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Literature / Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas

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Our world says "welcome, stranger".

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: she takes in laundry and he does odd jobs around town. Both of them want to get the other something really special for Christmas — she wants to get him a guitar and he wants to get her a piano. But times are especially tough this 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 without the other's knowledge. Emmet joins a jug band with his friends, even though it means drilling 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 a dress to wear. Their acts go well, and both seem to have a strong chance of winning, but the flashy River Bottom Band from two towns over sails in and steals the show.


With their hopes and livelihoods gone, Ma, Emmet, and his friends head home. On the way, Ma stops to sing her song again 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 puppets Muppets, 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 Riverbottom Nightmare Band 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; though the music was well-received it was never officially released until 41 years later on November 2, 2018. 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.


A remake is currently in production for HBO, with Flight of The Conchords' Bret McKenzie, songwriter for the recently Muppet movies, taking the helm for the music and script and possibly directing.

Tropes present:

  • 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.
  • Adaptational Villainy: In the book, the River Bottom Nightmare Band are just a more professional act. In the special, however, they're a bunch of bullies.
  • All There in the Script: Out of all the River Bottom members, only Chuck and Howard were referred to by name.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: Emmet's Disappeared Dad lost his money selling snake oil. In the film, this is interpreted as oil for snakes (for which, surprisingly, there wasn't much of a market).
  • Bittersweet Ending: See Earn Your Happy Ending below.
  • Bumbling Dad: Pa Otter was, by all indications, an incredibly poor decision maker. He "took a chance on snake oil", which didn't leave his family much after he was gone, and Ma and Emmet's ultimate motivation to gamble with their only means of feeding themselves is that it's what Pa would have done. But he was gentle, thoughtful, and loving, and they remember him fondly.
  • Color-Coded Characters: Blue for Emmet, vermilion for Ma, red for Wendell, green for Harvey, yellow for Charlie.
  • Counterpoint Duet: "Brothers in Our World". On the 2005 DVD Paul Williams revealed that "Our World" and "Brothers" were actually both written as the counterpoint reprise, with the latter song being written as a streamline to the former.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Doc Bullfrog, seen relatively briefly early in the show greeting Ma and Emmet. Seen briefly again at the talent contest, where he's identified as the owner of the local inn. He saves Emmet and Ma at the end by offering them jobs singing at the inn.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Early on, the River Bottom gang is shown entering a music store and jamming out... and they're good. This comes back to haunt our heroes at the end.
  • Christmas Special
  • Concert Climax: The talent show.
  • Cunning Like a Fox: Played straight with Gretchen Fox, who stiffs Ma and Emmet on payment by claiming there was a scorch mark, but averted with her husband Harrison.
  • Digital Destruction: The 2015 airings on ("Freeform, the new name for") ABC Family give this special (along with The Bells of Fraggle Rock, which were both originally videotaped) a horrible faux film looknote .
  • 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.
  • Eye-Obscuring Hat: Wendell and Stanley Weasel wear these.
  • Friendship Song: "Brothers", the song that Emmet and his friends practice last-minute after another act steals their song "Barbecue". It's about how much they're together and could be a family.
  • Fruit Cart: The River Bottom gang knock over a fruit stand as they barrel through town.
  • "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 replace the stolen item with what's left over.
  • Hilarious Outtakes: Included on the DVD, special mention goes to a scene of a drum rolling out of the music store. They wanted it to roll and fall in a specific way, and except for one test before they started rolling the cameras, it never landed right. Even after 200 tries. The puppeteers stayed in character the whole time.
    Ma Otter: Sweet Jesus! (to the very large and human crewmember resetting the scene) Did you see that?
  • "I Am" Song: The Nightmare's song "River Bottom Nightmare Band" is this for the River Bottom gang.
  • Irrelevant Act Opener: Emmet and his ma are introduced singing a folk song about "The one bathing suit that your Grandma Otter wore" as they row down the river.
  • Informed Species: Invokes a touch of this. Emmet and his ma look everything like otters... they just bear more of a resemblance to sea otters than the river otters they're intended to be.
    • Chuck Stoat looks more like a bear than a stoat, which is a type of weasel.
  • Innocently Insensitive: Doc Bullfrog's assurance that Ma and Emmett's acts "just needed a little something extra" and that they should "keep working on it" comes across as a bit tactless, but he has no way of knowing that they just sacrificed their only means of supporting themselves to enter the contest.
  • 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. (Although by all appearances they win fair and square, aside from entering at the last minute and the talent show being extended in consideration of the distance they'd traveled to do so from Riverbottom.)
  • Medium Blending: This is really unlike a typical Jim Henson production as it didn't just use hand puppets. It also used marionettes for long shots of the characters walking, and kabuki puppetry for some of the acts in the talent show.
  • Mood Whiplash: At first we hear rather somber music during the sultry scene where Emmet nails a hole in the washtub, then it cuts to the cheerful music of the jug band practicing in the treehouse.
  • Musical World Hypothesis: All of the songs in the special are diegetical, though about half the time the background music isn't.
  • Narrator: Kermit the Frog, depending on which version (see Re-Cut below).
  • Playful Otter: One of the cuter scenes is Ma and Emmet sliding down a slide Emmet's Pa built on an icy river bank. You know, like real otters do.
  • Reality Ensues: The River Bottom Nightmare Band puts on a big, flashy, professional-level musical act... and wins the talent contest. Emmett and Ma's incredibly poor decision to gamble with each other's livelihoods nearly ruins them. Though as Emmet points out to Ma after Doc Bullfrog hires them, they make much better singers than they do launderers and doing odd repair work, if they had never taken the risk, their hidden talents would have never been discovered. Talents that are actually appreciated, as opposed to the way Ma's customers and Emmet's brief employers treated them.
  • Re-Cut: The TV special has a checkered history.
    • There's the original 1977 version broadcast on HBO, featuring Kermit the Frog as narrator.
    • There's a 1980 VHS release that has various little bits added and taken out, like some additional dialogue when Ma and Emmet are wondering what to do about Christmas presents.
    • A 1996 home video and broadcast edit removed Kermit from the show completely, as the rights to Kermit and the other Muppets had been sold to Disney. This was further tweaked in 2005 in another edit that restored the original 1977 broadcast version, except for still leaving Kermit out.
    • A 2015 television edit for ABC Family's "25 Days of Christmas" series put Kermit's scenes back in the show for the first time in 20 years. But the film was matted from its 1977 4:3 aspect ratio to widescreen, the frame rate was changed from 60 fps to 30 fps to make it look more like a movie, and there were other major edits, like removing the "Ain't No Hole in the Washtub" number.note 
    • The 2017 40th Anniversary DVD release took the ABC Family cut, removed the faux film look and restored a lot of the deleted scenes (namely, the scene with Alice telling Gretchen Fox to fall off the dock once she's out of earshot, the Ain't No Hole in the Washtub song, and the snow sliding scene), but still contains the other issues of the ABC Family broadcast (ie it's still matted to 16:9, with no vertical panning in the scenes that needed it; it's also still 30fps, but see the above note about conversion to progressive scan).
    • The 2018 Blu-Ray release is about as perfect as it gets without destroying the image quality- they took the 2017 DVD release's time sheet and applied it to a fresh transfer, which thus restored the 4:3 aspect ratio while retaining every scene present in the 2017 DVD release. However given that the media is Progressive Scan (trust me, you do not want to upscale an interlaced video source to 1080p without first deinterlacing it), it's a given that the video is still at 30fps unless they throw in motion smoothing to drag the frame rate back up to 60fpsnote .
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: The special plays the trope straight with two members of the River Bottom Gang. The book doesn't use it.
  • Rodents of Unusual Size: The muskrat in Emmet's jug band isn't any smaller than the otter, porcupine, or beaver.
    • 2 rabbits that have a dance in the contest are about twice as tall as Emmet, his friends and mothernote 
  • Scenery Porn: The sets and models are gorgeous, with an incredible amount of detail. Even forty years later, they still look great.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: Ma Otter's deceased husband was one (due to Ambiguous Syntax — apparently he sold oil for snakes).
  • Species Surname: All of the characters are named like this.
  • Surprisingly Happy Ending: At first the mood seems somber since both Alice and Emmet and his gang lose the contest to the Riverbottom gang, but then when they combine the songs they performed, this prompts Doc Bullfrog and the patrons of his restaurant to hire them as the house band and get paid regular along with meals for all, which they happily accept.
  • Talent Contest: With a prize of $50 attached.
  • 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.
  • Triumphant Reprise: “When the River Meets the Sea” returns at the end, when Alice and Emmet and the jug band all sing for Pa after their first regular performance at the Riverside Rest.
    • "Our World" and "Brothers" are blended together into one song by Alice and Emmet's jug band.
  • Villainy-Free Villain: The River Bottom Nightmare Gang acts like a group of troublemakers and competes in the talent show, but they never do anything truly villainous, and they don't appear to cheat to win the talent show; as noted, their act is genuinely impressive.
  • Villain Song: "Riverbottom Nightmare Band" — a boastful tune about what delinquents the Riverbottom kids are.
  • Wicked Weasel: In the special and stage adaptation, the River Bottom gang includes Chuck Stoat and Stanley Weasel.
    • Averted with the Otters, and several side characters who look like other members of the weasel family, like minks and ferrets.

Alternative Title(s): Emmet Otters Jug Band Christmas


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