The Muppets: ‘Twas Ever Thus
I watched the pilot of the new Muppet Show the other day. I like it – a number of the gags were hilarious, I liked seeing all the gang again, and I thought the trope/show structure was fun and has a lot of potential. Yeah, it wasn’t the greatest thing I ever saw (a lot of the jokes fell flat), but I liked it and will watch again. I went to sleep that night thinking that it was a pretty solid rebooting of the franchise and that it should do well.
Then, the next day, I saw all the rage. All kinds of backlash from all kinds of places (this one on i09 is a good example) talking about how they “ruined the Muppets” and made them unlikeable and cynical and dark and so on.
And I honestly don’t know what they’re talking about. Really.
Maybe it’s because I, myself, am a fairly cynical and dark human being. Maybe it’s because, as I have small children, I’ve watched almost all the Muppet movies not only recently but many, many times over, but I don’t think this show has changed the Muppets as characters all that much. Sure, sure – the format has changed. The vaudeville acts and the musical numbers have been sidelined (temporarily, perhaps), but the Muppets themselves? Not buying it. Here, I hope to rebut the claims made using evidence from pre-existing Muppet properties.
Claim #1: This Show Has Made the Muppets Cynical and Mean
First off, I would ask somebody to please point out where the cynicism in the pilot is in the first place. Is it from Kermit’s sarcastic remarks? Please! He’s been making those since forever. Point in case, in The Muppet Movie (going all the way back to 1979), Dr. Teeth and the band paint Fozzie’s Studebaker to make it less conspicuous – by covering it with rainbows and star patterns. The following exchange occurs:
DR TEETH: Doc Hopper will never recognize you now!
FOZZIE: I don’t know how to thank you guys!
KERMIT: I don’t know why to thank you guys.
Not enough evidence? Consider how often Kermit facepalms in front of the crowd. Consider how many times he chews out Gonzo for doing something crazy. Consider the number of times he has had it and freaks out on his friends (happens in Muppets Take Manhattan, It’s a Very Muppet Christmas Movie, and even The Muppet Movie). It happened on the original show all the damned time. It was a recurring subplot.
Or maybe you felt the sarcasm was a result of how Fozzie was treated. Except of course you are forgetting that he has always and forever been treated this way. He had a dressing room in an alley in Reno in The Muppets, he was shot at and had things thrown at him in The Muppet Movie, he’s been fired, he’s been beaten, thrown from a moving vehicle, and so on. Just because.
As for cynicism, the Muppets have always had their cynical moments–usually at their lowest point, usually just before the pivot into the third act or even as part of the first act: they just lost the theatre, they just got fired, they just got thrown out of their home. Hell, at the start of It’s a Very Muppet Christmas Movie, Kermit is contemplating suicide, just like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. The “cynicism” people are pointing to in this new television series seems to me evidence of the fact that the show is just starting and the Muppets are stuck in a rut. A rut they can break out of or recover from. It’s only the pilot guys.
Claim #2: This Show Has Muppets + Sex! OUTRAGE!
Yeah, I guess you guys have never paid much attention to this show. There has always (ALWAYS) been sexual humor in the Muppets; you were just too young to get it, because it went over your head. Much like this sexual humor would go over any kid’s head. Seriously, where was the actual raunchy sex talk? Fozzie made a “bear” reference, but what little kid is going to get that? Do they ever discuss sex? Fozzie is just dating a girl and they talk about having children. Animal mentions “too many women.” That’s it.
But beyond that, have we forgotten about Animal’s track record? Here, let me remind you:
That scene involved Animal chasing a blonde out of a theatre at the start of The Muppets Take Manhattan. What did you think was on his mind?
Not enough for you? What about Gonzo’s weird thing with chickens (obviously NOT Platonic–he gives her mouth-to-mouth later on in Muppets Take Manhattan and it is played for all it’s worth). Oh, and – Dear God! – did you forget all about the It’s a Very Muppet Christmas Special in which Kermit, like George Bailey, is experiencing an alternate universe in which he never existed. In that alternate universe, he encounters this image:
That is Scooter, dressed in tight pants and leather dog collar, gyrating in a steel cage inside a seedy nightclub. Yes. Scooter.
Oh, and is it the Muppet/Human love affair that creeps you out? Have we forgotten that such love affairs have occurred consistently and forever since the Muppets’ inception. How many of the male guest stars on the original Muppet Show did Piggy lust after? Did we forget her fantasy involving Charles Grodin serenading her while she swam about in a silver swimsuit in a synchronized swimming routine during The Great Muppet Caper? Did we forget Kermit’s budding romance with Juliana Donald’s waitress character in Muppets Take Mahattan?
Yeah. Yeah, I guess we did.
Claim #3: They Threw Piggy Under the Bus
Okay, yeah – Piggy is a narcissistic, delusional, fame-addled lunatic in the new show. She is the target of fat jokes and played up as crazy.
Except that she’s always been a narcissistic, delusional, fame-addled lunatic who has been the target of fat jokes and played up as crazy.
Piggy has never bothered to remember Gonzo’s name (not since The Muppet Movie), she has never bothered to care about Kermit’s feelings, and she has always, always, always been portrayed as a character with less talent than aggressive self-interest. She is the quintessential diva and has always been thus.
Now, you can say that this is an unfair depiction of a strong woman, and I would certainly agree with you, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is her portrayal. Piggy ditches Kermit as soon as she gets a phone call from her agent in The Muppet Movie (in the middle of a date). She lies about her identity in The Great Muppet Caper to impress Kermit and to indulge in her own delusions of grandeur. She lies to Kermit again in Muppets Take Manhattan when she claims to leave town but, instead, sticks around and stalks Kermit out of jealousy. In the original show, she is constantly locking herself in her dressing room, making unreasonable demands, screaming at people, and Kermit is there nodding and trying to calm her down and taking the heat. In The Muppets, they have Piggy playing a corpse on a gurney in a mock episode of Scrubs and she refuses to play dead and inserts herself in the scene to the frustration of the rest of the cast. She is that person.
I will readily agree that Piggy has good qualities. She is tough, smart, willing to take risks, assertive, and has a mean karate chop. She saves the frog’s bacon (pardon the pun) on several occasions, granted. Ultimately, when push comes to shove, Piggy is a good person and does the right thing. Which, of course, is actively demonstrated in the pilot episode when she and Kermit apologize to one another and promise to be honest.
As for the fat jokes, well, they are artifacts from a previous era and should go. Mocking Piggy for her weight and size was a giggle in the 1970s, but not anymore. If I have a critique of the show, that’s the primary one – that joke landed as crass and mildly offensive.
This is the first episode of a series that, presumably, will build upon the emotional relationships and allow characters to evolve. To claim they “ruined the Muppets” is both inaccurate and premature. If you think this Muppet Show was dark and sarcastic, you just haven’t been paying attention to the Muppets overall for the past 40-some-odd years.
Now, what is missing from this pilot is the feel-good, hopeful songs – things like “Rainbow Connection” and “Somebody’s Getting Married” – as well as the zany vaudevillian stuff. If that was your primary draw for the Muppets, I’m sorry about that. Let’s not pretend, though, that these Muppets aren’t the Muppets we’ve always known and loved. They’re just doing a slightly different act.