So! There’s a new show featuring muppets on the air, and some people very vocally don’t like it! That’s probably not, in and of itself, a very big deal: lots of people vocally don’t like lots of things. But I’m going to spend a few words here Being Annoyed at this particular complaint1, given that it is yet another example of Things Are Different, and Different is Bad, or, at its worst, My Nostalgia is Not Being Properly Served.
1 start here or here, and the negative comments here (although that’s not a negative review as such)
Some groundwork: the new Muppets’ show was relentlessly advertised as “Adult”, and in advance of the show, puppet ubercouple Kermit and Miss Piggy broke up2. The new show takes place in the fallout of that event, with Kermit the Liz Lemon of a talk show hosted by Miss Piggy, forced to continue to work with her. Mercifully3, the “adult”-ness is present in a couple of ways. The adult-ness mainly comes from further real-ish-ing4 the characters – there are a couple of jokes about various addictions in the first episode (Animal’s is funnier than Zoot’s, they both get a lot of complaints, I like them both). The insecurities that drive the characters are brought to the forefront: The Muppets didn’t invent Kermit’s frustration, it made it more of a state than grounding it in gags. Ditto Fozzie’s frustration. Ditto Miss Piggy’s fragile ego.
2 the first episode shows us that this actually happened outside a screening of Pitch Perfect 2, which is probably a perfect movie to break up to because ugh.
3 Now is as good a time as any to just say, flat-out: I liked the first episode. I liked the ideas, I liked the jokes. I agree that it was not as good as Jim Henson in his prime, but jesus fuck, nothing is Jim Henson in his prime, and I’m happy about the attempt regardless.
4 oh, you know what I mean
This is, functionally, a reversal of the old Muppet Show: there the characters were clearly getting in the way of the show, but the show was the thing,, so the show happened, even when it happened badly: at least half of the sketches in each episode of TMS are actually sketches that, in the world of the show, aren’t working. This is a look at those characters from the other side of the show – constantly near-failure because of their own issues, but veterans at this point5, so the show generally works (which we know because we see lots of excited fan interaction).
5 I will say, one of the things that makes every iteration of The Muppets easier to keep separate is that basically non of it is canonical: this isn’t in continuity with any of the movies, any of the previous tv shows, or any other aspect of the Muppets property that I’m aware of.
Accusations, then, tend to be that the Muppets “shouldn’t” be more character-focused. Kermit “shouldn’t” be mean, Fozzie “shouldn’t” be insecure to the point of pathology6, etc. etc. The Muppet Show was always meta-entertainment: it was a failing variety show of the type that, in the mid-seventies when it ran, was hopelessly outdated. In 1974, this was a puppet show (a form that had very little place on tv) about the kind of tv show that the audience’s parents had watched (or that the older viewers watched when they were younger viewers). The incongruity is what made a lot of it work, and the old-fashionedness necessitated that it construct jokes that held up over time: Danny Kaye and the Swedish Chef is a masterpiece of physical comedy anywhere, Gonzo jumping his motorcycle into Statler and Waldorf’s balcony would actually probably hold up on the newer incarnation of the show, and there can’t be enough praise for Piiiiiiiiiiigs iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiin Spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace or Veterinarian’s Hospital. When it failed to work, it failed to work because it was a meta-fictional anachronism with a bunch of moving parts: Rich Little’s episode is rightfully widely maligned7. Petula Clark is clearly some sort of weird contractual thing – she does very little in her episode, and doesn’t seem to want to be there.
6 an oft-derided bit from the pilot has to do with Fozzie’s ultimate reaction to Riki Lindhome’s (his girlfriend) parents not liking him at the end, a piece that I found Seinfeldian and bleakly funny, but that is, apparently, going to murder people in their sleep I guess?
7 there’s a bit where Rich Little is doing a (truly hideous) Gene Kelly impression in a “Singin’ in the Rain” sketch that switches to a John Wayne impression for seemingly no reason other than Rich Little knew his John Wayne was a big hit, and his Gene Kelly was execrable. It’s tone-deaf, terrible, and actually not as funny: if Rich Little had, like the rest of the Muppets, been willing to fail, it would’ve been much better.
The point of all this is: The Muppets have, in the end, always had an element that was about showbiz itself. The Muppet Show was a fake stage show. The Muppet Movie ends with them getting the Standard Rich and Famous Contract8. The most recent filmic reboot The Muppets ends with them re-entering the public eye. It’s always been a part of it. And right now show business is laid more-or-less bare: there is no longer a shadowy Orson Welles figure offering the opportunity. We know how it works, as viewers. So instead of pretending like it was still a hidden, invisible mechanism, they laid it bare9. If it had come back, as the negative reviews seem to assert it should have, as a throwback-y, vaudevillian stage show, it actually wouldn’t have any available references to most of its audience except itself: even people (I am one of these people) who take an interest in very old forms of comedy probably did so as a result of watching The Muppet Show (I am, again, one of these people. So are nearly all of the old-comedy fans I can think of having talked to about it). That kind of self-referential cannibalism is unsustainable, and would leave us all with very little to go on, and even fewer viewers – Saturday Night Live is the update of the exact form being parodied here, and people hate it.
9 in part by getting a bear laid! Wakka Wakka!**
** Hi Alex.
But there’s also another problem here, and that’s that The Muppets, as originally conceived and performed, were conceived and performed by a very specific person, with a very specific set of other people. Even positive reviews talk about how far afield The Muppets is from the Henson-era Muppets. And it is. Jim Henson was a singularly talented puppeteer who was also, along with Frank Oz, a constituent part of one of the greatest comedy duos of all time. Neither of them performs their muppets anymore. So Kermit doesn’t have the advantage of being a real-life stand-in for his puppeteer10, so they have to write a character, and since they have to make changes anyway, why not give him a new direction? Fozzie was always, by his nature, the most complex muppet character – he was oblivious, and comedy-obsessed, and gloriously unaware of himself and the reception of his comedy, despite being convinced that his terrible overbaked jokes were the height of comedy – but the least humanized for all that. Miss Piggy was the apotheosis of puppety cartoonishness – a diva in the operatic sense, her confidence not actually undeserved (unlike Fozzie, she’s got excellent jokes), Piggy existed as something of an inverted Fozzie. The rest of the muppets (and performers) fall somewhere in the triangle. But opening it up to make it an ensemble show – a good idea – means the dynamic changes. But without Henson and Oz (who was both Fozzie and Piggy, and thus was able to swing back and forth in his dynamic, maximizing the jokes11), Kermit, Fozzie and Piggy can’t have the same characters. Or rather, they could, but it couldn’t possibly be any good, because the performers (and, honestly, Steve Whitmire has been doing Kermit for 25 years, I think he’s got his Kermit pretty well figured out) are different people, and vitality is more important than nostalgia every single time.
10 although if basically everyone around him at the time is to be believed, Jim Henson was much more like the frustrated neurotic version of Kermit we get in The Muppets than the long-suffering comedic foil from The Muppet Show.
11 actually, for my money the finest execution of the Henson/Oz dynamic is in a series of Sesame Street sketches where Grover (Oz again) sells things to Kermit he couldn’t possibly need – toothbrushes, a hairpiece, or, my personal favorite, earmuffs – this is practically a class in joke distillation, and in the sturdiness of the two-hander vaudeville form.
And that’s it: nothing is harmed by there being another television show with the Muppets in it. The old episodes of The Muppet Show are right there. You can go watch them any time, nothing is going to happen to them. The Muppet Movie will remain the best possible version of these characters and this story, no matter how much this tv show reimagines them (and no matter how much The Muppet Wizard of Oz or whatever the Lady Gaga thing was called exist to disappoint). But opposing the existence of the tv show because it’s “wrong” for the characters to be performed differently is not only insane, it’s the kind of argument that makes no sense on its face: if you’re going to adapt a property12 you should have something to say about it. Otherwise, if you’re just remaking the thing to pander to the people who are (as The Telegraph and io9 are above) demanding to be pandered to, you can’t help but do everything a disservice.
12 NB: it is not, actually, necessary to do this! The assumption this whole argument undertakes is that the adaptation exists, so why not judge it on its own merits? I don’t actually care, one way or the other, about adaptation in and of itself: mostly it annoys me that everyone that reads a book immediately wants it to be a movie, and my annoyance at remakes is mostly because that’s money that could be funding an original, and it’s chunks of the conversation that could be had about something worthwhile, rather than how dumb it is to make The Thing naked or whatever.
Oh, and can it with the complaints about Denise: they couldn’t have made it any more obvious that she’s naught but a plot device – she looks barely-finished, she has no personality, Kermit and Piggy will be reunited by the end of the season. It’s not even a question. Hating The Muppets because you hate Denise is like hating 30 Rock because you hated Greenzo. It makes you sound dumb.