Regarding Richard Nixon’s appearance on the Muppet Show, it may be a relief to some that no one was forced to resign. It was one step, and an odd step, in a short lived attempt to rehabilitate the ex-President’s reputation for the sake of his legacy. If indeed Gonzo’s origins are in outer space, the idea of combining the former staid world leader with colorful and surreal characters also seemed alien. But television creates stranger bedfellows than politics. At least on that night. The two seemed at polar opposites, culturally. Nixon the conservative Quaker; The Muppet Show the ultimate rainbow expression of diversity. Even if the shows’ assorted species all had their origins in sculpted foam. One expression Nixon did not see was the look of ballistic eyebrow shock from Sam the Eagle in the background as he saw the ruffled ex-President on the backstage set. Sam fainted. The laugh track rolled. Nixon exited the scene, stage right. Miss Piggy looked down off camera and mused who had “socked it to Sam.” And the near mirror image was never seen again.
Surprisingly, among Muppet Shows aficionados (and they do exist) this episode is better known for the Kermit Sketch “Green Agon” than for the former President’s guest spot. Where Shakespeare had already been the target of hand-manipulating mouth parody, here Aeschylus was the target. Miss Piggy made a voluptuous Clytemnestra. Kermit was a confused returning Agamemnon. Thankfully for the digits of the Muppet movers the lines were done in modern English and not dactylic hexameter. The sketch, like Nixon’s second term, was brief. (Although the version of Kermit in Agamemnon’s armor would reappear in both Roman and Medieval sketches later on.)
Really, that sketch could not outshine the inevitable jowl-to-jowl-to-jowl appearance of Nixon with the grumpy balcony residents Statler and Waldorf. They spoke. They grumbled. They confused themselves with the term “checkers.” Otherwise, Mr. Nixon did not do any real sketches. He was more of a smiling presence among the manic expressions in fur and painted foam. Strangely, or perhaps not, he reminded the viewer more of Ed Sullivan on barbiturates when reacting to the bright fuzzy things bobbing in front of him whose voices came from their manipulators on the sub stage bellow. It explains why Nixon seemed unsure where to aim he retorts, either at the eyes of the Muppets or where the human hands entered them to give them animation. One wonders if Spiro Agnew might’ve been there to offer the White House resignee the same stimulus.
It is most likely untrue that Nixon’s appearance was one of the factors of the show’s demise. Any press is good press. The real culprit was most likely a budget deficit. The show cost a lot to produce and far more staff to run for one half-hour show than a year’s worth of Sesame Street. Mr. Snuffleupagus crew included. During the show, no doubt shot before or after Mr. Nixon had left the British soundstage, the Swedish Chef had his characteristic manic kitchen experience, this time attempting to make Mandarin Chicken. This may have been a wink to the audience, or perhaps a hedged bet for all the stunned viewers who did not previously read TV Guide, newspapers, or, oddly enough, watch television newscasts. Actual Mandarin speakers did not see the show. There were far fewer TV sets in China than today, and Western television was even more strongly censored, if allowed at all. Swedish speakers most likely watched the Ingmar Bergman Variety Hour.
In the end, Mr. Nixon put on make-up. He dressed up right. He appeared on the Muppet Show that night. No one can say how many hotel televisions were tuned to that broadcast at The Watergate.