Before you read any of this, you should know that it’s about an R-rated movie. Even the trailer – heck, even the thumbnail for the trailer – isn’t something you want to have on your screen at work, at the library, around children, near your pets, or with any of your loved ones.
You may wonder, as well you should, what is this scandalous adult picture, and why do we feel the need to write about it on a Muppet fansite? The more interesting question is why we’ve avoided acknowledging its existence for so long.
Meet the Feebles is a 1989 theatrically released feature film that’s basically a parody of The Muppet Show. It doesn’t feature many direct, one-to-one spoofs of our favorite Muppet characters, but it largely revolves around a voluptuous singer that’s clearly based on Miss Piggy, and the story is about a theater company producing a variety show. Most Muppet fans who are older than I am (so, most Muppet fans) are probably familiar with it, but since we don’t talk about it on ToughPigs, I was unaware of it until 2022.
I’d like to highlight and underline the strangeness of this. There exists a feature-length, theatrically released motion picture that is a spoof of the Muppets… and we’ve somehow never actually talked about it. Oh, and it was directed by Peter Jackson.
It’s a continuation of the “splatstick” era of Jackson’s early film career that brought us his 1987 film Bad Taste, which is just what it says on the tin. That title was heavily featured in the marketing for this one, as was the tagline, “The adult puppet movie with something to offend everybody!” Both have a strong cult following and seem to be popular among horror fans despite the emphasis on gross-out giggles over startles and scares in Meet the Feebles.
You would think that we would have referenced it in a cheeky way at some point. Maybe for an April Fool’s Day gag we could have become a Feebles fansite and posted a “Which Feeble Are You?” personality quiz or something like that. Nope! We don’t talk about it! That is, we didn’t talk about until, this past May, the darnedest thing happened… Floyd Pepper talked about Feebles.
Near the end of the seventh episode of The Muppets Mayhem, Sir Peter Jackson appears at the Shack with a camera crew to make a documentary trilogy about The Electric Mayhem as a follow-up to his acclaimed Beatles documentary miniseries, Get Back. “Been a while, PJ,” says Floyd. “You know, we ain’t seen you since that night in Wellington… when we met the Feebles.” As they all shudder to think of the Feebles, Jackson informs them that the Feebles are all in prison, besides the two in witness protection.
This reference, along with Tweets from writers Adam Goldberg and Jeff Yorkes and a short piece about this scene on the horror news site Bloody Disgusting, brought new attention to the film from Muppet fans who previously hadn’t given it the time of day. Goldberg was surprised Disney let them keep the exchange in the show, and many young Muppet fans were surprised to learn that Meet the Feebles is a film that exists. Now, assuming Twitter is still afloat whenever you’re reading this article, you’ll find plenty of Tweets from Muppet fans who took the perilous plunge into puppet potty humor, and Feebles now appear on this very website in our review of the relevant episode of The Muppets Mayhem, which you should read.
I asked our editors why Meet the Feebles has been avoided by fans for so long to the point of being a ToughPigs taboo, and they all had about the same response.
|RYAN ROE: Have we talked about ANY filthy Muppet parodies on the website (other than that one movie that was a Jim Henson Company project)? There are few subgenres of comedy lower than “Ha ha, this looks like something everyone recognizes as family-friendly, but it’s actually full of sex and drugs and debauchery, ha ha, how edgy and clever.” Shock value for the sake of shock value is not for me!
JARROD FAIRCLOUGH: “Puppets doing dirty things” wears thin pretty quickly, so it’s never been something I’ve felt compelled to talk about in the fan community.
JOE HENNES: It’s blue for blue’s sake, not particularly clever, and an insult to Jim Henson’s genius.
Part of the frustration I hear in these responses, and especially in Ryan’s, concerns the effect these movies have on how audiences think about the puppetry arts. Puppet cinema made for adults has the potential, if done right, to normalize puppetry as an art form for all ages. Instead, treating “puppets being adult” as a joke reinforces the false perception that puppetry is only a children’s medium. This is the Happytime Paradox: the more a puppet production emphasizes that it is not for children, the more it designates puppetry as strictly children’s entertainment.
But what if we looked at it differently? What if one of these movies was supposed to be trashy, not out of any disrespect toward the puppetry arts, but because puppetry can be an interesting way to explore a certain kind of camp?
As I’ve been trying to see if I could figure out why this movie has such a strong cult following, not to mention a surprisingly positive critical response and an impressive average Letterboxd rating, I’ve been in great need of another perspective. I found one when I reached out to the only person who has ever made reference to Meet the Feebles in any capacity on ToughPigs.com.
If you’ve been following the site for a while, you’ve seen countless works of art by James V. Carroll, and hopefully you know all about The Great Muppet Mural, for which he was the art director. What you might not know is that he once wrote an article for us: a response to 2018’s The Happytime Murders and its reception, in which Meet the Feebles was listed among comparable productions. He didn’t share any specific thoughts on Feebles then, but I learned that he had a few to share now.
|JAMIE CARROLL: Peter Jackson’s film is a love letter to Jim Henson’s creations within the prism of a director of gory zombie movie camp. Not everything works. In fact, most of it doesn’t, but it’s the effort that’s fascinating. The bloody violence, juvenile humor, and “bad taste” are all beautiful in their own way. Some might only see the picture as a grotesque carnival of depravity, a snuff film that explores puppetry’s darkest corners. That surface assessment sells it short.
The lore goes that Jackson ran over budget and had the film taken away from him. With unhinged dedication, he snuck into the studio in the dead of night, on his own dime, to complete the shoot. What is more indicative of Jim Henson’s notorious work ethic and the can-do spirit of the Muppets than that?
The Muppets, under Jim Henson, were sentimental, but never precious. They’ve struggled with that delicate balance since his absence. Muppets Mayhem is one of the notable exceptions. I embrace the Feebles’ name-check in the show and that they are now canon in their world. I also acknowledge that there is no true canon in the Muppetverse, except for the thing Gonzo frequently, and explosively, emerges from for our entertainment.
By including Peter Jackson’s Feebles, Muppets Mayhem has embraced the heart-felt mistakes of the past, no matter who’s responsible for them, and gives a wink to an irreverent future (within reason*).
This is a valuable perspective because, for as much as I dislike this movie, it’s quite impressive. Most filmmakers would avoid making puppet movies given the fact that it is extremely difficult to do, especially outside of a production company that specializes in it. Take a moment to consider how few feature films there are featuring only Henson-style puppets. There’s The Dark Crystal, Meet the Feebles, and… I think that’s it. Sure, the puppeteering is imperfect and the puppet builds could use some plus-ups, but anyone who gives a pass to the creations of Sid and Marty Krofft should be throwing roses at this cast of characters.
Jackson and his team showed dedication not only in their determination to complete the project, but in their execution of every scene, each carefully shot with a masterful cinematographic eye for the unique needs of a puppet shoot. They created a puppet world that hasn’t been replicated since, with a unique production design that makes every puppet feature of the past 25 years look dull by comparison. I wish I could put my finger on it, but there’s something about the precise lighting of Meet the Feebles, combined with the specific timbre of its sound design and score, that gives it the eeriest of surreal feelings. It has a vibe that I have only experienced in my dreams, and it has burrowed its way deep into my psyche.
It’s also not entirely cynical. It’s largely about a cute little hedgehog trying to make it in show business, and he basically stays innocent for the whole movie. His ending is happy, and the film concludes with a sense of poetic justice and, perhaps, optimism.
Even still, I don’t recommend watching it. I think it’s worth hearing out the more positive reactions to the film, and I especially appreciate the nuanced perspective from Jamie – otherwise, I wouldn’t have included so much of it in this piece. With that said, I found Meet the Feebles slow, boring, persistently unfunny, kind of all over the place, and about as offensive as it wants you to think it is. In my opinion, it’s not good enough to be fun to watch, but not embarrassing enough to be a fun hate-watch, so why watch?
I don’t think our readers need me to weigh in on the film itself any more than that, but I do want to speak to whether or not the Muppets should have acknowledged it. Personally, I wish Floyd had not brought up the Feebles. The Muppets Mayhem is a family show, and families should not be prompted to Google Meet the Feebles, which they will immediately find on YouTube in its entirety. That could mess up a kid forever.
More than that, I think the film’s values aren’t totally in alignment with the Muppets’ values. The Muppets want to make people happy. Meet the Feebles promises to offend everyone. Those are kind of the opposite. For as much as Jackson probably also wanted to make people happy when he made Feebles, creating happiness for an audience of edgy cynics by deliberately upsetting everyone else is not the way to do that. I see what Jamie is saying about wanting the Muppets to be irreverent again, and I agree with that strongly, but I don’t feel great about this particular version of irreverence.
Frankly, this film crosses the line with its racial insensitivity. I don’t think Peter Jackson meant to be hateful, but by recycling racial stereotypes, his film functions in much the same way as if he did mean to be hateful. The extended Vietnam War sequence (yes, this movie has an extended Vietnam War sequence) features the worst of it, but I’m not exactly wild about Abi the contortionist either. Further, I think the name of the film comes from the term “feeble-minded”, which is an outdated description of intellectually disabled people. Oof. Did the Muppets need to bring new relevance to this material? I think not.
But now the Muppets have addressed it, and so have we. We gave you a fairly dense and thoughtful article about it offering multiple perspectives! If you were hoping we would do something sillier with it, we’ll give you that too! Here’s a quote from the movie paired with a picture of a random Muppet who would never say such a thing:
Ha. How fun. We have fun.
And now we have met the Feebles. I don’t think it’s a movie for most of us Muppet fans, but perhaps it is a movie for someone. I can imagine a curious young filmmaker coming to this project for Peter Jackson, and especially for the novelty of such an acclaimed director making… this, and coming away from it a changed person. Maybe they decide they want to explore the potential of puppetry cinema. Maybe they decide they never want to make crude jokes in their movies again. But if they’re anything like me, they’ll spend the rest of their life haunted by its indescribable surreal quality, wondering if it was all a dream.
*Note that Jamie is not cool with the problematic and harmful “irreverence” in this movie, such as the joking about the AIDS crisis and basically everything in the Vietnam scene.
|JAMIE CARROLL: Yikes!
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by J.D. Hansel