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The Muppets’ secret weapon doesn’t work in the Disney era

Polygon - Sun Apr 11 15:45

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Fozzy Bear sits dejected at a restaurant table in the Muppets Now! premiere. Photo: Disney Plus

Jim Henson’s greatest creation is at odds with how the business works

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There are few things in modern pop culture more magical than the moments when you can forget that the Muppets aren’t actually living creatures. Usually, it happens with a song — at least, it does for me, every time I see Kermit the Frog wistfully singing “Rainbow Connection” in a swamp. Or when I see “Hey, a Movie!” from The Great Muppet Caper, where Fozzie, Gonzo, and Kermit — taken completely seriously by everyone around them — sing and dance through a bustling movie set, laying out the premise of the story viewers are about to see.

All puppetry is a testament to the power of make-believe, but as a cast of felt-and-fur characters with more than 50 years of history, the Muppets have endured in a way that virtually no other puppet characters have. They’re also in a bit of a rut these days, compared to the critical and commercial success of their 1970s peak. The Muppets were a sensation, a crossover primetime success for adults and children alike. They sang beloved songs, starred in hit movies, and took over Johnny Carson’s job for a night. But while they’re still a fixture in pop culture, something’s off about their tone.

In spite of occasional bright spots like the 2011 film The Muppets and the new Disney Plus series Muppets Now!, some elusive Muppets recipe has been lost to time. The Muppets were and are an ensemble act of puppetry masters, but the heart of their early success was the unique, compelling chemistry between Jim Henson and Frank Oz, who performed and voiced the most iconic Muppet characters, from Kermit the Frog to Miss Piggy to Animal. But while the Muppets are now immortalized as brands, the performers that brought them to life were just people. Creative chemistry can’t become intellectual property.

The Muppets outlasted their creators’ involvement. Jim Henson’s death in May 1990 was an incalculable loss to the Muppets. Frank Oz retired from performing them in 2001, and Muppet Show head writer Jerry Juhl, who was instrumental in molding many of their characters, died in 2005. At present, the only remaining core member of the original Muppets ensemble is Dave Goelz, most famous for playing Gonzo.

Then in 2004, Disney bought the Muppets outright, and the transformation from comedy ensemble to brand became complete. Disney tried to extend the original magic, but the company has reportedly helped foster a boys’ club culture that started to form in the Oz and Henson days. The reticence to correct emergent problems as The Muppets entered the Disney era ultimately ended up stifling creativity and shutting out female performers like Julianne Buescher, a 30-year veteran of the Jim Henson Co. who currently plays Beverly the Turkey on Muppets Now! The Muppets, it seems, are no stranger to institutional problems that most industries struggle with, and perhaps if their current owners were better stewards, more prone to fostering new talent, the Muppets wouldn’t be perceived as being in some kind of perpetual rut. After all, “new talent” is a great answer to the question prominent culture critics ask over and over again: Are the Muppets still relevant today?

amy adams, a bunch of muppets, and jason segel Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

Another part of the problem is simply that “Are the Muppets relevant?” may be the wrong question. A better one might be “Have the Muppets evolved in a less relevant direction?” While the reported behind-the-scenes issues play no small part in The Muppets’ restless evolution and lack of a steady 21st-century groove, there’s also a significant change in how they’ve been presented to audiences. The problem is sincerity: The Muppets at their 1970s peak have a timeless charm because they’re achingly sincere. And the changing cultural context around them has made that sincerity next to impossible to maintain.

Streaming the original 1976-1981 edition of The Muppet Show on Disney Plus today means disappearing into a world that doesn’t really exist anymore. But that was also the case at the time. The Muppet Show wasn’t television, it was vaudeville. The series is an intentional throwback that goes out of its way to pay tribute to a previous generation of entertainers — like early television legend Milton Berle — while showing a new generation that the old magic still worked.

At first, a big self-aware joke at the heart of The Muppet Show was that it couldn’t book big stars even if it wanted to — the Muppet characters who were putting on a stage show within the TV show all knew that theater wasn’t conventionally popular, much like Jim Henson and co. knew that watching puppets do vaudeville was a big ask for a sophisticated adult audience. But the series was a success, spawning a feature film franchise that kicked off with 1979’s The Muppet Movie. And as they became more and more successful, the running joke that no one watched the hardscrabble puppet show got more and more ridiculous. It was a hard façade to maintain when the cast of Star Wars was appearing on the show.

Now that The Muppet Show is streaming more or less in its entirety, it’s possible to watch this transformation happen with full foreknowledge of what’s coming. Its first season in 1976 is famously devoid of big names. The show pulled guests from outside TV or cinema, like dancer Juliet Prowse, or from actors who had not yet reached the peaks of their fame, like Rita Moreno. Then two things happened: The show became a hit, and the blockbuster era — which kicked off with the 1975 release of Jaws — began in earnest. Rock stars like Blondie’s Debbie Harry appeared on the show, and successful old-school actors like Vincent Price and Bernadette Peters came by. Then, finally, The Muppet Show was prominent enough to draw the actors who made their names in blockbuster films and the shows inspired by them: Sylvester Stallone, Christopher Reeve, Mark Hamill, and Lynda Carter.

Not every actor that appears on The Muppet Show is great at interacting with the puppets, but they all give it their damndest. I’m fond of Stallone’s appearance, which channels the sweetness that made him an icon in Rocky, but that subsequent sequels and action roles later left behind. He sets up a punching bag in the green room, only to learn that the bag is also a Muppet. He dresses up in a gladiator outfit to sing and dance with a lion. He’s never entirely natural with his Muppet co-stars, but he clearly likes them. He’s bought into their world. He’s sincere.

All this is an endearing twist on the pro-wrestling practice of kayfabe, where wrestlers are performers, and the performance doesn’t stop outside of the ring — all interviews and public appearances are part of the show, in one continuous performance.

That’s the trick that makes the Muppets’ sincerity work: their best stories happen when their human guests — and therefore the audience — try to join their world. The Muppets are at their least functional and entertaining in stories that are too firmly situated in our world. That’s what lies at the heart of many complaints about The Muppets, the failed 2015 mockumentary series that channeled The Office and mined inter-Muppet relationships for drama, like Kermit’s breakup with Miss Piggy. Or this viral moment on The Masked Singer, when a giant singing snail is revealed to be none other than Kermit the Frog in disguise, and the judges work extremely hard to sell how much their minds are blown.

The Masked Singer appearance was followed by an interview with People, where “Kermit“ answered questions by email about the show and joked about how snails and frogs are both served at French restaurants. If it isn’t clear, I hate this kind of Muppet shit, because it’s insincere. It’s compelling people to play along with the Muppet kayfabe, rather than inviting them into the Muppet world. It’s the inverse of the original magic, which despite the puppetry, was about people. Setups like the Masked Singer cameo are about brands instead.

While the original Muppet Show isn’t necessarily a bastion of artistic purity — most of the guest stars were there to promote something, even if it was just their own careers — the series worked pretty hard to hide it. (It also helped that the publicity game was very different before the internet.) So while the show’s guests — and by extension, the Hollywood actors who would appear in Muppets movies — could profit from a Muppets appearance, they were still serving the one thing the Muppets need to do, every time: put on a show.

That last part is important. For all the time Kermit, Fozzie, and friends have spent trying to get to Hollywood in their movies, the Muppets aren’t necessarily about Hollywood. Hollywood is an obstacle. Hollywood thinks the Muppets don’t matter, and it’s the silent villain in a lot of Muppet productions. (Muppets Most Wanted, the last Muppets movie released, joked about the cynicism of movie sequels in its opening number, as the Muppets went on to make… a movie sequel.)

The Muppets are interested in Hollywood as shorthand for why someone would want to get on a stage, sing, dance, or clack away on a typewriter. At their best, the Muppets elegantly threaded the needle that every commercial artist has to — they were honest about their ambition to be rich and famous, but only if they got to keep their hearts intact. Entering the Muppets’ world means embracing the feeling that there’s something bigger than you that you have to get out of your head, and the chaotic, exhausting work it takes to make it real. It’s about how ridiculous it looks and feels to put yourself out there.

This is the secret behind the success of 2011’s The Muppets, which strangely remains unmatched by latter-day Muppet productions a decade later. Beyond the infectious sincerity and charm of star and co-writer Jason Segel, it’s a movie that uses these familiar puppets as a medium to carry viewers away from our world and into theirs. It’s a step away from reality, where your secret ambitions and hopes might seem silly and childlike in comparison to your adult concerns, and into a place where those dreams are all that matters. At the end of the film, the Muppets sing “The Rainbow Connection,” just as they did at the end of their first film. At this point, it’s a familiar song instead of a new one. But the effect is the same as it always was: the audience forgets they’re singing along with puppets, and instead remembers what they always dreamed of doing.