“The Muppet Show” Episode 424: Diana Ross (1980)

Diana Ross Muppet Show 2

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!

Diana Ross Muppet Show 1

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.

Diana Ross Muppet Show 3

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.

Diana Ross Muppet Show 4

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 Muppet Show 5

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.

Trivia:
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.

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About Paul

Album-by-album, track-by-track, a look at the entire Diana Ross discography...
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15 Responses to “The Muppet Show” Episode 424: Diana Ross (1980)

  1. Oh, Paul. I have a crush on you. I love Diana and your review is perfect.

    • Paul says:

      Aww…sweetest comment ever! Glad you enjoyed. Love this episode — not only am I a Diana nut, but I great up completely infatuated with Miss Piggy. So this is the greatest colliding of worlds ever for me!

  2. Tony says:

    Loved the episode and saw it live. I recall being so excited about it being – it was an event for me at the time. I do recall, when she first did the Love Hangover, thinking why is she taking one of her big hits and almost make fun of it? But I really grew to enjoy it after seeing it a few times……I finally see how she was not “taking her self too seriously”.

    Paul your review is bang on ……I do enjoy her banter with fozzi bear and her Last time I saw Him! She sounded so rich and strong…..she seemed to really enjoy doing it as well. I seem to see it in face!!!! I could tell she loved being on the show!

    • Paul says:

      Tony — she definitely looks like she’s having genuine fun, which is why I think it’s so much fun to watch. At this point in her career, Diana had no problem saying “no” to offers she didn’t want to do, so the fact that she agreed to do the show and also poke a little fun at herself shows she was definitely up for it. Like the mention on the Henson website says, her kids were still young in 1980, and she obviously knew how much they’d love this episode. Her inclusion of “The Point” in “An Evening With…” and the “Sesame Street” medley in “Live At Caesar’s Palace” show how influenced she was by her own kids!

  3. Lawrence says:

    Wish Diana would do some more TV appearances or films. By the way, I saw Miss Piggy live when I went to watch the taping of Fashion Police in person. Miss Piggy and Joan Rivers together – priceless!

    • Paul says:

      DYING with jealousy! Perhaps the only person I’d be completely star-struck by aside from Diana Ross…is Miss Piggy! Love her and Joan Rivers together in “Muppets Take Manhattan” — their scene is priceless!

      • Antje says:

        Good to hear I’m not the only one who’s favorite diva No 2 is Miss Piggy! Sometimes I wish my hair were longer, so I could do – you know what I mean …
        Like Diana’s note to Miss Piggy, she really seems to have a good sense of humor.
        Recently I had to do a speech, and I actually thought of using the Muppet characters as a red thread. But I dropped the idea, too many of the young people are not familiar with them anymore – well, time is always on the fast track.

      • Paul says:

        It’s sad that The Muppets faded away for awhile — glad the last movie did well at the box office and that another one is in the works. Miss Piggy deserves nothing but success 🙂

  4. Lawrence says:

    You are?! How funny! I was more excited to meet George K (Fashion Police) and Joan (whom I have met before). Rupaul was also there that day. Miss Piggy is truly a diva pig! 🙂

  5. Lawrence says:

    That’s right!! x Lawrence (MR. Lawrence in my Diva mode!)

  6. Jaap says:

    Remember that Miss Piggy accepted Diana Ross’s award at the event of Nile Rodgers We Are Family Foundation in 2002 (when Ross allegedly was in rehab, I think). Ross and Miss Piggy also appeared together in the kids version of Rodger’s We Are Family music video, around 2 minutes into the song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnD8BYjZiW0

    • Paul says:

      Yep — a cute moment in the “We Are Family” video — wish there was more of it! I think it says a lot of about Diana’s character that she agreed to be such a small part of the “We Are Family” project after 9/11 — Nile Rodgers wrote that Miss Ross drove all the way to the session just to be part of the chorus — something that would probably surprise those who still believe Diana’s ambition to be “the star” overshadows all else.
      https://dianarossproject.wordpress.com/2013/02/02/dianas-charity-singles/

  7. Can’t imagine any major recording artist appearing on a primetime TV show today and NOT plugging their current single or at least something from their current ‘product’. Were these more innocent times or I wonder was The Muppet Show just more resistant to blatant marketing ploys?

    Either way, it’s notable that the most contemporary of the 3 songs from her catalogue, ‘Love Hangover’, was over four years old when this aired in May 1980 and ‘Last Time I Saw Him’ (the standout performance on the show I think) wasn’t even a major hit for her.

    In terms of tie-ins though this did air a matter of days around the release of her biggest album ever ‘diana’ so maybe there was a some sense of promotion sync at work in the timing – though a touch more subtle than Diana doing ‘Upside Down’ with Gonzo (though I can’t think of a Diana tune that would lend itself more to a Muppet sketch!)

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