Today’s Fraggle article was written by ToughPigs’ pal Jake S. Friedman, who also provided the illustrations seen below! For more pop culture commentaries and histories by Jake, be sure to check out his series of Disney and Blue Sky Animation books, including his upcoming history of The Disney Afternoon!

Being a first-run Fraggle fan is a special thing.  It’s far from being a general Muppets fan, and even farther from being a Sesame Street fan.  Let’s face it, most of the world knows “Rubber Duckie,” and Victoria Labalme speaketh true when she calls The Muppet Show “the show the whole world watched.” 

I was a Fraggle Rock fan before it was cool – which was, come to think about it, about 20 years.

For its first several years, Fraggle Rock was only available on a little-known cable channel called HBO, and it could only be rewatched if you had a newfangled contraption called a VCR.  Somehow, in my middle-class family of schoolteachers and three kids, we had both.  I was the key demo – nearly three years old when the first episode aired.  And so the Fraggles entered my capillaries and became part of my corpuscles.

Don’t get me wrong – I watched Sesame and the Muppet shows/films/TV specials, too. I mean, religiously.  I had multiple Kermit dolls and tons of the early-80s Sesame merchandise you would expect.  But Fraggle Rock was different.

What I loved about Fraggle Rock then is what I love about it now: there is a soulfulness that is easily accessible.  The music, stories, and overarching message all had it.  The characters, were also just fun to be around, complications and all.  Most of all, the mystery of the Rock itself was like you were let into a private secret, one that no one else knew about.  

And actually, that was kind of what the show itself was.  It flew under the radar of nearly everyone else.  The Fraggles had avoided detection in Outer Space, except by me.

There was a distinct shortage of Fraggle merch – I can’t begin to tell you how hard it was to find Fraggle toys in the mid-80s.  Many, like the McDonald’s premiums, came after the original show was already off the air. What remained for most fans were PVC figures that were little more than cake toppers (literally), and even those were rare.

I showed one of our old tapes to a friend while in high school. She was no stranger to Henson – her parents had gone into labor with her while watching The Dark Crystal.  And yet she had never seen Fraggle Rock.  In college, I brought a tape to a lecture hall and hosted a Fraggle marathon during finals week.  Sixty people showed up, and I was told by many how they had no conscious memory of the show until Sudden Instant Recall Effect kicked in.

It struck me as sad, but not all that surprising.  The Fraggle Five did not appear among the massive group scenes in either The Muppets Celebrate 30 Years, or The Muppets Take Manhattan.  It was as if the characters, like the show, preferred to remain hidden.

But then to smack the message home that Fraggles were forever buried, Sprocket alone kept popping up, like on The Jim Henson Hour, and The Muppets Go to Walt Disney World, and even Muppet Christmas Carol! I couldn’t tell if any newfound public consciousness of the Fraggles even came from the original show, or the torturously “watered-down” 1987 animated spin-off.

Fraggle Rock had become as untenable as stardust, like a shooting star over Kermit’s head.  

Fast forward to the internet: Apparently, background characters from Fraggle Rock were being repurposed for a British show called Mopatop’s Shop! I’d be lying if I said that didn’t feel a little invasive, like the company was dismantling my childhood one puppet at a time. On the plus side, someone, somewhere on Napster had put their microphone up to their TV-VCR and recorded dozens of Fraggle songs straight from their old tapes. There was another fan out there. 

Then came news of the groundbreaking Fraggle Rock DVD petition, and then the DVDs themselves with their incredible bonus features.  That is when I realized that there were many of us out there. Glowing baloobiuses, anyone?

Still, I never, ever thought I would see a new Fraggle show on TV again, and if I did, it would be like so many other revamps: too much CG, too many pop-culture references, not enough of the old soulfulness.  But after it aired, I wept with joy. They did it!  The show has succeeded in capturing the same silliness and splendor as the original, and even expand on it without losing its roots.  The Trash Heap was right: you cannot leave the magic

A few thoughts on the differences and similarities, in list form:

• The reboot’s serialized format is surprising. Cliffhangers in a preschool show?  I like it, but I wonder if there was any preschool focus-group testing like there is for Sesame Street.

• The Gorgs: In the original, Ma is terrified of Fraggles, Pa considers them a distraction, and only Junior wants to bash them.  In the reboot, the whole family is “bash the Fraggles!” Was this intentional, especially after the last episode of this season?

• The performers: OMG, they’re phenomenal. Wembley, Cotterpin, and Mokey feel so authentic. Gobo is gentler than expected, but there’s room for his flaws to emerge.  Boober picks up right where Dave left off. But I have to say, Red is the MVP of the series.  The character feels polished, yet richer, and Karen’s enthusiasm permeates the show. Remember, Karen had compiled an actual “Encyclopedia Fragglia” – she knows the show inside and out and her tangible love for it welcomes all of us old-timers back home.  

•  The more I listen to the new songs on Spotify (and the new arrangements), the more I like them.  Dare I say they capture what Balsam & Lee were after.  But I’m still glad the new show is rooted in the originals as well. And while I miss Jim’s Cantus, I am a die-hard fan of Daveed Diggs’s Jamdolin.

• Robo-Fraggles: Jim was probably a smidge more into radio-controlled puppetry than the rest of us – those robotic Kermit heads can look herky-jerky if the camera’s on them too long.  Same goes with Fraggle Rock.  Those massive group scenes were chock full of ‘80s robo-Fraggles.  Not anymore.  Good ol’ felt puppets fill the crowds now, which is a welcome change.  You can glimpse a tiny robo-Gobo when needed to interact with Junior Gorg, but the camera cuts before it loses the illusion.  Also – 

• CG Fraggles? Yes, and it works!  I love seeing Fraggles scamper from the Gorgs!  Luckily it’s not overdone (Henson learned a lesson from the Dark Crystal test footage of a CG Gelfling).  Less is definitely more with this – and I’m glad that inside the Rock it is still a No-CG-zone.

• Doc II: Lilli Cooper is the best, being enthusiastic without being goofy or condescending.  And Sprocket becomes the blank canvas that she has to explain actual (and timely) science to.  If any entertainer is poised to change the world, it’s her.  

• The Credits: It warms my heart to see other familiar names on the credits, like Jocelyn Stevenson, Tom Newby, Rollie Krewson, Constance Peterson, etc, bridging both iterations of the Rock.  Glad that Dave’s characters are credited with his voice and the puppeteer – but what about the celebrity characters?  Surely Patti LaBelle didn’t puppeteer a Merggle.  We’re all tired of people saying that performing a Muppet is just “doing the voice.” Why perpetuate that in the credits? 

• Celebrity Voices: I vote Yes, as long as they stick to BIPOC representation.  Nothing against Ed Helms, but for a show about cultural differences, it was always chock full of White people.  I hope they keep casting performers that add some diversity to the Rock – it was the only real flaw of the original.  And while we’re at it: 

• Sharon Lee Williams. (Visit her at http://sharonleewilliams.ca/).  She was the only BIPOC on the original Fraggle Rock, and for the record, I want to see her back.  The Fragglettes? Aretha? Have her do what she did best: pop up for no reason but to sing.  The Rock is full of surprises – even singing cacti!

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by Jake S. Friedman

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