BOOTLEG FILES 822: “John Denver and The Muppets – A Christmas Together” (1979 television special).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It was never made available on any home entertainment format.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Maybe next Christmas?
When I was kid in yesteryear, every Christmas season would bring a surplus number of television specials tied to the holiday. Some specials became annual events, such as “A Charlie Brown Christmas” or “Frosty the Snowman,” but most seemed to be one-and-done affairs that might have been lost to obscurity had it not been for the prescience of pop culture vultures to videotape those shows and save them for future viewing.
A case in point is the 1979 “John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together.” This production was only seen once, and while its soundtrack album went on to become a best-seller every December for many years the accompanying TV special nearly vanished from sight had it not been for a savvy viewer who made a VHS copy and uploaded it years later to YouTube – albeit without the permission of the rights owners. Hey, no one’s perfect.
So, why didn’t “John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together” gain the same level of classic status as Charlie Brown or Frosty? Well, the answer is simple: it just wasn’t that good. Which, admittedly, is odd considering the talent involved in the show.
The show opens with a number that should have been a classic: Denver and the Muppets sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Denver and the Muppets are dressed in proper Victorian winter finery and each of the gifts for the twelve days is assigned to a single entity – Denver starts with the partridge in a pair tree for the first day, Kermit gets the two turtle doves for the second day, and so forth. It sounds fun, yes? Except that for Fozzie Bear’s occasional lapse in recalling his lyric about seven swans a swimming and Miss Piggy putting a bit too much diva emphasis on her lyric about five gold rings, the entire song is performed completely straight. Now, there’s nothing wrong with it – but, at the same time, there’s nothing right with it. Really, who watches the Muppets for a serious song?
And that’s where “John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together” goes wrong – it is not funny and, by extension, it is not fun. Except for the opening number’s skit featuring the Muppets and Denver arguing about the show’s contents during a script reading – Gonzo wants more screen time for his chickens and Lou Zealand wants a segment on his fish throwing act – too much of the contents are done with a saccharine seriousness or a forced jollity. And as the show progresses, it seems that the special is primarily anchored on Denver, with the Muppets mostly in support.
The Denver focus is obvious in two dreadfully overlong productions numbers – one where he sings and dances in a Currier and Ives-worthy Christmas town square, complete with Keystone Kops-styled constables, and another where he is a slightly out-of-step member of a wooden soldiers marching ensemble. There is a subplot where Miss Piggy tries to coerce Denver into giving her a larger role in a production number, but the comedy is more grating than gratifying as Denver cracks up over Miss Piggy’s abrasiveness. Denver has two solo song numbers, neither of them particularly memorable.
More successful are the special’s smaller moments, such as Denver and Rowlf performing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” or an original tune called “The Christmas Wish” with Kermit – the simplicity of the staging and the scoring of the old standard offers a small gem. But that subtlety is in short supply, particularly in the closing sequence where Denver and the Muppets sing “Silent Night” in its original German lyrics (don’t ask why) before going into the English version. And subtlety goes out the window with a retelling of the Nativity with Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus in Muppet versions – it is an astonishing mix of sincerity and unintentional comedy (with a blonde Baby Jesus and a Joseph who looks like the infant’s great-grandfather). A studio audience of children appears in final minutes, and the clearly confused kids sing (or yell along) with the performers in the spotlight.
Oddly, the soundtrack album tied to the special has a surplus number of songs that were not performed for the television offering. No explanation was ever given about that curious situation.
“John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together” was broadcast on ABC on December 5, 1979. Tony Charmoli would later get an Emmy nomination for directing the special, and he won the Directors Guild of America Award for that work. But despite the popularity of the Muppets and Denver, the special was never made available for home entertainment viewing – even though the soundtrack album is still in print. Unless there is a music rights clearance issue with some of the songs in the special, its absence from circulation is unclear.
Nonetheless, there is an unauthorized posting on YouTube that enables us to watch this effort. And while it is not a classic, it offers a curious glimpse of non-classic late-70s programming.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
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