The Muppet appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show was just one part of a three week trip to the West Coast in July 1975. Jim stopped in Dallas on the way out to talk with collaborators about his Broadway Show idea and then spent the two weeks following the Carson appearance in California taping two Cher Shows and a Julie Andrews special called One To One, checking out the Ice Follies in Sacramento, and working with George Schlatter (producer of Laugh-In) on a Muppet Show pilot for CBS.
Jim had been on The Tonight Show numerous times and recognized Carson’s understated comic genius. Carson’s timing was impeccable and his deadpan delivery worked well with the Muppets. Back in the late 1960s, Jim and his writing partner Jerry Juhl had even envisioned a television special featuring Carson in an adventurous trip through an imagined Muppet machine. Like many of their projects from that period, including Tale of Sand and The Cube, Jim and Jerry created a fantastic setting through which a person traveled with little knowledge of why they were there or what they should expect. In the case of Johnny Carson and the Muppet Machine, the proposal describes it as taking, “…the shape of a free-form trip through a fantasy world of The Muppets. It is a fairly frenetic combination of Marx Brothers comedy and Alice in Wonderland nonsense.” Carson was to walk into a television studio, uncertain what he had been contracted to do. He notices a small box with a “start” button. Since there is nothing else to do, he pushes it and is greeted by the Muppet Machine who instructs Carson to go through an unmarked door carrying the machine. At that point, he is down the rabbit hole, so to speak, into, “…a strange and nutty world of creatures and things.” He encounters Kazeeziks, Fearzogs, and Groans, and a six-foot tall shaggy Muppet named Haviland P. Squill. Finally, Carson manages to escape to the original studio set where the Machine promptly explodes in a typical Muppet ending.
Jim and Jerry could not interest Carson in doing the show, so they adapted the idea to a version aimed at younger audiences. They created a second proposal in the early 1970s, titled simply The Muppet Machine, which described an hour-long children’s special. This time, the whimsical journey would feature a friendly old man, Farley, his lovely teen-age niece, Lisa, and her friendly sheepdog, Rufus. With the help of a giant, confusing book of instructions and Rowlf, who lives inside the Muppet Machine, the group ventures in to find some mysterious “quepper oil” in order to keep the machine from exploding. Along the way, with the “extensive use of chroma-key” and an imaginative set, they encounter talking stalagmites, fuzzy creatures and a witch who, “…teaches them the magical secret of visual thinking.” They manage to stave off the explosion and discover that the key to their search was right in front of them from the start. It’s easy to see Jim and Jerry’s affection for Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz in these proposals. It would be about fifteen years before Jim could actually pursue a project along these lines, his feature film Labyrinth shot in 1985.