Here’s an extremely rare Japanese laserdisc of Jim Henson’s Dog City. Both the American and UK DVDs of Dog City cut out over 10 minutes of material with Kermit and the MuppetTelevision crew, and the US DVD has very bad audio. The Japanese laserdisc contains the entire uncut Jim Henson Hour episode, although it’s dubbed into Japanese! The same company issued Monster Maker (now on Netflix!) and was planning to issue Secrets of The Muppets and Living With Dinosaurs among others, but never got round to it. Monster Maker is not on DVD, and Secrets of the Muppets and Living With Dinosaurs, like most Jim Henson Hour material, have never been released anywhere.
Dog City is just as wonderful as I remember it - a very silly Muppet romp through a 40s film noir world populated entirely by Muppet dogs and a constant stream of puns and dumb jokes. The special doesn’t entirely shy away from the adult humor that the film noir genre necessitates, and handles references to murder, prostitution and the word “bitch” in a funny and kid-friendly way. If you like the humor of The Muppet Show you’ll like this. On a technical level, it’s shot on video but done single-camera with every trick Jim Henson had up his sleeve, including animatronic characters for some shots. Jim Henson won an Emmy for directing this, and rightly so. The special inspired an animated series, which reused the same puppets in framing segments about a cartoonist.
This special originally aired on my favorite Jim Henson production as a kid - the short-lived Jim Henson Hour, which usually gave you a half hour of MuppetTelevision (an updated, high-tech Muppet Show), and another half hour that was a journey into Henson’s amazing fantasy world, with productions like The Storyteller, Monster Maker, Song of the Cloud Forest and (the almost Twin Peaks-lite) Lighthouse Island. There was also a then-unaired episode in which Jim showed you the Secrets of the Muppets.
It was Henson at his very peak, showing all the amazing things his studio was capable of. There were great songs like “Sweet Vacation” and “The Music Keeps Rollin’ Along,” celebrity guests like KD Lang and Ted Danson, some vaguely adult humor, appearances by former Muppet Show writer and legendary British comedian Chris Langham (whose career is now dead on pornography charges), and Frank Oz popping in to play Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear. Saving the environment was a subtext of several episodes, and in general, like Fraggle Rock (which was designed to promote world peace among different cultures), the series seemed designed to open up a child’s imagination and make the next generation better people.
NBC cancelled it very quickly due to low ratings. Henson died not long after and none of the work the Henson Company has done since has really shown the same ambition that Jim had. In particular, the more complex, high-tech Muppets of The Jim Henson Hour have been abandoned in favor of a more Sesame Street-like approach with the newer characters from, say, Muppets Tonight!
The recent “The Muppets” movie treated the characters as a hopeless anachronism of the 70s and 80s, failing to make their way into modern times, and acted as if the last thing they ever did was The Muppet Show. Now, to the general public, perhaps that’s true. But Jim was always an innovator first and foremost, with films like the Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Both were box office disappointments, which crushed Jim - his best work, on a technical level, often went unappreciated. It was that technical knowledge that allowed Frank Oz to bring Yoda and Audrey II to life, and it’s worth remembering that the Henson Company was at the forefront of special effects all through the 80s.
None of the Jim Henson Hour episodes were ever released on video, laserdisc or DVD, although this Dog City laserdisc and the releases of Monster Maker are technically an exception. Some productions which aired on The Jim Henson Hour have been released on DVD - all nine episodes of The Storyteller, which might be the best thing Jim ever did, are on DVD, along with the slightly less wonderful spinoff Greek Myths. The Song of the Cloud Forest (a colorful story about saving the rainforests) is also on DVD and Miss Piggy’s Hollywood was released in PAL (along with The Fabulous Miss Piggy Show, guest-starring Andy Kaufman as Tony Clifton!). Dog City is available on DVD in the US and UK, but all Jim Henson Hour framing material has been removed (including quite a lot of Kermit and Jim and Digit and Bean Bunny and etc.), and the audio on the US version is strangely terrible.