Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas”

Dear Frank,

So I have been trying like crazy to get in the Christmas spirit, and that’s meant watching a lot of holiday specials and so forth. Thus, I attempt to retreat to a pure state of childhood, by watching a Muppets Christmas adventure that neither you or I have seen before — in fact, I had never heard of it until a week ago. Turns out, though, that the 1977 TV special Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas is beloved by many, so that is what you are getting told about today.

First off: I borrowed my friend Mike‘s tape of this to watch, and VHS is weird, man. It’s been so long since I used the remote for the VCR that the batteries had exploded, and I had to use it because the alternative is watching commercials for Columbia children’s classics from the 1990s. We’re talking direct-to-video sequels to The Swan Princess here.

But then, Emmet Otter finally begins and OHMIGOD I LOVE KERMIT THE FROG SO MUCH! SO FREAKING MUCH. He’s just riding around on his bike and saying “Hi ho!” to us and I’m grinning so big…

Oh no! Some assholes called the Riverbottom Gang just drove by and stole Kermit’s scarf! ASSHOLES.

Kermit’s appearance at the beginning of this is brief, apparently, because while originally he was featured much more prominently during the special, every publicly available version of Emmet Otter has had those bits cut out due to the fact that the Henson Company no longer owns Kermit. I don’t understand why Kermit can still be in a little of it — maybe it only counts as a cameo now? I dunno.

Anyways, now we’re really getting down to business as we watch Emmet Otter and his Ma row down a marshy river and sing a song about some fat lady’s giant swimsuit… wait, it’s their grandmother’s swimsuit? Weird. But I like otters — I think they’re cute. And not just because, as Denis Leary says, “they do little human things with their hands.”

In the first five minutes of Emmet Otter, I can’t help but point out, there are already more female characters than most Muppet productions ever. Of course, one of them is a sneaky fox bitch who cons her way out of having to pay for the laundry Ma did for him, so it might not be a victory for the sisterhood in the long run.

What we quickly learn (and if we don’t quickly learn it, we sure have future opportunities to be informed) is that Emmet and his mother are extraordinarily poor, and have been ever since the death of Emmet’s dad — who was a snake oil salesman, “but there are only so many people who want to oil a snake!” Bah-duh-ching! (Also, if you think about it: Ew.)

Emmet’s mom seems a lot more bothered by their lack of money, but maybe that’s because she’s more of a realist — Emmet, meanwhile, asks for a $40 guitar for Christmas. Nice, kid. Real nice. The other thing that quickly becomes apparent is that while Emmet and his mom definitely come from tough circumstances, their lack of financial savvy may have contributed to their current dilemma.

I’m not just talking about their inability to collect money owed to them by sneaky fox bitches and how Emmet is constantly doing odd jobs for free, either. See, Frank, all of a sudden everyone’s talking about the annual Christmas Eve talent competition, and Emmet and his porcupine buddy Wendell get asked to join a jugband. (Happens to me all the time.)

Emmet wants to join, but unfortunately, in order to play washtub bass, he’d have to drill a hole in his mother’s washtub. Which is kind of a big deal, since there was just an entire song about how the only thing the Otters have going for them these days is that their washtub has no hole in it.

However, now Emmet and his mom are both musing separately about how if they won the talent competition they’d be able to buy each other nice presents (for mom, a piano, for Emmet, that guitar). I sense some O. Henry-style shenanigans on the horizon.

Technical note: There are a lot of songs in this, which aside from being nice little tunes (written by Paul Williams! He collaborated with Barbra Streisand and the Scissor Sisters!), also make for nice stalls in the action which allow me to flesh out my notes.

Anyways, so Emmet’s made off with Momma’s washtub to go to band rehearsal, while Momma is hocking Emmet’s dad’s tool chest to buy a costume to wear as she sings in the talent show. Way to compromise your only reliable sources of income for a chance at giving each other fancy store-bought presents, guys! The Otters are adorable, but lack good money management skills.

When the talent competition initially starts, most of the acts seem pretty weaksauce, but the jugband’s freaking out, though, because someone ahead of them played their song, and apparently they only know one song? Sigh.

Aw, so somehow I never caught Momma Otter’s name until now. It’s Alice. That’s nice. Alice sings a song that is not about being poor on the river, and the crowd goes wild.

And then the jugband figures out another song to sing (not a lot of drama there) and it’s a nice song about being brothers and love and stuff. The crowd again goes wild!

But OH NO, FRANK! the 70s invade the talent competition — when I say the 70s, I’m referring to the assholes who stole Kermit’s scarf, who take the stage and start rocking out Yes-style. it’s total hard rock and it’s like, WTF what are electric guitars doing in the humble hamlet of Riverbottom? And why is the audience TOTALLY FUCKING INTO IT? In my experience, the same crowd that would get excited about a psychedelic rock band would not also hoot and holler over Momma Otter’s song about peace and love. But whatever.

Anyway, the assholes win (look, I’m sorry, but you do NOT fuck around with Kermit if you wanna get on my good side), and afterwards, Emmet and his momma figure out that they’ve just O Henry’ed each other and in the process managed to completely compromise their only reliable means of income. GOOD JOB, GUYS.

But then — holy shit, Momma Otter invents the mashup? MOMMA OTTER INVENTS THE MASHUP. I mean, seriously, Momma tells the boys to start singing the song they did for the competition, and she sings her song so that the two blend together, and it’s like they’ve created a whole new song!

Doc Bullfrog, who I think is the mayor or something because he’s wearing a top hat and glasses, just so happens to be passing by during this moment of forward thinking and digs this fresh new sound so much that he books Momma and the jugband for a regular gig down at this restaurant he owns. Regular pay and free meals! Hooray! And then they sing some more and… The end.

Gotta say, I’m forever charmed by this old-school puppetry — I even get a kick out of seeing the strings — especially when things like the outtakes exist, showing you just how tricky a production like this was to pull off.

But while this was adorable, I couldn’t find much Christmas to it. Maybe I’m doomed to Grinch-dom this year — or maybe that just means it’s time to watch the Muppets Christmas Carol. Because Muppets are always good for what ails you.

Happy Holidays,

About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She is currently Senior TV Editor at Collider, and her work has also been published by the New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of "X-Files" trivia.

Posted on December 20, 2010, in All the Spoilers, TV and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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