I vividly remember seeing The Muppet Christmas Carol in the theater. I was maybe eight years old, and I laughed hysterically whenever Gonzo and Rizzo appeared. They were so silly! And weird! And LOUD! For a kid that age, those are the ingredients of great comedy.
As with most Jim Henson productions, though, nothing with The Muppet Christmas Carol is purely for children. Besides the timeless tale of holiday spirit, Gonzo and Rizzo’s repartee is the source of many zippy one-liners and sly winks. Some of them went over my young head, and I only picked up on them in later viewings. But as both a kid and an adult, I’ve always found something electric about the wacky duo.
All of my favorite jokes in the movie stem from ribbing between the two. Gonzo gets exasperated by Rizzo’s incessant need for food. Rizzo doesn’t always understand Gonzo’s, shall we say, unique perspective on the world. But for all the apparent tensions between them, Gonzo and Rizzo are best buddies. They care about each other. They just have different ideas about what one might consider ‘normal,’ and that’s the source of their humor.
The pair have loads of funny moments over the course of the movie, so picking a single best bit is a challenge. But whenever I think about this most silly holiday gem, the first scene that springs to mind and sparks a grin is always the same. It’s a mere twenty seconds of dialogue exchanged during Christmas past. This snippet captures everything that’s great about the rat and the... whatever-Gonzo-is’ relationship, all while giving a lesson in comedy.
Scrooge and the spirit have revisited the old schoolhouse and are just outside the holiday party hosted by Fozziwig. (Yes, Fozzie the Bear in the role of Fezziwig. It’s just too perfect.) Narrator Gonzo sets the scene from a perch at the top of a streetlight. Resplendent in a natty hat and orange-striped jacket, he lifts a torch to illuminate the wick. When he does, he accidentally sets the tip of Rizzo’s tail aflame. Rizzo thrashes in panic at the conflagration and demands that his friend assist him out of the predicament. Gonzo’s solution? A quick shove. This sends the burning rat hurtling towards a bucket of ice water below, which douses the flame and saves the now-shivering rodent from peril.
“What the hell?” I hear you thinking. “How is that funny?” Listen to how the dialogue actually goes:
As a kid watching it for the first time, just the unexpectedness of physical comedy delivered at high volume was enough to put me in stitches. Only in Gonzo’s mind would this be a logical and helpful response to Rizzo’s freak-out. But even though the action is no longer a surprise after countless viewings, I still crack up every single time. It’s because of the words.
None of the fifteen or so words in the scene are particularly funny on their own. In fact, the exchange would look like panicked yammering if transcribed. Yet each word is intentional. Grouped together in these phrases and spoken aloud, they sound really good. Rhythmic. Almost musical. It’s like a drum solo, the way the cadence of the words gains speed and intensity, up to the frenzied cymbal-splash of a finale when Rizzo crashes through the ice. Put together, the words make a damn catchy riff. It sounds so good, which makes me laugh so hard.
The most impactful words aren’t necessarily the fanciest or the most obscure. There’s a time for sparkling wordplay and bon mots and erudite drollery. But the ability to take a handful of words that are bland on their own and let your characters reveal the laughter within them is the real test of great comedy.