Here’s a little bit I wrote on the 2011 Muppets film immediately after watching it upon its Thanksgiving weekend release. I think I’ve improved as a writer since then, but I find the topic close to my heart and worth sharing. Just ignore the mistakes that have since been corrected by taking ENGL 303.
We’re cynical because we’re hurt. Something betrayed us. Well, in this case nothing betrayed me, but it changed and I don’t like it. Change is hard and the stages of grief can be overwhelming. Make a false move and you can get stuck.
One of the most significant influences on my upbringing happened on May 16th, 1990, just shy a year of my birth. I guess I didn’t know it then, but as I grew older and paid more attention to the craft of my ingested art material I’d notice the difference. This Kermit the Frog is groundbreaking and smart, while that Kermit the Frog is just okay and sounds like he has a cold. Jim Henson died May 16th, 1990, aged 53. It wasn’t pneumonia, it was Streptococcus pyogenes. He thought he was dying but didn’t want to bother anyone with it. He coughed up blood, agreed to be taken to the hospital, and died there, twenty hours later. I thought Chicago the Lion was pretty cool.
My parents fed me the 70s material. Grover taught me Near and Far. Ernie taught me I have to put down the duckie if I want to play the saxophone, and that sweeping statements like “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore,” aren’t really necessary. My friends think it’s just Elmo being an ADD-addled psychopath. The first movie I ever saw dealt with metafiction, broken hearts, personal strife, and being the spokesperson for the destruction of your own peoples. (Well, when you look at it in such terms.) My friends think it’s an outlet for topical parodies and celebrity cameos. Kermit’s singing in the swamp and then Dom DeLuise shows up, but I don’t give a crap who that is when I’m a year old. I still don’t now, he’s not the star.
After the death, the Muppet performers and writers may not have known quite what to do with themselves. Henson breathed life into the project. There was a specific brand of earnest sentimentality that can never be duplicated. That doesn’t mean he was a sap all the time. The Great Muppet Caper, to this day, is among the funniest films I’ve ever seen. Jokes were hilarious and quick and you didn’t have enough time to even realize they were “family-friendly”. God, that buzzword shouldn’t even be used to describe it. It’s not “PG” or “family-friendly”, it’s just what human beings do. There was no concerned effort to stay away from vulgarity; you just weren’t. A favorite author once wrote that the reason why John Lennon is still more popular than Frank Zappa is because of frank honesty. While Zappa created hundreds of underappreciated technical masterpieces, Lennon wrote “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” and made millions. That’s it! That’s all you have to do. Be sincere, sometimes.
The Muppets fell into this weird place in the 90s and 00s. Their first theatrical release post-death was The Muppet Christmas Carol which, as you may have already figured out, placed the Muppet characters in front of Dickens’ creations. It was a good movie. Gonzo and Rizzo began to develop a real, lasting bond. Robin was cute as Tiny Tim. But…that was really all. Prior fans had been used to these wonderfully crafted original tales, and here were the same characters copy/pasted into the public domain. A few years later, Muppet Treasure Island. Even less improvements. A few years after that, Muppets From Space. From Space had its positive moments as all Muppets material seems to have, but it felt crass, somehow. Too many celebrity cameos taking too much time. Too much irony. Too much pandering. I watch now and think “Hulk Hogan, what are you doing here, isn’t this when you should be helping WCW”. It all feels so nineties. What was topical and hilarious then looks dated now. I liked this all. I liked the characters, they lived in my heart. It was around this time I began to question if I really loved them, if they were truly timeless and ageless for the viewer, or if it was just child’s play.
Muppets Tonight was intended to be ABC’s revival of The Muppet Show. Main characters were replaced. Kermit was no longer the host, but Clifford. Kermit is a green sock puppet with a cut-in-half ping pong ball for eyes. He is infinitely relatable. Clifford is some kind of sunglasses-wearing Rastafarian lobster with “hip” in his description. Clifford sucks so hard. Henson created him as a background character before his death, but he’s not the lead. He’s the big name, big Hollywood example of “just not getting it”. It’s the Antz to A Bug’s Life; the reason Pixar is successful is not just because of their content, but their execution. It’s why Toy Story compassion led to Shrek fart noises. I guess the Muppets never got that bad, but it seems that way.
Muppets Tonight also introduced Pepe the King Prawn, who is famous for being annoying, I guess? It’s not an endearing quality. He’s Spanish, as in from Spain. It almost becomes offensive. There’s a line in It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie where Pepe calls one of the celebrity cameos “sexy”, and that bothered me in a weird way. I’m not a prude to the world, but I’m a prude for this. Sexuality in whatever variation isn’t really suitable for this product. Pepe, don’t talk about your raging boner for Joan Cusack. Stop! I don’t need to think about it. No kid should be thinking about it. Are you trying to be “edgy”? Are you trying to be “k00l”? Just be honest and kind and thoughtful, and make jokes along the way.
That Muppets Tonight/Very Merry era focused on celebrity cameos a lot. Snoop Dogg had a famously cut scene after his drug arrest, but at the same time YOU GOT SNOOP DOGG, what did you expect? The only reason he is popular is because “I do drugs.” Wasn’t Julie Andrews on The Muppet Show? Pshh! Yeah, well in this version it’sCarson Daly. It’s the cast of Scrubs. It’s David Arquette. It’s Paula Abdul. It’s Dennis Quaid. Ew! EW! What do these people have to sell me? What do they have to contribute? You had Jesse Jackson read “I Am Somebody” to four year olds. Did I miss a joke, what is Dennis Quaid doing on here? Has he ever been good in anything?
I’ve been cynical and disappointed when I saw those new Muppet movie teasers and posters and everything. How could I not? The quality bar never dropped below “pretty okay!”, but that’s still a far cry from what it was. I knew Jim Henson was special, but no one should be that special. Thousands of people have touched that franchise and no one gets to core of it but him? That’s crazy talk, I thought. But no one has proven me otherwise.
It’s with great joy that I’m able to watch The Muppets 2011 with a big, doofy grin on my face the entire time, and come back to my computer stating it’s the best Muppets-thing since Jim Henson’s death. It is sweet, but funny. It is relevant, but not “topical”. It is not beloved characters shoehorned into the public domain. Celebrity cameos make sense and aren’t the primary draw. Care was taken. Of all people to revitalize this franchise it wasn’t one of the classic writers, nor was it a big time television produce. It’s Jason Segel, the guy who seduced Lindsay Weir in his basement and smokes pot with Seth Rogen in every other movie released today. His character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall is that of a Muppet enthusiast. At one point in the film he drunkenly sings the Muppet Show theme song on the piano, and I uproariously laugh every time because it’s so pitch-perfect accurate. It’s the dumb thing I get and no one else gets.
Well, he gets it. That’s crazy. The people making the hard-R comedies can somehow wrap their brains around this stuff. The Muppets 2011 should have been made in 1991. At the same time, there’s no way it could have been made in 1991. There is a soulsearching to this. It recognizes its troubles. It specifically points out that “The Muppets just aren’t cool anymore”, and criticizes them for being too goody-two-shoes and not hard and edgy. Fake Muppets (hilariously, the Moopets) are brought in as 21st century replacements. It nudges and winks to the audience without compromising its honesty or integrity, and that is a very specific balancing act.
Scenes at the end of the film recreate the 70s Muppet Show shot-for-shot. I know it like the back of my hand. The 2011 crew could have done whatever they wanted to, and just created a vague interpretation of what audiences remember. They went the extra mile to include every stupid, pointless, little detail, and I had to remember how to breathe. You’re telling me you took the time to dig out the Beautiful Day Monster and then use him in the appropriate spots? Are you me? Because the only person I know who would care about that sort of thing is me. I almost cried at the start, thinking “They’re doing it, they’re doing it, holy crap” and the same at the end, thinking “They did it, they did it, holy crap.”
There are these pictures of me as a kid in a shirt with Kermit and Fozzie as best friends, prominently featured. A lot of kids, a lot of people, like the Muppets, but few get so involved in the minutia. I’ve spent twenty-two years with all this knowledge in my head, all this worthless information about background characters and specific lines and my ideas of “how it’s meant to be.” Tonight I’ll rest with a heart partially at ease, because knowing other people out there care as intricately as I do makes me feel less alone.