Hey, it’s another guest article by our pal JD Hansel! Thanks for the hot take, JD!
Previously, on ToughPigs.com: Joe Hennes wrote a great article about why the Muppets must go on, and you should read it!
Now, Joe has graciously allowed me to come on ToughPigs to argue the opposite of his opinion in exchange for eternal gratitude and an invisible ice cream cone.
Of course, as one does when delivering a scolding hot Muppet take, I have to state that I love the Muppets. I always like to see Kermit and the gang getting attention, respect, and, of course, merchandise, which are all things they deserve. And their performers are great too! I wish everybody at The Muppets Studio the best.
Nevertheless… I would be content with The Muppets going away for 5-10 years, under the right circumstances.
So… do you just hate everything The Muppets have done in recent years?
Not really! I have an affection for the 2015 series and the live shows, and I appreciate several other projects they’ve done over the past decade. I honestly don’t think it’s been a bad era for them. Both Muppet Babies and Muppets Haunted Mansion were very recent successes! It warms the cockles (ew) of my Muppet-lovin’ heart.
What troubles me is something I’ve seen in Muppet fandom and the puppetry world at large for a long time now that keeps eating away at me. It’s this peculiar fealty everyone has to the Muppets as a cast of characters. I believe this emphasis on specific characters is, for lack of a better term, odd.
When I look back on the history of the Muppets, I see that the word Muppet is in a constant state of redefinition. It starts as a name for the Afternoon/Sam & Friends gang, then morphs into an advertising company and experimental sketch comedy act. Muppets, Inc. becomes a trippy film studio, and then Sesame Street stars Jim Henson’s Muppets, and then SNL stars Jim Henson’s Muppets, but a completely different set of totally unique Muppets that look like nothing we’ve ever seen anywhere else.
The Muppet Show created the notion that all of these characters may be the Muppets, but some Muppets are more capital-T “The” than others. What’s remarkable is how little interest Jim showed in cleaning that up, instead throwing every puppet he could find in the finale of The Muppet Movie and putting Kermit in specials like Emmet Otter. Fraggle Rock would tweak the definition again. Little Muppet Monsters would have altered the definition further had it not been DOA. For The Jim Henson Hour, Jim totally changed the cast of The Muppets, keeping only a select few in the spotlight, with only a small handful of previously established stars (like Kermit, Gonzo, and Rowlf) in featured roles.
To Jim, the Muppets meant a million different things from musicians of Bremen to Christmas toys, and it seems like steering the Muppets off course into uncharted territory with projects like these was what kept the Muppets exciting to him. It’s also how he got to give new performers their chance to shine, which is much harder to do now that the Muppets are a handful of established characters who have to be played by the same six guys.
Yet, strangely, the argument I hear in Muppet fan circles is, “If we can just get people who really know these characters in charge, The Muppets will be great again!” This always strikes me as disrespectful to the folks at the Studios. They definitely know their characters, as do the writers. They have plenty of reverence for the Muppet gang and for Jim’s most famous works. What’s missing is Jim’s irreverence.
So you want them to be more “adult,” like Puppet Up?
No. I want them to be more experimental. Boundless.
As I’ve been thinking about how I would write this article, I keep trying to picture Jim Henson sitting with his yellow notepad, brainstorming ideas, and saying to himself, “I should call up Dave and Richard and see what they think their characters would be doing with their lives right now. That should be my next project.” This doesn’t sound right, does it? It’s more like Jim to say, “let’s make a special about bunnies,” and then they build a billion bunnies. I’m generalizing, but it seems like the ideas led and the characters followed, which, today, is often how most of Disney’s studios operate when they’re at their best.
Imagine if Pixar was all Toy Story productions. Imagine if Marvel was exclusively Spider-Man and his Avengers friends. Even the Star Wars franchise, while still very focused on the Skywalkers, has found recent success in exploring other regions of its vast, complex universe. Why limit The Muppets Studio to “the same old cast of characters + This Production’s Obligatory Two New Characters” when they could be the Pixar of puppetry?
What I would like to see, if you’ll pardon the pipe dream, is The Muppets Studio redefined as a powerhouse of wacky, weird, abstract, fantastical, radical, and deeply silly puppet creations, not just a holding company for the cast of a variety show. I’m doubtful that Disney would get behind this in the age of IP, but I’m not sure who else could.
The Jim Henson Company, admirably, wears so many different hats that I’m not sure it can have the same focus in its branding as a Marvel or Pixar. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing. They do a lot! And they also have to be careful about never getting too close to the Muppet style, for legal reasons and branding reasons. This leaves it up to the Studio to bring back the Muppet spirit of the early days.
For as long as I’ve been alive, the Muppet creators have always felt the need to try to recreate the magic of The Muppet Show, even in productions that emphasize new characters (see Muppets Tonight), but I’d like to see them try to recreate the experimental environment that birthed it. What I’d love more than anything is to see that somebody at Disney got out a sketchpad and came up with something totally bonkers like “Business, Business” or “Mah Na Mah Na.”
You do want another “Mah Na Mah Na,” don’t you? Or how about a project with all female Muppets? These have always been on the table, but we’ve been too focused on one dish to see the whole spread.
Of course, if they don’t do this, that’s fine! They’ll have ample opportunity to explore new territory with the Electric Mayhem show, or any number of other projects. Besides, I love to see my Muppet friends. My hope, still, is that they’ll always remember how many great Muppet moments come not from our Muppet friends, but from Muppet strangers – the Whatnots, Frackles, pigs, and thingy-things who never received names, backstories, or consistent performers, but gave Jim and his friends room to play to their hearts’ content.
Keep it strange, Muppets. Keep it strange.
Click here to build a billion bunnies on the ToughPigs forum!
by JD Hansel