While I and surely many other children of the 80’s grew up with this little Jim Henson gem as a Christmas staple, it seems it’s become somewhat forgotten in the mix of holiday specials over the years. That is really a shame, so I am here to do my part to bring awareness to it.
The story goes like this. Emmet and his widowed mother Alice “Ma” Otter live together in a small town on a river called Frogtown Hollow. Pa didn’t leave them much when he passed on (he was a snake oil salesman, as in an actual snake oil salesman, not a charlatan, though if he were his death could be explained as the result of a fraud job gone bad, but that would make for a much darker Christmas special), and Ma and Emmet struggle to make ends meet. Ma runs a one-woman laundry service while Emmet does odd jobs around town using his Pa’s old tool chest. There’s no shortage of love though, and the two revel in simple pleasures such as singing about their dearly departed and very rubenesque Grandma’s bathing suit and playing on a slide their Pa built for them (likely wonderfully slippery due to it being lubricated by snake excretions). They each dream of giving the other a special Christmas gift – a guitar that catches Emmet’s eye and a piano for Ma. Sadly because they are so poor, neither can afford to.
One day, they each separately learn of a local talent contest taking place on Christmas Eve. The first prize is a whopping $50.00. That’s big money! Both get the idea to secretly enter in hopes of winning the prize, allowing them to purchase each other’s Christmas present. Emmet’s friends put together a jug-band while Ma plans to perform a solo.
There’s a catch for each of them though. In order for Emmet to join the band, he must make his instrument, a washtub bass. To make the washtub bass, he would have to ruin his Ma’s washtub, you know, her only source of income, by putting a hole in it. ( Oh stop with your “hole” jokes pervs, this is a family special. Just stop it right now.) Ma has a dilemma of her own; she has nothing to wear. Well, she has the clothes she wears every day, but really wants to wow the judges with a new dress that looks almost exactly the same as the one she already has but in a different color. To get the material, she’ll need to hock something (sadly, we never see the local pawn shop which really is a missed opportunity). The only thing left of any value is…can you guess? Go back and re-read what I’ve written so far and see if you can figure it out. I’ll wait.
Yup, the old tool chest that Emmet uses to make money.
Suze Orman would not approve of these money management decisions.
Of course what’s missing here, besides good financial logic, is a villain. Make that villains.
Enter a motley crew of hoodlums from the neighboring River Bottom. They happen to be rolling through town and hear of the big talent contest. Uh oh!
From the top-notch puppetry to the meticulously detailed sets it’s clear this production was a labor of love for all involved. It’s refreshing to see a good-natured family special free of CGI and off-color humor. The story is sweet and sentimental without being overly pandering or sappy. Okay, maybe it’s a little sappy, but damn if it isn’t just plain charming.
Even when the strings are visible, the characters feel real. Voiced by, among others, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, and Henson himself, those adorable little puppets come to life.
The songs are catchy and memorable, far more so than most movie-musicals in recent memory. While I adored Frozen, I can’t recall a single song, but I sure can sing you “Barbecue” in its entirety. I’m not going to. But I could. Paul Williams, who wrote all of the music, went on to score The Muppet Movie along with countless other films and has written hits for hundreds of artists including The Carpenters, Elvis, and Barbara Streisand. Since I’m mentioning the music, now is a good time to point out that this movie came out in 1977 (and was based on a book that was published in 1971) and contains one of the very first instances of what is known today as the “mash-up.” That’s right, you have Ma Otter to thank for that, Glee!
And then there’s the River Bottom Nightmare Band, who deserve a Toast all of their own for bringing metal to Frogtown Hollow, Christmas, and us all. Emmet and Ma’s songs are fine and dandy, but The Nightmare’s performance is the high point of this entire special. It’s so unexpected and so random and so freaking awe-some. 95% of rock bands out today wish they were as hardcore as The River Bottom Nightmare Band. They’re so badass that a real-life band adorably called Anal Cunt covered their song (It’s true, look it up. It’s really terrible, but still.). Here’s a sample lyric: “We don’t wish to learn but we hate what we don’t understand.” Genius.
If anyone’s looking to get me a last minute Christmas present, I want this.
Staying on the topic of the River Bottom Nightmare Band, you know, they get a bad rap. I don’t think they’re so bad. They were just minding their own business, being all awesome and happened to learn about the talent contest, from, by the way, one of Emmet’s dipshit friends, who just offered up the information at will. Well duh! They’re a band. Why wouldn’t they enter for a chance to win dozens of dollars? It’s a no-brainer. They entered fair and square just like everybody else. It’s not their fault they’re the best rock band ever.
And you know, they have just as much love between them as Emmet and his friends. Example: One of their members is a fish. He doesn’t even play an instrument, he just splashes around in his tank. AND THEY STILL LET HIM BE IN THE BAND. Not only that, they cart that tank around, even on a snowmobile, just so he can be a part of their group. That’s brotherhood man. It’s really too bad there wasn’t a holiday special from their point of view. The River Bottom Nightmare Band’s Metal Christmas. Now that would be cool.
All kidding aside, this is a very entertaining and fun use of 48 minutes of a person’s time. If you are a fan of the Muppets and haven’t yet had the pleasure of experiencing Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, I recommend you seek it out (look for the older version as the newer release contains edits and omits scenes featuring Kermit the Frog because the Muppets were sold to that asshole mouse in 2004). It deserves to be a holiday tradition.
Also, once you’ve seen it, be sure to go to YouTube and search “Emmet Otter out-takes.” It’s hilarious.
Take a Drink: every time Emmet or Ma mentions how poor they are.
Take a Drink: every time a character talks (or sings) about putting a hole in the wash-tub.
Pour One Out: for the washtub. (It’s very dramatic)
Take a Drink: whenever you can see the puppet strings.
Take a Drink: at every bad act in the talent show.
Do a Shot: every time Chuck sings: “River Bottom Nightmare Band.” (because they rule)