Certain frogs on the street are reporting that there's another Muppet Movie in the works. While Muppet productions have not been universally exceptional, I've never given up on them (1). Some might say I have the faith of a child. I think one often needs that faith to embrace what some people abjure simply because people associate it with children.
There's pleasure to be taken with the things of children. I'm always tempted to spell "Tiger" "T.I. double-guh-er." I'm reading ANNE OF GREEN GABLES in celebration of its centennial.
Thus, there would be no shame in loving the Muppets if it were a children's pleasure. If. Although Disney's acquisition of some of the Muppet holdings has changed their character, the Muppets were not traditionally for children. Like oral fairy tales and THE SIMPSONS, the Muppets have had an adult flavor from the beginning.
While the Muppets that appeared on SESAME STREET (b. 1969) were kid-friendly, the Muppets that inhabited early SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (b. 1975) were not. THE MUPPET SHOW (1976-1981) fought against the misperception that it was for children. Despite the use of "puppets," the show parodied adult media—variety shows; Edwardian music hall; soap operas; etc—with an adult sensibility. At the end of Raquel Welch's episode, in which she had performed a sensual dance, Kermit tells the audience that no one will be able to claim this show is for kids anymore.
The content of the show often depends upon an adult sensitivity. In one episode, the pig cast says "We're doing Shakespeare here," only to be told that it "sounds more like Bacon," a double-layer reference that counts on a pork pun and an understanding of the Shakespeare authorship debate. In the DVD form of the John Cleese episode, you can see a sketch that the British audience was treated to (2). Miss Piggy (full name: Miss Piggy Lee) enters the Muppet stage in a wedding gown, visibly pregnant (she turns profile to make the point) and sings "Waiting at the Church." Kermit reads the note explaining why her lover can't come: "My wife won't let me." See it here:
Sam the eagle's sole role in the show is to parody the puritanical members of the audience who wish the show to be
(psst--he's actually British!)
decent and moral. His very presence is an indication that the show resists these barriers and limitations. The theme song itself may be seen as subversive, in that the writers chose to have the male characters alluding to the transvestism that theatre requires: "It's time to put on makeup / It's time to dress up right."
The show has a certain British sensibility. It was filmed entirely in England, and, as alluded to earlier, the show "stage" is modeled on Edwardian theatre—closer to cabaret and vaudeville than the variety shows on American television at the time (3). In the Brooke Shields episode, which, as it had an ALICE IN WONDERLAND theme, contained mushroom jokes, Fozzie refers to "sausage and chips," when an American audience would better understand "fries."
Specifically, THE MUPPET SHOW is Pythonesque. MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS went off the air right before THE MUPPET SHOW came on. It's not difficult to see one as the inheritor of the other. Both have sketches involving xylophone-esque instruments made from living creatures. The second MUPPET pilot shared a name with the second PYTHON episode: "Sex and Violence." John Cleese wrote much of his MUPPET episode, including a scene with a parrot, whom is warned she might become an "ex-parrot." You can watch the scene here:
If you love THE SIMPSONS, if you love MONTY PYTHON, or you have nostalgia for Edwardian music halls, revisit THE MUPPET SHOW. If nothing else, just think about the fact that there are hidden muppeteers and elaborate performance numbers. This is all pre-CGI and it's amazing.
Although Muppet policy forbid any guest star to appear twice, Muppet films allowed several to reunite with their small friends. John Cleese appeared in THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER, my favorite of all the Muppet films. Kermit and Fozzie are twins who travel to London. Kermit falls for Piggy, as does Charles Grodin. Throw in a jewel theft, underwater ballet, and double-decker buses, and you've got a masterpiece.
Steve Martin's part in THE MUPPET MOVIE was small, but it complements the episode he did, the only one that didn't feature a laugh track. The conceit of the episode was that there was no show, despite Steve's showing up, as
They're just not meant to be.
Kermit was auditioning new acts. A few audience members, mostly the "cast" of THE MUPPET SHOW, filled a few seats. The laughs are provided by the crewmembers working on the set.
THE MUPPET MOVIE also had Kermit falling in love with Piggy (note that the films vary greatly from the shows in this respect). As with CHARLOTTE'S WEB and pork chops, I wonder how many people were put off frog legs forever due to this film. Kermit is just trying to get to Hollywood, but he won't sell out to shill frog legs (he can't stop picturing lots of little crutches). He also won't sell out his friends. As cheesy as it sounds, I find the end, with the song about the creative impulse and a reprise of "The Rainbow Connection," terribly moving.
MUPPETS FROM SPACE has one of my very favorite new characters—Pepe the King Prawn. He is every bit as awesome as he thinks he is . . . "okay?" He also wears tutus when he thinks no one else is watching, which makes him one step away from being Eddie Izzard. This story features Gonzo trying to figure out who he is. It isn't just an existential question—it's an interplanetary one. The Cosmic Fish who help along the way are loving tributes to the work of Douglas Adams (THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY), who happened to write a few PYTHON SKETCHES . . . hmmm. It also features a fabulous funk soundtrack, a great, inventive plot, fun movie spoofs, and Jeffrey Tambor's second greatest role (the other, naturally, being in ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT).
THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN probably has my favorite line in any Muppet feature. (It also has Brooke Shields, much older than her first Muppet appearance.) Here, Kermit keeps putting Piggy off—they can't get married until they get a hit on Broadway (kinda like SPAMALOT. Creepy how MONTY PYTHON keeps coming up, isn't it?) Kermit is trying to get the gang to shut up when they're all talking at once. Everyone except Janice becomes quiet, allowing us to here her say she wouldn't do a nude project, "even if it is 'artistic.'" This film also features our first glimpse of "The Muppet Babies."
There are, of course, more Muppet films, but I wanted to end my discussion with two project that feature Jim Henson's creatures. First, if you've never watched it, know that THE DARK CRYSTAL is not for very young viewers. The story is very unsettling. It's difficult to watch a creature sucked of its essence, knowing that you get a zombie at the end. The world of the film is ruled by two opposing powers (allowing for an interesting discussion of structuralism and
the darker muppet side
post-structuralism)—the mystics and the skekses. There is danger, a Jungian quest, and dinner manners that would make even the most debauched medieval diners ashamed. Be warned: you will do the Skekses laugh for about a week after seeing this film. You will also be amazed at those running rabbits if you remember that each was an actor in a giant costume running on two sets of stilts.
Although the world of THE DARK CRYSTAL was vividly alive, I prefer the art and M.C. Escher inspired world of LABYRINTH. Watch for stones that become faces (from certain points of view) and logic lessons ala ALICE IN WONDERLAND mixed with ancient puzzles. I always look for David Bowie looking exceptionally sexy. His deal doesn't sound that bad: "You can have everything you want. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave." We could raise our new goblin baby and play with those balls of his and whatever something special is in those pants. The music is superlative, even better than in the other films. Maybe this movie is so good because it was written by Terry Jones, a medieval scholar who has published a book on Chaucer's Knight. And who did he work for before? . . . that's right . . . MONTY PYTHON!
(1) For clarification, Muppets are NOT puppets. I tend to call anything that comes out of a Henson studio a Muppet, but others are more particular in their definitions. Also, Muppets are NOT affiliated with AVENUE Q (though they should be), but they seem to be friends with WEEZER.
(2) British shows were longer, due to less commercial time.
(3) According to a fabulous young scholar, "Music halls were a blue-collar entertainment, and, much like the wrestling venues of today, steeped in vulgarity, misogyny, and disorder. The performance was often more about the tremendously active audience than the performers on stage. The audience was often so interactive that owners attempted to stifle their enthusiasm . . .One of the methods the music hall managers used to create "an aura of refinement" was to try to boost female attendance to these male dominated performances. Unfortunately, their attempts to encourage the presence of women mainly dealt with surface issues rather than changing the format or subject of the show as "the Edwardian music hall represented women's roles in highly traditional ways and . . . , in extreme moments, it demonstrated 'the common music hall trait' of 'violent hostility to women' . . ." (Russell 78)" (Waltonen).
Dr. Karma is a silly, nerdy know-it-all, but in a good way. She brings all her overeducation to discuss that which truly matters: comedy. As some famous guy once said: “And if I laugh at any mortal thing, ‘tis that I may not weep.” Or something like that.
If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Karma Waltonen by clicking here.