it's the muppet renaissance, baby
it matters that the muppets are built and controlled by human hands!
Maybe I just exist in the right corner of the internet, but I feel almost embarrassed by Muppet richness in my scrolling patterns recently.
There’s incredible SuperYaki x Skylar Verduzco merch (I bought the glass mug); there is a whole Muppets side of Tik Tok; there’s my friend Emily’s D&D character, who is an elf named Gonzo who looks and sounds exactly like Muppet Gonzo, complete with a battle chicken companion. There are verified Twitter accounts for Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Pepe the King Prawn, Scooter, Rizzo, Uncle Deadly, and the Electric Mayhem — there’s even a joint account for professional old-man hecklers Statler and Waldorf.
There’s also, recently, every single episode of The Muppet Show available to stream on Disney Plus, with a Disney Plus original Muppet movie on the way this Fall.
Having access to The Muppet Show for the first time since the DVD era has felt like watching home videos of me and my oldest friends. There’s an implicit warmth and familiarity there. There’s also a lot I forgot about — I’ve mostly been stunned at how much each episode of The Muppet Show feels like lightning in a bottle, capturing important performances from legends that otherwise might have been lost to history.
Like, Ethel Merman hosted The Muppet Show and sang a bunch of songs from Anything Goes, Gypsy, Call Me Madam, Annie Get Your Gun, and Happy Hunting in 1976, years and years after she originated any of those roles and songs on Broadway. It’s a gift to have full-color, video footage of Merman — widely considered one of the best and most important musical comedy performers of all time — performing the songs that made her into a star, and it’s a miracle that performing those songs alongside puppets doesn’t cheapen their historical significance, or make Merman seem like a has-been.
The Muppets — even Miss Piggy — know how to be the star of the show, but they’re also the world’s best sidekicks. Whether they were singing with Merman towards the end of her career or with Elton John at the beginning of his, the Muppet Show-era Muppets always brought out the best in their scene partners.
The Muppet Show is also way more vaudevillian than I remembered, filled with sketches and off-color jokes and SO MANY SONGS. EVERY GUEST sang on The Muppet Show, regardless of the talent that made them famous, regardless of whether or not they were particularly good at singing (no offense, legendary drummer Buddy Rich or the eagerest-to-please of all Muppet Show guest hosts, Mark Hamill). That scrappiness, that gameness, is what I find myself longing for when I turn on a TV show or a movie today. I rarely find it — so I return to The Muppet Show, and The Muppet Movie (which is perfect), and all that early Jim Henson art.
I tweeted once that streaming series, particularly on Netflix and Disney Plus, have this kind of candy-coated, artificial sheen that keeps me from really connecting to their characters. I don’t know anything about filmmaking — that feeling could simply be a response to shooting on digital versus shooting on film. But I think we feel drawn to The Muppets right now because they're among the last analog vestiges in our digital world. It matters that The Muppets are built and controlled by human hands in an era when even the most mundane TV and film backdrops are computer generated.
The Disney Plus/Marvel limited series WandaVision disappointed me for a lot of reasons, but I was mostly bummed that they wouldn’t GO FOR IT — not really. The period costumes and practical effects in the first few episodes absolutely seduced me into thinking I was watching something real in the same way The Muppets feel real to me; but, as the episodes progressed and the plot fell deeper and deeper into the bland, colorless Marvel traps that have infected even their most honest attempts at art, I felt betrayed. Having the choice between taking a risk and relying on brand recognition, Marvel chose their brand, which is so boring.
I don’t think “art” made by an evil super-corporation will ever be able to access the earnestness of The Muppet Show as an entity, and you can point to pretty much any Muppet content made since Disney first got involved in the 80s as evidence that The Muppets are better off on their own. I’m not saying Disney can’t or hasn’t made good Muppets (I will go to bat for MuppetVision at Disney World any day of the week), but I am saying that the reason we’ll never have another Muppet Show is corporate greed. There’s no room for scrappiness in this squeaky-clean media landscape.
(I am also a Muppets From Space apologist, because Pacey and Joey are in it).
Disney keeps making Muppet content to capitalize on Muppet nostalgia, and I think we consume new Muppet content for the same reason. But when you’re watching Disney stuff, whether that’s animated movies or Marvel or Star Wars or whatever other major IP they just bought yesterday, you can almost feel the dollar signs in the executives’ eyes, no matter how entertaining the product might be. That feels different from something like The Muppet Show, which is charming because it feels, canonically and visually, like it could fall apart at any second. Modern Disney products feel like they’re created in a lab, and The Muppet Show feels solid, but like it’s held tightly together by passion and love.
The Muppet Show is a variety show, but it also takes you behind the scenes of the variety show, in that Larry Sanders, insider way that makes you feel like you know something other people don't know about The Biz. Kermit the Frog keeps the lights on; Miss Piggy is the temperamental star, and Fozzie Bear tries too hard like Richard Kind in the Co-Op episode of Documentary Now! Scooter is one of the only onscreen stage managers I can think of that really nails what stage managers are like. Statler and Waldorf are our audience surrogates, who are allowed to lovingly criticize because their criticism is loving. And Gonzo is just a little guy.
The Muppets are instantly recognizable and instantly lovable, partly because they reflect real-world entertainment archetypes, and partly because you can tell that the team who created them also really, really cared about putting on a good show before all else. A friend who didn’t grow up with The Muppets recently asked me why we talk about Kermit and Miss Piggy like they’re real people, and the only answer I could give her was: they are real people.
The Muppets are beyond cultural figures — they’re mainstays with enough significance to be recognized by anyone with barely a passing knowledge. In two generations, which of our current cultural products will seem worthwhile to pass down to the next generation in the way our parents have given us The Muppets? Will any?
If the world survives long enough for me to have children, I certainly won’t be showing them Avengers: Endgame, because feeling beholden to the military-partnered Marvel Cinematic Universe over the past 13 years has been trying and draining more than it has been fun and exciting. But I will be gifting them The Muppet Show, because I want them to know true joy captured for a TV audience — and, more importantly, I want them to know my friends.
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