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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It's Time to Meet the Muppets, Again

"Muppets Bohemian Rhapsody," The Jim Henson Company, 2009

"Muppets Bohemian Rhapsody" debuted on the Muppets' newly inaugurated YouTube channel just three weeks ago. But nearly ten million views later, it already feels like a signpost that we'll look back on fondly -- a goofy capper to a rotten decade, a bridge to whatever lies ahead, and perhaps a future time capsule, a reminder of what it felt like to be alive at this strange time. It's a pop culture upper in a league with two classic bubblegum chart-toppers that heralded the shift from '60s darkness to '70s hedonism: John Lennon's "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" and the Captain & Tennille's cover of "Love Will Keep Us Together."

There's no world-shattering depth to those songs, just a straightforward reassurance that even though times are tough, as long as we're capable of having fun, things aren't quite as bad as they seem. "Muppets Bohemian Rhapsody" and the other offerings on the Muppets' YouTube channel are likewise (deliberately) simple and upbeat -- little rainbows, like the one arcing through the broken soundstage roof at the end of "The Muppet Movie" (1979).

"Ode to Joy" split-screens multiple incarnations of the jumpy dolt Beaker as he vocalizes the most famous section of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Beaker's boss, Dr. Bunson Honeydew, returns in "Muppet Labs Experiment 5T832: Ghost Hunt," turning Beaker loose in a haunted house and yammering obliviously while Beaker shrieks at bats, spiders and apparitions. "Cårven Der Pümpkîn" brings back the Swedish chef, who's nearly outsmarted by a couple of gourds. "Skateboarding Dog Gets Served!" spoofs "stupid pet tricks" clips, teaming motor-mouthed rodent scammer Rizzo with Rowlf the Dog, who nearly injures himself doing a dangerous stunt that doesn't get captured on tape because the hungry Rizzo is busy shooting a guy eating a slice of pizza. ("We should go put it on web," Rowlf gasps at the end. "The term is online," Rizzo corrects him.)

12152009_muppets7.jpgEach sketch ends with Statler and Waldorf, the grumpy old men who lobbed insults from the balcony on "The Muppet Show," grousing about the video you just watched, or the internet in general. ("When I was a kid they hadn't invented the web," Statler declares after the skateboarding video. "When you were a kid, they hadn't invented the wheel!" Waldorf replies.) Sam the Eagle fronts a rousing a cappella rendition of "Stars and Stripes Forever"; Gonzo conducts a chorus of chickens clucking Johann Strauss' "Blue Danube Waltz" in "Classical Chicken" and Beaker, the Swedish Chef and Animal sing "Habanera" from Bizet's "Carmen."

The publication of this first batch of videos isn't just an auspicious occasion for Muppet fans; it might mark the exact moment when the characters really, truly, finally came back, and reclaimed their rightful place at the center of American popular culture.

The commonly accepted narrative of the Muppets holds that they lost something when Henson died in 1990 of pneumonia -- and that the films and TV projects that followed were good-natured but doomed attempts to recapture the magic (a quest further hampered by the absence of Henson's actual voice, which gave life to Kermit and other central characters). All true. But it's also worth arguing that the Muppets started to drift away from the wellspring of their inspiration as early as the 1980s, when Henson fell in love with long-form storytelling and put sketch comedy on the back burner.

Henson's creations have been around for over four decades, starting out as guest performers (creatures?) on talk and variety series. They found a home on PBS' "Sesame Street" in 1969, broke away to form their own syndicated series, "The Muppet Show" (1976-81), then migrated to theatrical films, starting with 1979's "The Muppet Movie." There were more movies, plus television spinoffs (including the animated series "Muppet Babies," 1984-1991) and periodic attempts to revive the variety show (1989's short-lived "The Jim Henson Hour" and "Muppets Tonight," which ran from 1996-98 on ABC and then the Disney Channel).

But with hindsight, it becomes clear that Muppets were at the peak of their powers from the mid-'70s through the early '80s, when the original variety series, set in a big old theater, was still cranking out new episodes -- offering a mix of music, slapstick and goofy banter modeled on the American vaudeville and English music hall traditions. They were creatures of TV -- specifically grab bag TV, a format descended from vaudeville and the golden age of radio. Grab bag TV encompassed everything from live action music/comedy/variety to talk shows and children's programs such as "Sesame Street."

12152009_muppetmovie6.jpgHenson's creations might have represented the last organic link to that type of entertainment, which was on its way out when "The Muppet Show" debuted. When Kermit interacted on "The Muppet Show" with Ethel Merman, or when master ventriloquist Edgar Bergen made a brief cameo in "The Muppet Movie," one could sense the love and respect in every frame; the Muppets (especially Kermit, Henson's alter ego) were acolytes paying tribute to their aesthetic grandparents. The troupe worked in the old showbiz vein, getting in and getting out in the time it took to set up a premise and work it to its logical (or illogical) conclusion. (An early, classic example is a sketch from a 1967 installment of "The Ed Sullivan Show" in which an intelligent computer explains its purpose to Cookie Monster, who's mainly interested in eating it. The sketch's meticulous build to a literally explosive finale is a marvel of comic architecture on par with the last few minutes of Laurel and Hardy's destruction derby "Big Business.")

"The Muppet Movie," Henson Associates, 1979

Whether the stars of a given Muppet TV sketch were Bert and Ernie and Oscar the Grouch or Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Rowlf the Dog, the characters were nearly always at their best in small doses. The gag-a-minute format meant that you never had time to tire of any one character, or fixate too long on the fact that a particular sketch wasn't working. Except for "The Muppet Movie," which of all the films came closest to capturing the relaxed, anything-for-a-laugh approach that defined the original variety series (Kermit: "That's a myth! A myth!" Carol Kane: "Yeth?"), the features felt a tad forced and unfocused.

That's because the Muppets were being asked to do something that didn't come naturally to them -- blend into a story and carry its meanings forward. Henson's characters were beloved because of who they were -- because of their personalities and tics and obsessions -- not because of what was happening to them and how nobly they held up under misfortune. They were clowns that owed more to Milton Berle and Jack Benny than Charlie Chaplin. That automatically made the Muppet films -- even when they were firing on all cylinders -- seem to lack a certain, ineffable something. (I'm excluding such Henson projects as "The Dark Crystal" and "Labyrinth" from the hypothesis, since they didn't involve signature Muppet creations, but stand-alone creatures fabricated in Henson's shop.)

In this sense, the Muppets had a key quality in common with the Looney Tunes animated characters. Like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam and Elmer Fudd, Kermit and company were always themselves first; the laughs nearly always came from watching the characters try and fail to suppress their essential natures when circumstances required it.

Think of how Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny keep confirming their Elmer and Bugs-ness in "What's Opera, Doc?" They're trying to subordinate their signature traits (Elmer's lisp, Bugs' penchant for drag) to serve the majesty of Richard Wagner, and of course they can't. The sight of Bugs and Elmer striving to be "operatic" (note Bugs' dutiful deep breaths between sung lines, and Elmer's demonic scowl and ramrod posture as he calls down hurricanes, typhoons and smog) isn't just endearing. It adds another conceptual layer to director Chuck Jones' parody and makes the whole thing unexpectedly touching, even stirring. The characters' performances are heroically committed even though they're more enthusiastic than skillful, and that combination of aspects makes the whole thing sublime.


Henson and company managed a similar brand of casual sorcery each week on the original "Muppet Show." Think of guest star Rita Moreno trying to croon a subdued, sultry version of "Fever" while in the background, Animal can't resist beating his drums to death. Moreno tries to convince Animal to relax and serve the song, but he can't not be Animal. The sketch ends with Moreno mooshing the drummer's fuzzy head between two cymbals. ("Wadda woman!" Animal cries.)

The irrepressible vividness of the Muppets' and Looney Tunes characters' personas rarely suited the needs of feature-length fictional narratives, which ask performers (whether real or virtual) to merge with the story and become someone else. That might be why most Looney Tunes "features" (quotes intentional) are just compilations of pre-existing short films plus substandard linking material; they're less real movies than apologies for not being able to deliver a real movie -- tacit admissions that the characters don't really work in anything but a short format.

And it surely explains why the first dedicated attempt at a full-length, stand-alone feature involving the Looney Tunes characters, 1996's "Space Jam," feels so obscenely wrong. We're supposed to accept that Bugs, Daffy and company fear for their lives and for the safety of the universe -- an intrusion of dramatic tension that works at cross-purposes with the characters' "Relax, It's Just Showbiz" attitude. (Worse still is the idea that Bugs Bunny, trickster extraordinaire, would need Michael Jordan's help with anything.)

The only Looney Tunes feature that worked, really worked, was Joe Dante's "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" (2003), a Dada-esque exercise in cliché-teasing, fourth-wall-breaking insanity that let the characters be themselves (times ten) and used plot the way Bertolt Brecht used it -- as a means of calling attention to the conventions and purposes of storytelling itself (like the bit in "The Muppet Movie" where Kermit and Fozzie bring Dr. Teeth and his orchestra up to speed on their adventures thus far by handing him the screenplay). Dante, God bless him, grasped a simple fact about his inherited characters that Henson's successors (and even Henson himself) seemed to inclined to reject: requiring Kermit or Miss Piggy or Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck to serve material, any material, snuffs out the source of their appeal.


Muppet features that ignore this truth (which is to say, most of them) consign themselves to being forgettable diversions. "A Muppet Christmas Carol" (1992), for instance, only comes to life when Michael Caine's Scrooge is being spooked by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future -- original, spectacular creations, none played by the Muppet troupe's stars, who are shunted off to the margins of the story. Dickens' familiar characters shackle the Muppets' charisma. Gonzo narrates, Kermit plays Bob Cratchit and Miss Piggy, who at the very least should have been cast as the Ghost of Christmas Future and empowered to karate-chop some sense into Scrooge, plays Cratchit's wife. That's as inconceivable as casting Angelina Jolie as a sexless martyr. (Oops, I forgot -- Jolie already did that to herself.)

The only post-"Muppet Movie" feature with real spark is the 2005 TV special "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz," which leans heavily on the viewer's fondness for L. Frank Baum while also flaunting a what-the-heck, let's-try-it attitude towards shtick, the likes of which hasn't been seen since Henson's heyday. Miss Piggy finally gets a role she can sink her snout into -- four roles, actually: the Witches of the North, South, East and West. She's always Miss Piggy, swollen-headed diva, and she gives her career-best performance as the Witch of the West, who screams through the sky on a jet-propelled motorcycle while wearing a studded leather biker mama outfit (with eye-patch!).

"Ode To Joy," The Jim Henson Company, 2009

Some of the other stars are cast in parts that either comment on their familiar personas (brainy Kermit as the Scarecrow, meek Fozzie as the Cowardly Lion) or brazenly ignore them. The funniest of the newer characters, Pepe the King Prawn, plays Toto -- which is to say he plays Pepe the King Prawn, strolling through Oz in a hipster jacket while spewing Latin-accented malapropisms. (The movie reaches a surreal peak when Pepe turns to the camera and deadpans, "Those of you who have 'Dark Side of the Moon,' press play now.")

The Muppets' reinvention as an online phenomenon is an encouraging development because it reconnects the troupe with the basic sources of Henson's magic: the strength of the Muppets' personalities, and the notion of performance as a journey in itself, as bold and edifying as any narrative. At its best, the original "Muppet Show" was conceptual comedy with training wheels, owing as much to Brecht, Ernie Kovacs and Salvador Dalí as it did to any variety series (or children's program) being made at that time. There were always two shows going on: the one that the theater audience saw onstage, and the behind-the-scenes insanity, with Kermit's stage manager kissing the posterior of that week's guest star while managing the egos of his repertory troupe.

It was Showbiz 101 for tots (and tots-at-heart). Ben Vereen singing "Pure Imagination", Julie Andrews performing "The Lonely Goatherd" and the "talented but frightening" Alice Cooper blowing the doors off the theater with "School's Out" served as examples of true professionalism -- a benign contrast to the personal silliness that usually prevented the show's regulars from achieving greatness: Miss Piggy's vanity, Gonzo's clueless desire to impress, Fozzie's incompetence. And let's not forget wild-card developments such as Waldorf trying to court guest star Valerie Curtin with a potted jungle vine that eventually takes over the theater.

The Muppet Channel is still a fledgling enterprise, but what's there suggests that the people running it really, truly get it. The videos are about the length of a "Muppet Show" sketch, and they manage the tricky feat of succeeding as stand-alone goofs (i.e., as endlessly re-playable YouTube videos) while being true to the characters, showcasing them not just as performers but as individuals. (In "Muppets Bohemian Rhapsody," Animal spaces out during his solo, repeating "Mama?" over and over -- a bit that reacquaints us with Animal's mouth-breathing stupidity while deftly excising the least kid-friendly part of the song's lyrics.)


The new shorts exist to re-start the Muppets as a cash cow for their parent company, Disney, while cross-promoting Disney's other media properties (including Queen, whose greatest hits have just been repackaged on CD for the umpteenth time). But there's enough integrity in the first batch of videos to suggest that the Muppets will be Muppets first, properties second. The YouTube clips kid the clichés of the still-young viral video format just as "The Muppet Show" kidded the conventions of vaudeville, variety series and backstage melodrama. (The Rizzo-Rowlf skateboarding clip is shot with a wobbly handheld camera, just like a real skateboarding video.)

They also find new media equivalents for some of the most beloved bits from the old variety show. At the end of "Muppets Bohemian Rhapsody," and throughout "Ode to Joy" and "Classical Chicken," the screen splits into boxes to showcase each participant in the song's multi-part harmony; the mosaic tile effect evokes the rows of creatures stacked on top of each other at the end of the "Muppet Show" credits. Statler and Waldorf's post-video gripes poke fun at how the Internet has turned the whole planet into Comic Book Guys, stampeding online after each new pop culture experience to dub it The Worst Ever. Watching the Muppets' YouTube channel is like attending a reunion comprised only of people you really wanted to see again, and discovering, to your relief, that they've aged beautifully, and are even more charming than you remembered.

[Additional photos: Edgar Bergen in "The Muppet Movie," Associated Film Distribution, 1979; Rita Moreno on "The Muppet Show," The Jim Henson Company, 1976; "The Muppet Christmas Carol," Buena Vista Pictures, 19992]