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Forgotten Video: Ain't No Hole In the Washtub

by David Cornelius

Ask any Muppet fan about “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas,” and you will be greeted with big smiles and countless fond memories. Ask any non-Muppet fan about “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas,” you will be greeted with blank stares and a mumbling reply of “Emmet Whosits What-Band Huh?”

“Emmet Otter” is one of those classics waiting to be discovered. Its annual run on HBO in the early 1980s gave it a solid cult following, but despite its enormous popularity among the Muppet fan base and a steady availability on home video going on two decades now, the TV special has yet to catch on with the mainstream the way other holiday must-sees have. Allow me to help change that.

Adapted from the 1971 children’s book by Russell and Lillian Hoban, “Emmet Otter” is a spin on O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi,” a popular story in the Muppet universe (“Christmas Eve On Sesame Street” would also rework the tale). Here, in the sleepy part of the woods known as Frogtown Hollow, Ma Otter (puppet performed by Frank Oz, voiced by Marilyn Sokol) and her son Emmet (Jerry Nelson) eke out a living, her doing laundry, him doing odd jobs, both dearly missing the late Pa Otter. They’re poor, but they’ve got each other, and that’s enough. The town is holding a Christmas Eve talent contest, first prize: fifty dollars. Both realize with that money, they could finally buy the other a nice present. But to enter, Ma would need a nice dress, and to afford material to make one, she has to hock Pa’s tool chest, which Emmet uses for odd jobs; Emmet, meanwhile, needs to put a hole in Ma’s washtub if he’s going to play washtub bass in his friends’ jug band.

That’s about it, really, unless you add the comic side plot involving a band of punks from nearby Riverbottom who tear into town (a side plot that takes over in a crucial moment, by the way). The story here is one of sacrifice and love, of the idea that Christmas is about being with friends and family, not about getting things. True to its rural setting, the story is in no hurry, the result being an overwhelmingly peaceful experience. You get to soak in the characters and their lives (which feel more real than many a live action effort), and as you grow involved with the story, you become comfortable. Watching “Emmet Otter” is like going home - and taking your time doing so.

The key ingredient to the special is Paul Williams’ music. Williams, who would next write the memorable songs for “The Muppet Movie,” contributed seven songs to the piece (eight if you include one rather silly unused one), all with a down-home flavor one would not expect from the pop-oriented songwriter. Ma and Emmet live their lives around music, so having the right songs for the two to sing as they row down the river was vital to the show’s success. From humorous novelty songs (“The Bathing Suit Your Grandma Otter Wore”) to upbeat jams (“Bar-B-Que”) to a showstopper that may very well rank as one of the most purely beautiful songs you will ever hear in your life (“When the River Meets the Sea”), everything here sounds impressively authentic - these feel like tunes that have been around for generations, a fact that helps cement the special as a reassuring, familiar one. (Williams’ one detour, the Alice Cooper-ish “Riverbottom Nightmare Band,” hits every 70s glam-metal note just as perfectly as the others hit their folksy bluegrass ones.) This is music so carefully, brilliantly crafted that “Emmet Otter” may very well rank among the songwriter’s greatest career achievements.

It’s curious to note, by the way, that in this Christmas special, we do not hear a single Christmas song. This reveals the enormous amount of trust that Williams, director/producer Jim Henson, and screenwriter Jerry Juhl have in this story; they know that the holiday aspects will carry themselves just fine, and they don’t need prodding along by the soundtrack. As a result, “Emmet Otter” is less forceful than most holiday-themed features, and that’s just one more thing that helps lead to its comfortable tone.

When not cozying up to the story and its delightful characters, you’ll always have a chance to marvel at the technical wizardry on display. “Emmet Otter” was conceived in part as a test run for tricks Henson wanted to attempt in “The Muppet Movie” - Kermit riding his bicycle, for example. And so Henson Associates wound up building their largest stage to date, a massive river set with real growing grass and a workable sunset. For the first time, Muppets were powered in some shots by remote control, allowing for stunning images of Ma and Emmet rowing downstream, singing all the way. More attention was paid here to marionette action than ever before in a Muppet production (yes, the strings are pretty visible, even to young eyes - but nobody minds). Even the costume shop worked overtime, creating incredible detail to the clothing worn by characters on screen for mere seconds. This was the most ambitious of all Henson’s productions to date, and the ambition pays off wonderfully.

Back, for a second, to Kermit the Frog. I mentioned his riding a bicycle, which we see here - or would, if a complete version of this special were available. You see, as was typical of Henson’s TV specials of the era, Kermit appeared in the opening scene to welcome us and introduce the story, then popped by the finale to wrap things up. But Disney now owns the Muppet brand, including Kermit, and when HIT Entertainment planned their recent DVD special edition, Disney refused to allow any use of the famous frog in a non-Disney release. You do get to see him at the beginning of Columbia TriStar’s 1998 VHS version, but curiously, not in the ending (that same edit was used for the studio’s 2001 DVD, both released before the Disney ownership).

Many fans have complained, and while a complete version is the best, I must admit that the story works just fine without Kermit. This is a standalone project done without the famous Muppets, so having Kermit pop by is a bit of a distraction; without him, the story is allowed to unfold on its own, and the characters are allowed to stand on their own.

More importantly, “Emmet Otter” has never been available on home video in its complete form. Ever. In every release, minor edits have been made, sometimes subtracting, sometimes adding, always just a few seconds here or there, nothing that affects the story in any way. Why this is remains a mystery, especially when HIT’s DVD includes among its bonus features all of the cut material (except the Kermit stuff) separately.

No matter its form, however, “Emmet Otter” is a thing of wonder, one of the all-time great Christmas specials. Its heartwarming tone and cozy spirit are perfect for the holiday season, and its timeless qualities ensure successful repeat viewings over the years. Muppet fans already know all of this, of course, and now it’s your turn.

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” is currently available on DVD from HIT Entertainment. For purists, online trading sites may lead you to dubs of the show’s original, complete broadcast.

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originally posted: 12/23/05 17:47:03
last updated: 01/05/06 08:53:38
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