Monday, August 30, 2010

The Land of Gorch

There are a few holes in my getting to see Jim Henson's Muppets legacy, and "The Land of Gorch" has always been one.  I've seen one or two sketches in passing over the years, but I've never been able to find a way to see them all.  So I was very happy when Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season was released on DVD... and even happier when it showed up on Netflix's "Play Now" option.  Now I could just kick back on my sofa, scroll through the episodes and watch them all in order!

 The actual sketches themselves aren't hilarious, but they are amusing.  And it's refreshing to see Muppets dealing with topics that they wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole now that Disney owns them, such as infidelity, drinking and hallucinogenics.  But the best part was probably getting to see Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson in new material.  Although it was somewhat disturbing hearing Prairie Dawn's voice come out of the sexpot character Vazh!

What really struck me while I was watching these was the craftsmanship that went into making them.  take a look at Scred here:

I mean, look at those eyes.  They're really mesmerizing.  According to the book Jim Henson: The Works, they were taxidermy eyes, and when you mix those with the classic Muppet eyebrows that can go up and down, the expressions are just incredible.  Just as captivating is the texture of Skred's snout-- it doesn't look like fabric at all, it really looks like scales.  Mix all this with Jerry Nelson's portrayal of him as a lovable louse and he becomes a very memorable Muppet.

And that's what makes The Land of Gorch such an interesting experiment.  It wasn't written by the regular Muppet writers at all; it was written by the SNL writers, who really didn't know what to do with them.  After watching the first few, Joy said to me "It doesn't have much of a punchline, does it?"  It was then that I realized what was missing from these sketches: the explosions.  Jim Henson had always said the best way to get out of a sketch was to have something get blown up or eaten.  Now I suppose I can understand them not using any pyrotechnics on a live show, but with characters like these, someone should have been getten eaten by a giant Muppet.

The thing is, for days after watching them I kept finding myself thinking of Scred, Ploobis and the Mighty Favog while smiling to myself and wanting to see more of them!  I haven't rewatched the sketches yet, but I probably will soon; all combined, they only come up to about an hour and twenty minutes.

It also helps that they improved as they went on.  Everyone could tell the Muppets and SNL weren't a great fit, and halfway through the series the Muppets return from England to discover their sets have been burned while they were away and they're not being let into the building.  From there it becomes more of the Muppets interacting with the humans on the show, learning they've been fired and trying to work their way back on!  It's then that the laughs really start.

It's also interesting from a "Henson historical" point of view, because those visits to England that I mentioned earlier were when he was working with ITC to get "The Muppet Show" off the ground.  In fact, in their final appearance (which is the first episode of Season Two, and by far the funniest one of all) they acknowledge that The Muppet Show has started, but they can't get on that show either.

So is the SNL Season 1 DVD box set worth it just for The Land of Gorch?  Honestly, probably not.  But hey, this is the first season of SNL we're talking about.  John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase... this is when the show was revolutionary and more importantly very funny.  And while the combination may not have worked as well in 1975, for a 21st century Muppets fan it's a win-win.

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