The subject matter of the Mikado's Titwillow song is actually quite somber, and as someone who is familiar with the works of Gilbert & Sullivan (thanks mom!) I understand it isn't hard to do a rendition without any innuendo. After all, the subject matter is a heartbroken bird who considers suicide by drowning himself in a river. But Henson and crew intentionally converted the song into a comedy skit, pushing the envelope in only their first season. There is enough evidence in the skit itself that their intention all along was to repeatedly say "tit" on a children's show and see if they could get it passed censors, and they were successful due to circumstance of location.
The first season of the Muppet Show was shot in Elstree, England just north of London. And while many Americans are aware of the different meaning of British words like flat, telly, and rubber, most aren't aware of the local British fauna. In England, the word "tit" doesn't immediately bring to mind a part of the female anatomy, but rather one of a variety of common birds. During casual conversation, one could mention the word "titmouse" without so much as batting an eyelash or smirking, and your average Brit is likely to see the following mental image:
Say "titmouse" to any American and expect the following reaction:
b) questioning stare
c) uncontrolled giggling
d) all of the above
Even if the American you are conversing with is an experienced ornithologist, bird watcher, or board member of the National Audubon Society, the word "titmouse" invokes the following mental image:
My first experience with the British version of the word "tit" was Junior year as an undergraduate student when I purchased a textbook for my behavioral ecology course. I did a quick flip through of the book, as any student would, to see what was in store for the next semester. The very first image I stopped on was a chart entitled "Distribution of Great Tits in England." After a double take, I decided I was probably going to enjoy behavioral ecology a lot. Of course, the great tit (Parsus major) is another song bird related to the titmouse, and blue tit, and a google search about them (in protected mode, of course) reveals many informational web pages pertaining to ornithology and ecological research, though you wouldn't know that from the page titles alone:
Great Tit Photos
Great Tit information
Definition of great tit
Different responsiveness of Indian and European Great Tit
Variation in the number of spermatozoa in Blue Tit and Great Tit
Glimmering great tit
As it would turn out, great tits are a common research bird for their wide distribution and ease of identification (NOTE: The great tits of England are not related to the boobies of North America, such as the blue-footed boobie found in the Hawaiian islands). Therefore, looking through the search results can be as entertaining as the web page titles themselves. From the first five pages of google search results, we learn the following important facts, all from ornithology and ecology research sites:
- "most Great Tits do not migrate"
- "Great tits usually come out at the first signs of spring"
- "Great tits in Britain seem to be adapting to climatic change, scientists report,"
- "In Great Tits, males sing vigorously at dawn in the vicinity of the female's nest hole"
- "Great tits stay away from conifer forests"
- "great tits might be useful biomonitoring tools"
- "Great Tits and Blue Tits are common wherever there are trees in Berlin, which is pretty much everywhere."
I could go on, as like most males of my species I am fascinated by Parsus major (great tits), but I digress from my original argument re the Muppet Show and coincidence of location. Being in England and a children's show, you get the benefit of the doubt that a tit willow is a bird and nothing more.
There are two more obvious points of evidence in the intention of the Muppet creators. The first is in their reconstruction of the song itself. The Gilbert & Sullivan version of the song is always performed as a solo. The version in the Muppet sketch has been hacked, not only to remove the middle verse about suicide by drowning which might not go over well on a children's comedy, but more importantly to be set up as a call-and-response style duet where Rowlf does most of the song, and Sam the Eagle must recite in response all the bits about "tits" and "dickie birds."
The other and more damning evidence is their placement of Sam the Eagle as the personality opposite Rowlf. During the first season of the Muppet Show, many of the characters were still in development. Even Miss Piggy ping ponged between different voices for a number of episodes before she settled into the Frank Oz character we know today. Until the Tit Willow sketch, Sam the Eagle was only used in two regularly occuring scenarios: to introduce the wholesome singing pair of Wayne and Wanda, and as the conservative voice on the Muppet parody of Crossfire, where Sam was essentially portraying William F. Buckley. At the beginning of the sketch, Sam has to ask, "is this cultural?" to which Rowlf replies "It's light opera!" And then over the course of the sketch, Sam looks around, nervous and suspicious at each mention of the word "tit".
I already had immense respect for Henson and crew, but discovery of this sketch raises that respect to a new level. Not because of the childishness of "tit" humor, but because of their willingness to take an obvious risk. Also in their ability to add layers of wit and sophistication to something that would have been good enough for the intended audience had it merely been colorful and loud puppets. There is something for everyone, of every age to find and cherish in their work. It can be enjoyed one way, the way my two-year-old son enjoys watching them now. It can be enjoyed another way for the nostalgia it kindles in someone like myself. And it can be enjoyed on the devious level, where my sense of humor resides, above and beyond anything I was conscious of when I first experienced the show as a child.