Oh no-one cares about you, you worthless piece of fur!
The Muppets have always had a combination of kid-friendly wackiness and irreverent fun that adults could get behind. But they’ve been off regular TV screens for some time, focussing more on movies that bring in big box office with generations of felt-and-fur-fans.
The original Muppet Show was a funny pastiche of a popular seventies art form – the televised theatre variety show. It juxtaposed front of house acts, audience participation through the two old hecklers, Statler and Waldorf, and behind-the-scenes panic and drama, as Kermit, the show’s producer, struggled to keep the lights on, the acts in the building and his girlfriend, the diva goddess that was Miss Piggy at least the sane side of a frog-dropping karate chop. The question is whether such a knockabout entity as the Muppets can still cut it in the 21st century TV world.
The answer, it turns out, is a resounding yes – but watch out, or they might just cut you too, right in your expectations.
In some ways, this new Muppet show will be familiar – Kermit’s still producing, Piggy’s still the star, but in most other respects, this is not your momma’s Muppet Show. The format has been modernised to reflect a current popular art form – the chat show, with Piggy as Letterman/Oprah/Ellen. It also makes use of a more formalised plotting device, the behind-the-scenes documentary. In essence, this is the Muppets doing The Office.
Perhaps what’s moved on most of all though is the sensibility of the gags. This show treats the Muppets more like real, rounded people, with lives outside the concept of the show. Perhaps most startlingly of all, Kermit and Miss Piggy are no longer together! In fact, Kermit is seeing a much younger pig miss, Denise from Marketing, who has, by contrast with Miss Piggy, a soft Southern accent and a manner to match. Even Fozzie Bear has legs and a girlfriend in this modern re-invention of the Muppet Show (Riki Lindhome, of many things, but most notably Garfunkel and Oates. The gags pop with a combination of mad invention and a more adult feel – Piggy demanding a diva list of alterations, such as a layer of generic trash to be laid on top of her private trash, and lilacs that aren’t lilacy enough, prompting Kermit to make a note on his pad: “Talk to God about lilacs.”
There’s frank to-camera testimony from the frog too – “When Piggy and I were dating, I found her spontaneous and quirky, and that was kinda sexy. But if you take dating out of the equation, she’s just a lunatic.” That’s the point – these are some sexed-up modern Muppets we’re dealing with. Fozzie too has been through the mill since his early days on the Muppet Show. Here he confides that his girlfriend Becky is “the first girl I’ve dated in a long time. When your online profile says ‘Passionate bear looking for love’ you get a lot of wrong responses. Well, I mean not wrong, just…wrong for me.”
Dinner with his girlfriend’s parents allows for a riff on unreconstructed bigotry, with Becky’s parents, who are of course as human as she is, either tiptoeing round Fozzie’s fundamental…bearness…or
making cheap slurs about it – “What if you have children? How are you going to raise them, where will they go to the bathroom? In the woods?”
Does all of this modernisation work with a bunch of characters as fundamentally kid-friendly as the Muppets? Oh, hell yes. This is the Muppets on TV in a post-Simpsons, post-South Park world in which kids are not what kids once were, and it’s actually the adults who worry, while the kids laugh their hip to the jive butts off. This is the Muppets taking on our world, and while the principle focus of the laughs feels like it’s moved on to a more adult audience, the kids in the audience will still laugh because there’s plenty that’s still accessible to both types of viewers. Piggy has lost her urge to karate chop, and throughout the course of the season she even shows a softer side, dealing with Kermit having moved on, and trying, less successfully, to do so herself. But other characters have developed another level of usefulness and depth – Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (the band, whose most famous member is probably Animal) get more to say and do here than they ever did in the original show. Sam the American Eagle is both the perfect representative of the restrictive programming codes of language and behaviour that modern TV has to deal with, and, through his unspoken love for Janice, the band’s hippie chick, a surprisingly subtle satire on the yearning for wildness and love beneath the buttoned-up stuffed shirts of the censors. Scooter, Kermit’s deputy, is given a background, in that he lives with his mom and his world revolves around her, making him the slightly pathetic mommy’s boy of the show. And so on – this Muppet show feels like a window on a larger world of modern real characters, just rendered in Muppet-fur.
Filming and puppetry techniques have also moved on massively since the Muppets were last on TV – right from the off in this first episode, the crowd shots are insanely impressive and complicated, looking, for instance, as if the morning meeting really is full of wild and crazy individuals, talking over each other, throwing paper planes around and generally behaving like any genuine staff meeting before coming to order. It’s almost spookily realistic. What’s more, also from the beginning, Muppets and humans interact in a way that’s perfectly inclusive and natural – this is no longer a world where only the special guest stars are human. It’s far more integrated than that, and the puppetry is advanced enough to make you suspend your disbelief in this Muppet-Human world. It takes an actual effort of will to remember that the Muppets are not actual creatures unto themselves, which is both amazing, and just a little bit weird.
Bottom line – watch The Muppets. It won’t be what you’re expecting, but you’ll laugh your fur off anyway.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk