Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Muppets: An Appreciation

So I finally got a chance to catch The Muppets, which I am pleased to report more than lived up to the hype. This is no small feat – for fans of the Muppet empire, they are something very special indeed.

For the uninitiated, the Muppets are a group of puppets created by Jim Henson in the 1950s. The first Muppet project was the local Washington, D.C. show Sam and Friends in the ’50s, followed by appearances on variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show and the Jimmy Dean Show in the ’60s, and then a collaboration with the Children’s Television Workshop to create Sesame Street in 1969.

But the centerpiece of the Muppet franchise has always been The Muppet Show, which ran for five seasons in syndication from 1976 to 1981. This show and the original three films it spawned – The Muppet Movie (1979), The Great Muppet Caper (1981), and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) – create the backbone of the Muppet canon.

But ever since Jim Henson passed away in 1990, the Muppets have been in a precarious state. Beginning in 1992 with A Muppet Christmas Carol, the Muppets lost their way in films like Muppet Treasure Island (1996) and Muppets from Space (1999), as well as on latter-day television shows like Muppets Tonight (1996-1998). By the time more recent fare like It’s a Very Muppet Christmas Movie (2002) and The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (2005) appeared, the producers didn’t even bother to release them theatrically.

In 2002, the Walt Disney Company was finally able to buy the Muppet franchise after several attempts. But they didn’t really do anything with them. In an interview with Jason Segel, the driving force behind The Muppets, he remembered how, after scripting and starring in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, he was called in by Disney to make a more family-oriented film for them. They offered him things like Herbie the Lovebug, but Segel maintained that the untapped goldmine they were sitting on was the Muppets. He pitched making a film that would restart the Muppet franchise and be a worthy addition to the Muppet canon.

To do so was no simple task; Segel had to create something that could meet the expectations of the original Muppet fans, as well as something that played well to their children, who may have never heard of them before. In short, he had to make it funny, hip, self-deprecating, and self-referential, while still being wholesome and witty enough to fit under the Disney label.

Which is exactly what he pulled off – in my estimation, with The Muppets, Segel spearheaded the finest Muppet project since 1987’s excellent-though-largely-forgotten television special, A Muppet Family Christmas.

What makes The Muppets so effective is that it understands that the Muppets have always been powered by nostalgia. The original Muppet Show brings to mind the old joke by Bob Hope he used to tell about (and I believe on) television: “You remember vaudeville? Well, now they’ve put it in a box.” Hope was referring to the vast number of early television stars – people such as Milton Berle, George Burns, Edgar Bergen, Danny Kaye, and Hope himself, all of who would go on to host The Muppet Show – that had cut their teeth in vaudeville. Like characters from the vaudeville era, the Muppets themselves were often little more than brightly-colored, stage-door tropes.

Kermit is the straight man, Miss Piggy is the diva, Fozzie is the groan-inducing comic, Gonzo is the death-defying stuntman, Rowlf is the gravely-voiced piano man, Scooter is the bookish stage manager, and Animal is the manically out-of-control drummer. These seven characters are among the simplest ever conceived, on par with the original Winnie the Pooh gang, Walt Disney characters, or Gilligan’s Island cast; if Freud was to have a look at them, he’d smugly dub Kermit as the Ego, Animal as the Id, and either Miss Piggy or Gonzo as the Superego, depending on what his definition of “Super” and/or “Ego” might be.

Many other well-loved characters who weren’t as central to the original program are featured prominently in the new movie: The Swedish Chef, Bunsen and Beaker, and Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, among others. This was a shrewd move because, by featuring these players who always seemed bigger than they actually were, the film favors the mystic chords of memory over the truer chords of reality.

Which brings it all back to nostalgia. While The Muppet Show ran like a tribute to the then-relics of vaudeville, the movie’s central joke is that now it’s the Muppets themselves who are the relics, trying to compete in a world that has moved on without them. The clip where a kid asks Kermit if he is one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was likely included in the television ads not because it’s one of the funniest moments in the film, but because it’s one of the most telling.

It also speaks to the Muppets’ trademark elimination of the fourth wall. Again, this ground had been pioneered by the vaudevillians – such as George Burns, who directly addressed the camera in his television show – but hit a new level of irony and complexity with the Muppets. Theirs was a show about putting on a show, both in terms of the audience in the theater (comprised of Muppets) and the greater world outside (comprised of real people). The fact that The Muppet Show took the time to create a false audience for their false show – which included two of their most durable characters, hecklers Statler and Waldorf – only reinforces how complete the show was unto itself; the equivalent would be if The Flintstones’ animators had taken the time to draw reaction shots of laughing cartoon people to go with the laugh track heard throughout the show.

Presumably for the “live” Muppet audience, they only saw the official sketches of the show, but as the “real” outside audience, we were given the chance to see backstage as well. Each episode usually had a subplot about what was going on behind the curtain, which is part of what made it so interesting. In this regard, The Muppet Show’s closest contemporary would have been The Mary Tyler Moore Show, although its absurdist bent sets it better as the precursor of a show like 30 Rock. Regardless, the backstage element of The Muppet Show is what ultimately set it apart from the vaudeville-influenced ’50s television fare like The Milton Berle Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, because these earlier programs merely showed what was happening on stage. The only thing that comes close to The Muppet Show from this era is Ernie Kovacs’ television specials, which was taking the camera backstage while David Letterman was still in grade school.

So how did The Muppets enter into this world of nostalgia-driven, fourth wall complexities and pull it all off so successfully? By keeping it simple. The entire movie is built around what is basically one big episode of The Muppet Show, that is, a big Muppet telethon to save their Muppet Theater from the takeover and destruction of an evil oil baron (is there really any other kind?). The self-deprecating balance between success and failure that had always marked the Muppets’ humor takes on a new level of meaning as everything hangs on the line depending on whether or not they can pull off their big show.

Meanwhile, the fourth wall grows even more complicated: This is a movie about the Muppets putting on a show for an in-house audience, as well as a wider television audience within the movie, and then finally us, the audience of people actually watching the movie. It is the most complicated fourth wall scenario I have encountered in popular culture since I saw Grey Gardens on Broadway, which was a musical about a documentary in which a woman performed dance routines for an imagined audience as a real actress performing real dance routines for an imagined audience, which now also happened to be a real audience. To quote the great Sir Paul: “And though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway.”

All of which frames The Muppets as the all-American fairy tale of show business: A ragtag group of underdogs band together against all odds and, after teetering on the brink of complete and utter failure, they [spoiler alert?] succeed beyond their wildest hopes and dreams.

Which brings the final layer of the great fourth wall onion: Through the box office success and critical acclaim of the movie The Muppets, the Muppets were able to prove themselves as significant pop cultural players in the real, modern show business world.

And this is something that is most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, and, of course, Muppetational.

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