Here we have another macabre installment of The Muppet Show; however, this one differs from the previously-covered Vincent Price episode in that all of the ghoulish goings-on occur exclusively “backstage,” rather than in “onstage” sketches, songs, jokes, etc.
This episode introduces “The Phantom of The Muppet Show,” also known as Uncle Deadly. The Muppet Show has a very strange relationship with continuity. As with many shows of the time, the production order (the order in which the episodes were filmed) didn’t match the airing order, whether in the U.S. or the U.K. Thus, if you were to watch the episodes in the order that they aired, you’d see many characters performing in the show, only to later see the episode that introduces them.
Disney+ currently has the episodes in their production order…and yet, there are still some cases of continuity that make you do a double-take. Uncle Deadly is a prime example. He first appeared in the Vincent Price episode. Two episodes later, when Twiggy guest stars, he appears, and none of the Muppets has ever seen him before.
Uncle Deadly featured in a few episodes of The Muppet Show and then mostly disappeared. He reemerged in a major role in The Muppets (2011) and has stayed on the Muppet front lines ever since, stealing many a scene in The Muppets on ABC (which is also streaming on Disney+), featuring in many videos on the Muppets’ YouTube channel, and even having his own Twitter account.
After the opening number, Scooter (The Muppet Show’s gofer) runs to Kermit the Frog to tell him that there’s a phantom haunting The Muppet Show. Kermit, who’s busy trying to keep said show going smoothly—as smoothly as The Muppet Show ever goes—doesn’t believe a word of it.
Kermit especially doesn’t believe it because there’s some confusion over whether Scooter saw the Phantom or Hilda the seamstress. This sets up a running gag to go with this backstage subplot: many characters claim to see “The Phantom of The Muppet Show,” followed by confusion about whether they really saw the Phantom or another Muppet Show cast member.
We actually don’t even get to see if the Phantom’s real or not in this first backstage sequence: we just see various Muppets’ reactions to seeing or hearing about the Phantom. At this point, whether there’s really a phantom or not, seeing Muppets shake, scream, and even faint has become funny enough to render whomever the eventual Phantom is a non-threat.
After the next musical number, there’s further confusion, this time from Gonzo the Great, about whether he saw the Phantom of The Muppet Show or Hilda the seamstress. Fozzie Bear’s gotten wind of the Phantom and joins his castmates in trembling in comedic terror. Kermit’s still trying to keep the show going, and so misses the Phantom, whom we finally get to see, maniacal laugh and all (no wonder Tex Richman recruited him later).
The Phantom definitely looks different from many of the other Muppets. Of his many differences, one that stands out is his eyes: their green pupils sit in two perpetually-narrow black voids. Most Muppets have the traditional black pupils and white eyes, and while some deviate from this, such as glasses-wearing Muppets like Dr. Bunsen Honeydew (or Hilda the seamstress), Miss Piggy, who has blue irises, and Bean Bunny, who has black eyes, no major Muppet has eyes like Uncle Deadly’s in both design and color. Unlike most Muppet “monsters,” Uncle Deadly’s also not furry; instead, he has wispy hair flowing from his nostrils and face and a distinct beard that almost appears to be dripping off his face.
It’s not until the next backstage sequence that Kermit finally comes face-to-face with the Phantom…after all the other Muppets present scream and run away.
Uncle Deadly does his maniacal laughing and hand-rubbing—and that’s it. This further cements this Phantom as a comedic force rather than a fear-inducing force. For as much as he stands out visually (no small feat in the midst of Muppets), he hasn’t made any move to disturb the onstage action, he hasn’t made any physical or verbal threats backstage…indeed, he hasn’t done anything except stand near the Muppets, laugh and rub his hands maniacally, and make a vague statement to the audience.
The Phantom’s repetitive actions prove he’s not actually threatening, and this helps them become increasingly funny each time he appears. Kermit, in his disbelief at anything illogical going on, has a very calm approach to facing Uncle Deadly for the first time. But after some maniacal laughing and hand-rubbing, Kermit joins his costars in screaming and fleeing.
The next backstage sequence is when we finally find out Uncle Deadly’s story, and what exactly he wants from the Muppets.
It turns out, this very dramatic creature was an actor (shocker, I know). After being acclaimed for playing Hamlet in the same theater that now houses The Muppet Show, he played Othello. Opening night, he was killed…by critics. Thus, he vowed never to let anyone perform in the theater again. Considering we’re towards the end of the first season of this show and this is the first time we’ve heard of any of this, he’s apparently been doing a bang-up job.
Immediately after, George the janitor shows up to confess that “the Phantom” was him in disguise all along…only for Uncle Deadly to appear upstairs to utter one last vague “threat”…
Is this actor who was “killed by critics” actually dead, or was that just a dramatic metaphor? What’s his plan to make the Muppets leave the theater? Why are all the Muppets so terrified of someone who just stands there while manically laughing and hand-rubbing? Was it really Uncle Deadly appearing all this time, or were some of the appearances George? And just whose “uncle” is Uncle Deadly, anyway?
Unsurprisingly, not one of these questions is ever answered, whether in this episode or in the future. Instead, Uncle Deadly is absorbed into the cast in future episodes (until his aforementioned fading into the background and disappearance).
That’s really what this episode is: an introduction to one of the more macabre Muppet members. He’s not an arch-rival or some kind of longstanding antagonist being set up. Whether he’s a ghost or not (it’s still not entirely clear even now), he’s a Muppet.
This episode does a fun job of introducing Uncle Deadly to the Muppet crew. He’s dramatic, erudite, a little on the spooky side, and, in recent years, a fashion expert.
And, like all the best Muppets, he’s very, very funny, and immediately memorable: for his look, his voice, and his personality. He may have faded into the Muppet ether for years, but his resurgence wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without a strong and memorable establishing moment such as this episode.
Uncle Deadly has made a strong and seemingly long-lasting re-entrance into the Muppet world, and it all goes back to this episode that introduces him as “The Phantom of The Muppet Show.” Let’s hope he’s in the spotlight to stay and doesn’t make another exit anytime soon.