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Kermit and John Denver sang a perfect duet about the sweet relief of death

A John Denver Muppet Christmas album extra promises everything will be okay in the end

Gonzo, Kermit, and Fozzie sing together Photo; Universal Pictures
Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

Jim and Jane Henson rolled out the first Muppets in 1955, and the ensuing 65 years have given the franchise time to expand into virtually every medium, from film and TV to music and theater, and on to internet memes, Vines, and an AR app. There’s an awful lot of Muppet history to sort through, but inevitably, we all have our favorite Muppet moments. As the newest Muppet TV series, Muppets Now, heads to Disney Plus on July 31, Polygon’s entertainment writers are spending the week looking back on the Muppet creations that have meant the most to us over the years.

For me, the Muppets have always been a kind of warm, constant alterna-family. The franchise has its roots in slapstick, vaudeville, and visual surrealism, but there was a real and constant sweetness and sense of emotional support and connection under Kermit’s exasperation, Fozzie’s flop sweat, Miss Piggy’s vanity and hopeless crush on Kermit, and all the many bit players’ hankering for fame and recognition. Jim Henson’s own warmth and sincerity as a creator made it easy for him to slide from goofy comedy into the authentic emotion of classic sequences like Kermit singing “Rainbow Connection” or Gonzo’s “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” in The Muppet Movie, or virtually anything involving Kermit’s nephew Robin.

So much as I love the Muppets harassing John Cleese or vamping it up with Jason Segel, I’ve always gotten more out of the Muppets’ sincere side — especially when it comes with just a wink of comedy instead of outright wackiness.

Favorite official Muppets release

John Denver’s “When the River Meets the Sea”

The 1979 special John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together is awkward in a lot of respects, with an elaborate staged dance number involving singer-songwriter John Denver as a toy soldier (Denver was not primarily a dancer), and a retelling of Jesus’ birth, complete with a baby Muppet Jesus. But the album associated with the special was a staple in my home at Christmas, and it includes some extra songs that didn’t make it into the special — notably “When the River Meets the Sea,” a song written by Paul Williams for the 1977 Muppets holiday special Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. No offense meant to that special, but I always liked the Kermit-Robin-John Denver version better musically and vocally. It’s a sweet, sad song that essentially promises us we’re all going to find a purpose in death — a pretty heady concept for a kid at Christmas, but still a warm and uplifting one, especially coming from some very comforting Muppets, and John Denver, who was practically a Muppet himself.

Favorite unofficial release

Kermit and Fozzie improv in a tree

One of the best things about the Muppets’ long run overall was the creative relationship between Jim Henson and his longtime partner-in-crime Frank Oz. This early camera test to see how Muppets would play outdoors, ahead of The Muppet Movie, could have just been the puppeteers waving their Muppets around for five minutes to see how well they registered onscreen.

But, Henson and Oz being who they were, the experiment turned into an improv conversation about the philosophy of being puppets. First Fozzie and Kermit force each other to face some painful truths about their own nature, and then they come to terms with it. The Kermit-Piggy sequence isn’t as meta and ridiculous, but the interactions between Kermit, Fozzie, and some actual cows (with Henson accidentally slipping onscreen at one point, and both men occasionally laughing as much out of character and in character) is a lovely little piece of live personality showing up onscreen.

Bonus favorite

“To Morrow,” from The Muppet Show

The Muppet Show was always pretty up front about its creators’ sense of humor — their love of wordplay, visual comedy, and expressing both through elaborate puppets. That’s why I’ve always gotten a giggle out of “To Morrow,” a Muppet Show number featuring “The Country Trio,” a threesome of puppets modeled directly after Henson, Frank Oz, and Jerry Nelson, the voice and puppeteer behind the Count, Mr. Snuffleupagus, and many other Muppet and Sesame Street stalwarts.

The song itself is a bouncy bop, with its tangled “Who’s On First”-style comedy misunderstandings, but what really gets me here is the sense of seeing Henson, Oz, and Nelson preserved together as they were, as cheery, bouncy creators, just slamming out a ridiculous ditty that made them happy.