On the one-year anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, by sheer coincidence, ABC had scheduled an episode of "Muppets To night!," featuring guest star Sandra Bullock, in which a running gag was a bomb threat to the Muppet TV station.
Even though the jokes were tied to Bullock's hit movie "Speed," and there never was an on-air explosion, ABC sensibly and sensitively decided to shelve the episode rather than risk offending anyone. Then the entire series wound up on the shelf, too, and is only now being resurrected for a summer run.Having lost its titular exclamation mark while in storage, the ABC series returns Sunday (6 p.m. on KTVX, Ch. 4) as "Muppets Tonight" - and leads off with the episode starring Bullock.
Opposite a resurgent "60 Minutes," the ABC series will have a tough go of it - but it's very clear counterprogramming, and kids will love it. So will any adults who tune in, with or without their children. ABC already has vowed "Muppets Tonight" will return next year at midseason, and its faith in the show is a commendable reaction to what has been a very funny and clever, though underwatched and underappreciated, first batch of shows.
In Sunday's episode, for example, a Muppet variation of the Dennis Hopper character in "Speed" phones the security guard bear at the Muppets TV headquarters to warn of a bomb in the studio.
"I know," replies the bear blithely. "I read this week's script, too."
Later, the caller phones again with a more specific threat. "If your ratings fall below 50," he warns, "a bomb's gonna go off in your studio."
This time it's Clifford, the "Muppets Tonight" host, who answers the phone - and he's equally unfazed.
"Are you from the network?" Clifford asks.
Bullock, meanwhile, is busy poking fun at herself and her own films or just having a goofy good time. Instead of "While You Were Sleeping," she engages in a slapstick hospital sketch callled "While You Were Slapping." In other skits, she plays an animal psychologist who, like her patient, Kermit, hallucinates whenever she says "phenomena." At the end, when the bomb threat is defused, Bullock gets to be a one-person band.
Meanwhile, to keep the ratings high, the frantic Muppets control room sends out any act it can muster - including the jiggly Spamela Hamderson, a potato punk-rock group led by Sid Knishes and Johnny Au Grotten, and a quick spoof called "The Seinfeld Babies."
"My parents say they're gonna change me," observes the baby Jerry, "but then after they do, I'm exactly the same."
This new edition of "Muppets Tonight" ends with a fast blooper reel - a new touch that, it is hoped, will become a regular feature of this series. It's also hoped, even more fervently, that the program will become a long-term regular feature on ABC.
After all, when potato punk-rock fans in a mosh pit end up getting mashed, you know this spud's for you.