Yeah, it’s heartwarming when you cast an unknown and he breaks big, but the sudden transition from unknown to really quite exceptionally known can be jarring for a young star on the rise. Sure, Christopher Reeve had been in some plays nobody saw and spent a couple years on a soap opera that nobody liked, but as far as the world was concerned, he sprang into being fully-formed, as the ideal embodiment of a pop culture icon.
As we saw in yesterday’s post about the reviews, literally everyone who ever saw Superman thought that Christopher Reeve was utterly convincing, and perfect for the part. Even the critics who didn’t like the films had to admit that they fell under the spell of Reeve’s charm; if there were problems with the movies, then those problems were happening on the outskirts of the Reeve-controlled territory.
But the problem with being perfect at something is that you might not be perfect at anything else, which leads to disappointment once the thing that you’re perfect at is over. And that is the story of Christopher Reeve, starting from the release of Superman II. For the rest of his career, he’ll be chasing the dizzying high of “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?”, which will overshadow everything that he does, very much including the other two Superman movies.
So it’s right here, just before Superman II is finished and the rest of his life begins, that Christopher Reeve gets his next big break: being a guest star on The Muppet Show.
If you’re younger than approximately me, which you probably are, then it’s hard to describe how big of a deal The Muppet Show actually was, from 1976 to 1981. This half-hour hand-puppet variety show was the funniest and most colorful and most surprising thing in the world for five seasons, and it was an enormous success, in the US and all over the world.
I guess the best way to explain it is to say that the Muppet Show episode immediately preceding Reeve’s was the Star Wars episode, with Mark Hamill as the guest star along with Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3PO, and this was considered a lucky break for Star Wars, rather than for the Muppets.
So in January 1980, when Reeve took a week’s break from filming Superman II at Pinewood Studios and drove the 25 miles to Elstree Studios, where The Muppet Show was filming, this was Reeve’s big chance to get in front of an international audience and show the world that he’s more than just the guy who plays Superman.
So it’s kind of a shame that the entire episode is about the fact that Christopher Reeve actually is Superman.
He’s currently filming, so his body is in peak Superman condition, and Miss Piggy for one has noticed. The superstar pig diva is in the phase of her career where she’s pretending to lust after hot dudes rather than the other way around, and “Christopher ‘Perfect Body’ Reeve” is exactly what she and everyone else in the world have been dreaming about since the first movie came out.
Enjoying the view, Piggy asks, “How did you get the job as Superman, did someone see you lifting weights, or —”
“Lifting weights?” he says. “No, I just auditioned for the part — you know, like a lot of other actors. Strength really had nothing to do with it…” and then he pulls the wardrobe door apart.
Doing a take to the audience, Piggy says, “You’re certain about that?” Then she peers into the wardrobe, and he has to tell her, “I didn’t bring it.”
Then, acting in her typical role as the id of the universe, Miss Piggy makes a request.
Piggy: Christopher? Remember in the movie, when you held Lois Lane?
Piggy: Could you use my body, as a visual demonstration?
Reeve: Well, I just put my arm around her…
Piggy: Show me? Yes?
Piggy: And the other arm, where?
Reeve: Yeah, the other arm too.
Piggy: And you held her tighter?
Reeve: Well, I had to, ’cause otherwise she’d fall, right?
Now, the gag of the scene is that then Kermit comes in and sees Piggy and Chrissy snuggling, and gets quietly jealous, which is very funny, but for our purposes, the key moment in the scene is Miss Piggy saying that he held “Lois Lane”, rather than Margot Kidder. They could have used her name; Kidder was almost as famous for playing Lois to Reeve’s Superman. But the fiction that Reeve actually is Superman, and that he had to hold Lois tight or she’d fall, is the thing that the audience actually believed in their heart to be true.
Of course, the fact that Reeve-pretending-to-be-Superman-pretending-to-be-Reeve is having this conversation with another fictional character that people automatically and unconsciously believe in complicates things even more. This is why people who write about the Muppets inevitably turn into postmodernists.
The problem, as far as Reeve’s future is concerned, is that the joke “Chris is Superman” is paired with “Chris isn’t good at doing anything else”. On stage, Reeve takes Gonzo’s place in a Shakespeare-themed skit, where he puts on an extra-fake British accent and forgets how the line “to be or not to be, that is the —” ends.
He poses, and declaims, and hams it up, and at one point, he makes this face on purpose. Everything on The Muppet Show is a bit hammy and the characters always pretend to be bad at things that they’re actually amazing at, but the fact is, he’s not very funny in this sketch, and he’s not doing himself any favors in regards to his imminent typecasting.
He’s a lot more relaxed with Miss Piggy in the dressing room, and responds to her in a more natural way; my suspicion is that the dressing room scenes were recorded later in the week, when he figured out that he wasn’t supposed to out-Muppet the Muppets.
Still, the point of both the Shakespeare sketch and the Veterinarian’s Hospital sketch later on is that Reeve isn’t good at doing anything other than his current full-time job, being Superman.
There are lots of Muppet Show episodes that are designed to showcase the guest’s multiple talents: Cheryl Ladd can sing, Beverly Sills can tap-dance, Carol Burnett can do any goddamn thing you throw at her. This is not one of those episodes.
One of the big moments that he gets to stretch is the final musical number, singing “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” with Miss Piggy, where he pretends to play the piano and deal with an insane pig at the same time.
He’s fine in it, but he can’t quite decide what his reality is, so he does everything. He plays it perfectly straight for a second, then does a take to the camera, then grimaces at one of Piggy’s high notes, then looks over to the audience, then stifles a genuine laugh because Miss Piggy is hilarious. He’s constantly roaming around the scene, looking for another way to play it — is he enjoying this? is he embarrassed? is he startled? — rather than choosing an approach and sticking to it.
It all works out, of course, because 1980 Christopher Reeve is gorgeous and adorable even when he’s not sure how to be in a puppet show, and The Muppet Show is strong enough to carry a guest who’s still trying to figure out how to be famous. But if this was his advertisement for hiring Christopher Reeve to be something other than Superman, then — as Miss Piggy discovers, when she tries to give him a karate chop and bounces off his rock-hard stomach — he really is the Man of Steel… and maybe not much else.
1.98: Here We Go Again
If you’d like to learn more about the Christopher Reeve episode, the several other times that Reeve crossed paths with the Muppets, and the hundred other times that the Muppets referenced Superman, then obviously you need to go to Muppet Wiki, which ideally you should have bookmarked already.
1.98: Here We Go Again
— Danny Horn