Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Muppets fuck in The Happytime Murders. Because humanity has fallen from God's light, it's no surprise that this is nothing new.

The title of the 1976 film Let My Puppets Come, according to the film's Wikipedia page, is a reference to the 1974 sex-themed stage musical Let My People Come. And it's nice, I guess, to have that explanation, but I really don't suppose that explaining the title of Let My Puppets Come is actually necessary. It has puppets, and they come. By "come", I of course mean reach orgasm. But they're puppets! Har-de-har, are your sides splitting yet? How about your pants zipper?

Actually, to be fair to Let My Puppets Come, it's so unbelievably much stranger than it sounds, and I would contend that "film from the waning days of the Golden Age of American Pornography starring a cast mostly made up of puppets" already sounds pretty damned strange. This is no mere gimmicky smut film: it is a gimmicky smut film written and directed by Gerard Damiano, whose 1972 Deep Throat and 1973 The Devil in Miss Jones are two of the most very significant films in the history of the genre. As such, it's maybe not much of a surprise that Let My Puppets Come has some very hefty intellectual ambitions. And given that it's a porno with off-brand Muppets, it's also not much of a surprise that it doesn't live up to those ambitions even a tiny bit.

The core of the film is that the four proprietors of Creative Concepts Systems & Procedures Brothers Unlimited Inc. - Ned, Fred, Red, and Gramps - have failed in their latest financial endeavor, and are about to receive a most unwelcome visit from Mr. Big, the mafioso who gave them the $500,000 they've just pissed away. With only about 24 hours to make a fortune, they follow the advice of courier Jimmy, who suggests that the best way to make money in a hurry these days is to crank out a porno. And so they do this, with the first part of the film consisting of their excited pitches to each other for the kinds of scenes they think would be sexiest, and the next part consisting of filming the movie under the guidance of retired Italian director Gepetto.

Of course, there's no way that a film like this was ever going to be first and foremost about its narrative; it's all about the individual scene, or even just the individual joke. Let My Puppets Come is fundamentally a collection of skits, not so very different from the far better-known puppet comedy The Muppet Show, which debuted on television later in the same calendar year (it's even, like The Muppet Show, fundamentally a satire about the entertainment industry, which is weird as hell and I'll get back to it in minute). The film's very existence speaks to the promise of porno chic and all that back in the '70s: something that has this many explicit sex jokes, even explicit depictions of sex if you're willing to say that a foam rubber tube being thrust into a foam rubber slot can be defined as "explicit", could only possibly be categorised as "pornography", but outside of some very specialised fetishists, it's extraordinarily difficult for me to imagine a viewer becoming sexually aroused by any part of the movie. It's a goofy comedy in which Henson-esque hand puppets make witless, dirty jokes, curse, spin out fantasy sex scenes that are basically shaggy dog stories with dumb punchlines, and parody current pop culture (the film concludes on a series of parodies of television commercials). Pornography is the vehicle of the film more than it is the purpose of the film, and I cannot say that I've ever quite seen something else like it.

None of this means that Let My Puppets Come is therefore good, or anything daft like that. Dear God, no. The humor is broad and stupid, vulgar mostly for the pleasure of vulgarising something perceived to be innocent and childlike. The first big scene involves a talking dog performing cunnilingus on a woman who's ready to give up on men, and that's pretty much the level of humor the film wants to operate at; even this is somewhat more ambitious than most of the film, since hereafter all of the puppets will be human, or a talking wooden boy named Pornocchio. The idea that one uses puppets to add a level of fantasy is not one Let My Puppets Come gets any mileage out of; it really is just a series of jokes about how you don't expect to see puppets fucking, but here they are.

On the other hand, some of these jokes are really fucking peculiar. A puppet dog going down on a puppet lady is nothing; neither is a puppet old man being jumped by several gorgeous puppet co-eds. That's about what one would expect. Having a puppet penis sing is also about what one would expect, though the design of this particular penis puppet caught me off guard; it's got a face and a mouth right below the glans, which it wears like a hat - much more like a mushroom than anything, really. Having a trio of disembodied labias singing back-up to Pornocchio's (now played by a human in a mask) glam-rock song about falling in love with a transwoman, now that's where we have shot on past anything that I hope one would expect.

It's only very rarely funny, which is a different thing altogether than claiming that it's never funny. It's also not as stupid as it sounds, finding room for a healthy dose of meta-humor about the fact that most of its characters are puppets, and ending one scene with an out-of-nowhere reference to the 23-year-old play Tea and Sympathy. Still, the film is generally a slog, given that all of its individual scenes have pretty much one joke each, often dragged out for several minutes. Even something as straightforward as the opening credits suffer from this: the gag is that each of the puppets is given a name as an actor in addition to their character's name, and these names are all jokey references to real movie stars or directors. The gags are broad as broad can be, of course - "Clark Gobble", "Agnes More-Head", things like that - and the text animation goes by so slowly, dragging out a very banal joke for no less than two and half minutes. That's ultimately what does Let My Puppets Come in: it should be simple and snappy, but it grinds on, letting all of its central jokes wither and die, and killing off whatever the weird charms of the film might have been.

For, when all is said and done, it does have some charms. The whole thing turns out to be a musical comedy, for starters, and while nobody is going to mistake the lyrics for Frank Loesser, there's some real craft in there. Plus, there's something intrinsically fascinating in watching puppets mock the economics and motivations of the adult film industry just months before a very different set of puppets were about to do the same to the television variety show genre.

And perhaps most surprisingly of all, the puppets are actually kind of good. You can tell that no money was spent on them, but they have interesting cartoony expressions, lots of room for big emotional articulation, and the puppeteering teams have put obvious thought into their combined choreography and timing. Some of the very best of them wouldn't even look out of place as background characters in a Jim Henson production. I cannot in good faith say that anybody should go watch Let My Puppets Come for an example of high-quality puppetry, but the puppets are still maybe the single best piece of evidence that the film was going for more than just smut with felt: it's clear that Damiano genuinely wanted to make something as good and creative as The Muppet Show of pornography, without even benefit of The Muppet Show existing yet, and while it's not worth diminishing the very real fact that he missed that target, the mere fact that a film with these ambitions was ever made is inherently interesting, and somehow, despite not being very good in any way, Let My Puppets Come actually manages to justify some of that interest.