Growing up, there were six tapes on my shelf that meant the world to me. Three of them were, of course, my Star Wars videotapes, but the other three weren’t mega successful blockbusters that I would watch with my friends on the weekends. They were hour-long compilations of The Muppet Show. I wasn’t embarrassed to put them in plain view of other kids. I’d just watch them with my older sister and I never really saw a reason to watch them with anyone else. I only had about three hours of tapes and I would watch them enough with Justine. We’d watch the same three hours over and over again, and never really got bored of it.
I still pull up one of my favorite skits from the compilations when I feel like I’m having a bad day. Rowlf the dog is sitting behind his piano playing a small number when Fozzie Bear stumbles up to him. Fozzie starts playing the same tune a pitch lower, to which Rowlf comments, “Hey, I didn’t know you could play the piana.” Fozzie replies, “I didn’t know it either.” They go back and forth from there, playing a beautiful duet. In the middle of it, Fozzie’s hat falls off onto the keys and Rowlf throws it off to the side, shouting, “Can you play hatless?” Fozzie shouts back, “I don’t know, who wrote it?” Is it a comical masterpiece? No, but it’s heartwarming and it still gets a couple chuckles out of me.
When I was about 12 or 13, Disney put out DVDs of the original Muppet Show seasons and, knowing how much I loved the show as a kid, my sister got me a couple seasons for my birthday. I fell in love all over again, but this time it was a bit different. I started to notice the guests they had on the show and the music that these guests would play and other shows that they came from and so these DVD presented me with a culture that is intrinsic to me even now. I was introduced to the likes of Pearl Bailey, Liberace, Madeline Kahn, and a bunch of other celebrities from the late 70s that I still see as my inspirations. It wasn’t a crude show. There was a lot of slapstick and very literal, dry gimmicks, but those were really fun even for a 13-year-old.
Flash forward seven or eight years to last week, when ABC premiered the first episode of The Muppets, a mockumentary that follows the Muppets, who now run Ms. Piggy’s late night talk show. Reviews from critics from Variety, the Los Angeles Times, and IGN criticized the program for taking the Muppets out of their wholesome element, placing them in a crass and unsuitable environment, and making them something that they’re not.
Personally, I’ve loved the first couple episodes. Sure, it’s got a bit more of an edgy and lewd humor than I would have expected, but it’s great to see the Muppets back in a new format. The celebrity guests have been rather entertaining, though they appear on the program less for their talent and more for their celebrity presence. Yes, relationships and romance are much more at the forefront of the show than they’ve ever been for the Muppets, but it’s not like they’re making obscene remarks or explicitly acting anything out, it’s just been witty double entendres so far. There’s a lot of interesting dynamics to play with putting the Muppets into this The Office/30 Rock atmosphere and I think critics have been quick to dismiss this format because it’s not like the original show. They’re looking for what the Muppets were, not what they could be.
For me, what the Muppets used to be died with the show’s creator, Jim Henson, in the mid ’90s. The Muppet Show was infused with a funk, jollity, and atmosphere that I don’t think exists and wouldn’t survive on today’s television. The type of humor that The Muppet Show had wouldn’t push the envelope at all for today’s viewers and I think that’s what most viewers are looking for: things being taken to their boundaries. My favorite skit where Fozzie and Rowlf put on a little impromptu duet would fall flat on its face because there’s little to no bite to it. It’s just cute now.
I’m not pointing to this transition and saying that what we have now is bad. I really like what ABC is doing with this show. It’s just that viewers and critics can’t look at it and say, “That’s not what the Muppets are.” What the Muppets originally were is gone, secluded to tapes and DVDs in dusty drawers, but what we have now is their evolution and, at least so far, it has actually been a lot of fun.
Featured Image Courtesy of ABC Studios