Superman II 2.52: Light the Lights

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?

Reeve:  Mm-hmm.

Piggy:  Could you use my body, as a visual demonstration?

Reeve:  Well, I just put my arm around her…

Piggy:  Show me? Yes?

Reeve:  Yeah…

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.

Tomorrow:
1.98: Here We Go Again


Footnotes:

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.

Tomorrow:
1.98: Here We Go Again

Chapters

— Danny Horn

19 thoughts on “Superman II 2.52: Light the Lights

  1. 1976-1980 were my high school years, and 1981 was first year of college (plus having a paper route and working from 1978 on). I honestly never knew the Muppet show was really that big of a deal. I have heard a rumor that the Muppets were part of the first season of SNL for a time, and I totally missed the Muppet episodes of SNL too. Guess I’ll have to bookmark your Muppet blog so I can earn some pop-culture cred about the Muppets, huh? 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There were Muppet characters on SNL, created for a world called The Land of Gorch. It did not go well. The SNL writers didn’t want to write for them and the skits ended after the first season. Henson went on to do The Muppet Show after SNL.

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      1. The Land of Gorch characters were some amazing looking puppets with performers at the top of their game, but the Henson people weren’t allowed to write the material and the SNL writers had no idea what to do with them. Their sensibilities just didn’t mesh and Lorne Michaels knew that, so he let the Muppets out of their contract after the first season.

        https://muppet.fandom.com/wiki/The_Land_of_Gorch

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  2. Even as a callow child I got that there was more to The Muppet Show than just being silly puppets dancing around–Statler and Waldorf alone signaled levels beyond that. But one thing it really did was highlight how hard it is to be in this kind of variety program.

    The only thing on TV these days doing anything remotely similar is SNL and even there, most of the time the guest stars are just props–they aren’t expected to show they can juggle or write cantos or sing opera. In fact, the thing’s pretty much designed around them being a hapless coat rack while the regular performers dance around them.

    I imagine for Reeve, and anybody of his generation who didn’t grow up with any kind of first hand knowledge, either as performer or viewer, of sketch shows, found it pretty damn hard to transition from the kind of acting he’d been doing to such a high-speed rampage of a thing, especially since it’s hardly the kind of venue where you decide a character’s motivation or rehearse enough that you don’t crack up onstage when Miss Piggy’s taking over.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Thanks to Disney+, I just popped over and watched this episode. I loved Piggy’s comment on Kermit’s jealousy: “He always looks jealous. That’s his natural color.”
    I thought Chris was just playing a hammy Shakespearean actor doing Hamlet. Mostly I felt he fit in with the tone of the show fairly well.
    Other than Somewhere in Time and The Remains of the Day, I don’t think I’ve seen any other movies he did. Somewhere in Time has developed a cult following over the years. He worked regularly even if he never again achieved the same fame from a role as he had with Superman. After seeing a list of roles he reportedly turned down, I’m afraid he wasn’t terribly good at picking parts to play.

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      1. He is good in Deathtrap, but would have been better if he’d worn a beard or something- it’s as hard to look at him and see someone other than Superman as it is to look at Michael Caine and see a guy who could plausibly be named “Sidney Bruhl.”

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  4. After I got back into the Muppets when my daughter was born, this episode was a holy grail for several years because it wasn’t easy to get ahold of. It was released on home video for the first time in the UK in 2001, so I imported it, but I couldn’t play PAL VHS tapes, so it just sat on a shelf looking at me. I eventually got a digitized file and it easily became one of my favorite episodes.

    I had a lot of the same observations you made about his awkwardness, but I cropped that up to his having fun with it. Especially after reading Christopher Finch’s (who just passed away this week) incredible book Of Muppets and Men, where I learned that not only did Reeve became friends with Henson and Frank Oz, hanging out together at local restaurants, but he was invited to do some crowd puppeteering and got to perform one of the Japanese Pole Vaulters in the Bob Hope episode. That’s right: Christopher Reeve, Muppeteer.

    It never occurred to me that this was taped in the middle of filming Superman II. His hair is quite long here, which I suppose just goes to show you what a good hairdresser with some dippity-do can do.

    > where he pretends to play the piano

    I never paid close attention to this, but you’re right of course. Although, Reeve *was* a pianist (I believe he can be seen playing in one or two other movies; Somewhere in Time maybe? music is used quite prominently in that), so if you look closely, there are parts where he’s able to fake it better had he not been.

    Finally, within those Muppet Wiki links, folks will find that the Superman comic that Reeve is reading backstage is Action Comics #506, which just so happens to include a Muppet reference.

    “Super Rat? You’re in charge.”

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I remember watching The Muppet Show with my son but since he was an infant in 1977 I suppose it’s more accurate to say he watched with me!
      The Muppets on SNL were amazing looking. My husband was genuinely disappointed when they left.
      I thought Reeve’s hand movements at the piano were fairly good. I assumed that if he did not play, he had at least practiced enough to convincingly fake it as an actor.
      I will look for those movies. Thanks for the recommendations. I wish Chris had done romantic comedies. He could have given Hugh Grant a run for his money.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. What a nice surprise! I thought we were going to pick apart the movie some more. Instead, we get this look at delightful comedy with that tall cool charming Chris Reeve. What a smile!

    Jim Henson was the most charming and nice guy, but he was a wacky postmodernist creator right from the start. Watch his Wilkins Coffee commercials for bizarre, sadistic ways to wipe out non-coffee drinkers since before 1960!

    I had a lot of fun watching the Muppet Show with my family most weeks. It had lots for kids to like. And obviously a whole other layer of references and meanings for the adults. Amazing, creative, often hilarious, very respectful of the guest stars.

    I missed this episode, though. Thanks for the post!

    I didn’t take the Shakespeare skit as showing that Chris couldn’t do Shakespeare. The joke was more that the Muppets weren’t up to anything so high-falutin’ and fancy as Shakespeare.

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  6. I think you’re selling the Vet’s Hospital sketch short. Reeve feels so natural in that one to me, and I think he’s hilarious. It’s absolutely an advertisement for the fact that he’s good at light comedy.

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  7. Reeve was an outlier among other 1970s movie stars (including his costar Hackman). Part of his appeal was that he seemed like an actor from another period, which helped sell his Superman/Clark Kent.

    His attempts to break out of the Superman role were mostly unsuccessful because he didn’t really fit with the 1980s stars, either.

    Harrison Ford remained a major star for almost 20 years or so after STAR WARS. Interestingly, he didn’t shy away from other “genre” type films (BLADERUNNER and INDIANA JONES), though I can’t imagine Reeve in those films, either.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Yaaaaaay!! *with flailing arms* I remember watching this Muppet Show when I was little (5 or 6). It blew my mind that Superman was on the Muppet Show. Watching the episode now I agree with your assessment above.

    Last night I watched “Superman: The Movie” and I really appreciated all the trivia I gained from your blog posts. I’m going to watch “Superman II” later this week and I preemptively want to thank you for enhancing that viewing.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ve been watching a fair few Muppet Shows recently on Disney+. Haven’t reached this one yet (I’ve also been waiting for the Star Wars episode that I DO remember from the original broadcast).
    My wife has dementia and finding something she can enjoy is difficult. But somehow she found the original Muppet show and is now totally into it.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I remember watching The Muppet Show when it originally aired as a pre-teen but nothing very specific. I think it was syndicated because it was on Saturday evenings, if memory serves.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I grew up with Sesame Street, so when The Muppet Show came out I’d watch it with my family religiously. My favorite parts were Statler and Waldorf heckling from the balcony box, Pigs In Space, and any sketches involving Gonzo, Animal, Beaker, or the Swedish Chef. The only guest appearance I recall vividly however is when Kenny Rogers sang “The Gambler”. I may have to go back and watch all those episodes again, and reminisce.

    Liked by 1 person

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