Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Back to School

Tonight at the University of Maryland, College Park, there is an event celebrating one of the campus's most famous alumni, Jim Henson.  Periodically, the campus has hosted exhibitions featuring the work of their former student and his name drew many people to seek the university as a place to further our educational careers (myself included).

The commemorative statue in front of the Adele H. Stamp Student Union

One of the famous urban legends is that Jim Henson "created his own puppetry major" while at the school.  While this is technically false, he did major in Home Economics, using the sewing and craft techniques to enhance his puppet building skills.  It was during his time here that he met his future wife Jane and, together, they created the Sam and Friends television show at local television studios.  He graduated in 1960 and the Muppets took off.

UMD mascot Testudo decorated as Kermit.

Today, we are celebrating that love of art and creation that the school helped Henson nurture.  Joining the event are a group of alumni who have followed in Henson's footsteps, becoming his spiritual successors in the art of puppetry and spectacle.  DC theater company Pointless Theatre has taken an approach to performance that echoes Henson's own mantra, building a talented family and community of performers who simply love puppetry and exploring new forms of storytelling.

Come join us as we watch some Muppet movies, share some stories, and celebrate the man who unintentionally brought us all together in the first place.

For those of you reading this blog for the first time, allow me to direct you to some previous articles to give you a sense of Henson's legacy:

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hans? He's... a Little Different

My original plan was to take a look at the remaining Jim Henson Hour specials but I am unable to find copies of them.  So, instead, let us finish off The Storyteller.  The previous episodes I looked at were a real treat, introducing us to unfamiliar but intriguing fairy tales.  However, the remaining episodes seems to be alterations of folk tales that we have all grown up with.

Up first, is "Hans My Hedgehog."

Of course, my favorite story of all!

Okay, so a hedgehog riding a rooster probably won't seem very familiar to you as a classic tale.  But, as we go through the story, you'll find that this is nothing more than a variation on "Beauty and the Beast."

We begin with a "be careful what you wish for" type of situation wherein a barren woman wishes she could have a child, no matter how ugly it may be.  Unlike the Beast, who is a human cursed, Hans is born, already half-human, half-hedgehog.

Adorably creepy.

Unlike most hedgehogs, the prickly fur of the creature can be soft at times.  Still, people mock and ridicule the creature when he's young, and fear him as he grows older.  Hans tries to maintain manners, but his beastly nature often gets the best of him, and after his father kicks him out, he must set off on his own...via rooster.

As was the fashion at the time.

As we enter into Beauty-Beast territory, we find a lost, wandering king who must take shelter at Hans's hideaway during a storm.  Hans is a courteous, though hesitant host and the king offers Hans any reward he desires.  Hans decides that the first thing that the king sees upon returning to his kingdom shall be the gift.  The king, assuming the first thing he'll see would be his dog coming to greet him, agrees.  However, when the king returns home, his daughter instead races ahead of the dog, and Hans claims his new prize.

The king later decided to outlaw stupid fairy-tale rules to avoid similar issues in the future.

Hans is quite mean towards his new bride, and she dares not get close to him, lest he prick her.  However, she discovers that at nighttime, Hans sheds his prickly skin and becomes a man.  When he leaves to wander the gardens as a human, she touches his fur and finds that it is soft.

I...can't quite tell is this is a metaphor for something.

Hans the Man catches his bride caressing the fur the next night, and tells her that if she tells no one about this ability for one more night, he can become fully human.  The next day, however, the princess lets it slip to her parents and her mother tells her to destroy the skin in the fire in order to make the change permanent.  The following night, the princess burns the fur and Hans writhes in agony before...well, he becomes a permanent human so I guess it all worked out?

It hurts so good!

And so, the Beast has become human and he can live with his beauty happily ever after!  Comparing this story to the more well-known version creates a confusing message in the point of the story.  In the original, the Beast was being punished for his evil ways and he had to prove that he was capable of being loving in order to become human again.  Hans was always a beast, and he seemed resigned to the fact that he could never change.

Perhaps this was to imply that all men have a beastly side to them and, if his wife can confront him when he is at his weakest (in the bedroom), she can soothe him into a docile, tolerable human being.  I wouldn't put it past these old folk tales to have such an outdated message, but it's hard to tell whether that was the angle The Storyteller was aiming for.

At any rate, it's a cool, though muddled twist on a familiar tale and it's making me excited for the stories that shall follow.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

My Favorite Muppets, Part 2: Frank Oz

Today, I'm looking at Jim Henson's partner-in-crime, Frank Oz.  He retired in 2000 to further focus on his directorial career (which includes one of my favorite films of all-time, Little Shop of Horrors), but many of his classic Muppet characters are still with us today.

Remember, just because I placed Animal at number 6 doesn't mean he can't be your favorite Muppet.  It just means that you need to get your priorities straight.


10) SkekSil, the Skeksis Chamberlain - The Dark Crystal

SkekSil is the best character in The Dark Crystal, by far.  Unlike the rest of one-dimensional "good guys" and "bad guys," the permanently-smirking Chamberlain actually keeps the audience guessing with his actions after he is shunned by his own kind.  While Barry Dennen supplied his voice (and his amusing grunts), it was Oz who managed to instill sympathy into this grotesque creature, making us care for his well-being and delight in his villainy.

9) The Snowths - The Muppet Show

"Mahna Mahna" only works because of these two creatures, and it helps that they only appear for reprises of "Mahna Mahna."  But unlike other one-hit-wonders, we don't want to see them do anything else.  It would be very strange to have them act in a scene or try to hold a conversation that wasn't "doo doo doo doo doo."  Their pink, bovine-esque design makes them visually appealing, but I think their unique foam tube mouths are their best feature.  What other Muppet comes close to looking like these things?  They are one-of-a-...two-of-a-kind.

8) Fozzie Bear - The Muppet Show

Before starting this blog, I was not a Fozzie Bear fan.  It's hard to write good comedy, but it may be even harder to write intentionally bad comedy.  Most of Fozzie's schtick was *sigh* unbearable to me.  But I discovered that Fozzie is more than just a bad comedian.  He is a hopeless artist who is redeemed by the fact that he is a genuinely nice person, and an even greater friend.  He wishes no ill-will towards anyone, yet he constantly is made to suffer.  His strongest moments come when he defends his companions or makes dramatic, inspirational speeches.  His jokes may fail, but he does not.

7) Yoda - Star Wars

"But wait," you cry.  "Did this blog specifically address the issue that Yoda is not a Muppet?"  Yes, but that was before Disney acquired the rights to Lucasfilm.  So, now that they own both Star Wars and the Muppets, I don't see any reason why Yoda shouldn't be considered for this Top 10 list honor.  Yoda is a great character, he's played by Frank Oz, therefore, he deserves a spot on the list.  Besides, who else would I put here?  Marvin Suggs?

6) Animal - The Muppet Show

Okay, Animal is a great character.  So, the fact that he's only number 6 shows just how wonderful Oz's creations are.  Like most Muppet monsters, Animal runs on pure id.  But he's technically supposed to be human as well.  If a person like Animal actually existed in real life, he'd be considered a threat to society.  As a puppet, he becomes cute and endearing.  I also appreciate that he's based on Celtic mythology.  So THAT'S why he is a Leprechaun Brother!

5) Grover - Sesame Street

Like Fozzie, Grover only wants to do good in the world, but his literal approach to life ends up getting him in trouble with the more "mature" characters.  Grover seems to represent all of those struggles that kids encounter.  Those kids who get punished for doing exactly what they had been taught by their family, friends, and the media.  Despite all of these burdens, Grover remains optimistic and takes the extra step to give back to society, even though society does nothing but crush him.

4) Miss Piggy - The Muppet Show

If there's one thing this blog has done, it's redeemed Miss Piggy for me.  She was legitimately my least favorite Muppet, due to her grating behavior.  Any Muppet production that featured her has a main component would be immediately written off as unworthy in my book.  And, when her negative qualities are the focus, she can drag down many a show.  Then this happened.  And now I love her.

3) Cookie Monster - Sesame Street

Cookie originated as a generic monster performed by Jim Henson for his IBM commercial, and not much changed in the character when he passed hands to Oz.  His enormous appetite was now more innocent and less malicious, but he was still just a thing that ate.  The reason he works so well is because of the relationship he has with his performer.  Despite many of the characters he plays, Oz was always the more reserved part of the Henson-Oz duo.  By allowing him to just bounce of the wall for an item as trivial as a cookie, Cookie Monster allowed Oz to have pure, unrestrained fun.

2) Bert - Sesame Street

And on the other side, Bert was where Oz was the most comfortable.  Playing a more extreme version of himself, Bert could play of Henson's Ernie while maintaining a sense of maturity and dignity.  It's just as fun to see Bert get upset as it is to see him win.  While most kids might not identify with the rigid Bert, I always appreciated his respect for the rules, because it allowed him to appreciate that in life which often would go unnoticed.  He may not have gone out for flashy, noisy entertainment like his partner, but if he can find beauty in a pigeon or a paper clip, who's to say his outlook on life is wrong?

1) Sam the Eagle - The Muppet Show

As a young, young child, I loved the Muppets.  But I don't know exactly how this came to be.  I did not get any channel which showed The Muppet Show regularly.  I guess through pop-cultural osmosis, I became aware of the main characters and eventually I ended up with two items that sealed my fate.  One was The Muppet Movie on VHS and the other was this old Muppets lunchbox.

This was exactly what I needed.  Something that featured all of the characters for me to study.  Each side featured different pictures of the gang, and I was most intrigued by the Muppets I didn't know, because, unlike those featured on the front of the box, they didn't have prominent roles in the movie.  It's strange, but thinking about it now, my favorite Muppets are each of the characters that I had to seek out and learn about.  I'd ask my parents who these characters were, but it wouldn't be until years later that I'd learn the names:  Link Hogthrob, Uncle Deadly, and Sam the Eagle (there's actually a fourth character featured on this box, but we'll get to him much later).

Visually, Sam was the most interesting to me.  His stern glare told me he was not a character to be messed with.  Was he an evil villain?  Or was he just upset a lot?  As I eventually learned, he was a dash of both.  Sam was the anti-Muppet of the gang.  A square who prevented everyone from having any fun.  Even Bert could let loose once and a while.  As I grew and saw Sam in more and more productions, my appreciation grew.  With all of the crazy Muppets out there, the funniest one had to be the guy who tried to stop it.  I've said it many times, but the Muppets are at their best when they fail.  And Sam never once achieved a victory.

Except for getting the number one spot on this list.

He's earned it.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

It's All Gaelic to Me

In over 50 years of Muppet history, there has only been one major St. Patrick's Day tribute.  In the 5th season of The Muppet Show, the Leprechaun Brothers took the stage for the first time to sing that classic tune, "Danny Boy."

Yes, it took five seasons for the Muppet crew to realize the comic potential that could arise by combining the talents of three of the most popular characters together.  There's something to be said for the fact that Animal, Beaker, and Chef responded to such a large audience.  Although each had distinct personalities, they connected over their shared (lack of) language.  Through various forms of gibberish, the three communicated and it was only fitting to have them try and sing one of history's most beautifully tragic songs.

Together for the first time!

We rarely see these three at once, but it provides much comedic potential.  But strangely, it would take a long time for the trio to reunite.  After the deaths of Henson and Hunt, it was no surprise that there would be a disappearance of these popular characters for a while, but the idea once again resurfaced in a 1996 computer game.

Sans Beaker, but still singing public domain ditties.

In recent years, the "Danny Boy" clip became popular enough to bring the group out of retirement.  Dropping the "Leprechaun Brothers" name and opting for "the ABCs," the gang was back to create/mutilate great music.

This is a fake album, so don't try looking for it.

Two viral music videos were made.  A seasonal "Carol of the Bells" cover and an always timely cover of "Habanera" from Carmen.

The gang also made other appearances together, showing their daily interactions via the "Secret Elevator Tapes" series, which hinted at the chemistry they share as actual characters.  It's...odd, to say the least.

They also filled in for the judges on America's Got Talent for an episode, where, out of the three of them, the Chef made the most sense.

The hit comedy trio of the 2000s.

Sadly, the luck of the Irish was not on the Leprechaun Brothers' side and they never legitimately spun-off into their own comedy series.  Perhaps the creators didn't know what else to do with three characters that struggle to communicate.  But, like all spinoff musical groups, the trio became a footnote in Muppet history.  Beaker returned to repeated lab injuries, the Chef returned to slaying killer food, and Animal returned to blending into the background with the rest of the Electric Mayhem.  Sometimes these side projects don't take off the way you had dreamed.  But at least they'll always have "Danny Boy."

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Sink or Swim

As part of the initial 1990 Disney-Muppet merger, the Henson Company began production on a spinoff of the hit 1989 animated film The Little Mermaid.  Disney was using this movie to reinvigorate the creatively lackluster company and knew that it would spark a huge change in the entertainment world, so they had to get as much use out of the franchise as possible.  And one idea was to have a life-action show detailing the adventures of young Ariel and her friends called Little Mermaid's Island.

"Title Sequence in Development" - The glorious intro to this wonderful treat.

Only two shows were produced before Henson (and others) determined it to be unworthy of support.  Also, Henson's premature death put the whole relationship on hold, which didn't help this struggling little show at all.  But, in checking the footage available, it's clear that it wasn't the quality entertainment we had grown to expect from Disney or Henson.

Now, imagine a full half-hour of this.

The show attempted to bring back all of our favorite characters, along with some of the original voice cast, to tell silly little stories that were not at all like the movie.  As seen in the clip, Flounder (and his new twin sister Sandy) sing about making a mess and respecting others' property before getting manipulated by Flotsam and Jetsam into messing with Ariel's things again.

All while swimming against an obvious green screen.

Ariel, despite being young and naive in the original, adopted more of a motherly role while the puppets got into various hijinks.  The only other human in the show was Grimsby, who was not at all like his animated counterpart. But at least the other animated characters translated well into puppet form.

Like Sebastian the Crab...

...Scuttle the Seagull...

...and Scales the Dragon?!

Yes, there was a dragon now.  I guess mermaids weren't enough of a supernatural entity for this show.

At any rate, clearly the show could not live up to the potential of it's predecessor and it eventually was reworked into an animated series in 1992 that had the exact same premise but much better execution.  It turns out that, despite best intentions, humans and mermaids don't mix, and it's best to leave some things  under the sea.


Friday, March 15, 2013

Muppet Wannabes

Due to the popularity of Muppet Babies, CBS wanted to expand the franchise into an hour-long block of programing.  To fill the gap, a new variety show was created in 1985.  Little Muppet Monsters was paired with Muppet Babies for the new Muppets, Babies, & Monsters hour and, surprisingly, it managed to get 3 of its 18 episodes to air!

Oh, it's another cartoon?

Why surprisingly?  Well, by taking just one look at the first episode, it's easy to see that the show had no sense of cohesion.  The main premise was that three younger Muppet monsters (Tug, Boo, and Molly) would play around in the basement of the Muppet Theater/Muppet House where all the Muppets seemed to live and broadcast their own television show with the stuff they found.

Via their magic television machine?

However, rather than put on their own show for the entire half-hour, they would show a mix of original material, educational segments featuring grown-up Muppets like Fozzie or Gonzo, and Muppet cartoons that needed to find a home.  The cartoons were similar in style to Muppet Babies but they featured adult Muppets in other premises.  "Pigs in Space," "Kermit the Frog: Private Eye," and "Muppet Sports" featuring Animal were a few of the recurring segments.

Animation cel sizes for the animated cast.

The cartoons would take up half of the episode, leaving little time for plot development with the supposed "stars" of the show.

Boo, Molly, Tug and some musical birds.

Maybe had the show solely focused on this trio, it would have lasted longer.  But even Henson was able to see that whatever the show had turned into, it was too cluttered and confusing for children.  Seeing the adult Muppets right up against their animated counterparts highlighted the severe dip in quality between the puppetry and animation.  Muppet Babies worked because it stood on its own and used live-action clips to play with the animated format.  Here, we go from fun puppet Kermit to bland cartoon Kermit in a matter of seconds, and it makes the cartoons unbearable.

This promo showcases all that was wrong with this idea.

Little Muppet Monsters was swiftly axed, resulting in awkward artifacts from the time period, such as the Muppet Monsters getting special treatment at Jim Henson's 30th anniversary special.

They get a whole table to themselves?!

Like the Dragontime puppets, the Little Muppet Monsters would resurface years later in other productions.  But alas, we never got the time to know these three characters who just wanted to grow up and be just like their idols.

 These puppets just didn't have the right

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Nobody Knows What It's Like to Be the Puppetman

It's strange how different life would be had things gone slightly differently.  For example, had Jim Henson's 1987 pilot for Puppetman been picked up, we may have a completely new perspective on the man and his craft.  The premise behind the show was showing what goes on behind the scenes of a children's puppet show called Dragontime.  Unlike other youth-oriented Muppet programs like Sesame Street or Fraggle Rock, Dragontime was a very basic, non-creative juncture in which a group of dragon puppets would spout life lessons like "wait your turn" or "eat your vegetables" in between singing fluffy songs.

Purposeful, mindless drivel.

The fun would come from seeing the actual behind-the-scenes action, both in showing how the Muppets pull off their stunts and in focusing on the adult nature of the cast and crew's weekly problems.  As a sitcom, it seems to blend into that typical, bland '80s fare.  And it was very '80s.  Just check out that opening:

The show revolved around the lead star Gary and his balance between work, single parent life, and obnoxious sound effects.  But despite the stereotypical characters and plotlines, this show had one major thing going for it: Richard Hunt.  Yes, our beloved creator of Scooter and Beaker played two of the characters in the show-within-the-show, Earl and Gertha via the character of Del Zivic.  And, in true Richard Hunt fashion, he would keep the puppets on even when the camera's weren't rolling.

Gertha told me to never let her go.

Via the dumb, but observant Earl and the sharp-tongued Gertha, Del would interact with his coworkers, using the puppets to say thing that he probably wouldn't be able to get away with normally.  The reactions by the other characters imply that they either believe these puppets to be alive and interacting with them, or their just so used to Del's personality that they would go along with the illusion because it was easier that way.

That makes for a compelling story and had the potential to reveal Del to be a quite tragic character, avoiding reality via the puppets.  Because we only have the pilot, it is unclear whether the writers intended to go down this dramatic path, but I'm sure it would have been explored at some point.  As we saw earlier, this was a habit that Muppet puppeteers often fall into, with entertaining yet heartbreaking results.

I am just a mask used to hide from the world.

Richard Hunt himself was known for this kind of behavior the most, making him somewhat more of a mystery than his companions.  This show would have given us the opportunity to learn more about him, before his unfortunate passing in the early '90s.

A show of this ilk wouldn't be seen again until Fox's short-lived 2002 sitcom Greg the Bunny (although there, the puppets actually were alive).  Puppetman, while nothing great, was a unique premise that would have been a wonderful part of the Henson library.  The dragons have since been recycled into other Muppet productions and the footage is rare, so it's best we enjoy what little we have of this labor of love and canned laughter.