Hold On To Young

My day with the Muppet Movie Sing-Along

When Muppet fans get together and dream, we dream about a world where the Muppets are a big thing again — a world where they do magazine covers and TV specials, where you see Miss Piggy posters everywhere you turn. Basically, we dream that it’s 1981, except that we’re all grown up, and we have our own credit cards.

Unfortunately, we can’t make that world on our own. We need the cooperation of millions of kids to make that happen — and frankly, we’re not sure that the latest crop of kids are that into it. Obviously, kids today are more interested in Spongebob and Harry Potter than Muppets. But is that just because that’s what they’re being exposed to, or is there something about our modern world that makes kids less likely to gravitate toward the Muppets? Could lightning strike twice for the Muppets, or is it too late?

These are the kinds of questions that keep Muppet fans arguing far into the night. Last weekend, though, I had a chance to get some new insight into the problem, at a Saturday afternoon screening of the Muppet Movie Sing-Along.

You may have heard about the recent Sing-Along phenom, where groovy repertory theaters show The Sound of Music or The Wizard of Oz with the song lyrics on the screen. I saw the Wizard of Oz Sing-Along at the Prince Theater in Philadelphia. They gave us bubbles to blow when Glinda arrives, and kazoos to play during the Munchkin song. It was a fun time.

The Muppet Movie Sing-Along was at the same theater, but it was a more low-rent, grassroots affair, done as a fundraiser for the Spiral Q Puppet Theater — a local lefty nonprofit that does political consciousness-raising by organizing giant puppet parades. Ordinarily, Spiral Q doesn’t have very much in common with the Muppets. A typical Spiral Q parade will have a big Boss Man head with the word GREED on it, with some teenagers in big paper-mache butterfly wings representing Diversity, Justice and the Promise of the Human Spirit. But they’re putting on a Sing-Along, so here we are.

I went to the show with my boyfriend Ed — he’s not really a Muppet fan, but he’s a good sport, and it turns out that he knows the words to every Muppet Movie song, with the appropriate timing and inflection. We’ve been together for thirteen years and I didn’t realize that he’d listened to the Muppet Movie record constantly as a kid; it just never came up in conversation before. I also went with my pal Alex from the Tough Pigs Forum. He knows the Muppet Movie backwards and forwards, but he’s never seen it in a theater before — he’s only sixteen years old, so the first Muppet movie he saw in the theater was The Muppet Christmas Carol when he was four. He’s the 90’s Muppet success story, one of the strays we picked up along the way.

To our surprise, the place is fairly well packed. Apparently at some point suburban parents with five year olds just plain run out of things for them to do all day. That’s not a fair thing to say, actually, because some people are Really Into It.

There’s one father with his four year old son, and they’re both in costume. The father is dressed up in green, and he’s got a cardboard Kermit collar around his neck. The little boy is dressed in orange, he’s got red paint on his nose, and he has a polka-dot necktie and a little headband with Fozzie’s hat and ears. They’re so cute, and I completely forget to go talk to them, which is my bad.

I did meet three college girls in our row. One of them had a Kermit T-shirt and Kermit socks, the second was wearing a Baby Gonzo T-shirt and carrying a Gonzo doll, and the third had a custom-made T-shirt that said “Underneath this shirt I’m completely..” and on the back it said “NAKED!” She was very pleased that I got the Sam the Eagle reference. So there were definitely Muppet fans in the house, which was nice.

Before the movie started, the Spiral Q folks did some stuff to get people in the mood. Two young women got up into the wings and acted like Statler and Waldorf for a while, but they were also playing music, so it was kind of hard to hear them. Just before the show, they had some people operating a Beaker puppet that they’d made, which was very good. It was a nice Beaker head, and he had live human hands, with two puppeteers crouched under a podium.

There was a four-year-old girl in front of us, and when she saw the puppet, she said, “That’s Mr Beaker!” and that was all I needed in the warm-up department.

Unfortunately, everybody else needed a little more, and here’s where I learned something important about the whole Sing-Along genre. When I saw the Wizard of Oz, there was a guy dressed as the Emerald City doorman who did about twenty-five minutes of warm-up material before the movie started. Part of that was a little costume contest, but the rest was just him running around the stage instructing us on where to sing and when to make noise and how to operate the bubbles. It went on a bit, and at the time I thought it was kind of embarrassing and dull.

But now I see the value of going through all that, because the Spiral Q warm-up was much more perfunctory, and much less effective. Beaker meeped a little bit, and then they told us that we would be singing along. They showed us some homemade signs that said things like PLAY BANJO! and WATCH OUT KERMIT!, and they asked some kids to get up and mime playing banjo. Nobody really did. And they said, okay, roll film!

I mean, they tried, which was nice. But cool Beaker puppet aside, it was kind of half-hearted, and the upshot was that people didn’t really get into it as much as they could have. By the time the Wizard of Oz guy was done with his long intro, we were all psyched up to sing and yell. He told us that we should just shout out stuff, and do whatever we wanted, and have a good time — and you need that kind of explicit encouragement if you’re going to go and break all the normal social rules of moviegoing. So there were a few scattered people (like me) who got boisterous, but most of the audience acted like they were in a normal movie.

Now, Alex had never seen the film in a movie theater before, so it’s kind of a shame that he didn’t really see it this time either. They didn’t actually have a film print of the movie. They just showed the DVD of the movie projected onto a big screen — and to make it a Sing-Along, they turned on the English subtitles. That’s an okay way of doing a Sing-Along, cause we did have all the song lyrics on the screen. Unfortunately, that also meant that we had all the dialogue on the screen, which made for an odd viewing experience. It stifled the reaction to some of the jokes, just because you saw both the setup and the joke on screen before the characters said them out loud. On the upside, you didn’t miss any of the lines if the kids were being loud.

The subtitles are mostly excellent, and they actually capture a lot of the sotto voce throwaway lines that you might otherwise miss. But, of course, that just made the occasional error all the more amusing. Like this one, for example:

Or this one…

They also had a bit of trouble with Animal’s dialogue, as seen here:

… which you or I would interpret as “Showdown, showdown,” seeing as they’re going to a showdown and all.

But these are stray quibbles. On with the show.

As it turns out, adults only have three clear memories from The Muppet Movie, and they’re all from the first twenty minutes. There was an obvious sigh of satisfaction when we got past the movie studio sequence, and into the swamp for “The Rainbow Connection”. I had the feeling that people remembered the swamp as being the opening shot, and they were a little confused with the actual intro. But everyone was singing along happily with Kermit, and there was an enthusiastic round of applause at the end of the song.

The second memorable thing is Kermit’s bike ride, which was also well appreciated; I heard an adult behind me say, “That’s so AMAZING!” Finally, people really grooved on “Movin’ Right Along”, and there was a lot of sing-alonginess there. The adult audience is in your pocket as of about 22 minutes in.

The kids were into it, too. The little girl who recognized Mr Beaker was totally amused by Fozzie’s El Sleezo act — especially the bit where he fluffs a joke and says, “No PROBLEM!” She was chuckling away at that and saying “No PROBLEM!” for another couple minutes. I think if her parents hadn’t quieted her down, she would have kept on saying “No PROBLEM!” for the rest of the afternoon. I was all for that, she was having a good time.

Apparently, at that point things get a little hazy for people. The Electric Mayhem scene was enjoyed, especially the part where Dr Teeth reads the movie script, but I got the feeling that for some of the audience, patience was wearing thin. They’d already seen the three things they remembered, and there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm for “Can You Picture That” — which is kind of a hard song to sing along to, even in the best of circumstances.

People were still into it, though. Anything that involved Animal shouting got a reaction. Gonzo’s first appearance got some applause, and his dream of going to Bombay got a big laugh. Sweetums, on the other hand, got absolutely nothing through the entire movie. There was a dead silence every time Sweetums was on screen, and I got the feeling that people couldn’t really remember who the heck he was.

But the kids were having a good time. The little girl behind us would periodically decide she needed her mom to explain the movie — which under any other circumstances would have been annoying, but here I just found it charming. People would laugh, and she would say, “What? What’s he doing?” and her mom would answer, “That’s Gonzo, his truck ran into their car.” And then the girl would say, “What’s he doing?” and her mom would say, “He’s getting in their car now.” And then she’d lapse into silence for a few minutes until she decided she wanted her mom to explain something else. I thought it was cute.

The next song was “Never Before, Never Again,” which also pushes the envelope of the Sing-Along format. It’s written to be too high for the human voice to comfortably reach, so it’s not the kind of challenge that an already self-conscious audience is going to jump at. What we really needed here was for someone at the beginning to tell us: “Okay, Miss Piggy’s song is going to come up halfway through, and she’s a really great singer, right? Remember what a great singer Miss Piggy is? [ pause for chuckles ] So we all have to be great singers just like Miss Piggy, and we’re gonna belt out that song as hard as we can.” If people had been prepared for it, it would’ve been the funnest part of the whole day. Unfortunately, it caught the parents completely by surprise, and it pretty much killed their appetite for singing along for the whole rest of the movie.

Well, I’m never one to let Piggy be slighted, so I took it upon myself to throw as much energy into “Never Before, Never Again” as I could manage. I did the whole thing in full-on Piggy voice, emoting and sighing and generally making a pig of myself. The kids around me thought it was cool — the “No PROBLEM” girl in front of us turned around and stared, and the “What’s going on?” girl behind us stood up and got really close to me. Apparently I was the show to these kids, so I got louder. I stretched out the final “Never Before… and Never AGAAAAAAAIIIINNNN” for as long as I could get air out of my lungs. I’m pretty sure the “No PROBLEM” girl’s mom totally hated me in that moment, but I got some scattered applause from around the theater, so that was kind of fun.

Anyway, Gonzo holding on to the balloons got no love at all. It was like nobody cared. The thing that got a big response was the restaurant scene — Piggy’s romantic entrance got a lot of laughter from the adults, and Steve Martin was a big hit. (“Look at his LEGS!” said the people behind us.) “I Hope That Something Better Comes Along” was a little easier to sing, but by now people had lost the Sing-Along spirit.

“What? What’s he doing?” says the girl behind us. “Kermit’s tied up,” says the mom. People love the Mel Brooks cameo; the “F-O-R-G” and “electronic yarmulke” lines are big hits, and Brooks licking the button on the machine got the biggest laugh of the day. The kids are getting a little restless; it’s a longish scene with Kermit cowering in the electric chair, and the kids are starting to lose it. Luckily, they pep up when Miss Piggy breaks her ropes.

(“What’s she doing?” “She’s rescuing Kermit.”)

After the karate scene, the “No PROBLEM” kid has a new favorite character. She’s totally cracking herself up over Miss Piggy, just saying, “Kermie! Ha ha ha! Kermie!” She’s a Frank Oz fan. I love this kid.

Unfortunately, by now, some of the other kids have started to go off the whole experience. Most of them are around five, and I’m starting to realize that this is more of a nine-year-old movie. After the excitement of the Piggy karate scene, the sequence around the campfire is a total buzzkill. “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” is a beautiful, emotional song for everyone who’s eight and over, but the under-sevens are not having it. Actually, they seem a little bit afraid of Gonzo. A little one starts to cry.

And here’s where the subtitlers made their weirdest lapse:

Ed, Alex and I all turn to each other and say, We can hold on to YOUNG?

Speaking of the young, it’s pretty much over for the kids at this point. Bunsen and Beaker fail to grip. (“Mommy, who’s that?” “It’s Beaker.”) There’s some applause for Animal growing big, and a surprised chuckle at Orson Welles turning around in the chair. But the only people singing along with “The Magic Store” are me and Ed and maybe Alex, and Sweetums breaking through the screen gets the usual Sweetums non-response.

On the whole, there’s clear favorites in the room. Kermit, Fozzie, Piggy and Animal get a good response no matter what they do. Gonzo had some fans early on, but lost them after the balloon ride. Less familiar critters like Sweetums and Crazy Harry made no impact at all.

It strikes me that even though the movie is supposedly an introduction to all the Muppet characters, it’s structured to please people who already know all the characters. Every Muppet character enters the movie with a big flourish, a kind of “Hey folks, here I am!” moment. The musical rotating rain barrel explodes into song — and then here’s Bunsen and Beaker! which we’re supposed to get all excited about. Two characters actually get introductions into the movie, with Paul Williams screaming “FOZZIE BEAR!” and Elliott Gould “MISS PIGGY!” as they each enter the film. We accept that Rowlf instantly makes friends with Kermit and comes along to Hollywood, because it’s Rowlf, and we all love Rowlf. The whole adventure is thrilling, when it’s 1979 and absolutely everyone in the civilized world can name every one of these characters by sight.

When it’s 2004, though, and you’re a five year old who hasn’t really seen the Muppets before, it can be kind of baffling. No wonder the “what? what?” girl had to ask her mom who Beaker was. By the end of the movie, she’s met fifteen new Muppets, at the rate of at least one major character every five minutes. The kids of 1979 had three years to assimilate all these Muppets in weekly half-hour doses. The kids of 2004 are cramming, trying to get them all down in ninety minutes. No wonder they pooped out by the time we got to the campfire. They were exhausted.

The audience was packed with thirtysomething parents who remembered loving the Muppets back in the day, and they were eager to share that love with their kids. As we walked out of the theater, we could hear moms and dads prompting their kids for a reaction: “What did you think? Did you like it?” You could hear the tinny note of desperation in their voices: “You liked it, didn’t you? I liked it when I was a kid.” And the kids were saying, sure. It was okay.

So here’s the lesson I learned on how to make the kids of today love the Muppets: The parents are the Muppets’ natural allies. They want their kids to love the Muppets. They remember the Muppets — or at least they remember “Rainbow Connection,” Kermit riding the bike, and “Movin’ Right Along,” which is enough — and they want to pass that on. If Henson wants kids to come back to the Muppets, then they have a huge advantage over the unfamiliar modern shows, which the parents don’t know.

But it’s going to take more than just showing kids The Muppet Movie to get them back on board. As perfect as it is, The Muppet Movie is not a starting point for getting people to love the Muppets. The movie is a victory lap for the Muppets; it’s structured as a celebration of the fact that the world of 1979 is already in love with the Muppets.

Taken out of that context, it wears a little thin. You get uncomfortable moments, like when Sweetums essentially pops out and says, “Hey, kids, it’s ME! Remember your good ol’ pal SWEETUMS?” And then all the kids say, “whuh?” and the whole thing falls flat.

So the good news is that they already won over the parents, twenty five years ago, and the parents are still on board. The bad news is that if they want to win over the kids, they have to go back to the beginning and really work at it. The new show, or the new TV-movie, or whatever we get — it has to start over, and spend some time reintroducing the characters.

The hardcore fans are going to hate this, but here goes: The Muppets need to re-establish a small core of main characters, and forget about everybody else for a while. Kermit, Fozzie, Piggy, Gonzo, Rizzo, Animal. Maybe a little Pepe, maybe a little Beaker. But that’s it. Period.

We don’t need the Electric Mayhem right now, we don’t need Beauregard and Crazy Harry and Lew Zealand. We don’t need Robin, Johnny Fiama or the Swedish Chef.

We definitely don’t need any more big breakfast-table scenes where a dozen different characters get one funny line each. It’s fun to see Bean Bunny make his two-second appearance, because the fans love Bean Bunny — but to the kids, he’s just another unfamiliar distraction, followed by another and another. The fans love to see all the minor-character cameos — but too much more of that, and the Muppets will be doomed to cult status forever.

On Saturday afternoon, there was a four year old girl sitting in front of me, and she thought Fozzie Bear saying “No PROBLEM!” was the funniest thing she ever saw. That’s what we need, more moments like that, when a kid makes a real connection with a Muppet character.

You want to hold on to young? Then you give them the frog, the bear and the pig. We can build from there.

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