Stories I Like: The Muppets

OK, just to be clear, I am not specifically talking about the film that has just come out, entitled The Muppets, but rather I’m writing about the franchise in general.  And even there, I am only really writing about the aspects that I have seen, and even there, I’m only talking about the parts I really liked.  Specifically, that would be most of the episodes of the original Muppet Show from the 1970’s and 1980’s, and at least the first two films:  The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper.  Also, there was an amazing TV special that was specifically created as a tribute to Jim Henson after his death, and which was the first to feature a non-Henson Kermit voice.  And to a limited degree, we can include the recent movie into this, which I have just come home from seeing at the drive-in with my family!

Watching The Muppet Show was a memorable part of my childhood.  I think it came on Monday nights, around 7:30, and I remember when I first started to watch it.  I didn’t know who anyone was other than Kermit (from his days on Sesame Street) but it didn’t take me long to connect to the broader cast.  Scooter was the first one I identified, but Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Rowlf, and all the rest were not far behind.  I remember much laughter arising from the antics of “Pigs in Space”, I loved the goofy shadow of Fozzie that was used for “Bear on Patrol”, I thought that all the catastrophes suffered by Beaker in the name of science were delightful, I loved the way the characters would always look around in confusion when the narrator was speaking in “Veterinerian’s Hospital”, and like everyone else, I cracked up in hysterics at the antics of the Swedish Chef.  And I still remember fondly particular episodes with particular guest stars – John Cleese, Debbie Harry, James Coburn, and more – even the stars of Star Wars, with that terrible Chewbacca dancing!

The Muppets were a bit of a bonding element between me and my five year older brother.  We didn’t always get along at the time, but we both knew very well not to change the channel before Statler and Waldorf had their final joke after the ending credits.

But the Muppets weren’t just something I laughed at as a kid.  There were lots of things I laughed at, I think.  But there are only a handful of things that have really stuck with me over the years, and as I was coming home from watching the new movie tonight, I was thinking about why.  I think it’s that there’s a smartness and an irreverence in the humor that walked alongside the sentimentality that grabbed my little child’s imagination and invited me to think more deeply about the things I was watching than I might have otherwise.  But it didn’t do this by just shocking me out of my childhood or trying to rob me of the fun – instead it called me to mature in certain aspects of my thinking so that in a way, I could laugh even harder and smile more deeply.  And in doing so, the Muppets join a list other childhood discoveries that played a similar role,  including Peanuts, Bugs Bunny, Dr. Seuss, and even, a bit later, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The movie I saw tonight was a bit of a mixed bag.  There were parts that were really nice, other parts that dragged and were just too obvious.  (But that’s kind of how it is watching my Muppet Show DVD’s now.)  It’s hard to tell at times whose story you are really watching – Walter’s (the new Muppet), Gary’s (the human lead), or Kermit’s.  Some of the songs and numbers are better than others.   There are tons of ways the movie is really targeted at someone like me – an old Muppet fan who wants to enjoy a slice of childhood and to share that with his or her own children.  At times, it’s quite bogged down with this nostalgia for the past, and I wanted to get past it.  But there is a maturing as well – including a quite brief but grown-up conversation between Kermit and Miss Piggy about what has happened to their relationship.  And when they finally come together to perform their duet at the end, and they start singing Rainbow Connection, I had to consciously restrain myself from joining along out loud.

My children liked it.  They enjoy my Muppet Show DVD’s as well.  I don’t know the concept will stay with them like it has stayed with me, but it’s great blessing to be able to share the laughter with them now.

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