How Lady Gaga and the Muppets Demonstrates Muppet Viability

Published: December 18, 2023
Categories: Commentary, Feature

If you’re a Muppets fan on the Internet, no doubt you’ve heard that the latest Muppets project, Muppets Mayhem, will not be getting a season two. It’s disappointing and, depending on how long you’ve been a Muppets fan/been on the Internet, probably not surprising. Following this announcement, there has been discussion online amongst the fandom about the “viability” of the Muppets as a franchise. And I, a writer on a Muppet fan website, would like to step into this wrestling ring of debate with my own thoughts.

When fans mention viability with regards to the Muppets, they’re usually comparing them to Disney’s other major franchises: Marvel, Star Wars, and the Princess properties. These media juggernauts have robust back catalogs of stories to choose from, produce content even casual viewers are guaranteed to flock to, and generate concepts that ignite the imagination at face value. These fans are also talking about viability in terms of making enough money for the Muppets to justify their spot on Disney’s roster of easily-deployable content.

If these are the terms the debate is based upon, this whole argument amounts to nothing more than the Two-headed Monster arguing with itself. Viability is about success. And I’m here to argue that the Muppets have just as much chance of being successful with their output as big-budget superheroes. And it has nothing to do with money.

To understand what makes the Muppets viable, you have to meet them on their own level. On a  platform raised three feet off the ground, if you will. Because the Muppets are not abstract concepts like fairy tales, superhero fantasies or space exploration. And they’re not relegated to exist solely within the framework of a story or within the walls of a theme park. The Muppets are more like the contract players of old Hollywood who have signed on to act solely with Disney. As such, Disney can put them in a movie or send them out to appear as guests in TV shows, parades or holiday spectaculars, regardless of the quality or appropriateness of that appearance. You don’t see Kylo Ren doing that, do you?

And while Disney has considered the ability to send the Muppets out into the real world to be an advantage (It is!), doing so has hurt the image of the Muppets in the public eye so much that this fake debate is even taking place. Imagine Warner Brothers sending Humphrey Bogart out to guest appear on the Buck Rogers radio program as himself. Or asking him to star in Earthworm Tractors. It doesn’t quite work. But is that Bogart’s fault?

Like Humphrey Bogart, when set up for success, the Muppets can pull in just as many viewers. I’m so confident in my belief that I can demonstrate my theories by using one of their least adored appearances in the last decade: Lady Gaga and the Muppets’ Holiday Spectacular.

This holiday special turned ten recently. Can you believe it? A decade of this gem. I bet you’re gearing up to watch it right now to get you into the holiday spirit. No? Why is that? Many of us might prefer to forget it. Or if not forget it, then at least heckle it. But buried between the head-scratching musical performances, lackluster celebrity cameos and forced banter, there are the kernels of what makes the Muppets a success. And when writers and producers for the Muppets are allowed to focus on these aspects, that’s when the Muppets really shine. Allow me to show my work.

Problem: The special can’t decide whether the Muppets are successful celebrities or a ragtag group of misfits who shouldn’t be allowed in show businesses yet stick around anyway. A tricky situation, since in real-world 2023, the Muppets are household names, but a lot of their comedy comes from how they’re going to fail.

How they get it wrong: The spectacular features Lady Gaga both praising the Muppets and asking for their help with her finale while at the same time ignoring Miss Piggy and never sharing the stage equally with the Muppets in the way she does with guests RuPaul and Elton John.

How it can be done well: Muppets Mayhem walked this line by both giving the characters a cult tour following while also depicting in ten episodes why they’re not quite fit for modern day celebrity-dom.

Problem: The special operates on the premise that the Muppets can make anything hilarious by abiding by the meme that you can replace all the humans with Muppets and keep one human.

How they get it wrong: In theory, Gaga is a perfect star to accompany the Muppets. She’s over-the-top in her music, fashion and persona, almost as chaotic as the Muppets. But in practice, she’s more like the Peter Sellers episode of The Muppet Show. She’s going to do her thing and the Muppets are relegated to being back-up dancers when they share the screen.

How it can be done well: Within the same special we see the Muppets interacting with Kristen Bell, who is meant to be the “plain Jane” in comparison to Gaga, but whose conversations and interactions with the Muppets are more genuine and allow every character to shine and get a laugh without any spectacle necessary.

Problem: The special parades every Muppet they think audiences want in front of the camera regardless of if it’s funny or serves a purpose.

How they get it wrong: Sam the Eagle shows up and even has a speaking role, but I’m mystified as to why, other than he’s a “fan favorite.” In a later scene, Lew Zealand throws his fish. And while that’s always funny, it’s just filler.

How it can be done well: The Muppets have always been known to cram a camera lens to bursting with puppets. But if they have lines or actions that divert focus, it’s always for a reason. Muppets Haunted Mansion fills an entire ballroom with Muppets and it doesn’t feel gratuitous. There are countless characters who Muppets fans haven’t seen in decades appearing and getting speaking lines. They’re funny or advance the plot. No one is taking up screen time just to pander. Just look at Andy and Randy pig! No one was clamoring for their return.

And there you have it.

Overall, the special still fails more than it succeeds at incorporating the Muppets in a meaningful way, but its greatest success is as a map for future Muppet productions, showing how and why the Muppets are beloved and magical. It demonstrates just why the Muppets are different from superheroes or space fighters. While the public is eager to see the latter come alive on the screen, the Muppets are already alive. Their viability is in treating them like the stars they are and in giving them an equal seat at the table. But if Disney wants them to be like Star Wars, Marvel or Princess movies, they could start by giving them the same production budget.

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by Katilyn Miller


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