It’s always sad when a celebrity passes away, especially when that celebrity is best known for their memorable role in a Muppet production. In certain circles, Louis Zorich is remembered best for his roles on Mad About You and Brooklyn Bridge, or his marriage to Olympia Dukakis. But here in our own bubble of Muppet fandom, he has been immortalized as Pete from The Muppets Take Manhattan.
With only three main human characters (the rest of the roles filled by celebrity cameos), Pete was enormously important. He wasn’t a love interest or a best friend or the son of a Broadway producer, but he served the important role of the wise mentor. He showed acts of kindness to guests in a cold and indifferent city, he supported his friends and family in unconventional ways, and he provided wisdom when it was most needed.
The wisdom in question is interesting, because it’s not only difficult to understand, but it comes out in unexpected ways. I know, I’m being almost as hard to decipher as Pete, so lets take them one at a time.
“Hey, I tell you what is. Big city, hmm? Live, work, huh? But not city only. Only peoples. Peoples is peoples. No is buildings. Is tomatoes, huh? Is peoples, is dancing, is music, is potatoes. So, peoples is peoples. Okay?”
It’s perhaps Pete’s most famous line of dialog, and one of the best lines spoken by a non-Muppet in the film. Let’s see if we can decode Pete’s speech.
“What is” = What’s important. Kermit is unloading his worries about bringing his friends to New York and possibly failing them in their dream to star on Broadway. Kermit is blaming himself as well as the difficulties that go with living in the big city, and Pete is telling him that New York is tough, but not important in finding happiness.
With “Peoples”, Pete is reminding Kermit about the only thing that’s important: Our connection to our friends and family. Kermit’s known this all along, from his epic road trip to Hollywood collecting people who share his dream, as well as his collection of crazies who performed every week on The Muppet Show. Failure can come in many forms, but it can’t pierce the bond of friendship.
“Is tomatoes”… this one is a little harder to decipher. Tomatoes could refer to food, which brings us health and life. It could also represent a heart, bright red and fragile, and a part of practically every cuisine in one way or another. In any case, it’s what keeps us alive, and is far more important than a Broadway show or success in an inner city.
“Is peoples, is dancing, is music, is potatoes” brings it all together. Friends, happiness, and life. Not a bad sentiment for an old immigrant. It’s just too bad Kermit didn’t quite understand it.
We don’t know much about Pete’s background. He’s a Greek immigrant, a father, a business owner. He gave up his previous life for a chance at something better for his family, and not only does he have a thriving business, he’s also able to help put his daughter Jenny through school. His life may not be easy, but he’s put the work in to earn success for his family.
You may not see it, but Pete’s line about the Yankee bean soup is a metaphor for life in New York. It’s easy to get there, and it’s possible to survive. But without what’s really important – friendship and happiness – none of it is worthwhile. Like a bowl of soup with no spoon.
Can we just talk for a second about how Pete meets this strange frog, and 20 seconds later, he’s giving away 11 bowls of soup for free to a group of homeless animals, hippies, and weirdos? The generosity of this man knows no bounds, even as he’s unaware that his selfless act will eventually provide him with a new group of friends, a renewed purpose in life, and some bonus employees.
“Grits! Grits! Hominy grits!” And then Rizzo has the nerve to cut back at him, “How should I know how many? Count ’em yourself.” And that’s when Pete busts out of the kitchen, brandishing his ladle like a weapon. “Is all morning like this. You complain. You slow. You no take orders. You lazy rat, you!” Pete may be a giving guy, but his generosity comes in exchange for honesty and loyalty. He knows the importance of tough love, especially when he delivers one last threat to Rizzo: “I tell you what is. Is no work, is dancing, is cheese… is big shoes!”
Pete’s Luncheonette isn’t exactly a well-oiled machine, so when he’s presented with the immediate necessity to hire four more rats and one frog, he finds a way to make it work. Pete knows that it’s important to recognize opportunities when they arise, and that sometimes the best way to help yourself is to help others find their own purpose in life.
But he draws the line at penguins. Let’s not get carried away here.
That said, with all the opportunities and second chances Pete is giving out, someone’s going to be unhappy. And that someone is the unseen customer who complained about rats serving food in his restaurant. So rather than admit defeat and fire the rats, Pete switched places with them, allowing them to keep their jobs while he waits tables. He found a loophole to make everyone happy (except for whoever didn’t like rats in the dining room – just wait until they find out where they ended up).
Even with two humans, four rats, and a frog working in his restaurant, Pete found a way to make room for yet another employee – Miss Piggy. It’s hard to see him cutting much of a profit, what with almost triple the employees he had a week earlier (thank goodness he passed on those penguins!), he teaches us that profit may be nice, but it’s worthless without fulfillment.
“Peoples is peoples. Is frog gone? Yes. Is peoples worrying? Is peoples looking? Is no come? But is peoples working? Is water boiling? Is come. Yeah. Peoples is peoples.”
When Kermit goes missing, Pete recalls his advice from earlier in the film. He wants her to know that friendship and love are the most important things in the world, but he also recognizes that this is likely not what will bring Kermit back. Thoughts and prayers are nice, but it takes hard work to get the results we need. We’re boiling water and hitting the ground running so Kermit will return safe and sound. We hope.
Pete jumps at the chance to be useful one last time in the film, as he volunteers to send telegrams to the rest of the Muppets. “Dear bears and chickens and things. Is New York! Is play! Is time!” Short and to the point! Not only does he likely save a few bucks by omitting words for the telegrams, but he’s keeping the messages brief and focused. Fozzie, Scooter, Gonzo and the gang all have exactly the information they need, and they all come running. Unsurprisingly, Pete came through.
Without the wisdom and generosity of Pete, the Muppets would’ve found themselves starving on the street, having failed at realizing their dreams. Without Pete, there would be no home base for Kermit, no careers for Rizzo and the rats, no lessons learned, and worst of all, no spoon. Thank goodness for the peoples who is peoples like Pete.
Click here to count the grits yourself on the ToughPigs forum!
by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com