EDITOR'S NOTE: The release of Jason Segel's The Muppets has re-ignited world-wide interest in revisiting the legacy of Jim Henson. To mark the occasion, Press Play contributor Jason Bellamy has created Searching for the Muppets, parts 1 & 2. Together, these video essays explain the enduring popularity of these beloved characters as well as evaluate their cultural impact since the death of their creator. The embeddable version of Muppets, part 1 is here. The embeddable version of Muppets, Part 2 is here.
When Jim Henson died in 1990, at the age of 53, there was reason to fear that the Muppets wouldn’t live on without him.
They did. Since Henson’s death, Muppets have appeared in three major movies, a short-lived TV series, a few TV specials and several direct-to-YouTube videos. They’ve inspired toys, calendars and postage stamps. And now they’re poised to hit the big screen yet again, in a movie written by and starring Jason Segel.
Indeed, the Muppets brand, which has roots to the 1950s, has persisted in Henson’s absence. But the Muppets’ true spirit? That’s been hard to find.
The word “muppet,” a combination of “marionette” and “puppet,” accurately describes the majority of Henson’s foam-and-fur characters wherever they may roam, from Sesame Street to Saturday Night Live. But when we talk about “The Muppets,” we’re referring to a very specific, if sprawling, cast of characters who gained their fame with The Muppet Show.
Starring Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Rowlf, the Swedish Chef, Statler and Waldorf and so many more, The Muppet Show played for five seasons. It inspired three Jim Henson movies and a cartoon spinoff, not to mention Fraggle Rock, while creating a brand as distinct as the one over at Sesame Street.
Where Sesame Street is designed to educate, The Muppet Show is designed to entertain. Full of frenetic song-and-dance routines, intentionally bad jokes and chest-heaving off-stage drama, The Muppet Show is a loud, loony, heartfelt variety act that’s transparently disguised as a loud, loony, heartfelt variety act.
To find the essence of the Muppets, the search has to begin here, because The Muppet Show was Henson’s magic factory. It was a place where a frog tap-danced, crocodiles rocked and pigs flew … in space. Working closely with head writer Jerry Juhl and longtime collaborator Frank Oz, who literally was Bert to Henson’s Ernie, Henson created a world of whimsical absurdity that seemed limitless, and in fact often delighted at pointing to the presumptive line just before leaping over it.
Like the puppets themselves, the show was a marriage of tangible authenticity and cartoonish fantasy, brought to life by incredible unseen artists who were so skillful in their illusions that the predominantly waist-up action never seemed less than fully formed.
Thirty-five years after its inception, the genius of The Muppet Show remains its cross-demographic appeal. Kids are helplessly drawn to the characters’ colorful and cuddly exteriors, and all the high-energy skits that needn’t be fully comprehended to be wildly entertaining. Adults, meanwhile, find kinship in the characters’ black and blue interiors -- all those maladjusted and overwhelmed but unfailingly optimistic souls.
It’s easy to forget, in light of the Muppets’ well-known capacity for sweetness, that irritability and lack of sympathy extended far beyond the old cranks lobbing insults from the theater balcony. Indeed, as often as The Muppet Show is tender, it’s a symposium of bickering, putdowns, sarcasm and exasperation. Henson’s Muppets possess the boundless optimism of a child, but their personality flaws, ranging from anger to arrogance to ignorance, are distinctively adult.
From afar, The Muppet Show fulfills Henson’s dream, articulated by Kermit in The Muppet Movie. It’s a place for singing and dancing and making people happy. More than that, though, The Muppet Show – like the three Henson-powered movies that followed it – is a tribute to perseverance, an ode to those who soldier on with indomitable hope in the face of mediocre or even disastrous results.
The cast of The Muppet Show is a band of misfits, oddballs and failures. The Swedish Chef’s cooking abilities are as questionable as his dialect. Bunsen Honeydew’s inventions only succeed in traumatizing his put upon assistant Beaker. Fozzie is a comedian forever in search of his first laugh. Gonzo is a desperate performance artist in search of his audience – a weirdo before there was a Jackass. Miss Piggy is a diva without talent and a seductress without an enthusiastic admirer. And Kermit? He’s a dreamer stuck in a nightmare, a well-meaning leader and loyal friend who wants to do the right thing, and usually does, but sometimes can’t quite manage to bite his fly-catching tongue.
Kermit’s importance to the Muppets’ signature spirit and brand identity can’t be minimized. Clever and self-aware, Kermit is the audience surrogate, our guide through the chaos, an island of sanity amidst an ocean of zany foolishness. After Henson’s death, when Kermit’s presence was significantly reduced in deference to the man who gave the banjo-playing frog his soul, it created a void that has never been adequately filled.
To some degree it never can be. But the Muppets phenomenon is bigger than Kermit and even Henson. The post-Henson Muppet projects haven’t missed the character of Kermit so much as the quality of Kermit’s character. Kermit isn’t just the most identifiable Muppet, he’s the most relatable one, too. In Kermit’s determination, we see who we want to be, and through his occasional inability to maintain his composure, we see who we are. Kermit grounds the Muppets. Without him, or another Muppet in that role, the balance is thrown off and the inmates take over the asylum.
That Kermit and the gang have seemed less like themselves since Henson’s death has less to do with the puppeteers performing them – Steve Whitmire, in Kermit’s case – than with the roles the Muppets themselves have been performing. In two of the three big-screen movies released in the post-Henson era, the Muppets have vacated their own characters to step into others. These projects are not without their charms, but it’s hardly an accident that the most consistently entertaining character in the post-Henson years is the one who has been allowed to remain mostly himself: Gonzo.
Alas, the other characters often appear to be in a daze. Fozzie has no clue whatsoever that he’s Fozziewig in A Christmas Carol, and to watch Kermit as Captain Smollett in Treasure Island is to be condemned to the tragedy foretold in Henson’s final Muppet movie, 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan, in which Kermit is struck by a cab and gets amnesia. Kermit looks like Kermit, and he roughly sounds like Kermit, but he just isn’t Kermit. Not exactly. Which only makes us long for the real thing.
Sure enough, the post-Henson projects have held true to the mission statement of singing, dancing and making people happy, but while doing so the Muppets have disappeared inside their characters all too well, and the wonderful exceptions only prove the rule.
These post-Jim Henson Muppet adaptations stand in stark contrast to the one near the end of The Muppet Show’s third season, when the Muppets perform Robin Hood. Here, as in A Christmas Carol and Treasure Island, the Muppets step into other roles, but the crucial difference is that they never lose their own identities. Kermit, as Robin Hood, is still more of a backstage ringleader than a hero. Gonzo plays the Sheriff of Nottingham, but he only does damage only to himself. And Miss Piggy, who refuses to accept her role as Sister Tuck, proves more conniving than the Sheriff of Nottingham in an effort to get top billing, whatever it takes.
Time and again, The Muppet Show shows us that the Muppets can’t escape who they are. They’re too odd, too mediocre, too, well, human for that. And we love them for it.
And that brings us back to the Muppets’ unforgettable sweetness.
If in memory, the cuteness and tenderness of the Muppets overshadows the bickering and putdowns, there’s a reason. Many episodes of The Muppet Show end with the cast rallying around the guest star and joining in song, effectively erasing all the preceding friction and failure with one dose of literal harmony.
What made the Muppets’ sweetness so affecting is that, just like the exasperation and suffering, it’s entirely honest. With imperfect voices and awkward figures, the Muppets sing from the heart. And by ending almost every episode of The Muppet Show in song, Henson suggests that underneath the cynicism and the sarcasm, and the woe and the wounds, love and hopefulness are our default settings.
Beyond the singing and the dancing, the arguing and the teasing, the gags and the stunts, the core value of The Muppet Show is sincerity. When you find earnestness, you find the spirit of the Muppets.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler and is a regular contributor to Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, coauthoring The Conversations series with Ed Howard. Follow him on Twitter.