Memory is a funny and unreliable thing. When it comes to your favorite comedies, it can be a particularly bizarre beast. Take Saturday Night Live, for example. Most casual viewers are always claiming that the show is “past its prime” and that it was “best in the seventies,” or whenever that particular armchair critic was around the age of thirteen. But, if one rewatches full episodes of SNL, even during it’s original “Not Ready For Prime Time” run, it has not changed much in 40 years. Some sketches work, some are noble attempts and some bomb. Years of “best of” compilations have tainted our memory of the show to be better than it ever actually was.
As Muppet fans, we’re suffering from a similar condition. As the 40th anniversary Tough Pigs recaps of The Muppet Show can attest, every episode of the beloved variety show had fantastic moments. However, almost all fondly-remembered episodes had at least one sketch or musical number that just plain-old didn’t work.
Muppet fans are an even more precarious situation than other sketch comedy fans when it comes to memories of their favorite franchise because there’s not a lot of classic Muppet Show material that’s available for a modern audience to rewatch. Therefore, our collective consciousness has been rightly filled with good stuff, and we understandably leave out a lot of the bad. It’s important to remember that the original Muppet Show was a mixed bag, and so is this new Disney+ offering Muppets Now.
This is a show still very much trying to find its voice. It’s understandable for the first season of a show that even had to endure a pandemic-related format change. None of the sketches themselves are complete bombs, luckily. But there’s a battle for tone in each sketch, and the winners determine if Muppets Now will “feel like the Muppets,” (as fans like to say) or like some impostors inhabiting the bodies of our favorite flocked-fleece friends.
Luckily there’s a lot about the first two episodes of Muppets Now that is working. The writing for the Muppets is sharper and more vibrant than it’s been in the almost 10 years since the 2011 film. We’re getting new information about our old pals, and they’re allowed to grow as characters, which is so essential to maintain their relevancy. In episode one, Kermit is revealed to be a photo-bomber: an attribute that has a mischievous character quality to it we haven’t seen from Kerm since the classic years. Putting The Swedish Chef in a British Bakeoff-style competition with a celebrity brings out jealous and petty sides to the character that make him pop in a way we’ve never seen before.
Overall, the Muppets as YouTube-inspired sketch comedy stars work well. They were built for this kind of comedy: the pace is fast and modern, the show doesn’t drag, and I laughed harder at a lot of the jokes than I have at a Muppet property in a while.
But the chaotic energy of the original Muppet Show was often missing. Jim Henson and his gang clearly came from the “if it’s not funny enough, blow it up or eat it” mentality, and it’s what this show is decidedly lacking. Specific setups happen that don’t quite have the chaotic payoff that is so joyous in classic Muppets material.
For example, in episode two’s Swedish Chef cooking sketch, he decides to play around with some red-hot chili peppers while taking on the always delightful Danny Trejo in a chicken mole making contest. Welp, the Swedish Chef’s hands and face turn red, steam starts coming out of his ears, but… he fails to explode. Instead, Trejo ends up pouring milk down his throat to alleviate the problem. Is this the funniest, most Muppety choice? Obviously not.
Maybe it’s a problem of the improvised nature of these sketches, but good improv on TV has tight comedic payoffs (hello, Curb Your Enthusiasm). If you light a dynamite stick, it needs to eventually explode (hello, HBO Max Looney Tunes reboot). Comedic patterns like the rule of threes need to be followed (hello, this parenthetical joke in this article). For this Swedish Chef sketch to end in such a milquetoasty way instead of a literal bang is puzzling.
Similar problems plague Pepe the Prawn’s new game show sketch, as well. Bill Barretta is unsurprisingly brilliant as Pepe, as usual, but a full sketch cannot coast on a Muppet’s personality alone. The game show’s human contestants fit somewhere tonally between the realm of “real person” and “young actor who probably took UCB level 1 at some point.” It makes the whole sketch have a hard time finding its voice. This is a lost opportunity for the Muppets to interact with real people-in-your-neighborhood types, which is always a treat.
Instead, we get Pepe mishearing a human contestant of color’s name as “Cartoons” instead of Artoun, and he proceeds to call him by the wrong name for the whole sketch. This isn’t the most offensive joke ever, but it doesn’t go anywhere, like the Swedish Chef sketch above, and isn’t the best look for The Muppets in 2020.
One sketch that worked top to bottom was the “Muppet Labs Field Test” with Bunsen and Beaker. We’re introduced to Bunsen’s new AI-powered assistant Beak-R: a voice who inhabits a very Alexa-like tube. She has advantages over Beaker, like knowing a lot about real science and being able to say more than “mi mi mi,” although she does throw in some “mi’s” of her own for good measure. This sparks a rivalry between our beloved Beaker 1.0 and Beak-R 2.0 that ends with Beaker… wait for it… setting her on fire. After the rest of the show, this was highly satisfying! The blackboard-style animations used during the sketch to explain the scientific principles of combustion versus melting were really charming to boot.
Missing from episode two was a Kermit interview segment, one of the most successful parts of the series’ debut. Celeb segments like that one and the use of Taye Diggs and Linda Cardellini in “Miss Piggy’s Life Sty-le” allow humans to interact with The Muppets as themselves. This is in much-needed contrast with the humans of that unfortunate Pepe sketch, and it feels like a breath of fresh air. Kermit’s episode one chat with RuPaul was relaxed, funny, and surprisingly moving in parts. It put Kermit to great use, and should definitely be a direction that the show follows. It was missed here in episode two.
I know this is due to a Disney+ mandated format change from shorts to a half-hour of sketch comedy, but it’s hard for the show to have two recurring sketches in the first two episodes: The Swedish Chef sketch and Miss Piggy’s “Life Sty-le .” The Piggy sketch is a funny, well-executed concept, and special guest stars Diggs and Cardellini are excellent, but we don’t need it in two episodes back-to-back.
Even the most well crafted jokes of “Life Sty-le” can wear ironically thin for Piggy. Miss Piggy loses her hai-ya in excess, and too much bacon can be bad for you. It’s a shame because the second sketch features the return of fan-favorite rat Yolanda. She’s a tough-as-nails treat, and her appearances shouldn’t be buried under too much Piggy.
One more surprising aspect of the series so far is the lack of musical numbers. The Muppets had some of their most bona fide hits of the last two decades with their YouTube version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and their transcendent live show at the Hollywood Bowl. Considering that The Muppets have a long and storied musical history, it’s a shame that isn’t furthered on Muppets Now.
Fans have kept the characters relevant by re-editing old Muppet Show footage to feature the Muppets lip-synching to more modern songs by the likes of Snoop Dogg or The Beastie Boys. Maybe Disney doesn’t want to pay for music rights, but it is time for fresh Muppet musical numbers: The Electric Mayhem thrashing out covering Green Day. Miss Piggy walking a tight rope while singing Janelle Monae. A group of Arctic Monkey Muppets covering… Coldplay, obviously.
The only reason I’m so critical is that Muppets Now is new Muppets, which is exciting, and I want it to last, so I am holding it to a high standard. Overall, the new show is promising. A lot of the comedy works, and yes, fans, a majority of it feels like “the real Muppets.” It’s good to remember that a lot of what didn’t work with season one of The Muppet Show was shed as that show evolved, and I hope this one does the same.
What’s concerning is that in the battle of chaotic comedy vs. safe choices, the safe choices win out a little too often here. Also, in comparison to HBO Max’s Not Too Late Show With Elmo, the supposedly more adult-oriented Muppets seem more surprisingly gentle than their Sesame Street counterparts. Casual fans may stick with that show over this one, which could prove to be a problem in the long run.
I hope it’s not. I hope Muppets Now can stick around long enough to find it’s own Piggy-style je ne sais quoi and it’s own personal Rainbow Connection. That way, that a whole new generation of Muppet fans can selectively remember all the good and funny and forget the safe and stodgy, the way it should be.
MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): I’m going to give it to Beaker, who was hysterical in this episode, which sets up an adversarial relationship between our favorite hapless lab assistant and Beak-R 2.0. There’s something very Looney Tunes about the whole thing, and I can’t wait to see how this whole thing plays out over the season.
Best Puppetry Trick: I’m mad the Swedish Chef didn’t explode, but at least he got some nifty steam coming out of his ears!
Musical Highlight: Welp, there is none, because this is a decidedly non-musical series, much to everyone’s disappointment. I’d even settle for some Muppet covers of classic Disney songs, specifically a dead-faced Gonzo version of “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins.
Best Joke: We got a rare Bo sighting in Pepe’s game show sketch where he delivers a hamper full of socks and exclaims “Some of them were being worn… but I think I got all the feet out,” in true Muppet absurdist fashion.
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by Louie Pearlman