Friday, September 30, 2011

The Dork Side of the Force

Behind every great hero is an even greater villain.  The world's greatest villains are not only powerful, but menacing, intelligent, and frightening.  They must pose the greatest challenge a hero can face in order to properly test the hero's worth.  The best antagonists in literature represent all of the chaos and evil that can potentially arise in the protagonist, so that when it comes to the final confrontation, the hero must fight his greatest foe: himself.

The Pigs in Space couldn't protect the broad side of a barn, let alone the universe.  It was best to start them off with an equally inept nemesis in order to wean them onto hardcore heroism.  Enter the Koozebanian scourge, Dearth Nadir!

Dearth Nadir, a.k.a. Barff McVader, a.k.a. Gonzo in a modified "Darth Vader" costume

Although First Mate Piggy is able to see though his disguise, Dearth Nadir proves to be the most threatening hijacker the Swinetrek has ever faced.  Not even Link's mommy can protect him.  And unlike his inspiration, Dearth Nadir actually follows through with his heinous crimes and orders his "stormtroopers" to kill the heroic pigs.

(Only the first sketch is applicable.  But the other two are funny.)

Because we leave it on such a depressing cliffhanger and there is no explanation to how our heroes escaped, one can assume that Miss Piggy was able to save the day using her karate reflexes of death.  However, even Piggy has her weaknesses, namely, instant infatuations with any male celebrity.  So, in one of the strangest crossovers this side of St. Elsewhere, galaxy-renown Jedi knight-in-training Luke Skywalker crashes into the Muppet Theater, with C-3PO and R2-D2 in tow, searching for their kidnapped ally, Chewbacca.  (For those of you following the official Star Wars timeline, this occurs circa the year 3 ABY (After the Battle of Yavin) prior to the Battle of Hoth.)  Piggy immediately goes into damsel-in-distress mode, letting down pigkind for ages to come.

It's all technically canon!

Skywalker pilots the Swinetrek to Koozebane, where the evil Dearth Nadir awaits.

Fortunately, using their comedy-musical variety show powers, the pigs save Chewbacca and his companions through a medley of song-and-dance numbers (allowing C-3PO to finally show off all that soft-shoe he had been practicing).  What the Pigs in Space lack in courage, knowledge, and odor, they make up for in random humorous moments.  It is their only defense.

Although defeated, Dearth Nadir would continue to harass the pigs multiple times.

In comic books... an action figure...

...and even in an Atari video game!

The Pigs in Space may not have encountered many villains during their tenure, but they were vulnerable enough to attract a needy, little weirdo who seemed to survive by getting on everybody's nerves.

All in all, the disappointing track record of the Pigs in Space crew rightly deserves a disappointing archenemy.  If only there existed some unsung hero who could rise up and defeat all of this mediocrity once and for all...

A newt hope...

And so, we close our final chapter of PIGS IN SPAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACE!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Planet Koozebane: The Breeding Grounds for Weirdness

There is a reason the Muppets have instant universal appeal.  As we've discussed, most of Henson's classic sketches rely on three things: recognizable/catchy music, physical humor, and gibberish.  These concepts are not bound by language, and so, any person viewing one of these sketches will understand the premise immediately (even if they feel that what they are seeing looks a little bizarre).  Early puppets were designed as abstract beings to deliver the most effective visual punchline.  They were not based on any animal and lacked any familiar facial features, save for whatever was necessary to convey that these were living creatures, not inanimate.

"Sclrap Flyapp!" "Merp!"

When constructing The Muppet Show, Henson wanted to include these old bits and routines, but the absurdity of them seemed out of place given the conceit of a '70s variety show starring actual people (not puppets).  Here, people/animals spoke English and behaved in a funny, yet relatable fashion.  In order to connect the old and the new, someone came up with a clever setting to house these types of skits.  Because the old routines were filmed on variety shows with minimal set pieces, the focus was always on the puppets, not the blank backgrounds.  A stark, barren planet was invented that mimicked the look and feel of these former sketches.  With very little in the way of atmosphere and scenery, any creature the puppeteers wanted to use could potentially be alien beings from this far away planet!  The planet Koozebane was born!

The Muppet Show version of "Scrlap Flyapp," a.k.a. "Hugga Wugga"

Rocky craters, billowing mist, and little to no vegetation was the norm on Koozebane (named after Coos Bay, OR, which Henson thought was the silliest place name ever).  Old abstract Muppets found their new home on this planet and new abominations were able to surface.  All that was needed to connect it to the "real world" was a familiar face to reassure the audience.  News reporter Kermit the Frog was on hand to present the audience with the first look at Planet Koozebane in this infamous sketch about the bizarre mating ritual "Galley-Oh-Hoop-Hoop."

This sketch helped establish that Koozebane could be used to cross all sorts of cultural barriers.  Although Kermit is describing the circumstances in English, it is evident what the two creatures are feeling/doing.  And the appeal is not just for different ethnicities, either.  Adults and children can appreciate this sketch as well, even though children will be unaware of actual mating.  They see two funny aliens that crash into each other and explode, resulting in babies.  That's just good comedy no matter who you are.

The circle of life.

Kermit would visit the planet regularly to observe many of the unique species living on the planet, including the rapidly-evolving Phoob and the mostly liquid Spooble.  Every visit would result in more species waiting to be discovered and some would even trek to Earth.  Of course, being an interstellar planet, Koozebane would eventually receive contact from the Pigs in Space crew.  Although, being the pig's-knuckleheads that they are, their efforts to create history are botched as soon as they set foot on the planet.

Despite the obvious fact that it is swimming with life every time we see it, the pigs are unable to notice what is right under their nose.  Link's fear of "little green monsters" encourages him to hightail it home as soon as it is "discovered" that no life forms exist on the planet.

We checked a five-square-foot area.  We're done.

Unfortunately, their impatience has caused them to overlook a being far more disturbing than talking rocks or exploding fish thingies...

Not even highly combustible amphibians are safe from the true menace of Koozebane.

Tune in tomorrow for the heart-pounding, secret-revealing, tap-dancing conclusion to PIGS IN SPAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACE!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Scientific Progress Goes "Oink!"

After watching the previous "Pigs in Space" sketches, it is easy to see the role that Dr. Julius Strangepork plays.  He is the token scientist, able to explain complex situations and invent new technologies that can provide sources of conflict.  He is very much a product of the series and gets very little in the field of character development.

And it would be weird if there were only two main crew members.

Being placed in the "third guy" position, he gets all of the lines and actions that the straight man normally would.  Link is too dumb and Piggy is too hotheaded to carry the scenes by themselves.  They need someone with a level head to recite the boring lines, laugh at their jokes, and stay out of their arguments. As you can see in the following scenes, his only useful function is to move the plot along.

Due to his bland nature, he rarely appeared outside of the "Pigs in Space" sketches.  Miss Piggy was a popular star in her own right, and Link Hogthrob's idiocy allowed him to play a myriad of roles in which a pigheaded macho man was required.  Strangepork's biggest outing was a bit part in The Muppet Show's murder-mystery play in which he played the famous stage director Fritz (until he is murdered, again serving only to incite the plot).  Rarely were we treated to insight into the character.  He was clearly based of Peter Sellers's famous "ex"-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove, but he lacked the original character's quirks and mannerisms (save for the German accent).  In one episode, we learn that Strangepork enjoys disco.  That's....different.

However, there was one throwaway line in his introduction during the very first "Pigs in Space" that implies an interesting backstory for the character.  The announcer states that Strangepork is "the superbrain behind this whole ghastly mistake." Although the announcer often spoke with grandiose, cliched speech, this implication that something sinister lies behind the whole PIS operation is quite intriguing.

What mad fates resulted in the launching of the Swinetrek?

Through various off hand remarks and references mentioned in the crew's dialogue, it can be pieced together that the events we witness unfold in some far off future where pigs have gained sentience and manufactured advanced technologies.  Hogthrob continuously mentions that they have left Earth, so they are not from some unknown planet.  Yet they rarely mention the existence of humans.  If one didn't know any better, these visions of the future seem closely related to the classic story Planet of the Apes.  Except, you know, with pigs.

But that's just silly.  Surely these peaceful pigs could not have risen up and enslaved humanity, becoming the dominant species.  That is far too Orwellian to be used as fodder for The Muppet Show.


Alas, the truth is often grim.  In the rarely seen pilot for The Muppet Show, there is a prominent sketch entitled "Return to Beneath the Planet of the Pigs" in which a Chartlton-Heston-esque man named Hudson returns to Earth to find it running with oppressive swine overlords.  In it, an early Miss Piggy leads the man to a Dr. Zaius-like figure for "reorientation."

Did you see him?  Did you see who was playing the lobotomy-happy Dr. Nagua?

This is indeed a disturbing universe.

That's Dr. Strangepork!  The mild-mannered, happy-go-lucky, sweet old pig is none other than a blood-thristy, dehumanizing, murderous doctor who single-handedly eradicated most of the human species by removing their brains!  Since few humans ever board the Swinterek, we have never seen this madness awaken in him, but clearly he is a force of evil.  Being the oldest pig on the ship, one can assume that he was there when the pig rebellion took force.  He is their Napoleon!  It seems his "humorous" name was hinting at his true nature after all!

Mein Führer! I can wallow!

Tune in tomorrow to hear more frightening accusations about PIGS IN SPAAAAAAAAACE!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The First Mate is an Overacting Ham!

Miss Piggy is a terrible actress.  Old science fiction shows and B-movies were known to be dismal, unintelligent schlock, but the performance Piggy gives as "First Mate Piggy" really takes the cake.

In the early skits, Piggy tried her best to play the typical air-headed bimbo.  She was the token "hot girl" that sci-fi flicks used to broaden their appeal.  As this role, she was supposed to swoon over the chiseled Captain Hogthrob and hang on his every word.  Piggy steps it up a notch by treating every line as if it were part of some overblown melodrama. (She often speaks like this in real life as well, so it is not too much of a stretch for her.)  However, as soon as an aspect of the sketch does not go her way, she drops her whimsical demeanor and goes into snarky violent mode.

As time progresses, Piggy commits herself less and less to each passing scene.  This problem is so rampant that the lines of reality are often blurred.  The Muppet Show bills itself as a variety show with music and comedy, yet the "Pigs in Space" sketches seem to exist on their own plane.  Like Futurama the sketches are supposed to parody standard sci-fi conventions.  So it is okay that the scenes are comedic.  Yet much of the humor comes from seemingly unplanned moments.  Piggy often breaks character, commenting on her distaste for the situations.  But is "First Mate Piggy" supposed to be saying these lines or is it Piggy herself?  When other members of The Muppet Show appear in the sketch, Link and Dr. Strangepork always treat them as aliens.  Are they just ad-libbing or does "Pigs in Space" actually take place in an alternate universe?

The next few scenes play with that paradox as Piggy purposefully does not play along with the sketch (yet decides to appear anyway).

While the first sketch can be explained as Piggy just being uncooperative, the second is far more confusing.  As Link and Dr. Strangepork try to fix a gas leak, First Mate Piggy enters and leaves in a huff thinking that the audience is hissing at her.  Why does she do this?  Was that in the script?  It is actions like these that lead me to believe Piggy is so bad at acting that she does not rehearse her scenes before hand.  She does not even bother to learn what the sketch is about!  Link's sexist comments always seem to catch her off guard.  At first I thought, maybe she is supposed to be a bold, empowering character with a feminist attitude and that's why she fights back against Hogthrob's insults.  But that doesn't explain her character when she is acting flighty and weak.  We rarely see much of "First Mate Piggy" but we see an awful lot of the woman behind her.

"Aye aye, mon capitán!"

Imagine if you were Kermit, trying to organize this show, and your leading actress kept pulling stunts like this.  She keeps breaking character to reprimand her co-stars for behaving immaturely even though that is the point of the sketches.  She is the most unprofessional performer on the show, despite her delusions that she is a prima donna.  You can start to see why he is not too fond of her advances towards him.

One wonders what "Pigs in Space" is actually supposed to be like.  Is it supposed to be comedic at all?  Is it supposed to add some actual drama to the variety show?  The End of the Universe sketch seems particularly poignant even in it's absurdity.  The pigs, faced with learning the meaning of life, instead choose dinner, being pigs and all.  This seems to be the one sketch where Piggy stays committed to the show...that is until she threatens the announcer with a violent outburst.

If it weren't for Miss Piggy, his show could have been as groundbreaking as Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Tune in tomorrow for more philosophical conundrums on PIGS!  IN!  SPAAAAACE!

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Captain is a Chauvinistic Pig!

In the English language, there exists no person, animal, or object than cannot be improved when followed by the words "in space."  So, in an attempt to capitalize on the popular space operas of the '60s and '70s, The Muppet Show produced its own recurring sci-fi drama starring the most appropriate species on Earth:


A crew of interstellar porkers would wallow in the furthest reaches of the galaxy, encountering strange new creatures, unfamiliar worlds, and futuristic devices that change the very fabric of the universe as we know it.  It would take a brave man to lead the inhabitants on the Swinetrek through this perilous journey unscathed.  Unfortunately, a brave man was unavailable and they settled for the next best thing.


Yes, Captain Link Hogthrob was placed in charge of the vessel, much to the chagrin of his First Mate Piggy.  He would boldly square off against extraterrestrial monsters (as long as they weren't snakes), he would strategically formulate plans to escape danger (after someone told him exactly what to do), and he would ethically treat all of his crew members with the utmost respect (as long as they were male).

It must be his devilishly handsome good looks that got him where he is today.

According to Jim Henson's son Brian, Henson created this pompous dim-witted voice and would adopt it whenever doing stereotypical fatherly chores around the house, like carving the Thanksgiving turkey.  The ultra-manly character seemed a perfect fit for Link, who seemed to suffer from the same negative qualities whether he was in the sketch or not.  In some ways, he evolved to be a caricature of Captain Kirk and William Shatner at the same time.  When he was not piloting the ship, he could be found showing off his talent for crooning.

Above: The cutest moment ever

If this character seems very familiar, it is probably because you watch Futurama.  Zapp Brannigan is clearly cut from the same mold.  He is dim-witted, highly sexist, and arrogant to the point of endangerment for all those who encounter him.  So, while Brannigan is a great character, Hogthrob was doing the same schtick 25 years earlier.

Switched at birth?

Like a giant manchild, Hogthrob had his heart in the right place most of the time, but lacked the abilities to process information intelligently.  He started off as a much smarter character, but as time passed, he got dumber and dumber, which allowed for many great situations.  For a sense of our leader in action, here are a few of the best "Pigs in Space" sketches:

Whenever people ask me who my favorite Muppet is, I always answer "Link Hogthrob" with no hesitation.  Stupid characters in of themselves are not funny.  If someone is stupid and innocent, I feel mean for laughing at their antics.  But if they are stupid AND cocky, everything is fair game.  There are many moments when Hogthrob does something infantile and sweet (I love his doodle in the third sketch!), but he comes right around and mocks First Mate Piggy for being a woman, assigning her tasks such as laundry and ironing in situations where the crew's lives are in peril.  He's a character that I can laugh at without shame.

Captain Link Hogthrob and his fearless team.  Off on another pointless adventure.

Tune in tomorrow for another exciting profile about PIGS!  IN!  SPAAAAACE!!!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Monsters a Child Can Count On

The connection between a child and a puppet is unlike any other relationship.  A young imagination is still fresh and untarnished.  If something moves and speaks, it is most certainly alive.  And the fact that it looks colorful and non-threatening allows the child to open up to it where an adult may be too intimidating.  In children's therapy, puppets are used to help kids work through social anxieties and allow them to communicate on their own terms.  Autistic children and those with developmental disorders have been known to start speaking to puppets they recognize from television when they have been classified as shy, abnormally quiet, or permanently mute.  All of these children feel a sense of comfort, as if their cherished stuffed toys came to life and understood their problems.

Using puppets as an educational tool helps in many of these same therapeutic ways.  The child wants to converse with the puppet and if that means they have to bone up on their ABC's and 1-2-3's to continue, then so be it.

Enter John-John.  At the age of three, he was obsessed with Sesame Street.  His mother brought him to the show and his head was swimming as he got to interact with many of his favorite characters.  They had taught him how to count via the television screen, and now he was able to share that knowledge with them.  Yet there is still room to teach him.  As seen in this first clip, he claims that he is able to count backwards from 10.  But, as Grover soon points out, he is actually counting forwards, not backwards.  He shows him how to count backwards, and then John-John catches on and helps him finish.  He struggles when they get to 1, but then he sees Grover is having difficulty too.  When Grover finds the answer, John-John congratulates him like a teacher would to a student.  He understands how difficult the exercise was and is proud of Grover for reaching the end.

John-John spent a long time at the set, and various interactions were recorded.  After a few counting sessions with Grover, Grover decides to share his affection for John-John.

John-John is startled by the declaration of love, but he then rolls with it.  These puppets are here to make him feel good and they express their love through counting.  He decides to return the favor by giving Grover an objective to count towards.  Being only three years old, his assignment is a little abstract.  "Count this penny," he commands.  Grover (being connected to an intelligent adult) gives a little glance to the audience expressing his confusion, but he follows the order and counts it, much to John-John's satisfaction.

Do you love me?!

Although John-John appeared with many other denizens of Sesame Street, his claim to fame was when he and Herry Monster tried to do the unthinkable: count to 20.

The end goal of 20 was not intentionally set.  Herry just gives the simple suggestion to count.  After a bit of confusion as to who was going first, both decide to count in unison.  They go to 10 without issue and then Herry throws out "11" to challenge John-John and see what he does.  John-John accepts and begins counting by himself with Herry repeating.  Due to Herry's triumphant inflection, John-John begins proudly shouting each number.  He runs into trouble with 16, but he Herry give him the hint, which inspires him to keep going.

We got this!

Another unforeseen hurdle takes down John-John.  What comes after 19?  He turns to Herry for help, but Herry is just as stumped as he is.  Herry is not an adult.  He does not have all of the answers.  John-John realizes that learning takes more than reliance on your teacher.  It becomes and active problem that he alone must solve.  He racks his brain, knowing that he cannot let down the monster.  Then it hits him! Twenty!

The simple act of introducing a puppet to the learning environment not only allowed the child to learn the concepts of counting, it taught him self-reliance and confidence.  He grew up to join the U.S. Air Force, started family with a wife and two kids, and followed in his jazz parents' musical footsteps towards becoming a Tejano singer.  The cast of Sesame Street still remembers him fondly to this day (and Roscoe Orman even got to be "Gordon" due to his audition with little John-John).  It is amazing how a few imaginative conversations with plush creatures could positively and significantly impact one child's life.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Night to Remember

Looking for inspiration for the next post, I turned to my copy of "Jim Henson: The Works." It is a coffee table book that came out in 1993, so I have had it since I was 5 years old.  Many times I flipped through the pages, first to look at the pictures, then to read the chapters.  I can recognize every single page in the large book, but I was hoping I would find something new this time.  And today, I saw the following page:

Usually, I gravitated to the colorful profiles of the Muppet characters and performers.  This weird black-and-white photo of two people dressed as trees did not interest me in the least.  Yes, it's odd, but Henson was an odd fellow and it wouldn't make sense if there WEREN'T a picture of people dressed as trees in his biography.  But after reading the description on the side, this became my favorite page in the book.

The pictures were taken at the annual Henson Company Masquerade Ball in New York City which was held from 1984-1987.  Jim Henson would host this event for all of his friends, families, celebrity acquaintances, and EVERY SINGLE EMPLOYEE in the company.  Costume designers, secretaries, accountants, building maintenance crews, everyone who ever worked for a Henson subsidy got an invite.  And, being a Henson employee meant that everyone went all out for their masks and costumes.  With the full Muppet Workshop at their disposal, the costumes could get pretty elaborate.

Jane Seymour, Bernadette Peters, a masked Jim Henson, and giant Kermit and Miss Piggy attend the ball.

It became a personal goal for every guest to try to conceal their identity from Jim during the entire night.  Henson was usually able to spot the craft-making styles of his co-workers, but a few lucky guests managed to make it through the night undiscovered.

Andy Warhol was never very creative.

Because the balls were so high profile, the only pictures known to exist are from one of the final balls.  In the first picture, beneath the picture of the trees, are a lobster and cow ("Surf and Turf").  The lobster was portrayed by Lauren Attinello, an illustrator for Muppet-related picture books.  In the Muppet Babies storybook "Baby Piggy's Night at the Ball," she snuck references to this grand event into the pages.

Lobster Attinello speaks with the trees.

These parties encapsulate a lot of what people loved about Henson.  Not only did he set out to create a grand spectacle, but he wanted to honor the people in his life that meant the most to him.  These balls were about the giant community Henson created and each year, they only got bigger and better.  Personally, I was surprised to learn these events even existed.  But I can imagine that all of those people coming together creatively for one night of fun and merriment would feel so special.  Henson is brilliant for thinking to orchestrate it.  I, too, enjoy throwing parties like these because I not only want to present a memorable night for my friends, but I want to push them to explore their creativity and be a part of something bigger than themselves.  I get a sensation of pride whenever I execute a party like this and it fills me with joy knowing that the loved ones in my life get to share moments like this as one single unit.

That Jim Henson had the same vision is indescribable.

Pictured: Jim Henson (left) and a surprisingly detailed Jim Henson mask (right).

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What Tadpole is This?

Recycling puppets was a common occurence in the Henson Company.  Usually, the production team would plan for multiple uses of puppets and would build simple base puppets known as Whatnots or Anything Muppets to dress up and decorate to fit the scene.  Other times, a simple puppet was created that would only appear in background scenes or be used to say a singular line when the script called for large crowds.  But occassionally, a puppet would only be made for a specific purpose, like a starring role with a distinctive personality and voice, and reusing the now recognizable puppet in other formats would be impossible.  Such was the case with Robin the Frog.

A small frog with a big heart.

Looking at him, it is clear that the puppet has a very simple design.  He could easily pass for a generic frog when needed.  But he was made with a purpose.  Robin was originally created for a one-hour special production of The Frog Prince.  Although Kermit was already a recognizable frog, his personality did not fit with the intended character, so he was regulated to a narrator and supporting role.  Prince Robin was supposed to be timid and insecure and very young.  The change into a frog was frightening and new for him.  Kermit would be there to give him support.  The special was a hit for the Muppets, which at the time were mostly known for Sesame Street.  It would be a few years until The Muppet Show so Robin and the other puppets used in the special were kept in storage.

When The Muppet Show debuted, Henson and his crew used his vast array of pre-existing puppets that were not Sesame Street celebrities to round out the cast and crowd.  Many new characters were created but most of the puppets had been used before.  This little frog had a memorable starring role, so they could not create a completely new character for him.  Instead, they kept his name, personality, and voice and "revealed" that he was Kermit's nephew.

Cartoon characters don't have offspring, but their unseen siblings are surprisingly fertile.

Robin had an odd journey establishing himself on the show.  Because The Muppet Show was geared as the adult alternative to Sesame Street, there were no sketches made for young characters.  Robin couldn't be pawned off on Sesame Street either, because the character was too soft-spoken and lacked the energy attributed to kids shows.  Robin did not have a quirky persona, and was not the type who would regularly make quips or tell jokes.  He was a bright-eyed observer who viewed the world around him with a solemn dignity.  As a result, Robin was given all of the solemn, dignified skteches.  In an ironic twist, the youngest character on the show was also the most mature.

Robin's signature "hit" was his cover of a song based on an A.A. Milne poem called "Halfway Down."

Milne, known for his "Winnie-the-Pooh" stories, had a knack for relating the experiences of childhood into profound wisdoms.  He wrote this poem through the eyes of his young son Christopher Robin, noting what a strange place the middle of the staircase is.  This idea seemed perfect coming out of the mouth of the young froglet who also had trouble discovering where he fit.

He does not belong with the rest of the Muppet crew and he recognizes it.  He is too small to keep up with the gang.  Fortunately, he had another refugee from The Frog Prince join him in his journey to the new show.  And this creature also felt out of place due to his size.  Sweetums the Ogre played a villain in the original fairy tale, but his kind nature broke through and allowed him to form a bond with this kindred spirit.

But despite this connection, Sweetums was undoubtedly a humorous character.  Robin still could not help but feel out of place.  In another one of the show's few tender moments, sguest star Bernadette Peters comes to the aid of the depressed pollywog and shows him how significant "Just One Person" can be.

And Robin was significant.  With his innocence and sympathy and selfless instincts, he became a character that many people could idolize.  The Muppets are known for being swacky.  Robin is there to ground them, to remind us that humor is just buut one of the joys we can offer each other.  It was no question that he would portray the similarly motivated Tiny Tim in The Muppet's Christmas Carol.  Only Robin could bring the dignity required of the role that most of the other Muppets sorely lack.

The patient and mild Tiny Tim.  Such a little, little child.

What started as a generic puppet without any notable qualities has evolved into a complex creature with a deeper set of emotions thought to be incapable in mere felt and plastic.  He may feel out of place, but it is his self-awareness that distinguishes him.  He is too good for the world he was made for.  He is not a human, but he is not a Muppet.

He is somewhere else instead.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Sinister Truth Behind Sesame Street's Economy

Previously, I noted how letters and numbers were used as "sponsors" on Sesame Street, replacing normal advertisements found in other children's shows.  This idea, that the alphabet and the numeral system were products, was incorporated into the show itself.  However, in every economy, there are always people willing to exploit the system.

Enter Lefty the Salesman.  He's the shady, back-alley, no-good rat always fixing to earn a quick nickel. He often preys on the young and unintelligent to hock his possibly stolen wares.  Living on the Street of Sesame means that most of his items are of the alphanumeric variety.

Just as good as the real thing....

Sesame Street was originally targeted to inner-city youth and played with the urban concepts many children were bound to encounter...including the mysterious trench-coated man selling illegal products.  Although every puppet on Sesame Street is naive, Ernie often fell victim to Lefty's pitches.

His ruses usually fail and ultimately he tries to sweeten the deal with a signature song, his own "C is for Cookie" or "I Love Trash."  He lays the slimy charm on thick with "Would You Like to Buy an O," the hustler's anthem.

Fortunately, Ernie almost always declines.  He knows where he can get these letters and numbers legitimately.  But wait a minute....there is something still fishy about this business.  Watch this next clip and you may see the real issue at hand.

The letters....are ALIVE!  In this magical world where humans and monsters and grouches and snuffleupaguses co-exist peacefully, talking letters and numbers are being slaughtered by the dozen!  And nobody bats an eye!  They are praised for being beautiful creatures one moment and become tacky trophies and tchotchkes the next!  Ernie honestly contemplates buying all of these deceased creatures.  What happened to them?  Why are they becoming mass-produced?  All so they can be hung on a wall for people to look at as a reminder of what they once were?  What barbarians would do such a thing?

At least stuffed carcasses of Muppet animals can remain sentient in the afterlife.

Whatever is happening, no one is saying a word.  Lefty makes sure to keep all of his business transactions on the down low.  Although he crawls out from the city's seedy underbelly, his network runs deep.  Noted politicians, respected celebrities, and furry lovable monsters all partake in this corruption.  Lefty runs this city like a well oiled machine.  He is the Tony Montana of Sesame Street.  It would not be surprising to find that he has been supplying Sesame Street merchants with the bodies of the entire alphabet!

My God...

The blood of the innocent is spilled in exchange for a lollipop.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Art at War: Hipsters vs. Squares

In researching the Electric Mayhem last week, I realized what a bunch of hipsters they all were.  And really, the same could be said for Henson and many of his characters.  He grew up in a time where hipsters were idolized.  They stood for individualism in music and art and devoted themselves completely to the craft.

Henson fancied himself a hipster, and as such, strove to promote hipster pride.  He accomplished this by allowing most of his humor to arise from the eternal conflict between the Hipster and the Square.  It is possible to pick any Muppet and random and easily identify them as a limitless, creative, energetic Hipster or a stuck-up, unappreciative, uninformed Square (save for the monsters that just ate a lot of things).  Ernie vs. Bert, Mahna Mahna vs. the Snowths, the entirety of The Muppet Show vs. Waldorf and Statler.  But none were as widely exaggerated as Floyd Pepper and Sam the American Eagle.

The Hipster
The Square

A recurring battle often ensued between self-appointed censor Sam and the members of the Electric Mayhem, particularly Floyd.  From the very first episode, Sam tried tirelessly to keep Floyd and his crew in check.  But they always found ways to beat him in the end, either by intentionally "ruining cultured art" or by tricking him with their hip slang.

Floyd: "Can you believe this cat?"
Sam: "I am not a cat.  I am a bird."
Floyd: "You may be a bird, but you ain't the bird."

While show host Kermit tried his best to keep the high-maintenence Sam happy, Floyd loved to ruffle the conservative eagle's feathers deliberately.

Henson always enjoyed taking shots at the older generation who just didn't understand today's youth.  As people get older, they long to stay rooted in the past.  He hoped he could place himself two steps ahead of his unwelcoming audience by acknowledging that yes, he was different, but he has something to say and it would be a lot easier to embrace the new art.  This style of back and forth with the two ideologies is present even in his earliest work.  One of his very first characters was known as Harry the Hipster, named after the eponymous jazz musician.  Although just a basic sock puppet, Harry had a lot of spunk.

Ironically, hipsters never wear socks.

In this famous early clip entitled "Visual Thinking," Kermit takes on the role of the Square as Harry teaches him how to properly open his mind (You may need to turn up your volume).

This sketch was repeated multiple times, evolving along the way.  Kermit grew out of his shell and started playing Harry's role (just as more of Jim's personality seeped into the puppet).  On Sesame Street, the focus is mostly on the shapes, but the Hipster and the Square's personalities are greatly heightened.

As time passed, Sesame Street taught us to accept the squares in our life.  For they simple lack awareness and understanding and should be helped, not pitied.  With the right attitude, a Square could overcome his affliction and become hip!

Finally, many years after Henson's death, it appeared as if the Muppet franchise and the Henson name had become more mainstream, more corporate.  The edge was being lost as squareness set in.  Fortunately, in a move that probably unintentionally celebrated Henson's individuality, Muppet Studios released an Internet video in which the Muppets perform a classic ode to Bohemia.

Although it is just a fun mash-up, the personalities of each character remain consistent to their origins.  True to their natures, Sam delivers the lines of the oppressive Square while Floyd and the Electric Mayhem take the helm of the hard rock solo.

As Harry the Hipster Sock showed us earlier, there is a responsibility to being a Hipster.  You have to respect the art that came before you or else you'll end up getting lost in your own creation, your own ego.  And if you are a Square, step back and look at what the Hipsters are sharing with us.  We can create harmonic music together if each group shares their ideas, philosophies, and gifts.

(The beautiful portraits of Floyd and Sam were found at

Friday, September 16, 2011


Early Animal, as designed by Henson

If the rest of the Electric Mayhem seem to lack energy, that is because their drummer more than compensates in that department.  Unlike the other four who were inspired by specific musicians, Animal is just the basic concept of the wild drummer.  He is the unbridled id who only exists to make noise.  His puppeteer Frank Oz described Animal as consisting of five basic ideas: "Sex, sleep, food, drums, and pain."  And more often than not, food and drums are combined.

Down! Back! Sit!

His spastic nature has made him the most popular member of the Electric Mayhem.  And they certainly need him on their team.  He makes sure they never stop rocking.

Even when forced to perform classical music, Animal refuses to be tamed.

Animal's not gonna make it, man...

Like his name suggests, Animal only functions on basic primal urges.  He is not very complex, which may contribute to his popularity.  Everyone can recognize what Animal is all about.  He does not hide his true nature and, in some ways, is like the Muppet Theater's resident pet.  He is kept chained up in the basement, only allowed out to perform his art.  And despite his unhinged persona, he is quite the talented drummer.  Like Zoot, Animal had his own personal musician who supplied the music, and the puppeteers had to be careful to match his flailing drumsticks to the actual beat.

Ronnie Verrell, the man behind the Animal

Animal will appear many more times throughout the Muppet canon, sometimes playing crucial roles, but more often trotted out to provide comic relief.  It is simple humor to have this monstrous puppet devour and destroy, and that was the humor Henson liked best.  However, Animal's talent allowed him to break away from the repetitive nature of other famous Muppet monsters.  In the final clip, Animal's skills are pushed to the test as he must focus his energy and beat legendary drummer Buddy Rich in a drum battle.

In classic Celtic mythology, there exists the stock character of "the wild man," a shaggy individual who lives outside of society, both physically and mentally.  He behaves like a creature of the forest and attacks humans, unable to control his urges.  He is not welcomed in civilization and is treated as being below humanity.  His language is basic, often resorting to primal yells and grunts.  His skin is tanned and his teeth are sharp.  He is identified by his bright red hair.  Sound like anyone we know?

Don't worry, he's just upset about missing the Renoir exhibit at the National Gallery.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Uh Oh... Zoot Skipped a Groove Again.

"Zoot is just a fifty-year-old burnt out musician." - Dave Golez, Zoot's puppeteer

The sax man.

I am tempted just to leave the entire post at that.  It would be fitting to Zoot's character.  He is a man of few words, letting his saxophone do the talking.  Because he plays the saxophone more than he speaks, it would be more fitting to describe his "vocal" performer as saxophonist Frank Reedy, who was one of the musicians behind the scenes The Muppet Show.

Frank Reedy recording Zoot's lines

Zoot's silent nature was not intentional.  While he was supposed to be a very laid-back jazz musician (and named after the common jazz apparel, the zoot suit), he originally was a very outspoken character.  Like Floyd, he often respected the integrity of the music, and would half-heartedly rebel as much as he could muster.  There was a sense that he was once a trend-setter in his youth, but a life of drugs and excitement took a toll on his soul, causing him to all but give up.

This behavior is evident in the first season, where he had more speaking and solo parts.  In "Sax and Violence," he rejects a piece for it's minimal saxophone parts, yet decides it's ultimately better to keep his gig.  As he deals with the musical (and physical) abuse the song brings him, he turns his weapon of choice into an actual weapon.

Zoot was supposed to be Dave Golez's main character (before Gonzo became an unexpected breakout star).  However, Golez often found difficulty finding motivation for Zoot to speak.  He would often pawn lines and jokes onto the other members of the Electric Mayhem, rather than find the way Zoot would deliver them.  Due to this behavior, Zoot became the butt of many jokes at the expense of his drug-addled brain.  He was sleepy, slow to react, and apparently homeless.  Not exactly the fun, glamorous, exciting world of rock and roll the Electric Mayhem set out to depict.  But it was accurate.  For the little that he did, Zoot grounded the group in reality.

I am sure there is a perfectly PC explanation for this picture.

One final oddity about Zoot is that in the five-year run of The Muppet Show, he underwent seven very different design changes.  The rest of the Muppets went through a few changes on average to produce better quality puppets.  But they mostly stuck to their original design and colors and significant changes were only added to increase facial expressions (movable eyebrows and eyelids, for example).  Zoot is a very unexpressive character, yet he was constantly updated with different skin tones and nose colors.

Is he blue, gray, or green?  Is his nose yellow or not?  Is this the result of drug abuse and malnutrition?

Whatever the truth is, Zoot ain't talking.