Yesterday would have been Jim Henson’s 80th birthday.  I thought I’d comment on this by offering my opinion about why the recent Muppets reboot failed, because I feel it reflects the same sort of cultural/generational shift that I refer to in my other posts.

First off, I should qualify this by saying I did not see either of the Muppets reboot movies.  The first of the two did very well at the box office and got decent reviews.  So I’m going to exclude that from my critique and just focus on the TV show.

Last year I read this book on Jim Henson which focused on his approach to business and how it could be a good template for other entrepreneurs in the creative space.  There were two main takeaways from that book, his overall character and the mission-statement he had for his work.  He was someone who came from a religious background and who had a very strong sense of right and wrong.  Although definitely influenced by the counter-culture of the beatnik and hippie era, he avoided the traps of hedonism and narcissism that, in retrospect, tarnished the legacy of peace and love of the 60s.  Instead the tone of his work was subversive towards the status quo and yet carried a wholesome family-values quality.

In his earliest work he was most interested in Looney Tunes like schtick, employing cartoon-like violence purely for comedic effect.  But this was a transitional stage towards him finding his true voice which came about through Sesame Street and especially in early TV specials like the Frog Prince.  When I was a kid, it was before the era of home video.  The only way to experience something on demand was through some alternate medium, like a “photonovel” or a highly illustrated LP with a time-compressed audio-only version.

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Now you don’t even have to pay for most things like this as it’s floating around on Youtube, copyright ID or no copyright ID.  So here it is:

So often there’s an early work that foreshadows everything that will come later.  The Frog Prince contains the seeds of both The Muppet Show (with Snookems and Robin carrying over) and also future long-form fairy-tale work like The Dark Crystal.  It’s hard to remember how limited people’s conception of puppetry was before Jim Henson.  To this day, puppets are still seen as suitable mainly for kiddie fare, but adults also associate the Muppet brand as crossover all-ages entertainment, that is, when written properly, which hasn’t always been the case, especially since Henson sold to Disney and died.

While Henson’s work often relied on comedy-of-errors and characters getting exasperated towards each other to the point of bodily harm (think Miss Piggy’s baseball-swing slaps), there was always an undercurrent of familial unity that came from Henson’s own way of life.  The various self-help-like quotes on this page are a great example.

There’s several quotes in there which explain why the rebooted series failed, but one in particular hits it head-on.  Before I copy-paste the quote, for those who didn’t catch the show, it was put together by Bill Prady, one of the key players behind The Big Bang Theory.  Prady actually put in some time working for Henson in the early days of his career, so it made sense to hand him the reigns.  However, the fact remains that his outlook on life is different from Henson’s.  I actually am a big fan of The Big Bang theory, but there’s no denying that it’s the most popular sitcom precisely because it has locked into the way today’s generation view adulthood, which is like an extended adolescence.  The reason BBT has been running out of steam is because the show felt the need to slowly shift the characters beyond this and into a sort of dull married domesticity.  So I’m not saying the BBT formula is bad.  It worked for the show, but it didn’t work for The Muppets.

Why did ABC think it would?  Because it was counting on today’s generation being able to relate anew with the Muppets if they could only update the Muppets to reflect the same negative attitudes of today.  They did this by simply cloning The Office, making it a faux documentary reality-show, focusing on backstage drama and leaving little room for (supposedly corny and outdated) song and dance numbers.

(Unfortunately, Youtube doesn’t have highlights easily accessible, so I can’t post a lot of embeds and can mostly write about what was on the show.)

What’s unsurprising is that some of the storylines in The Muppet Show could have just as easily been written for The Big Bang theory.  Other than the idea of Kermit and Piggy as a couple was part of The Muppet Show, romantic relationships in general were never made a priority.  However, in modern shows, at least from Seinfeld and Friends onward, the core of a character’s life seems to revolve around the endless pursuit of serial dating.  Therefore in order to make the Muppets feel “adult” they felt the need to fill in the blanks of the personal life of many of the longstanding Muppet characters.  Since the BBT made a big deal over geeks having low “romantic market value”, the new Muppet Show focused on how pathetic the dating prospects of Fozzie and Gonzo were.  Fozzie and Gonzo were equivalent to Raj on The Big Bang theory.  An obvious stereotype of being the awkward “other”, the beta (or gamma) male.  Simultaneously ridiculing and pitying the low-status male is something Prady seems to think is a vitally important aspect of the human condition we must explore, again and again.

Similarly, we must have Kermit and Piggy breakup, since their relationship was always dysfunctional in the first place.  And after that, we must have Piggy hookup with one of the guests (Josh Groban) in her dressing room.  This one I DO have a clip to embed.

This clip is good to dissect because even if Henson were to have “gone there” so to speak, he would have done it differently.  In this clip, Kermit is merely presented as the beta-male sad sack who is “cock-blocked” (or is it cloaca blocked?).  The perspective is ultimately cynical.  Piggy wants the alpha-male, the crooner, and Kermit has to just accept being second-best.  We are supposed to laugh at Kermit for not measuring up on the romantic pecking order, not feel sorry for him.  In this way, the ultimate message is no different from BBT or How I Met Your Mother or other shows of that ilk.  The humor is wrapped up in a bitter pill that we’re asked to swallow, where love essentially does not exist.  All that exists is primal attraction no more evolved than you see with peacocks or gorillas.

If Henson were to have approached this material, he would have made us empathize more with Kermit.  Kermit would not just feebly throw himslf at Groban in an attempt to assert his masculinity.  He would probably have just felt crushed by the bombshell and whimpered a few lines to Piggy such as “How could you??” and walked away, to the strains of some sappy music.  It would have revolved around feelings and not power or ego.

The show then adds insult to injury by having Kermit go out with a sexier stand-in for Piggy who is little more than brainless arm-candy.  We’re therefore asked to believe that Kermit is an unromantic guy who pursued Piggy for no other reason than he has a perverse sexual fetish for pigs.  As a plot-device, it worked by creating matching jealousy with Piggy, but at the expense of character integrity.  Piggy was the singular vessel of cynicism in the old days, as Frank Oz himself was the cynical foil to Henson’s idealist.  But the new show spread the cynicsm evenly across all of them.

The question would then be what better constitutes “adult” storytelling?  Is Henson’s approach merely sentimental and unrealistic or could you say that Prady’s approach is what is juvenile?  There’s no way to answer that question without stepping back and assessing modern life as a whole.  Modern life is largely about gamification.  How that extends to relationships is to play this game of trading relationships around like baseball cards.

Not only that, but there’s an ever blurry line between public and private life.  Everyone’s life is out in the open more than any time before, so the frank talk (or fraternization) among coworkers is more common these days.  One could infer that the classic Muppets had a personal life, but they just kept it private.  And even Piggy and Kermit never kissed and told.  It just wasn’t considered important for us to leer in on what they did behind closed doors.  Now the lurid and prurient has taken center-stage and we call it progress.

This clash of what the Muppets used to stand for and where we are now came to a head in an episode where Kermit’s stress eventually overtakes him.  By this point, the ratings for the show were going into the crapper and they wanted to somehow pivot the characters back to be less cynical and back-biting.  Everyone kept clamoring for The Rainbow Connection, so this is how they reintroduced it.

That one moment where a neighbor yells at him “Learn a new song!” epitomizes the tragedy that you CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN.  (BTW, the black spot in the middle is where it was cut short in the episode.  They filmed the rest of the song but only used that brief intro of it as a punch-line in the show because, of course, we simply don’t have the attention span to sit and listen to a full song.  Facebook likes to tend to, ya know.)

The Muppets as an ideal concept has never changed.

WE CHANGED

Jim’s words:

I know that it’s easier to portray a world that’s filled with cynicism and anger, where problems are solved with violence.  What’s a whole lot tougher is to offer alternatives, to present other ways conflicts can be resolved, and to show that you can have a positive impact on your world. To do that, you have to put yourself out on a limb, take chances, and run the risk of being called a do-gooder.

There’s a part of us that wants The Muppets to plow through undaunted, to project an uplifting attitude.  But it just can’t be played straight anymore.  The tongue has to be planted in cheek.  We want to, but we can no longer believe in them.  And even though Kermit regains his composure and plows on, I find this clip incredibly sad to watch.

The asshole who says “LEARN A NEW SONG!” is the voice of the hecklers saying you’re just a “do-gooder”.

Yes, The Muppets had Statler and Waldorf as hecklers, but they waited until AFTER the numbers were complete because he wanted the audience to react in its own way to the sincerity of the piece.  Then when they just tore into it like a hater’s youtube commentary, you’d laugh, but in the end you’d still be on the side of the Muppets, because they played it straight and they believed in what they were doing.  The Muppets never shied away from cynicism, but they always came down on the side of idealism.  That’s exactly what The Rainbow Connection itself is about.

Here is how the song was presented on the show, to help promote the movie.  Note the differences.

(This guest spot made such a permanent impact on Debbie Harry that she’s still talking about it decades later.)

So the reason The Muppets failed is that while there’s a part of us still searching to get back to the Rainbow Connection, there’s no guiding hand out there that is a true-believer the way Henson was.  The best we could get are producers who, while missing the old days, can only write what they know, which is a world too “grown up” to believe in love.

Maybe we don’t need to “learn a new song”, but to go back and learn what the old ones really meant.

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