10 Reasons to Watch and Re-Watch Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas

10 Reasons to Watch and Re-Watch Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas

The Muppet Christmas Carol is among the most beloved holiday movies ever; It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas is among the weirdest. But many Jim Henson fans also hold 1977’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, based on the 1971 book by Russell and Lillian Hoban, near and dear. Its heartwarming riff on O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” endures for so many magical reasons.

Here are 10 elements that have made Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas a perennial favourite. You can stream it now on Prime Video.

Bicycle Kermit

Screenshot: The Jim Henson Company
Screenshot: The Jim Henson Company

He’s not on the thing too long before he accidentally crashes, but Kermit the Frog — Emmet Otter’s convivial narrator — cuts a dashing figure on the back of a bicycle in the movie’s prologue. As fans well know, he’s a big fan of cycling and has done it in a variety of projects, perhaps most famously in 1979’s The Muppet Movie, whose plot featured an additional focus on frog legs for all the wrong reasons. At any rate, a Muppet on a bike is a delightful visual in any context, with Kermit always leading the pack.

“Music and Lyrics by Paul Williams”

Though “The Rainbow Connection” (from The Muppet Movie) is probably Williams’ most famous composition for the Muppets, the Muppet Show veteran (and future creator of The Muppet Christmas Carol’s much-cherished tunes), Emmet Otter — which is about a musical competition — benefits greatly from his contributions. The songs span a wide range of styles, with the raucous “There Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub” and the hymn-like “When the River Meets the Sea” among the best.

The Otter family

“Two of the nicest folk on the river,” this tight-knit family unit does what they can to get by — odd jobs, laundry, making pies, knitting socks — but both Ma and Emmet secretly dream of buying the other lavish Christmas presents they absolutely can’t afford. The sad loss of Pa hangs over the pair; from what we learn of him, he was a bit of a rascal who lived by one creed: “a person’s got to take some chances or life will never come to nothing.” Eventually Pa’s proven right, but even when Ma and Emmet seem on the verge of losing everything, we know the love that binds them is somehow going to get them through.

The Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jug-Band

Yes, it requires ruining Ma’s washtub (without her permission!), the most important component of her livelihood. But when Emmet reluctantly agrees to join his friends in their jug-band in the local talent contest, where first prize is a kingly $US50 ($69), some genuinely ripping tunes result. Too bad “Barbecue” is so popular among the river folk that someone else performs it onstage before they get a chance.

The Riverbottom Nightmare Band

The Riverbottom gang’s various members are outrageous jerks, especially their leader, the demanding Chuck Stoat. But come on: they’re also awesome. The fringe-jacket fashion, the obnoxious hot rod, the loud-arse snowmobiles, the psychedelic jams about how they refuse to brush their teeth and love being dangerous, the fact that one member of the Nightmare is a guitar-playing snake? No Muppets have ever been cooler.

The production design

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas first aired 45 years ago, and while the Muppets and set design look decidedly homespun, that only adds to the charming world-building that makes the characters feel so honest and endearing. The technical achievements are also notable; as mentioned, we see Kermit ride a bike, but we also see Ma and Emmet rowing a boat on the river, sliding on the ice, and walking around the town of Waterville — adding a dynamism to the story that most traditional puppet tales wouldn’t be able to achieve.

The tone

Life is hard for the Otters and their neighbours on the river. We’re used to seeing the Muppets scramble against financial ruin to save their theatre or put on their dream show, but Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas scales everything way down and makes the characters’ precarious existence feel more intimate and personal. That raises the stakes in ways that only help the story, and also make it relatable — who among us hasn’t faced hard times, especially at Christmas?

The performances

The OG Muppet Show cast is in full force, both in the realms of puppeteering and voice acting. Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Dave Goelz, and Eren Ozker are on hand to perform characters we may have never met before, but still sound comfortingly similar — Chuck Stoat has major Fozzie Bear vibes, and Emmet Otter is very clearly Robin in disguise. Marilyn Sokol provides the voice of Alice Otter, whose angelic singing — in contrast to traditional Muppet-voice singing, which is a bit rougher — brings the musical numbers to a new level.

The ultimate message

Neither Ma nor Emmet wins the competition — leaving them out not just $US50 ($69), but mired in the “Gift of the Magi” dilemma of having taken a risk (Ma: selling Emmet’s tools to buy a costume; Emmet: putting that dang hole in the washtub) to try and earn the bucks to buy the ultimate Christmas gift (Ma: a fancy guitar for Emmet; Emmet: a down-payment on a piano for Ma)… and coming up short. But the Otters, along with Emmet’s bandmates, leave the show not devastated by their loss, but with music in their hearts. And since this is a Christmas special, a happy ending is in order; their talent may not have taken first prize, but they all end up scoring jobs as the house band at the local café — a regular gig (with free meals!) that offers a chance at real security, something that quick $US50 ($69) could not have provided.

The outtakes

OK, this is kind of a cheat since the famous outtakes are, quite obviously, not included in the runtime of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. But they are wonderful, showing performers flubbing their lines and movements without breaking character — proving that behind the scenes, the people involved really enjoyed working on this special — and are easily tracked down on YouTube.