Remembering Prince’s Appearance on ‘Muppets Tonight’
In a world where humans and puppets interact, zany characters routinely break into song and frogs get romantic with pigs, it would seemingly be hard to grab people’s attention. Unless, of course, you’re Prince. On Sept. 13, 1997, the music icon guest starred on an episode on Muppets Tonight.
Like its predecessor The Muppet Show, Muppets Tonight featured sketches and musical numbers as Kermit, Gonzo and friends interacted with celebrity guests. The show ran for one season on ABC, but low ratings got the program exiled to the Disney Channel for its second and final season.
The first guest on Season Two was Prince, then going by the title “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” Kirk Thatcher, who wrote and produced the Prince episode, shared some of his memories with the Muppet fan site Tough Pigs. “We were very excited that Prince had agreed to do our Muppet comedy and variety show but had been told by his managers and support staff before we met with him that we must never look at him directly or call him anything but 'The Artist,'” the television veteran recalled. “As the writers of the show, we were wondering how we were going to work or collaborate with someone you can’t even look at, especially while trying to create comedy with puppets!”
Thatcher and his team were nervous to meet Prince, unsure of what to expect. When the singer arrived for rehearsal the night before filming, the producer was initially struck by his small stature. “He was only half again bigger than most of the Muppets!,” Thatcher recalled, adding that Prince was quiet but friendly during the first read through. “He and his people seemed to get the jokes and enjoyed the fun we were having with him and he thankfully had very few notes. He just smiled and giggled quietly at the script and seemed very open to it all.”
In the episode's opening skit, Prince arrived at the studio lobby and conversed with the show’s security guard, Bobo the Bear. When the grizzly guard asked for the singer’s name, Prince looked directly at the camera, smiled and said, “This is going to be fun.” The singer’s moniker would be a running gag throughout the episode, with Muppet characters often holding up a sign featuring the artist’s unpronounceable symbol logo as they talked.
Part of what made his appearance on Muppets Tonight so notable was Prince’s willingness to poke fun at himself. Often branded a “serious artist,” the singer displayed a witty sense of humor on the show, a side rarely shown to the public. When a band of Muppets dressed in Prince-inspired fashion welcomed the musician on set by singing “Delirious,” the rocker wryly smiled and informed them that his “leather and lace look” was over.
Later, in a sketch called “Hoo Haw,” Prince donned overalls, chewed on straw and adopted a fake Southern accent while exchanging cheesy one-liners with some of the Muppets. Let that sink in for a second. Prince gone country.
“He had fun playing a country bumpkin in the 'Hoo Haw' sketch and enjoyed all the Muppet silliness about his name/logo and his outlandish and sexy costumes,” Thatcher revealed. “He had fun additions and improvs and loved playing and ad-libbing with the puppets and was very easy to talk to and work with.”
While the comedic scenes allowed Prince to show off his acting chops, he naturally shined in the musical numbers. At one point, Rizzo the rat challenged Prince to write a song about the items on the commissary menu. The singer launched into a Muppet music video for “Starfish and Coffee,” a colorful track originally featured on Sign O’ the Times.
For a closing number, the Muppets suggested an extravagant production with thousands of purple rats. Prince, instead, declared he’d rather “sit at the piano (and) do a nice, little simple number with the help of a few angels.” The musician then delivered a soaring rendition of “She Gave Her Angels,” a song originally recorded for the Happy Tears project, but eventually released on Crystal Ball. It was a performance that almost didn't happen, as filming the episode had gone longer than expected. “He was having such fun that he changed his flight plans and worked until late that night or early into the next day to shoot it all," Thatcher recalled. "A complete professional in every way and an absolute joy to be around.”
Before ending the episode, Prince was joined by Kermit, Rizzo and an assortment of Muppets for a shortened version of “Let’s Go Crazy.” The visual was joyous and somewhat surreal. In his book Prince: Life and Times author Jason Draper succinctly summed up the appearance. “Muppets Tonight was one of the most bizarre television appearances Prince has ever made. It’s also one of the few times in his career that has seemed to let his guard down.”