Aaron R. Davis
Nostalgia is a weird force; it overlooks flaws and romanticizes failings. Growing up is also a weird force; it tends to make people cynical and, in a reflexive way, suspicious of anything new, especially new versions of things that make us nostalgic.
It’s the meeting of these two forces that, at age eight, can make someone gleefully delight when Indiana Jones survives a fall out of a plane, down a mountainside and over a cliff in an inflatable raft, but, at age 32, seethe with anger when Indiana Jones survives a nuclear blast by hiding himself in a lead-lined fridge. Both silly, both implausible, both in the same sense of fun, but, to hear the Internet tell it, one a joy to behold and the other an offense by history’s greatest monster.
November saw the financial success of The Muppets, for all intents and purposes Kermit the Frog’s comeback film. Of course, the Muppets haven’t really gone anywhere, they’ve just been doing Disney Channel specials and TV movies — their last major production, Letters to Santa, is only three years old. But since Jim Henson died in 1990, they have been off the mainstream radar in entertainment.
Now they’re back, with a feature film and a Disney-fueled marketing push behind them, and I couldn’t be happier. I loved the movie, and I appreciate the way it tried to make the audience look at the Muppets nostalgically on purpose, and then wonder why the Muppets seemed to disappear in the first place.
The obvious answer is, of course, that Jim Henson died much too early. The movie’s fictional answer is that entertainment got too cynical and hard-edged and the Muppets didn’t really seem to fit anymore. But I think the answer is somewhere in the middle of that.
Yes, Jim Henson died, and then Muppeteer Richard Hunt died a year later, also far too young. After that, I think there was a bit of a struggle over who was going to be in charge of the Muppets from then on. Who was the heir apparent? Was it Frank Oz, one of Jim’s longest collaborators, the genius behind Fozzie Bear and Bert, one-half of puppetry’s greatest double-act? Or was it Jim Henson’s son, Brian, himself a talented puppeteer who was probably feeling the pressure to carry on the family business, but who often expressed doubts about whether he could do anything with the Muppets, or even wanted to?
It took a decade, but the conflict seems to have simmered and then come to a head during the filming of the 1999 flick Muppets from Space. After that, Frank Oz left the Muppets to focus full-time on his successful directing career, and a few years later, Brian Henson sold the Muppets to Disney to concentrate on other opportunities for the Jim Henson Company. During that decade, the Muppets tried TV again with the unsuccessful (but charming) Muppets Tonight, which was pushed into syndication in its second season and will probably never see the inside of a DVD player, which is a damn shame. It also seems to have been a time when everyone involved with the Muppets had a hard time figuring out who was in charge, and just what to do with the characters.
What I hear now — and what I’ve especially been hearing in response to the new film — is that there should be a new version of The Muppet Show. That tends to be a trigger for me, because I am firmly of the belief that if there were such a show, no one would watch it, and those who did watch it wouldn’t like it. People don’t really want a new Muppet Show; they want to be little kids again and they want Jim Henson to still be alive.
When it comes to something remembered through nostalgia, people are very unwilling to accept that time moves on or that things change. People forget or were always unaware of factors that made the original what it was — factors that can’t be repeated.
Here’s what those factors were for The Muppet Show.
First, American networks rejected the idea of a series featuring the Muppets. Jim Henson had to go to Britain to get the show made for syndication, and in the beginning the concept was so out there that they couldn’t even get guest stars. Most of the original guest stars were actors who had the same agent as Jim Henson. It didn’t really gel until the second season, when people like Rudolf Nureyev legitimized The Muppet Show as a showcase of artistry as well as laughter. A lot of people praise — quite rightly — the anarchic spirit and bizarre non sequitors of the series, but how much of that was born out of the environment of what was essentially an independent British comedy production? The show might have been quite different if it was made in America, and maybe not as long-remembered.
Second, the late 70s were a time when variety shows and specials were much more common on television than they are now. Saturday Night Live was still brand new, and if you watch those early episodes, the sketch comedy is only part of the package. There were variety series full of guest stars, musical numbers, dance showcases, artistic depictions. For The Muppet Show, having Rudolf Nureyev dance ballet or having Mummenschanz perform one of their bizarre, beautiful routines or having Shields & Yarnell do mime and magic wasn’t out of character with other shows of the time.
Today, the variety format only barely exists. Talk shows follow rigid routines that have turned them into pointless commercial platforms for upcoming movies, albums and TV shows. If you have a show with people dancing or singing, it’s most likely a reality competition show with arrogant judges dissecting people who have overestimated their talents. The Muppet Show format doesn’t really exist anymore; back then, they were following an already-established and familiar TV idiom. What would they do today that would both parody and follow the established rhythm of today? Scream at fat people until they cried?
The third thing we can’t overlook: Jim Henson is dead. Richard Hunt, too. Muppets head writer Jerry Juhl passed on a few years ago. Frank Oz no longer works with the Muppets, and neither does Jerry Nelson. From the original group of Muppeteers, only Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire remain with the team, trying to shepherd the Muppets from project to project, and doing it very well, I think. They don’t get enough credit for keeping the Muppets alive and entertaining after everyone predicted that Kermit the Frog would fall by the wayside of entertainment history over a decade ago. And though the current group of Muppeteers is doing a damn good job with the characters now, I run into people who just can’t overlook the fact that it’s not the same people anymore, even if those people have died or moved on. Sorry, it’s just reality. Things change, and if they’re malleable enough, as I think the Muppets are, the necessary differences are woven in organically. If people resent those differences and can’t get over it, well, they don’t need a new Muppet Show.
And the final consideration is, really, Disney. Disney’s great at cross-promotion and marketing, but not much else. Not to disrespect some of their entertainment products, which I quite enjoy, but they’re much better at short term gain than they are at long term planning or growing their brands. If Disney decided it was time to do The Muppet Show again, the best case scenario is that it would be very safe and charming; and it would air in a shitty family time slot on ABC, before being dumped onto Disney Channel. And it would feature a lot of stars from Disney Channel or ABC as a way of promoting other projects (much the same reason that Disney Channel’s Selena Gomez and Modern Family’s Rico Rodriguez cameo in the new movie).
I don’t really know where The Muppet Show would fit in with today’s demographics. Disney would want to aim it at children and families, but what always worked so well about the Muppets is that they weren’t aimed at children and families. Yeah, they were clean and they weren’t cynical, but The Muppet Show was a comedy show with an old-fashioned sensibility, timeless gags and modern jokes. It was free and zany and silly, but it had heart and wit. They aren’t a toy commercial; they’re comedy.
I don’t know … maybe if you put them on Adult Swim and get real comedy writers to do it and worry about the comedy first and the branding second (or fifth or something), and acknowledge that the people who most want to see it are guys in their thirties, you might have something. But does anyone really think that’s going to happen?
All I know is, whatever the future of the Muppets, I’ll be there watching it. And maybe listening to the Internet complain about it, because that’s what the Internet does. And hoping that The Muppets isn’t the last time I ever see Zach Galifianakis as Hobo Joe, because the world really does need more Hobo Joe.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org