“Aw, the Hollywood Bowl — this icon of American culture has hosted Fred Astaire, Ella Fitzgerald, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and now… The Muppets.”
With that backhanded introduction on Friday, the forever stuffy Sam Eagle welcomed such utter silliness and stupidity over the next two hours of which the legendary amphitheater has likely never before seen.
The opening night of The Muppets Take the Bowl, which runs through the weekend with two more shows, was the first ever event of its kind for the famed and insane puppet troop first conceived by Jim Henson over 60 years ago. The variety show performance ran much like the classic television series The Muppet Show with a mix of sketch comedy and musical numbers, only longer — a point Kermit the Frog and special guest Bobby Moynihan of Saturday Night Live fame joked about when Kermit suggested he stretch to fill the time and the comedian replied, “How is exercise supposed to help?”
It’s this sort of groan-worthy humor that’s the backbone of the Muppets’ schtick and on Friday night it worked with great success, just as it has on and off for generations now through television and films of varied success. But to see the nutso variety show production play out in person before nearly 18,000 people, the live aspect offered an exciting look at how these black-clad puppeteers are able to maneuver with flawless aptitude — sometimes with as many as three people per character — while simultaneously giving way to the fantasy that these manic misfits are real. And as tacky as the jokes can get, rest assured at least one of the Muppets will make note of it before you even get to shake your head.
“The Muppets at the Hollywood Bowl not a bad way to spend the evening,” announced the cantankerous Statler from his box in the audience early on, touching on the warm fuzzy feeling that swept throughout the family-friendly event.
“You’re right it’s a horrible way to spend the evening!” replied his partner in heckling, Waldorf.
With accompaniment from the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra led by principal conductor Thomas Wilkins, among the night’s musical numbers was a medley of road songs with “Movin’ Right Along” from 1979’s The Muppet Movie, Willie Nelson‘s “On The Road Again” and the country favorite “I’ve Been Everywhere,” with Rowlf the Dog rapid fire rhyming Los Angeles neighborhoods, much to the audience’s glee. Later, Miss Piggy sang Adele‘s “Hello,” beginning with the song’s high drama before kicking the tempo up a notch and turning it into a self-aggrandizing show tune with dancers and flashy visuals. Naturally, there was the beloved “Mahna Mahna,” a totally weird version of “Send in the Clowns” by the ever ill-fated Wayne and Wanda and a sketch featuring Wilkins and Pepe the King Prawn that perfectly encapsulated the Muppet’s lowbrow humor in a typically high brow venue where the two battled over conducting the orchestra and finally Pepe’s wild salsa won out over Wilkins’ refined Beethoven.
And no Muppets concert event could occur without their rock house band, Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem, who closed the show’s first half with a variety of songs including covers of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros‘ “Home” and David Bowie‘s “Suffragette City.” In one of the evening’s highest points, the group helped kick off the second act with a hilarious cover of Queen‘s “Bohemian Rhapsody” featuring Gonzo, Animal, Pepe, Beaker, Sweetums, Miss Piggy, Moynihan and others.
As well, live and pre-recorded comedy sketches intersected the music, including classic The Muppet Show segments such as “Pigs in Space” and “Veterinarian’s Hospital” (with a cameo from Danny Trejo) along with more contemporary parodies of The Walking Dead (“The Walking Bread” starring The Swedish Chef) and Keeping Up With the Kardashians (“Keeping Up With the Crustaceans” starring Pepe).
Amid the nearby 40 different songs and sketches over the night, one could not help but think of ABC’s embarrassing 2015 return of The Muppets that abandoned the family-oriented variety show format that made the The Muppet Show a hit in the 1970s and instead tried modernizing the concept with a contrived mockumentary sitcom twist a la The Office or Modern Family five years late. But if they again try to reboot the Muppets franchise on TV (and they should), this is what it ought to look like.
The brilliance to the wholesome idiocy that is the Muppets is that these characters are all too nutty to hate and encapsulate a bit of ourselves in their lunacy. At one point Moynihan confessed to Gonzo that, growing up, he always made him feel like it was OK to be a weirdo. “Bobby it’s not OK to be a weirdo,” the blue hook-nosed wild man replied disapprovingly before shouting: “It’s amazing!”
Of course, as crazy as the Muppets are, they’re also entirely lovable, earnest and (mostly) well meaning. The Muppets Take the Bowl drove that sentiment home with its closing numbers celebrating creativity and camaraderie.
“Even though the Hollywood Bowl is a really big place, thanks to all of you, it’s starting to feel like home. A place where people and frogs and pigs and bears come together to share a special connection,” said Kermit before welcoming songwriter and composer Paul Williams onstage to perform his classic songs from The Muppet Movie, “Rainbow Connection” and “Magic Store” — for the latter of which they were joined by the rest of the cast.
An absolutely spectacular fireworks show followed before the lights turned back and Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem led the cast in a rendition of Joe Cocker‘s “With a Little Help From My Friends,” complete with a 30-person choir. Meanwhile the lovers, the dreamers and — yup — the weirdos in the audience cheered on in adoration.