Hey, have you heard about the Muppet TV pilot that’s in development at ABC, written by Bill Prady and Bob Kushell, directed by Randall Einhorn, and scheduled to be taped this weekend? Of course you have. Everyone you’ve ever known has e-mailed you about it, or posted on your Facebook timeline, or mailed you a newspaper clipping (that last one would be your grandmother).
People are thrilled about the prospect of a new Muppet Show, or at least a new Muppet show, and the speed with which the news spread just confirms the already-known fact that people have a great affection for the Muppets. Even if they didn’t buy very many tickets to Muppets Most Wanted.
It’s been interesting to see how different news outlets and websites have chosen their headlines — some are reserved, like The AV Club’s cautious “ABC might make a Muppets series from Big Bang Theory and Anger Management guys,” some are more moderate, like Variety‘s “ABC Eyes ‘Muppet Show’ Reboot,” and some have already decided the show will premiere any minute now, like Paste’s “Muppets Returning to Television at ABC.”
And yes, we should be excited. Muppets! On TV! As good as the recent movies were, the Muppets were made for television. It’s especially comforting considering that the first major new production we got after Most Wanted was a series of Disney Junior spots where the Muppets are counting to ten with little kids, a far cry from sophisticated, adult jokes about gulags and Poopenburgen. The suggestion that Disney is still interested in producing new material made for fans old enough to tie their own shoes, and airing it on the major broadcast network ABC, can’t be bad news.
But before we start dancing in the streets in brightly-colored party hats, we should pause to remember that a pilot presentation or proof of concept or whatever they’re calling it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s going to be a series. This isn’t the first time we’ve been teased with the possibility of a new TV show, only to find our screens frustratingly devoid of singing pigs. In 2001, we were told that the return of The Muppet Show was just around the corner. (You can read a pilot script from that development process here. It includes a parody of Jackass that raises a lot of questions about how they were planning on accomplishing it with puppets.)
In 2005, we crossed our fingers and hoped that the reality competition spoof America’s Next Muppet would become a… well, reality. And in 2007, we were intrigued by reports of a pilot project filmed in a mockumentary style, which featured Kermit reuniting the disbanded Muppets, and which revealed that Fozzie had worked for a while as a writer for the sitcom Moesha, a detail that cracked me up the first time I heard about it.
One big difference between those announcements and this one is that this one comes after the explosion of social media, where we all get really excited about every big pop culture announcement for about 24 hours, or until the next big pop culture announcement, whichever comes first. But this one also comes after the release of the two aforementioned major Muppet motion pictures, both of which were genuinely good, well-crafted musical comedies. So if you were making bets with your friends all along about the likelihood of proposed Muppet shows actually happening, this would be the safest one to bet your copy of Of Muppets & Men on.
Now here’s the next question: Will it be good? The recent movies had names like Nick Stoller, Jason Segel, and James Bobin in the writing and writing/directing credits, and those guys seemed to have a pretty good grasp of what makes the Muppets work (especially Bobin, as seen in any interview in which he talks about developing the films). So far, none of those names have been mentioned in association with the new project, but Randall Einhorn has directed episodes of some great sitcoms like Parks and Recreation and The Office, and Bob Kushell has worked on The Simpsons, so there’s a solid comedy foundation there.
More than one internet commenter has expressed great despair that Bill Prady, a creator of The Big Bang Theory, would be so closely involved with the pilot, considering the fact that The Big Bang Theory isn’t exactly in the Muppets’ category of good, clean, clever entertainment for the whole family. But before the complainers complain, they should look further back on Bill Prady’s résumé: He co-wrote Miss Piggy’s Hollywood for The Jim Henson Hour, one of the funniest things to appear on that series, and his other credits include Muppet-Vision 3-D and The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson. Those are things we like! Perhaps the moment he takes off his Sheldon Cooper hat, he’ll be able to slip on his Miss Piggy hat with ease.
Speaking of the pig, as long as I’m writing so many words about this thing, I guess I should talk about the actual premise of the pilot presentation. The Hollywood Reporter says: “The Muppets excitedly gather at ABC for a meeting about the new Muppet Show. However, the show will not move forward unless Miss Piggy signs on.”
Hmm. That kind of sounds like the part in The Muppets where they try to get Miss Piggy to come back to the reunited Muppets for the telethon. Or the part in It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Thing where they try to get Miss Piggy to come back for the Christmas show. Or the part in the first episode of Muppets Tonight where they try to get Miss Piggy to come back and be a guest star. If there’s one thing fans like less than the Muppets doing things that are too different from what they’ve done before, it’s when they do things that are too similar to what they’ve done before, so I hope the writers manage to squeeze some fresh jokes out of that concept.
Just a few years ago, if you had asked me whether I thought it would be a good idea to bring back The Muppet Show — which is to say, the variety show that takes place in the Muppet Theater — I would have said definitely not. It seemed impossible to recapture the spirit of the classic show in our cynical, post-variety show era. But then came Roger Langridge’s Muppet Show comics for Boom!, which felt like brand-new episodes of the show printed on paper, and then came the movies, which were full of sequences incorporating contemporary songs and guest stars that felt like watching the show on the big screen.
So I’ve changed my tune, and my new tune is the Muppet Show theme song. If they’re going to do this thing, the combination of onstage musical numbers, sketches and acts and backstage stories should work just fine. And there are so many talented celebrities you just know would love to be guest stars (Not hosts! Because as we all know, Kermit is the host). I would just suggest that if they take any inspiration from the 1990s “the new Muppet Show but not actually The Muppet Show” series Muppets Tonight, it should be the format of allowing backstage stories to go outside the Muppet Theater. When Muppets Tonight followed the characters beyond the KMUP studios, it really started to work — stuff like Gilbert Gottfried going on a date with Kermit and Beaker’s Star Trek cruise are among the highlights of that series.
Given the giant question mark on the Muppets’ horizon on this date last year, I’m glad that Disney is doing anything with the Muppets. I’m glad they’re looking at ABC rather than Disney Channel or even ABC Family, and I’m glad they hired guys who know how to make comedy for grown-ups. If it makes it to the air, wherever and whatever they end up doing, I’ll be tuning in. As long as Gonzo doesn’t say “Bazinga.”
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by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com