A Christmas story published in 1971 by Russell Hoban. It tells of a widowed otter and her son who are struggling to make ends meet just before Christmas: she does others' laundry and he does odd jobs. Both of them want to get a gift for the other for Christmas - she wants to get him a guitar, and he wants to get her a piano. But times are tough that year, adults are taking the jobs that Emmet used to get and people are doing their own laundry. Then the town announces a talent show with a $50 prize.
Emmet and Ma both enter, keeping it secret from each other. Emmet joins a jug band with his friends, and drills a hole in the bottom of Ma's washtub to turn it into a bass. Ma Otter decides to sing, and has to sell her son's tools to get good clothing for the contest. Just before the show starts, the flashy River Bottom Band from two towns over shows up and easily wins the contest. As Ma, Emmet, and his friends walk home, Ma sings her song with the jug band playing behind her, and the local innkeeper hears them and hires them as the house band.
In 1977, Jim Henson
adapted the story (with
, of course) for HBO
. It later aired on ABC
and then on Nickelodeon
. It sticks very true to the story. (The only real difference is that in the special, the Nightmare are a gang of mean-spirited bullies. In the book, they were just a band with a flashier, more glamorous act.) Original music was written for the special by Paul Williams
. In 2008 and 2009, the Goodspeed Theater and the Jim Henson company produced a live stage version of the show, featuring a mixture of Muppets and costumed humans.
- Adaptation Expansion: The River Bottom kids are a gang of thugs in the Jim Henson special, and appear in a number of scenes before they show up at the talent show as the Nightmare.
- Christmas Special
- Concert Climax: The talent show.
- Cunning Like a Fox: Played straight with Gretchen Fox but averted with her husband.
- Cut Song: "I Was Born in the Trunk", which was to have been sung by the music store owner.
- Disappeared Dad: Ma Otter is a widow struggling to get by and support Emmet. His father was a traveling snake oil salesman who died well before the book took place.
- Drives Like Crazy: The River Bottom gang.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: After all that trouble neither Ma nor Emmet's band win the contest—but they do get steady jobs working for Doc Bullfrog, so presumably they'll be able to afford the guitar and the piano.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Listen to the lyrics of "When the River Meets the Sea". It's a song about death. This is a children's Christmas puppet show... Not that the other famous children's puppet show was all that subtle about Mr. Hooper's death.
- It should be noted that Word Of God from Paul Williams in the 2005 Making of Documentary/Retrospective gives the opposite explanation on the song's meaning. He states it's a song about life, a secular hymn on how in his view, we can never truly understand it, just appreciate it reverently. The special itself leaves the interpretation open to the viewer.
- Gift of the Magi Plot: Inverted; they sacrifice each other's possessions for a shot at the prize money, which they plan to use to buy an extravagant gift and presumably replace the stolen item with what's left over.
- Irrelevant Act Opener: Emmet and his ma are introduced singing a folk song about a fat old lady's bathing suit as they row down the river. And it is hilarious.
- Karma Houdini: The River Bottom gang are generally mean to everyone and cause a fair bit of damage and trouble. Then they win the contest.
- Musical World Hypothesis: All of the songs in the special are diegetical, though about half the time the background music isn't.
- Playful Otter: One of the cuter scenes is Ma and Emmet sliding down an icy river bank. You know, like real otters do.
- Re Cut: The original show featured Kermit the Frog as a narrator. After Disney bought the rights to the Muppets, later video editions do not include Kermit's scenes.
- Reptiles Are Abhorrent: The special plays the trope straight with two members of the River Bottom Gang. The book doesn't use it.
- Snake Oil Salesman: Ma Otter's deceased husband was one.
- Suspiciously Similar Song: Well, OK, it could be a coincidence that the Riverbottom Nightmare Band's song sounds a LOT like "Foxy Lady" by Jimi Hendrix...
- The song they play in the music shop strongly resembles Free's "All Right Now."
- Talent Contest
- They Stole Our Act: Emmet and his bandmates have to change plans in a hurry after another act in the talent show performs "Barbecue", the song they had rehearsed.
- Wicked Weasel: In the movie/stage adaptation, the River Bottom gang includes Chuck Stoat and Stanley Weasel.