• April 19, 2024

The Low-Key Carter-Era Pleasures of “The Muppet Show”

Watching television these days means feeling that the line between a clever concept and a dystopian hallucination is worryingly thin. In a recent episode of The Masked Singer – the Fox reality competition show in which a jury tries to identify the identity of a crooning celebrity dressed in mascot-style head-to-toe costume – A giant, spangled snail gave a trotting rendition of Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams”. The performance raised many questions for me. Why should a snail have to wear a velvety cylinder on its shell? What about the roses circling in the background? Would I ever be able to forget the judge’s assessment and ex-pussycat doll Nicole Scherzinger? However, only one thing mattered to the members of the panel: Who sang? You made some guesswork. Seth MacFarlane? Jay Leno? Maybe even Senator Ted Cruz? (This wasn’t as fancy a possibility as one might think: a pastel bear had been found to be former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin a few years ago.) Finally, on to the rhythmic, strip-club-esque chants of the audience The snail hat was removed and Kermit the frog emerged with his mouth open and felted. The judges gasped, the crowd roared: The masked celebrity was not a man, but a muppet.

In the late 1970s, when Jim Henson’s “The Muppet Show” was in syndication on CBS, Kermit was the meek leader of his own cast of cast, a ragged band of puppet characters who sang, danced and told jokes in a quaint old playhouse. Now the frog was in a mess of vulgar reality. His no-frills suit was sandwiched in a suit that was far more flashy and grotesque. Where to childhood Granted, others may not experience this shift as severely: I realize I am exactly the right age to feel an acute nostalgia for the low-key delights of the Carter administration before the malicious, seductive glitz of the Reagan years set in on prospect . (“The Muppet Movie,” the franchise’s first theatrical release with its wistful hit “Rainbow Connection,” was my first theatrical experience at the age of three in the summer of 1979.) But now, younger generations can get their own taste for Henson’s idea. Earlier this year, The Muppet Show began streaming on a digital platform for the first time. All five seasons are available on Disney +. (The Walt Disney Company bought the Muppets property from the Henson family in 2004.) As far as I knew, Kermit’s appearance on The Masked Singer was an example of clever product placement by Disney (which also owns Fox) to use to remind people that the muppets exist, and when it actually did, it made the segment even creepier. And yet I was ready to forgive. There are some things that can be justified when the tradeoff is watching a favorite childhood program.

The format of “The Muppet Show,” which ran from 1976 to 1981, remained constant throughout the show’s broadcast. Kermit and his fellow puppets put on a variety show each week with a different human guest star, chosen from a loose series of performances – songs, sketches, interviews – à la popular shows of the time such as “Laugh-In,” The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour “and” The Carol Burnett Show “. Unlike Henson another hit-doll-based series“The Muppet Show,” “Sesame Street,” which aired on PBS in 1969, was intended not only for children but also for adults. The show, not educational, but gently satirical and often wildly crazy, featured the long-suffering, quietly angry Kermit as our MC; Miss Piggy, the fleeting, sensual diva; Fozzie Bear, the sweaty comedian; Gonzo the Great, the excited bastard; Scooter, the zealous young gopher; Statler and Waldorf, the evil hecklers; Sam the eagle, the moral prig. There was a hippie throwback house band; and then of course the human guests, who included real superstars like Elton John, Liza Minnelli and Diana Ross as well as other niche greats like Liberace and Phyllis Diller as the show progressed. Similar to other comedy series – “The Larry Sanders Show”, “30 Rock” – the show made fun of the little backstage dramas that occupied desperate and confident show business types, but it also celebrated those characters’ excitement and excitement their uncoordinated artistic ambitions.

Today’s family-friendly shows often choose one mode and stick with it: “The Masked Singer” is vocal; Michelle Obama’s Netflix Puppet Show “Waffles + mochi, ”Is very educational. But “The Muppet Show” was satisfied with a variety of feelings and tones. The Muppets lived on the spectrum between quiet and loud, serene and loud, and the shifts from one end to the other were some of the defining characteristics of the show’s humor. When re-watching the episodes on Disney +, I was reminded of the subversive, almost sadistic variety of the program. In an episode of the second season, which is moderated by ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, a performance of “Swine Lake”, which Nureyev plays with a pig muppet, escalates into chaos when Nureyev honks his partner’s nose before he horns it like a pile of rags throws aside. In another episode, in season 4, hosted by folk singer Arlo Guthrie, an initially quiet muppet square dance turns into cheerful brutality, with participants beating and kicking each other. In a season three episode hosted by actress Marisa Berenson, Kermit is literally pulled off the stage with a hook and Miss Piggy bumps into a changing room wall after asking Berenson to help tighten her corset has let go of the laces. There is a dependable comic rhythm of amusement coupled with sudden violence in these and many similar scenes, and the inherent docility of the Muppets’ bodies enables viewers to watch this theater of aggressive impulses from an amused distance.

And yet the show also offers something gentler and more touching, psychological at its core, highlighted by the ragged vulnerability of the Muppets. One of my favorite characters is Beaker, a reagent-based laboratory assistant in the form of a test tube, who is prelinguistic and communicates primarily in high “Mee” tones. In one episode in season 4, he shyly plays Morris Albert’s “Feelings” and is booed off the stage by the audience. As I watched the scene, I suddenly remembered her as a child and shed tears at Beaker’s dejection. And although my sadness was not expressed in tears with this new watch – my heart must have hardened a bit in the last forty years – it occurred to me that Beaker ‘s dilemma is an example of a very adult lesson, “The Muppet Show” teaches: sometimes life is painful and there is not much you can do about it. But coming to terms with it doesn’t have to be entirely unsettling – there’s also something funny about Beaker’s form, about his tuft of orange hair and potato-orange nose, about the strange noises he makes in his ambitious but misguided attempt to perform a song. In this way, “The Muppet Show” feels like a predecessor of a genre later perfected by Pixar: tragicomic advertising art for children and adults in which shabby objects can be both comedic tools and carriers of a heartbreaking inner life. In “The Muppet Show” pieces of fabric, glue and thread that are brought to life become complexly real.

One of the most common emotions the muppets experience is frustration. Becher has feelings, but will never be able to fully communicate them; Fozzie Bear wants to tell jokes but will never be funny. Miss Piggy wants to seduce Kermit and will never quite make it. (The only happy customers in the house may be Statler and Waldorf, as their satisfaction depends on being constantly disappointed.) It is all this frustration that gives The Muppet Show its energy; The show goes on and the blurry, shabby, google-eyed low-tech muppets trudge on. In one episode, Fozzie asks Kermit lets him do a reading of Robert Frost’s “Pop into the woods on a snowy evening”. After Kermit gives in, Fozzie goes on stage and begins to recite, only to be hindered by Gonzo, who has insisted on playing his “tango number” with a chicken troop at the same time. As the number goes on, both Muppets stubbornly continue their games, each being offended by the other’s intrusive interruptions, until Fozzie at the end begins to sing the words of Frost’s poem to the tune of the song. “And miles before I sleep, olé!” Both muppets cry together to hear the audience applaud. It’s all there: hurt feelings, thwarted ambitions, almost violent skirmishes, but also a show must-go-on mentality and joy. To look at the muppets is to look at life itself.

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