I’d like to shine a spotlight on a beloved old friend of mine, a friend who helped facilitate my Muppet fandom for many years. That friend’s name is: Video Cassette Recorder.
That’s right, I’m talking about the VCR. We don’t think about them much now, but back in the day, VCRs were crucially important for anyone who was a fan of a visual media thing and wanted to grow and cultivate their fandom. It was true for Star Trek fans, it was true for Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans, and I assume it was true for fans of infomercials for the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie. It was also true for Muppet fans. VCRs, along with VHS tapes, were the little scissors that allowed us maintain the bonsai trees of our fandom.
Let’s say you’re a Muppet fan living in the year 2020 and you want to watch the Fraggle Rock episode “Gunge, the Great and Glorious.” You have a few options. You can pull your DVD set of the entire series, or you can watch it using your Apple TV+ subscription, or you can buy a digital copy of the episode for the low, low price of $2.99 on Amazon. Or let’s say you want to watch the 1980s Sesame Street song “Trash Outta Heaven.” All you have to do is go to Sesame Street’s YouTube channel. Or let’s say you want to watch The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show. You can do that without much effort, because a YouTube user has uploaded it there.
It’s all so easy, isn’t it? But now let’s leave 2020 and travel… back in time. You’re now a Muppet fan in the mid-to-late-1990s. Wanna watch that Fraggle Rock episode? Have the urge to hear Oscar sing that song? Itching to watch Miss Piggy flirt with George Hamilton? You’re probably out of luck.
But wait! If you happened to tape one of these things back when they aired on TV, you’re about to be the happiest person in your neighborhood, because you can watch your tapes! Or, if you know your way around this newfangled “internet,” you just might be able to make friends with a Muppet fan who has one of these things on tape and can send you a copy.
See, before the days when high-quality internet video grew on trees, VCRs and videotapes were our indispensable companions, allowing us to revisit our favorite Muppet productions time and time again. These heroic thingamajigs provided us with a way to familiarize ourselves with Muppet shows and specials from the well-known to the obscure. It was a wonderful invention – especially when it didn’t eat your tapes and turn them into useless, tangled junk!
Because my aunt had a VCR, I was able to meet the Fraggles during my formative years, thanks to episodes she taped for me. Because my family had a VCR, I was able to watch the Bobby McFerrin episode of The Jim Henson Hour over and over again, thanks to my parents recording it. Because I had a VCR in college, I could watch my Muppets Tonight tapes whenever I wanted to, and laugh at the stupidity of Andy and Randy. Seriously, those pigs are stupid.
And don’t forget the fact that VHS was the ONLY way you could watch the direct-to-video special Muppet Classic Theater! The format was vital for staying caught up with the Muppets’ work, and without VCRs, we never would have heard “Gotta Get That Name!” (Yes, I’m being completely sincere. I thoroughly enjoy that song.)
Here’s a doozy of a videotape story: At some point in the ‘90s, a friend of mine told me he had just found a tape from his childhood. It seems that on one random Saturday morning, his mom had put a tape in the VCR, pressed that magical “REC” button, and recorded an entire morning’s worth of cartoons. We sat down to watch our way through it, and you’ll never guess what was on it.
That’s right: Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling! I was thrilled!
Wait, no. That wasn’t it.
It was the first episode of Little Muppet Monsters! A show I had read about in Jim Henson: The Works, but assumed I would never see, because only three episodes had ever aired. And there it was, 1/3 of the episodes, preserved on tape for me to watch and re-watch, thanks to my friend and his mom and their VCR!
These days, of course, you can find Little Muppet Monsters, and all kinds of other old, obscure Muppet stuff, if you know where to look. But even a lot of those internet-distributed videos owe their existence to some vigilant fan who used their VCR to record a show back in the day.
I certainly appreciate the convenience of having so much Muppet stuff available online now. It’s nice being just a few clicks away from Muppet geek heaven at any time. It’s a lot easier than asking a Muppet fan friend to copy & mail a tape, then waiting for it to arrive. But sometimes I can’t help but feel like we’ve lost something special by living in the era of instant gratification. When I first received a tape of the premiere episode of Sesame Street from a friend, it felt like a precious treasure. Now it’s been released on DVD multiple times, and there are at least two uploads of it on YouTube. It feels like a more ephemeral thing somehow, and less solid.
And yet. Having said all this, I know the increased availability to the classic stuff makes it easier for young people to become Muppet geeks. I suspect that more people than ever before are confirming their suspicion that Jim Henson was brilliant by watching Wilkins blow up Wontkins with a cannon. I’m all for that, even if I still wonder if they understand how significant it used to feel to get your hands on those same commercials on a nice, sturdy VHS tape.
I guess what I’m really trying to say is: I fondly remember VCRs and videotapes, and I appreciate how extremely useful they were. Also: I am very old.
Thanks as always to Muppet Wiki for images! Click here to adjust the tracking on the Tough Pigs forum!
By Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com