Monday, December 12, 2011

The Muppets

A caveat: the first episode of Sesame Street aired on 10 November 1969. I was four years old and sitting in front of the TV watching it. I religiously watched The Muppet Show when it aired original episodes and repeated the jokes to my friends. I own DVDs of the seasons.

Similar to the conversation I had about DC Comics relaunching its titles, an attempt to revive the Muppets franchise has to play a balancing game between two competing audiences: an audience familiar with the Muppets and a new, probably younger audience who is learning about the Muppets for the first time. I should think one of the problems that the Muppets creators would have to deal with is making sure the Muppets don't seem uncool to that younger audience.

I've had an ongoing conversation with friends about the death of the variety show, that staple of 60s and early 70s television. The gist of the conversation is whether or not such a genre would be feasible for today's audience and usually centers on shows like The Carol Burnett Show or The Ed Sullivan Show. I always end up thinking that they are not feasible for today's audience, not because of anything inherently wrong with the format, but because the kinds of people who guest-starred on them are a rare breed in today's modern celebrity. While we may feel Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme, or heaven forbid Jim Nabors, are kinda of kitsch today, I have trouble thinking of modern celebrities who are capable of doing the number of things that "old-time" celebrities could: sing, act, and even if needed put on a little soft-shoe. Granted I am a card-carrying member of the "Get Off My Lawn" club, but it seems to me most celebrities now are famous for being famous rather than having any kind of talent. There are a few exceptions, like Neil Patrick Harris, Justin Timberlake, and Hugh Jackman for instance, but trying to book talent to a variety show would be a difficult undertaking. And if you could find guests, what would be the reaction to such a show hosted by Muppets? I see the new movie The Muppets as something of an experiment in this regard.

At a high level, the plot of The Muppets is fairly standard—an evil oil baron threatens to take over the old Muppet Studios in order to dig for oil, so Kermit has to call together the old gang to put on a telethon to raise the money required to keep the studio safe. Everyone is willing to come back except of course Miss Piggy, who has made a life outside her stage career after her advances have been spurned so often by Kermit, adding some romance element to the movie. But the writers of the movie recognize they are falling on a well-worn trope and add another layer of narrative as a framing device: Gary (played by Jason Segel) and Walter (a muppet) are brothers who travel to Los Angeles with Gary's girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) during spring break. They discover the plot put together by Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) and reveal it to Kermit. But each of the three feels tensions among them driving wedges into their relationships: Gary is torn between devotion to his brother and his love for Mary, Mary is jealous of Gary's devotion to Walter, and Walter is torn between remaining with his brother and fulfilling his lifelong dream of joining the Muppets.

As always, the Muppets are irreverent, including repeated breaking of the fourth wall—for instance, after the movie's opening number featuring singing and dancing from Mary, Gary, and Walter, the chorus and dancers that make up the population of their hometown collapse to the ground in relief at their departure. In a later scene, when the three beg Kermit to save Muppet Studios, he declines, forcing Mary to look at the camera and declare "Well, that makes for a short movie." But the Muppets' humor is also gentle, picking on each other's foibles with grace and love—even Statler and Waldorf's ongoing heckling does not keep them from hanging out with the rest of the Muppets. The movie even knows that its subject matter may not be cool enough for modern audiences and reflects that concern with the Kermit's visits to TV studios to air his telethon and then competed headbutting with studio executive Veronica (Rashida Jones).

And there are always sight gags going on behind the main action as well, uproariously funny when they are spotted.

Also critical to the success of any Muppets venture is the strength of the guests. After Segel and Adams, there are many cameos that add flavor to the proceedings, and the casting of Jack Black as the kidnapped guest host is inspired. Also inspired is Dave Grohl, drummer for Nirvana and lead singer and guitarist for The Foo Fighters, as a member of a Muppet tribute band. Part of the joy of the movie is trying to pick out who is making appearances both in the foreground and in the background.

And, of course, there's the music. The movie's creators take two paths, both creating new music for the movie as if it were a traditional musical, but also including versions of existing music, the staple of the old variety show (and of the new breed of musicals as well). "Muppet or Man" is a brilliantly funny duet/quartet between Gary and Walter as they try to figure out who they want to be in their lives, questioning if they are "a very manly muppet" or "a muppet of a man". And when they each get alter egos—Gary's reflection is a muppet and Walter's is another brilliant cameo choice—the poignancy of their decision is mingled with the laughter of such a ludicrous scene based on real musical clich├ęs. And counterpoised with that is the scene of Camilla and her barnyard friends (chickens all of them) performing CeeLo Green's "Forget You" and Rowlph, Link Heartthrob, Sam the Eagle, and Beaker performing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as a barbershop quartet to the plaintive cries of Jack Black, tied up and screaming "you're ruining one of the greatest songs of all time!"

Laughter continuously rippled through the audience. And while it's obvious this is not necessarily high-brow humor (though the more you think about it, chickens singing "Forget You" is VERY meta), it's not mean either. It's not garishly unhip either, even though you can be pretty confident you know how every plotline is going to end up. The result is synergy, a presentation that may be as uniquely American as Monty Python is uniquely British. The old characters and the old format have not lost their charm and can be used modern music and modern sensibility. If this was indeed an experiment for a revival of The Muppet Show, by all indications it was a soaring success—so much so that Mrs. Speculator and I talked about eventually owning this in the new age of digital media delivery.

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