When I was a kid, there were few things I enjoyed as much
as the Muppets. The worlds created by Jim Henson dominated and cultivated my
childhood. Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and all things Muppet were
my earliest, fondest memories of entertainment. My mother had read an article
in the late ‘70s that claimed children should be limited to no more than an
hour-and-a-half of television per day–so most of the TV my sister and I were
allowed to consume involved Henson. Despite my parents’ insistence on the
dangers of television then, there has always been a virtue to Henson’s
productions. Sesame Street taught you
about the number 7, the letter M, what it was like to live on the Upper West
Side, and unrequited love. Fraggle Rock extended
one’s imagination, taught us about issues of class, and radishes, and
unrequited love. The Muppet Show brought
us into the realm of the subversive, prepared our young minds for Saturday Night Live, reveled happily in
absurdity and slapstick, and taught, of course, the lessons of unrequited love.
The Muppet Show was the star of them
all, the crown jewel of the Henson universe. And given the current sad
landscape of programming for kids, it’s
time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights, it’s time to meet the
Muppets on The Muppet Show tonight. Again.
It’s time to reboot The
For the most part I couldn’t give a flying fish about
television for kids. I don’t have kids, don’t really understand the desire to
have kids, doubt that unconditional love could be any more thrilling than clean
towels, and I think children should be unseen and unheard until they’re old
enough to watch and disseminate Breaking
Bad. But my sister has two kids and offers a wealth of opportunities for
unpaid babysitting internships, and so I’ve found myself, over the past eight
years, confronted by what passes for televised entertainment for children. And
it’s god-awful. What the hell are Wiggles? Isn’t a sponge in someone’s pants
counterintuitive? Why does Lego suddenly talk? In an infinite channel universe,
there’s nothing on (except the timeless Sesame
Street) that challenges, entertains and does not insult children, while
maintaining a subversive adult narrative and humor for Disney Channel-weary
parents and uncles.
What made, and makes, the Muppets such an enduring and
iconic part of the cultural landscape is their ability to treat children like
adults while allowing adults to be children. As a kid, “The Swedish Chef” is a
funny-looking mustachioed foreigner speaking gibberish and making a mess. It’s
hilarious. Pee-inducing. To an adult, the show is a perfect satire of the
cooking shows and inane cooking segments on The
Today Show and its talk-formula brethren. Also pee-inducing. “Pigs in Space”
to a child’s eyes is a bunch of talking pigs being silly, superfluous, insane.
Those of us past our adolescence recognize it as a parody of Star Trek, Lost in Space, and early sci-fi. Kids don’t care that Dr. Julius
Strangepork is a reference to Dr. Strangelove, but its inclusion doesn’t
counter their enjoyment of the sketch, and provides safe passage for adult viewing.
The list of clever, funny, and remarkably well-written and well-crafted
sketches is endless. The intelligent and hilarious satire raised the level of
the show beyond the condescending time-filler programming that infects present
day children’s television, pandering nonsense which serves only as a virtual
babysitter, absent of form or substance.
Muppet Show borrowed from variety shows of the era like SNL by having guest stars that were
unknown to children but comforting to adults, giving them permission to watch
the show even in the absence of children. And though kids didn’t know who
Johnny Cash or Elton John or John Cleese were, the guest stars’ participation
in the program slowly introduced youngsters to a grander cultural discourse.
The contemporary equivalent of this would be celebrities lending their voices
to animated TV shows or films. But in this manner they are rarely themselves,
and are included in order to increase ratings or box office revenues, not to
present a production that respects a cross-generational demographic.
The Muppets are the property of the Walt Disney Company,
currently charged with the task of reviving the Star Wars franchise. Their return to the big screen, successfully,
suggests that a revival of the seminal variety show is not without merit or
possibility. The Jason Segel-Nicholas Stoller-led The Muppets re-invigorated the franchise in 2011 (after a long
stretch of poorly conceived, straight-to-video releases) by employing the
elements of clever satire, well-placed cameos, and musical theatrics that made
the show (and films) so successful. The film commented on the folly of reality
TV, the economic disparities of the day, and the tropes of romantic comedies.
The soundtrack was playful and accomplished, and appealing to both children and
adults. Every generation can appreciate a puppet barber shop quartet covering
“Smells Like teen Spirit”. Its follow-up, the less successful commercially but
equally endearing Muppets Most Wanted,
solidified the Muppets as a viable entity for the studio in which to invest and
returned them with prominence to the cultural zeitgeist. So why not revisit the
production that started it all?
The Muppet Show was
revived briefly by ABC in 1996 as Muppets
Tonight, but failed to attract enthusiastic audiences. My memory of the
show is that I have no memory of the show, which speaks volumes as to its
failure. But the landscape of television has changed drastically since then.
The medium is more intelligent, more ambitious, and has far more outlets than
ever before. A venue like Netflix, tailor-made for parents to provide viewing
entertainment and respite on their own schedules, would be perfect for a
rebooted Muppet Show. Two generations
have had to withstand the inanities of the Teletubbies,
Dora the Explorer, and Barney, programming that is nothing but
refined sugar and starch and shows contempt for tired adults.
In one of my earliest experiences with my niece and nephew
left in my charge, we watched the 2011 The
Muppets. Admittedly, I was rather nervous. What if they didn’t like it,
didn’t get it, didn’t want to finish watching it? Even worse, what if I didn’t like it? George Lucas had
broken my generation’s heart in 1999 with poorly conceived Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and broke it two more
times over three summers. Lucas did it again when he produced the Indiana Jones
film whose name shall not be mentioned. There was reason for skepticism. But The Muppets exceeded my expectations,
and my niece and nephew and I have watched it together too many times to count,
singing along, reveling in the wonder of its genius and that of the Jim Henson
universe. Pretty soon they’ll be too old for the Muppets, having reached that
strange period known as adolescence, puberty, when you hate everything. The
promise of a rebooted Muppet Show
would extend this connection we have. Hell, it may even encourage me to have my
Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The
Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among
others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY
with AJ. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare
Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press,
2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out
Hockey Player (Found Press,
2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.