The final disc of the four-disc set collecting the first season of The Muppet Show contains a true oddity: a 1975 pilot, subtitled "Sex And Violence," that helps shed some light on what made The Muppet Show so special, simply by what it does differently. Creator Jim Henson set out to make a program that would appeal to kids and grown-ups alike, bridging the gap between Sesame Street fans and the hip audience he picked up by appearing on Saturday Night Live. With "Sex And Violence," the show leans too far toward the latter end of the continuum. The stiff Sam The Eagle is engaged in a virtual culture war with the longhaired (and, as later, clearly stoned) members of the Muppet orchestra. Kermit is seen only briefly, trying to use his Sesame Street fame to pick up a female Muppet. (Some nobody named Nigel hosts.) And over the closing credits, the camera pulls back to capture Henson and the Muppet crew performing the act, as if the show were too cool not to reveal the illusion.
Fast forward a year, and The Muppet Show proper seems to have learned from its mistakes. Gone is the self-conscious edginess, but something much sweeter and more peculiar has taken its place. Modeled after the then-ubiquitous TV variety shows, with a nod in the direction of old-time vaudeville, The Muppet Show had become a place where any lines dividing kid and adult sensibilities are erased. The cast trades musty one-liners, but the kids have never heard them before, and the grown-ups can smile at the novelty of hearing them from endearing puppets. Miss Piggy lusts after Kermit to the tune of an Arthur Freed song, but to kids, it looks more like silliness than libido run amuck.
Some bits don't work, but they also don't last too long. The first season's hit-to-miss ratio isn't as high as in later seasons, in part because big-name guest stars don't stop by that often—Juliet Prowse, anyone?—but mostly because the dynamic between characters hasn't quite developed. The sensibility, on the other hand, is there from the start. Henson, along with Frank Oz and company, created a place where avant-garde performance art, soft sculpture, sweetly flawed characters, yesterday's entertainment, the post-'60s counterculture, and tomorrow's kids all made sense together, if only for 30 minutes or so. Most of their creations were smaller than life, but they built a big stage for them.