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Emmet Otter’s Corporate Class Warfare Christmas

December 13, 2010

Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas sans Kermit

Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas sans Kermit

When my friend Adia put up the bloopers reel from Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas (1977) on facebook yesterday I had a nostalgia rush and asked Dezant to download a copy of the children’s special for us to watch together on our laptop. I was living on Algonquin Road in Schenectady the first time I saw it, so that was at age seven when I was in second grade (1978). I saw it every year after that up through high school, then maybe once or twice in college to share with my younger siblings. By far it’s my favorite holiday show, not least because there is no Santa Claus and no Baby Jesus, but more importantly because this is Jim Henson fast approaching the peak of his creative genius (The Muppet Movie, duh). The premise is simple: in a small river town populated by otters, bullfrogs, muskrats, foxes, and possum, the widow Ma Otter and her son Emmet make the best of it living in poverty. They get into a Gift of the Magi-style plot twist as they prepare to perform in a local talent competition, and in the process learn the true meaning of Christmas or something like that. Along the way they sing a bunch of catchy and heartwarming songs written by Paul Williams. The bad guys are the members of The Riverbottom Nightmare Band, whose performance antics strike me as a cross between KISS and P-Funk. Henson’s muppets row boats in real water, ride bicycles, and one even swims and spits water. I just had to share this touchstone from my childhood with Dez…

But the version we watched was not the original cut! The original version I remember was introduced, narrated and concluded by Kermit the Frog who cheerfully escorts us into this new community of muppets on his bicycle. We never got to see him crash his bicycle and flip headfirst into a signpost!

What we saw last night was like a painting without a frame; Kermit was completely cut out! Other scenes were edited down, some songs had extra verses too. This was when some youtube and google investigations proved useful. It turns out that when Disney bought the rights to all the well-known and beloved Muppet characters, they took Kermit with them but not the cast of EOJC. When the Henson company, or its distributor, went to release a DVD, they either had to pay a royalty ransom to Disney for the use of Kermit or do some creative editing. The outrage among original EOJC fans is palpable when you look at the user reviews on amazon.com These fans are really stickin’ it to the Man on amazon’s EOJC product review page:

“SENSELESSLY BUTCHERED!!!!!!”

Those corporate hacks stole our childhood memories! I share their pain, but apart from the butchering of Kermit, the editing gets more interesting when you start paying attention to the small bits of dialogue that were cut and song lyrics that were added. A quick search on some Muppet fan forums yields a line by line analysis saving me lots of work I would have never done myself. Two examples are revealing. After Ma and Emmet sing a funny song while rowing to town about their fat grandmother and all the potential uses of her parachute-sized bathing suit, they get into a serious conversation about their poverty in which they compare their poverty to the fish in the river. Then Emmet asks what they’re going to do for Christmas this year if they have no money. This talk (bold-faced in Edit 1 below) is all edited out. Then they face an insulting encounter with the town socialite Gretchen Fox when Ma Otter delivers Gretchen’s laundry to her river dock. The exchange is left largely intact in Edit 2, but with a crucial loss at the tail end of the conversation (again, bold-faced in Edit 1):

After “Bathing Suit”:

Edit 1 (in bold is cut out of Edit 2): 

Emmet: “Say Ma, that sounded pretty nice!”

Ma: “Nice? I should say it did, Emmet. Why, you can hear the fish applaudin’!”

Emmet: “Oh…I think you’re right! Maybe I should pass the hat!”

Ma: “Pa used to say, ‘If you pass the hat to fish, all you get is a wet hat!'”

(both laugh)

Ma: “Still…I suppose the fish have just about as much money as any of us this year…”

Emmet: “Couldn’t have much less. Ma?”

Ma: “Mmm?”

Emmet: “What are we gonna do about Christmas this year?”

Ma: “Ohh…better lean into that starboard oar – there’s old Gretchen Fox on her dock waitin’ for her laundry. Ooh, she looks friendly as a pole-cat today!”

Gretchen: “Well, it’s about time you got here!”

Ma: “Same time we always get here.”

Gretchen: “Yes. You’re late every week. And last week when I opened the laundry parcel, there was a scorch-mark on one of the sheets!”

Ma: “Ohh, well, maybe I can knock off a little bit on the price…I, er…?”

Gretchen: “You certainly shall. Remind me of that when I pay you – next week. Ta.”

Ma: “Well, I got the bill right he…here – and since it’s three days ’til Christmas I’d really appreciate it if…you’d…fall off the dock.”

(Emmet laughs)

Emmet: “Way to go, Ma!”

(Ma laughs)

Ma: “Yeah, well sometimes you gotta talk tough to these people.”

Will: “Yup, that’s tellin’ her, Alice!”

Edit 2: 

Emmet: “Say Ma, that sounded pretty nice!”

Ma: “Better lean into that starboard oar – there’s old Gretchen Fox on her dock waitin’ for her laundry. Ooh, she looks friendly as a pole-cat today!”

Gretchen: “Well, it’s about time you got here!”

Ma: “Same time we always get here.”

Gretchen: “Yes. You’re late every week. And last week when I opened the laundry parcel, there was a scorch-mark on one of the sheets!”

Ma: “Ohh, well, maybe I can knock off a little bit on the price…I, er…?”

Gretchen: “You certainly shall. Remind me of that when I pay you – next week.”

Ma: “Well, I got the bill right he…here – and since it’s three days ’til Christmas I’d really appreciate it if…”

Gretchen: “Ta.”

Will: “Yup, that’s tellin’ her, Alice!”

“I’d really appreciate it if… you’d… fall off the dock.” In the original, Gretchen probably never heard this bit of Ma Otter’s quiet backtalk, because she has already said “Ta” and walked away. Instead, Ma Otter’s resistance (“sometimes you gotta talk tough to these people”) is removed altogether, and instead Gretchen Fox cuts Ma off (“Ta”) while she is begging for payment three days before Christmas. The editors must have decided that Ma Otter’s backtalk is rude, but it’s perfectly OK for Gretchen Fox to sadistically withhold payment to a poor family until after Christmas.

As they row their way back home from town at sunset, Ma and Emmet Otter sing another song, one of the best in the show and a useful plot-setting device, about how everything will be all right as long as there’s no hole in the washtub (because Ma Otter can still scrape a living by washing clothes for her snotty neighbors). In the edited version I watched with Dez, they added two verses that weren’t in the original (see bold-faced in Edit 2):

“Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub”:

Edit 1: 

Ma: “…I’ll be there to treat you to a soothing back-rub!”

Emmet: “When there ain’t no hole in the washtub!”(instrumental)

Wendel: “Hey, Emmet!”

Edit 2 (in bold are the additional lyrics): 

Ma: “…I’ll be there to treat you to a soothing back-rub!”

Emmet: “When there ain’t no hole in the washtub!”

(instrumental)

Ma: “Lunch with the upper-crust, Dinner at the club, High on the hog when there…

Emmet & Ma: “…ain’t no hole in the washtub!”

Emmet: “Watermelon gardens, Berries on a shrub, Cookies in the kitchen…”

Emmet & Ma: “…when there ain’t no hole in the washtub!”

(instrumental)

Wendel: “Hey, Emmet!”

In the previous conversation, the editors took out Ma and Emmet’s sad meditation on poverty casting their lot with the fish in the river, but they went out of their way to insert lyrics that allow Ma and Emmet to fantasize what waits for them in their future (“lunch with the upper-crust, dinner at the club, high on the hog”) as long as they have a washtub that doesn’t leak. They too may be as wealthy as Gretchen Fox someday if they wash enough clothes for the wealthy. This is a mystification of the American Dream on steroids.

The hack job performed by these editors is quite a useful metaphor for demonstrating just how much times have changed since 1977. It’s no longer appropriate to show the poor trying to make sense of their condition during the holiday season. Nor are the poor allowed to complain about it when they’re obviously getting screwed. They just need to work hard and focus on their dreams for a better future… in happy verse.

Speaking of happy verse, I had a great time watching some of the Emmet Otter fan clips uploaded onto youtube. Here are some of my favorites:

A bluegrass band practicing the Bar-B-Q song at home:

A solo acoustic guitar performance of the Riverbottom Nightmare Band’s song:

A thrash metal version of the same song (the bear’s refrain is the best):

A banjo player plays the barbecue song and explains how he likes to play it for his son:

Every Emmet Otter fan has their own way of paying homage to this holiday classic. This tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the corporate class warfare messages that have crept into the DVD version currently on sale is mine.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Diana permalink
    December 20, 2012 10:40

    I happened across your blog this evening. I have to say I completely agree with you. Everytime we watch the DVD version I get mad at the differences. I have a VHS recording that we recorded off Nickelodeon many years back. I will have to convert that to DVD.( Although it has commercials.)

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