muppet song anyway, and perfectly lends itself to the show’s instrumentation and slightly-silly background voices. Although the song did very well for Miss Ross upon its initial release, topping the Adult Contemporary charts and getting a top 10 country makeover by singer Dottie West, it disappeared from her act quickly and she hasn’t performed it live in decades. Thus, it’s great to hear her sing it here, even in this context; she sounds great and appears to be genuinely enjoying herself (especially during the “Don’t cry honey!” spoken lines at the end), and her interaction with the puppet band around her is marvelous.
Next up, Diana gets the chance to join Fozzie Bear for a little comedy routine onstage; this is a real “Diana” moment, where the star looks absolutely beautiful and her mega-watt smile lights up the screen. Her effortlessness here — especially in interacting with the puppet — is reminiscent of her late-60s television appearances, during which she’d perform comedy sketches with such a lightness and ease that she appeared to be floating across the screen. She’s appropriately animated when imitating Fozzie’s comedic delivery (who can resist her, “Hiya! Hiya! Hiya!”?), and clearly is not afraid to be totally silly in front of the viewing audience. This leads directly into her next song, a Muppified rendition of her first solo single, “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” Her vocal performance here is actually quite strong, and soon she’s joined by the entire Muppet cast for a sing-along which even includes the notoriously grumpy Statler and Waldorf characters! This is a perfect way to end the show; as with “Last Time…,” this song lends itself perfectly to the assorted Muppet voices and Miss Ross’s children were probably in heaven seeing their mother surrounded by these loveable creations.
Diana Ross clearly enjoyed her stint on “The Muppet Show” — according to the Henson website, “She had a good time and stayed friendly with Jim and his team. When he sent her a Muppet sweatshirt in 1987, she wrote a thank you note, adding, ‘Please inform Miss Piggy that I truly appreciate her fashion sense and her input.'” Indeed, perhaps the only thing missing in Diana’s episode is a real “diva face-off” between Miss Ross and Miss Piggy. As it is, this episode was perfectly built around the Ross persona, playing off of her image as a benevolent superstar diva with an adoring audience of fans. After including Kermit’s “Bein’ Green” (in a “Sesame Street” medley) in her early ’70s stage show, it made perfect sense that Diana would dive headfirst into the Muppet world, and the result is a delightful half-hour of entertainment.
In “The Muppet Show” Episode 311 (1978), guest star Raquel Welch sings both “Baby It’s Me” and “Confide In Me” (tracks from Diana’s 1977 Richard Perry-produced LP Baby It’s Me) to the Muppets! Miss Welch performs “Baby It’s Me” with a giant spider, and sings “Confide In Me” to Fozzie Bear later in the episode.