Not having grown up during the Muppets’ first and highest wave of popularity, I’ve always wondered how something like The Muppet Show could possibly have attained such mainstream cultural primacy. A friend of mine who did spend his childhood watching puppeteer Jim Henson’s array of creatures do their thing on national television offers a simple explanation: “It was the seventies.” Though Henson began his puppetry career twenty years before The Muppet Show’s 1974 pilot episode, his distinctively earnest yet presciently post-psychedelic vision seemed made for that decade. America responded by elevating his work into the zeitgeist, and not just the stuff properly involving Muppets. Above, you can watch a 1974 clip from The Tonight Show featuring a short performance from Henson and fellow Muppeteer Dave Goelz called Limbo, the Organized Mind.
Henson and Goelz treat Johnny Carson and the Tonight Show audience to a journey through the brain, as an abstracted, hand-operated face narrates the passage through organic structures like his medulla oblongata, and cerebrum, and the seats of things less definable, like thoughts of his family, thoughts of his enemies, his “extra-special section of good thoughts,” his evil thoughts, and his fears. The score comes from electronic composition pioneer Raymond Scott, whose 1964 album Soothing Sounds for Baby has won great respect among enthusiasts of ambient music. Watching Limbo, the Organized Mind in 2012 brings one obvious lament to mind: why don’t they make such delightfully eccentric and artistic television anymore? But of course they do make it, in stranger and less predictable ways than even Henson did, but mainly in the countless fragmented, comparatively marginal venues of modern media. Limbo aired on a show that half the people you knew would have seen. It was the seventies.