EDITOR'S NOTE: Matt Zoller Seitz and Ken Cancelosi created Never Before, Never Again: Henson and Oz, a video essay which describes the collaboration between Jim Henson and Frank Oz, to mark the opening of a Jim Henson exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in July 2011. Press Play is re-posting that essay in advance of the release of The Muppets. Given the length of their 27-year collaboration and their creative influence on the culture, the essay makes the argument that Henson and Oz should be considered a comedy team on the level of Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy. In addition, we are publishing a conversation between the essay's creators about the challenge of sustaining the Muppets after Jim Henson's untimely death .
Ken: Around 1996 or '97, Frank Oz appeared at the USA Film Festival in Dallas, Texas. He was there to give a comedy master class to young filmmakers, and he appeared at a screening of Muppet Treasure Island. After the movie he engaged the audience in a Q & A. It was interesting, because the first two questions were about the movie we'd just seen, and the next ten were about the fate of the Muppets.
Ken: I finally raised by hand and asked my own question about the fate of the Muppets. Frank Oz answered me in a loud clear voice — after a half-hour of this line of questioning — he said, "You people are the most depressing audience I've ever been in front of."
And, Matt, you could feel the whole audience sort of hold their breath: "Oh my gosh, we pissed off Frank Oz." Well, Oz kind of sensed he'd lost the audience and he backed off a bit. I'm paraphrasing, of course -- I can't remember exactly what he said -- but it was something like, "What happens when any great artist dies? What happened when Jack Benny died? What happened when Groucho Marx died? We grieved for them. We grieve for Jim (Henson). Then, you look at their body of work and you look at what they have created, and you let it influence you. Once it becomes a part of you, you move on with your life. What choice do you have?"
And then he addressed those issues we were most concerned about — who was going to perform the Muppets. He said, "The Henson company will do the best they can to maintain a certain the integrity of each character, to keep up the quality of those performances. If they can't maintain the quality of the characters they will have to retire them. What choice do they have?" He was really nice about it.
I had no clue that the death of Jim Henson would effect me the degree to which it did. For that audience, his comments sort of had the effect of moving us down the road with regard to this issue.
Matt: To be fair to that audience, there is major difference between the death of, say, Jack Benny, and the death of Jim Henson. It is that the performer is not all there is to the Muppets. The Muppets are a franchise, they're a property, and they have an existence apart from the people who physically operate the Muppets. I think that what Frank Oz was coming up against in that Q&A was the reality of corporate America. These characters were properties, and so for financial reasons they had to continue, just as the Warner Bros cartoon characters had to continue after the death of Mel Blanc. Blanc was the closest thing to a Jim Henson over at Warners, in the sense that he was the creative unifier, the spirit of Warner Bros. cartoons. And, for that matter, it's not unlike what happened after Walt Disney died. After Walt Disney's death, the Disney corporation had to continue making children's entertainment for fiscal reasons. They couldn't just shut down the company. They had to find a way to keep going. Disney was like a David O. Selznick. He was the visionary and the micro-manager, and he was quality control.
Matt: There are two cameos in The Muppet Movie (1979) tell you everything you need to know about Jim Henson. One is Edgar Bergen's appearance at the county fair -- and I believe he died not too soon after that. Right?
Matt: Bergen is obviously so old he can barely even speak, but, it's such an incredibly affectionate close-up of him. That's influence number one. And influence number two is Orson Welles, who gets the last cameo in the film -- and it's one of the greatest cameos I've ever seen, because it's like Jim Henson is trying to right the cosmic scales in his fantasy, in a way that never could happen in life. You know, giving Orson Welles, who had to fight like hell throughout most of his career to get anything made, a cameo as the head of a studio -- I think that's just fabulous.
Matt: He could just be a new character.
I kind of get Frank Oz's resentment. I don't think his resentment is against the fans. I think he probably has a financial stake in the Muppets still. So, he can't say to your audience what I bet he really wanted to say, which is they should have packed it in after Henson died.
Ken: So, you think there's corporate pressure at work, not artistic pressure?
Matt: Yeah. I think the problem is that Jim Henson was a performer. He was like an actor, but in addition to that, he was a filmmaker and an impresario and a quality control guy who ran everything. So he was Edgar Bergen and he was Orson Welles, and he was also David O. Selznick. But the heart of what he did was really the performance aspect, and when he died, that was gone and could not be replaced.
I think Henson started to go astray a little bit in the 1980s, quite honestly, with things like — and I know this is blasphemy for some Muppet fans — but things like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Those films are interesting, but they're the Jim Henson equivalent of Woody Allen doing Interiors.
Matt: I respect those films for all the imagination involved, but I don't love them in the way that I love The Muppet Show.
Ken: Let's talk directly about why that is. I really do feel that the Muppets were designed to be a satire on the idea of show business. The pressures of show business. The conventions of show business. And when they ceased to be that, that's where the Muppets went wrong. It's a little like casting Eric Cartman as Oliver Twist--
Matt: And having Cartman give a straight performance, yeah. Again, I keep coming back to Warner Brothers. That's one of the things made the Warner Brothers characters so funny. If you watch What's Opera, Doc? the source of humor is very complex, if you think about it. It's not just that Chuck Jones and Mel Blanc and everyone are spoofing Wagner. It's the fact that you are seeing Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd perform Wagner with great spirit and great emotion while still retaining their Bugs and Elmer-ness. Daffy Duck playing Robin Hood is still Daffy Duck, and that's what makes it funny. He's not doing an English accent. He just Daffy Duck, but he happens to be wearing a green outfit with those little pointy shoes.
Matt: That's the modern equivalent of that great moment on that old Muppet Show where you see Kermit the Frog sitting at his desk backstage, and he's drinking a glass of milk through a straw. The image is surreal, and just as you're thinking "What a surreal image," Kermit pauses, looks up and says something like, "Let's all think about this for a moment." And then he takes another sip.
Ken: One of my favorite moments in The Muppet Show wasn't funny at all. One of the worst shows they created in that series was where they got Sylvester Stallone to be the guest star.
Matt: Somehow I knew you were going to say Stallone!
Ken: It was such a boring, terrible show that Jim Henson as Kermit the Frog could be heard saying as the credits rolled, "You've been a really great laugh track."
Ken: It's Jim Henson acknowledging that they know the show is kind of awful. [See below]
Matt: Part of what makes the original 1979 The Muppet Movie so brilliant is that it takes that fourth-wall-breaking self-awareness to the next level. When I saw it recently at that Big Movies for Little Kids screening in Brooklyn, I hadn't seen it all the way through in a number of years, and my appreciation for that film deepened a lot during that viewing. It is a postmodern film.
Ken: It certainly is.
Matt: It's all the level of Looney Tunes Back in Action or Blazing Saddles. It's that kind of a movie. It's a movie that's about the conventions of movies. This is going to sound weird to bring David Mamet into the discussion, but David Mamet wrote this play called Sexual Perversity in Chicago.
Ken: Right. It became the movie About Last Night.
Matt: Right, the studio changed the title to About Last Night, which tells you right away that they didn't get it. I remember reading an interview with Mamet from the '70s or '80s where he said his purpose in writing that play was to completely tear down all the conventions of the love story, and of romance itself, in order to demonstrate why they worked. Well, The Muppet Movie starts with a screening of the film you're about to see, and there's even a point where the film breaks and has to be fixed and the movie you're watching is temporarily interrupted. The Muppet Movie climaxes with that finale on the soundstage, and then ultimately returns to the screening room.
The interesting thing is, though, when you're on that soundstage with the Muppets and they're singing, "Life's like a movie/Write your own ending", you're not actually seeing the scenes that they were supposedly shooting for their little Muppet movie. You're seeing the point of view of the crew that is making the movie. You're seeing the lights, you're seeing the cameras. The song itself is about the act of making art. And then the roof collapses and the rainbow streams through, and it's magical. That's a metaphor for the kind of phenomenon that David Mamet was talking about. You foreground the mechanics and call attention to the conventions, but the rainbow still streams in and makes you feel good.
There's a kind of sorcery to pulling off a movie like that, or a television show like The Muppet Show, a production that wants to have it both ways. And I don't think any of the people in charge of the Muppets who came along after Henson ever quite achieved that. The new viral videos are funny, and in some cases brilliant in their own way. [Click here if you want to see the Muppet's version of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody.] But then you look at the Henson-era Muppets, and the new stuff seems lacking. The Henson-era Muppets had the conceptual brilliance -- it was there in a very casual way, and they weren't making a big deal of it -- but they had heart at the same time. That's so hard to do! It's like a magician who sits there and systematically explains to you how he does every magic trick, and yet you still go, "Wow, that was amazing."
Ken: That's precisely it. You could appreciate the Muppets for the characters that they created, but you also respected the craft itself that you were witnessing.
Magic is like that. Most great art is like that, I suppose.
Matt: In a weird way, they fact that you're aware that's it's all an illusion and that you've agreed to believe in it is part of what gives it its power.
Ken: Yes. Avenue Q. You can see the performers on the stage.
Matt: I'm excited to see this new movie, but I'm also extremely skeptical. I hope they get in touch with the old magic. I was somewhat heartened reading interviews with Jason Segel. It turns out that he's not anywhere being cynically fascinated by the Muppets. There is no irony to his appreciation at all, and he obviously a very smart guy. So I'm sure he gets what's buried underneath the surface of these characters.
Matt: I think what the Muppets have needed for decades — and I don't know if Jason Segel is the guy — is some kind of guiding force. Someone who sets the tone for everybody. Since Henson's death, there really hasn't been anybody like that. Brian Henson took control for a while and I thought he did a pretty good job. I interviewed him for the Star-Ledger back in the late '90s, and there was a tragic weight to that guy was very unsettling, a sense that he was almost like a Hamlet figure. He had to come in after the death of his father and take over. There was a sense that he was the prince ascending to the throne and he wasn't psychologically prepared to do it. You see that elsewhere in film history, too. Nobody who ran the Walt Disney company made as strong an impression as Disney, except maybe Michael Eisner, but the tone of the work was very different, and he didn't have as long a run.
Ken: Let's get the video essay that you and I created. We should talk about how it came into existence. We felt the need to acknowledge that fact that Jim Henson and Frank Oz were a comedy team. But no one has ever really marketed them that way. They don't have an agent. And unfortunately, it's too late for them. Someone needed to say they had a unique chemistry that was all their own.
I'm sure everyone in the Henson company knew it. It's taken forever for people to understand the nature of that collaboration. Twenty-seven years of working together -- that's longer than many other comedy teams, like Abbott and Costello.
Matt: She's awful. She indicates everything. She delivers happy lines happily, sad lines sadly, angry lines angrily, and she takes a big breath before she says something dramatic.
Ken: Her unconvincing diva behavior has always fascinated me, because she exists for the same reason Archie Bunker exists. She's there to satirize that a certain kind of behavior, in this case the behavior you'd associate with big stars.
Matt: I would say that, but I would go a step further and say that the Muppets don't just embody showbiz stereotypes, they show you how people conform to stereotypes without knowing what cliches they are.
Matt: I can't think about Rowlf without thinking of my Dad — who is a jazz pianist.
Ken: They seem to have imbued each one of these characters with a heightened sense of realism. When Rowlf plays the piano, he does it with the same nonchalant effortlessness of a real piano player.
Matt: Occasionally you'll hear him make these little involuntary noises!
Ken: That's what real pianists do.
Matt: Those are the moments where you can see that Rowlf kind of surprised himself.
Ken: I've been around a lot of pianists in my life. Most of them look like they are working harder than Rowlf, and they're probably not as good a performer as Rowlf is.
Matt: Subtleties like that are just one small testament to the level of quality control in the Muppet company. From the very beginning, they always insisted that Rowlf's fingering look accurate. They didn't do that thing like when Dooley Wilson is playing the piano in Casablanca and he's just sort of pounding on the keys. With Rowlf, you can see that his fingering is correct. The dog can play.
Ken: In that clip in our video essay, it looks like he's actually playing "Claire de Lune."
Ken: That's just amazing to me.
Matt It seems a strange word to apply, "realism." But there is a level of realism to the Muppets. On one hand you've got this extremely self conscious post modern quality to everything the Muppets are associated with, and at the same time, there's this parallel sense of physical realism. The vaudeville house where The Muppet Show is performed feels like a real place. I feel as though I could draw a floorplan.
Ken: I can think of another example of what you are talking about, the realism existing on the same plane as the postmodernism. The perfect example of that is Kermit on the bicycle in The Muppet Movie. He looks like he's actually riding a bicycle. Yet there's something post-modern about the very idea of a Muppet riding a bicycle.
Matt: There's a moment in Jason's video essay that is almost kind of an inverse of the bicycle scene in The Muppet Movie. It's the bit where Kermit says, "A lot of you have written in to me asking, 'Can the frog tap dance'? Well, the answer is yes." And then he proceeds to do a dance number, but you never see his feet. The number reaches a dizzying conceptual peak when they cut to a prismatic, fly's eye view, and you see like 25 little images of Kermit dancing the "Happy Feet" number, and you don't see his feet there either!
Ken: Yeah. I remember that.
Matt: There's is not even a cut away to a close-up up of his feet, yet you hear this incredibly vigorous tapping, and the crowd is going crazy because presumably the frog is such a great dancer.
Ken: Would you say Jim Henson's crowning achievement is The Muppet Show?
Matt: I think The Muppet Show and the first movie. I think as a producer as a writer as an impresario, those are his peaks. His peaks as a performer are too numerous to mention.
Matt: You can say that about all the Muppet performers, really. One of the greatest Muppet sketches I've ever seen is the one with Cookie Monster and the computer, which is like from the early 60s. I mean that is perfection. It's one of the most perfect comedy sketches ever -- the way it builds, and that fantastic twist at the end. But, the genius of the performers evident in all sorts of places. There are some Muppet sketches on Saturday Night Live where you can see it. And you can see it in Jim Henson's The Storyteller, which I really think is due for a major re-appreciation. You admire the design of the characters and the sets, and perhaps the lighting and camerawork, but at its core, the Muppets is a performer-driven phenomenon. The troupe during the Henson years was as like-minded and cohesive as the troupe that Robert Altman assembled in the '70s, and that carried him from M.A.S.H. all the way through Popeye -- a period where he was using a lot of the same people over and over, both in front of the camera and behind it. In fact, I'm a little surprised that Robert Altman and the Muppets never teamed up. Doesn't it seem like it would have been a natural thing?
Ken: [Laughs] Yes, it does.
Matt: Can't you just imagine McCabe and Mrs. Miller with Miss Piggy and Kermit, with Robert Altman directing. It's widescreen with a lot of slow zooms, and you hear all this overlapping Muppet dialogue. There's Miss Piggy lying there with the opium pipe in her hand, and Kermit in his McCabe outfit trudging through the snow with Leonard Cohen playing. I can dream, can't I?
Ken: How does a character become beloved? How do they enter the culture and stay there from one generation to the next? What is it about the Muppets that will endure? Do you think they will endure?
Matt: I think the Muppets will endure, and have endured. People still watch the original Muppet show and the original Muppet movies. I consider the first three Muppet movie to be the true Muppet movies. Not to get all fanboyish on you, but the ones that came after that are increasingly problematic, even through they have their nice points.
Ken: Yeah, Muppets in Space isn't bad.
Matt: But to go back to that original question that you asked, "What is it that makes a character beloved and make them enter the pop culture consciousness," I think it's really simple. I think the character has to be psychologically rich enough and vivid enough that you feel as if you know them as well as you know a friend or somebody in your family, and they've been around long enough that you get used to them. You kind of give them a spot in your imagination, next to real people that you actually know. Once that happens, then they're in.
It helps tremendously if the artists are able to create a character who's basically a new archetype, or stereotype, somebody who's shorthand for a type of personality that we've all known in real life but that we never saw represented onscreen before, in quite that way. Archie Bunker was that kind of character. Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore show as was that kind of character, and Ralph Kramden. Woody Allen created a new type in his standup, then he built movies around it.
Ken: He did.
Matt: There was nobody ever like Woody Allen. That basic Woody allen persona, that hyper-verbal, intellectual, but extremely neurotic, physically cowardly man, was something new. He was like Bob Hope, but Jewish and with glasses, and encrusted with a kind of Freudian self-awareness that Bob Hope never had.
Matt: It's really rare that you see the creation of a new type. The Muppets did that. Kermit is a new type. Fozzie is a new type. There are a lot of them. And just as performers who came after Woody Allen broke off bits and pieces of that original person and did their own thing with it, pop culture after the Muppets was inspired by, or took things from, the Muppets, and the Muppet characters. I always felt that Judd Hirsch on Taxi was basically kind of like a Kermit type. I think a lot of sitcoms owe a lot to the Muppets in the way they will have this well-adjusted central character who's kind of a calm eye at the center of the storm. Any kind of high-strung pretentious diva character is inevitably going to turn into Miss Piggy. Any sad sack guy who'll do anything to get a laugh is inevitably going to turn into Fozzie bear. Do you remember Neil on Freak and Geeks?
Ken: Of course. Great show.
Matt: I think he's basically Fozzie.
Ken: [Laughs] You're right
Matt: Well, when you watch Warner bros. cartoons, do you watch the ones from the 70s?
Ken: Yes. The only way the Muppets can continue to stay in the culture is to create a new set of characters -- characters that reflect the sensibility of whatever era they happen to be in.
Matt: Yeah, when I want to experience the Muppets, I pop in The Muppet Movie or watch the DVDs of the original TV series. That's when the Muppets were at their peak. And the people who make the Muppets shouldn't feel embarrassed by that.
Ken: Nope. To endure that long is really something. And that takes us back to what Frank Oz said -- that when someone dies, you let their body of work influence your work, and you create something new. You create something beautiful from it.
Maybe that's the lesson from the career of Jim Henson for me -- this idea that he made it OK to be creative, to be as nutty and as clever as you can possibly be. He freed everybody's imagination. That's really an amazing legacy.
Matt: Yeah, it is. Think about how many kids were inspired to put on a show because of the Muppets, in the way that earlier generations were inspired by The Little Rascals. It is an amazing thing.
Henson's always been a hero to me. It's not just the fertility of his imagination and the sheer breath of his accomplishments that I admire. It's also the warm and generous spirit that he brought to everything he did.
Matt: If they really want to resuscitate the Muppets, that's what they need to go look for. It would be nice if Jason Segel was the guy. But if it turns out that he's not, then maybe there's somebody else out there. And if there isn't, it just means that what we already suspected is true: Jim Henson was one of a kind.
Ken: We'd like it to not be true because we love the characters. But you may be right.
A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for Salon.com. Ken Cancelosi is a writer and photographer living in Dallas, Texas.