A Tribute to the Greatest Holiday Special Ever
First broadcast on HBO back in 1977 and later aired on ABC in 1980, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas was made by the Muppet crew, including Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Faz Fazakas, songwriter Paul Williams, and, of course, Jim Henson, just after the dawn of The Muppet Show and shortly before the Muppets hit it big with The Muppet Movie. Endowed with all the musical charm and wit that you would expect of the Muppets, this production also distinguishes itself with irresistible charm in its production design and methods of puppetry.
For those who are not familiar with it, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas is similar to the famed O. Henry short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” Here we have the tale of Alice “Ma” Otter and her son Emmet. Having lost “Pa” Otter to a tragic early end, their little family struggles to make ends meet for life on the river in the town of Frogtown Hollow. Emmet contributes to their income by way of odd jobs completed using Pa’s old tool chest, while Ma knits, makes pies, and performs laundry service for the local animals using her trusty washtub.
Their paw-to-mouth existence is made better by the fact that Emmet and Ma supplement workday drudgery with musical numbers. And, yes, these otters are talented! Hoping to capitalize on that talent, Emmet and Ma hatch independent plans to give the other a Christmas gift beyond their usual means by entering a talent show in nearby Waterville. Ma wants to give Emmet the guitar that he has been coveting, and Emmet wants to place a down payment on a used piano, as the family piano was one of the many items the Otter family sold to make ends meet.
The hitch? Ma must hock Emmet’s tool chest to afford a suitable dress for the competition, and Emmet’s band needs a washtub bass to perform, which entails putting a hole in Ma’s washtub. I suppose if either plan did come to fruition, in the short-term there would be some extra stellar music in the Otter household. I just worry that without the income generator of either the tool chest or the washtub, these Otters are going to starve.
In case you have not seen Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, I will not spoil the ending for you. Actually, I will spoil the ending for you before the end of this column, but you will be warned first. However, I will demand that you watch it this holiday season. You will not regret it.
The music - described as “toe-tapping” on the DVD box - does not disappoint. My personal favorites are “Ain’t No Hole In The Washtub,” “Barbecue,” and “Brothers.” There’s one another positively transcendent number that has achieved a certain cult following, but I’m going to save that for the spoiler section as well.
The craftsmanship in set design and puppetry is what gives Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas that extra feeling of comfort food, though. Call me crazy, but I hope no one ever even considers CGI-ing out those wires that hold the flying birds aloft or propel Kermit The Frog on his bicycle during the intro. Plenty of careful details keep the men behind the curtain; those moments that are not completely behind the curtain serve as nice reminders that there are folks putting so much care into the production, as do the careful tracking shots revealing the scenic details and many creatures that survive by the riverbank.
From the book Jim Henson’s The Works and via the Muppet Wiki, Henson described the creation of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas thusly:
“Emmet Otter was the first time we had gotten into those kind of elaborate sets where we had floors in the interiors and we would take a wide-angle shot with characters coming up through holes in the floor. Or we’d cut into the set and remove the floor and have the characters moving through space in waist shots. That was the most elaborate production we had gotten into at that point. Frog Princehad been platformed-up and The Muppet Show was always platformed-up, but in Emmet Otter… we’d go right into a scene. We’d have the whole set in three dimensions… rigged so we could pop parts and come out through the openings, which is really time consuming…”
Recently Dave Goelz reminisced in Disney twenty-three magazine (also via the Muppet Wiki) about the experience:
“Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas remains one of my top three projects of all time. I love the feeling of that Emmet Otter world. We built a 55-foot-long river that was about 10 feet wide and went all the way across the stage, and they built a radio-control rowboat for Emmet. It was so lovely and lyrical to see Emmet rowing his mom down the river. The idea that there was life along the river and that it was all interconnected was a great metaphor for people.”
My original plan in writing this column was to create a two-person real-time commentary riffing on Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas as my betrothed and I watched it. This failed for two reasons. First, there was the fear that not enough of you have seen Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas to fully appreciate our remarks. Second, although my betrothed and I did attempt this endeavor, I do not think the results were sufficiently witty. You see, the “problem” with Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas is that it is essentially sarcasm bulletproof in its earnestness. Sure - we riffed, and we laughed. In the end, though, making fun of a destitute, adorable singing Otter family that lost its father figure and foolishly peddled its livelihood for love makes you something of a bully.
That said, I feel that I must share at least some highlights of this with you this most ugly side of human nature: schadenfreude at the expense of singing otters! (This is where the spoilers begin.)
MBB: We know the Riverbottom Gang is bad because they steal Kermit’s scarf.
CRD: Scarfs are overrated anyway.
Hold on a moment, you might say. Who is this Riverbottom Gang? (Well, the people that have not seen the show but ignore spoiler warnings might say that.) They are the villains of this story. Ma Otter refers to them as hooligans, and they live up to this tag with a general disregard for other animals and their property. But, oh, that Riverbottom Gang makes some rocking music!
CRD: [Gretchen Fox is] “about as friendly as a polecat.” Ma Otter is bigoted against polecats.
MBB: Snooty old Gretchen Fox! The snootiest snoot that ever did snoot.
CRD: 50 cents to mend a fence, Wendell? Split the money with Emmet? I don’t know if these little animals are going to make it through the winter alive.
(Wendell, for the record, is Emmet’s lovable if slightly dim-witted good friend whose contribution to the band is blowing on a jug and performing the bass vocals.)
MBB: THEY ARE SO POVERTY STRICKEN. It’s devastating!
CRD: You can tell that Emmet Otter is especially economically disadvantaged as a Muppet because one of his eyes was sewn on off center.
MBB: Emmett is doing a horrible job on the fence, by the way. Just randomly scattering nails.
CRD: Muppets are deficient in the straight hammering of nails. However, the puppeteer manipulating Ma Otter is an excellent actor. Check out her pauses and searching glances that sync up perfectly with the voiceover narration.
MBB: Emmet is cutting the meager “Christmas branch.”
CRD: Charlie Brown’s pathetic little Christmas tree has NOTHING on the branch! The picture frame above their fireplace is crooked. Another sign of poverty.
CRD: As the otters reflect on the dearly departed Pa Otter, they realize that Pa would go out on a limb to try to fulfill Christmas gift dreams.
MBB: But Pa failed at everything he ever attempted, so….
After a performance of Pa’s favorite song, a not-subtle-at-all metaphor for death…
MBB: Otters believe in reincarnation apparently.
CRD: The plight of these otters is putting a lump in my throat. I had to hide that my eyes were getting misty the first time I watched this with my nieces. Pathos extreme!
MBB: THEY ARE SO POOR!
CRD: Otters don’t need to reincarnate up the animal chain. Otters are the supreme creatures in the animal kingdom!
MBB: AND THEY SING ABOUT THEIR CORPSES FLOATING DOWNRIVER.
CRD: Emmet looks funny without his hat. Also, Emmet pulls up his pants extremely high.
MBB: He’s like a little old otter man!
MBB: He’s gonna put a hole in the tub!
CRD: NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! With a sickening thud, he uses a branch to drive that nail through the bottom of the washtub. The echo lets us know, there’s no turning back! Emmet must win the contest!
During Emmet’s band’s rehearsal for the song “Barbecue”…
CRD: Oh, evidence of discord in the band. Emmet is driving them apart with his insistence on practice. Wendell is just in it for the chicks and the drugs, I guess.
At the competition, we have other entries…
CRD: Uh oh…Yancy Woodchuck is singing “Barbecue”! And his version is comparatively horrible!
MBB: In a very Bob Dylan-esque rendition.
CRD: You must not have a very high opinion of Bob Dylan, but, yes, he does sound vaguely Dylan-esque.
MBB: Oh god, the rabbits!
CRD: These dancing rabbits want to eat your face.
MBB: THEY WILL HAUNT MY DREAMS.
CRD: Emmet and the gang are desperately practicing in the alley. Guys, you could have performed “Barbecue” and you would have been fine.
CRD: Alice Otter, so earnest and soulful.
MBB: LOOK AT HER SAD BONNET.
CRD: It looks like she stole a doily from the snarky fox’s kitchen.
MBB: SHE’S A STARVING SINGLE MOM, Waterville!
CRD: Oh, now Emmet realizes that he and his mother are competing against each other. The tragedy!
CRD: Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jug-Band! Performing the last-minute song switch: “Brothers”! This is a pretty great song too.
MBB: I think “Brothers” is my favorite song of the bunch. It’s so bouncy.
CRD: I think Emmet should spend the fifty dollars on sewing that eye in the correct spot. Emmet and company are certain to win! But what’s this? A last-minute entry? All the way from Riverbottom?!? Oh, no.
Yes, enter the rock group known as THE RIVERBOTTOM NIGHTMARE BAND.
CRD: Who are we kidding? THIS is the best song.
MBB: It must be seen to be believed! You’re so right.
CRD: “We got no respect for animal birdie or fish! / The grass does not grow on the places where we stop and stand.” Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem have nothing on these guys. I wish everyone ever would cover this song. “We don’t wish to learn / But we hate what we don’t understand.”
CRD: I don’t know how they got Emmet’s face to look so different during this performance, but he looks DEVASTATED in that shot as Wendell dances along.
CRD: So I asked my oldest niece the first time I showed her this who was going to win., remembering how shocked I was as a kid when good did not prevail. Without missing a beat, she correctly predicted deadpan: “Riverbottom Nightmare Band.” Kids are so much more cynical these days.
MBB: THESE OTTERS WILL NOT SURVIVE THE WINTER.
CRD: Yes, the tool chest is gone, and the washtub is ruined. These otters are going to DIE! Doc Bullfrog tells them to keep working on their music! Merry Christmas! Try not to resort to otter-cannibalism when things get especially lean!
MBB: Those Riverbottom ne’er-do-wells didn’t even NEED the money!
CRD: These otters love each other. LOVE WON’T FILL YOUR TUMMIES! You did just what Pa would have done? Wake up! PA IS DEAD!
CRD: But wait…the otters are combining their songs! Ultra Muppet Musical Power! Now they’re a supergroup. Emmet and friends plus Alice Otter! (Years later, Emmet would be disillusioned when Alice has an affair with Wendell.)
MBB: Strongly featuring Harvey’s kazoo again!
CRD: That snooty fox is even clapping! A job at the Riverside Rest? And free mashed potatoes!
MBB: They’ll eventually need more than one number, though.
CRD: I think they should cover the Nightmare’s song.
In all seriousness, we highly recommend Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. You’ll be humming the songs for days, and the story would transform the most extreme Scrooge’s heart in half the time it would take for those Ghosts of Past, Present, and Future.
There is another reason that it is the greatest holiday special, though. At the beginning of this column, I mentioned that I cited Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas in response to a random Internet thread. The poster of said poll, who at the time had never heard of my answer and had no idea who I was, was none other than my wonderful fiancée, Mary Beth Blakey. Her response to my recommendation was a request that we “friend” each other. The rest, as they say, is Muppet-inspired history.
Thank you, Emmet, Ma Otter, Riverbottom Nightmare Band, and Jim Henson! And happy holidays to all! May all your washtub bass performances be jamming!
Mary Beth would like to reiterate that nothing in this column could possibly capture the fun of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas itself. So go watch it! Now!