Saturday, December 31, 2011

The End of the World

The beginning of a new year is quite exciting.  A full-year's worth of potential lies ahead for everyone.  New adventures not yet experienced, new relationships not yet formed, new memories awaiting creation.  We bid farewell to the old year, resolving to ensure that the next one will be better.

All of this is completely arbitrary of course, but it's fun to celebrate change with the entire world.

And we get to stay up past our bedtime!

On Sesame Street, all of the grown-ups head out for their fancy parties while the kids and Muppets stay behind to have their own party.  They eagerly await midnight to watch the ball drop (off Wolfgang the Seal's nose).

It's not as majestic as Times Square, but at least there are puppets.

Elmo, Cookie Monster and Grover host a special on the Monster News Network to ring in the New Year, having correspondents around the world teach us about their New Year's customs.  Most of these segments include cameos from the actual international versions of Sesame Street.  But when those puppets aren't available, we are treated to "Elmo's cousins," (a.k.a. Elmo dressed up in stereotypical outfits with thick accents.)

Totally not offensive at all.

And, of course, Oscar the Grouch uses any opportunity to destroy people's merriment.  For young Telly, the new year represents the unknown, which frightens him.  He would rather keep the old year going forever.  And when Oscar convinces him that when the year ends so does time itself, Telly transforms into an apocalyptic doomsayer, trying to convince everyone to stop the new year from coming.

Telly needs help.

But he brings up a good point.  We all accept the New Year with open arms, as if it won't be exactly like the previous one.  There will be great moments and new developments, but there will also be many scary unpleasant moments as well.  Why else do we party so hard on the last night of the year?  We are not just saying goodbye, we are saying good riddance!  Why shouldn't we fear another year of the same?

We put lampshades on our heads so that we do not have to face the future.

Of course, if we avoid the future, we miss out on all that makes the year great.  We resolve to make the world a better place and while some of us may forget or mess up, we keep trying and we keep improving our lives.  The old year wasn't so bad, but everyone can use another chance.  You don't know what the best years of your life will be until the end, so it just makes sense to make each one better than the previous one.

Make this sendoff count, because the old year is never coming back.

As the ball drops tonight, think of all the magical moments from this year, and resolve to make ten times as many next year!  It's not the end of the world.  We've still got plenty of time to make our lives the best they can be.

Happy New Year!!!!

Friday, December 30, 2011

It's About Time!

For many, Jim Henson is synonymous with "the Muppets."  But, for as visionary as Henson was, the product known as the Muppets are the result of great collaborators bringing their own ideas together.  Henson was the boss and much of what was produced matched his own philosophies, but he encouraged his team to think for themselves.

So, you may find it odd that, for the man who created the Muppets, his most personal creation did not involve puppetry at all.  Ask anyone who worked with Henson personally, and they will tell you that the piece of art that is purely Jim is the experimental film Time Piece.

The 9-minute film can be watched here.

In 1965, Henson released this Academy-Award-nominated short, where he received lots of attention as an up-and-coming filmmaker.  He showed the world that lip-syncing puppets weren't going to be his only claim to fame.

The words "experimental film" may turn a lot of people away, especially one that is created by a young filmmaker.  Abstract metaphors and a pompous cloud surround these "artsy" films as they try to be edgy and different.  But rebelling against the mainstream has its limits, and it can test the patiences of many.  Henson avoided falling into the trap of alienating his audience by crafting a work that is both accessible and thought-provoking.

Everyone can get into this!

The film focuses on the life of one man, who stands in for the Everyman.  The situations he finds himself in come at a rapid-fire pace.  Each scene contains a symbolic image or circumstance that lacks overt complexity.  Because the metaphors are presented so quickly, the viewer has just enough time to interpret each moment as the film moves on to the next scene.  If there is a moment you don't understand, just sit tight because a new scene is just around the corner.

I'll admit, I still don't know what to make of the pink-painted elephant, but I like it nonetheless.

All of this is set to rhythmic beats based on a clock's "tick-tock" sound.  Drums, heartbeats, breaths, and footsteps are just some of the many sounds that keep this film on track.  This is all put in place to imply that man is trapped by time itself.  All of his daily activities are just seconds ticking away from his life, keeping him prisoner in his own body.

Figuratively, of course.

There are only a few words of dialogue, and all of them are "Help."  These come at the ends of particularly mundane moments, suggesting that the monotony of everyday life is the biggest threat to the man (or to Henson himself).

Eventually, the man attempts to break free and just runs away.  The rhythmic drums become an improvisational jazz number, lacking any sense of pattern.  He doesn't have a particular destination.  He just keeps running and running and running.  It's clear that this is Henson's answer.  His yearning for people to embrace their creativity and to not get held back by...whoever is holding you back.

This iconic moment is captured on the Time Piece study guide, which is a thing that exists.

The man eventually reaches an edge.  He can no longer run.  He is forever trapped.  There is nothing left to do but jump.  And when he jumps, he gains wings!  Henson has found his way out of the system!  He has created his own method of living, one that no one before him has ever accomplished.

He looks down on us puny mortals.  For he is Jim Freaking Henson.

But even in the sky, he knows that this is not enough.  Once again he is must plead "Help."  Eventually, everything repeats and reverses, bringing us back to the beginning, with Henson in the hospital room.  It appears as though time has caught up with him and despite all of his endeavors, even he could not outrun time itself.  Then, ever the trickster, the camera pulls up to reveal that Henson was also the doctor, showing that somehow, in some way, he escaped.  He winks at the audience as the credits roll.

He beat the system.  Even after death, he is still very much alive.

Despite not even hinting at the presence of the Muppets, it is very clear why his comrades considered this to be the quintessential Henson piece.  It presents a look right into the mind of a man who would single-handedly change entertainment and innovation.  Each second can be discussed and analyzed to convey some universal truth about life.  It has it's confusing moments, but there is something that can appeal to everyone.  Some moment that you can look at and think, "I understand completely."  While most experimental films pride themselves for being avant-garde and indecipherable, Henson intentionally created one that could be enjoyed by many.  Although the individual moments are familiar, they make a completely unique tapestry when woven together.

This was Jim's Mahna Mahna, which set the stage for everything that would follow.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

There's No Place Like Home

Safety.  Comfort.  Familiarity.

In life, we are encouraged to try as many new experiences as possible.  As our horizons are broadened, we become more enlightened to our surroundings.  For some, this ignites a passion for travel, as curiosity forces us to seek the answers that we cannot find at home.  For others, change comes quickly and without warning, uprooting us from our places of solace.  We all start with one home, but it is not set in stone.

If we can find safety, comfort, and familiarity, we have found our home.

But what if that isn't enough?  What if we dream of a perfect place?  A place to call our own?  We might be comfortable where we are, but there can always be something better, right?

A quiet, serene landscape, where you are in charge.

The same old routine can wear on our souls.  We desire exotic locales for our vacations because variety keeps us satisfied.  For brief periods of time, we imagine what it can be like to call a better place home.  And when we return, we are filled with fond memories.  That is where we want to live.

We can feel safe and comfortable in a new familiar place.  But there is one more thing a home requires.

Home is not always fixed to a place.  A cherished item can make you feel at home.  A song can take you home again.  But the best home is the one you can create with other people.

You can travel to the moon or to the bottom of the sea.  You can climb the tallest mountain or navigate the thickest jungle.  You can experience new cultures in fabulous cities or quiet towns.  These will create wonderful memories.  But none of these places will be home.  Not until you share them with the ones you love.

They say that home is where the heart is.  So give your heart to the right people.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Crouching Puppeteer, Spittin' Dragon

The history of advertising is closely linked to the mindset of the average consumer.  Early advertisements appealed to the public through the written word (and maybe a nice picture) to inform the audience about the product.  The claims may have been exaggerated or false, but the focus was always purely on whatever was trying to be sold.  As ads reached film, attempts were made to create visual and auditory memories, so that the consumer would be reminded of the clever premise or catchy jingle when strolling down the aisle at the supermarket.  It is during this era that mascots took off.  Characters came to life on the screen, existing only to shill their wares.  We have seen how Jim Henson's early commercials involved a clever send up of scare tactics used to sell items (by having his characters overtly threaten the consumer).  But his next target would be the concept of mascots themselves.

Advertising mascots only have one job: to represent their product in a positive light.  While mascots that hate the product are popular (such as the Geico cavemen or the adults who just don't understand why kids like Apple Jacks when they don't taste like apples) they do not besmirch the name of their company in the process of their antics.  Doing so would just be clumsy advertising.


When the makers of La Choy Chow Mein contacted Henson to make a mascot for them, he obliged.  When they asked to make it a fire-breathing dragon, he had a field day.  Delbert the La Choy Dragon was an over-zealous, lumbering beast who LOVED La Choy products.  Unfortunately, in his excitement, he failed to notice his surroundings.  Like Godzilla, destruction followed this dragon wherever he went.

Unlike most mascots who are welcomed with open arms by the human characters, Delbert would frighten and endanger all those he encountered.  All the while, he would be completely oblivious to the chaos he left in his wake.  This satire on advertising comes off as very post-modern.  Ads like the one above would not feel out of place today.  In fact, it would fit in quite nicely with modern Super Bowl commercials.  But for the '60s, this kind of behavior was unheard of.

In pitching this character to advertisers, Henson knew that he would have to appeal to the producer's funny bones.  He made up a short reel, explaining the concept, all while poking fun at his own image (as well as those of the Muppets).  He knew that his stuff was weird, but it was the kind of weird television needed.  Even in a short few minutes, it is clear that he was passionate about this character, and he was especially proud at creating a new piece of technology that set the dragon apart from any puppet that had come before it.

Fire.  A puppet that could breathe fire.  Such an idea was unimaginable.  But Henson made it.  And he ran with it.  In every ad, showing the flame for one second just wasn't enough.  Everything else had to burn.  The food, the kitchen, the entire sets.  Henson was allowed to play with fire, and he was going to have fun with it.

All while poor Frank Oz had to suffer inside the suit.

Like all of Henson's mascots, the La Choy Dragon eventually disappeared along with the product.  It is a shame that Jim did not get more opportunities to play with this character.  The unbridled passion combined with his tendency towards dangerous spectacle made him the perfect Henson character.  This anti-mascot was too good for his time, but he will forever be one of the best.

Monday, December 26, 2011

March of the Puppets

As the Muppet cast grew over the years, the diverse population of animals made for a collection that would rival that of the San Diego Zoo.  However, there were a few species that The Muppet Show showcased more frequently than the others.  These creatures were used so often that their new characteristics became the norm.  We have come to expect a Muppet pig to behave like an arrogant human, a Muppet rat to be bug-eyed and swift, and a Muppet chicken to possess amazing musical talent.  But the species that seem to have been made for The Muppet Show are the penguins.

The South Pole was too cold for them.

Unlike pigs, rats, and chickens who at least had some main characters to represent them, the penguins were always a group, each member indistinguishable from the next.  They rarely spoke, preferring to communicate through a series of quacks.  Each seemed to be imbued with the exact same personality, fun-loving and energetic.  The first penguin to appear was named Winky Pinkerton who could talk and do "impressions" of other birds.

And he wore a little hat.

But this puppet design was too bland for a new character, and Winky never reappeared again (as a specific individual).  Besides, how often is a show set in the northern hemisphere going to use a penguin?  This one note bird seemed destined for the storage trunk.  That is, until it was decided to give every puppeteer his own penguin to use in background scenes and singing back-up, even if the location was unfit for Antarctic or avian participants.  I mean, especially if the location was unfit for them.

Groups of the birds began appearing everywhere, due to the sheer fact that they were instantly amusing to watch.  The first puppet was designed with a flexible head like the other Muppets, but the new ones were crafted more like the actual animals, with stiff necks and beaks.  These, combined with the flightless birds' waddle created a new style of movement that the other characters did not possess.  The structure and absurd qualities of the perpetually-tuxedoed penguins meant that what every they did, they would be crowd pleasing.  There was no need to separate them into individual characters.

Even the action figures are packaged as a pair.  You can't have just one Muppet penguin.

The fact that any puppeteer could toss one on and quack for a bit meant that they became the universal standard for a cute funny punchline.  As Brian Henson noted of his father's tendency to write sketches without planned endings, sometimes the best thing to do would be that "you either blow something up, or you eat something, or you just throw penguins in the air."  He took this to heart when he directed his first movie.

Eventually, penguins became the go to "extras" in the Muppet universe.  Whenever a large group was required, more penguins were thrown into the mix.  If there is one thing Henson has taught us, it is that there is no such thing as too many penguins.

Currently, a set group of animatronic penguins known as Nicky Napoleon and his Emperor Penguins make up the pit orchestra for Muppet*Vision 3D.  They first appeared in the short-lived Little Muppet Monsters providing the background music and performing other technical tasks.  While the original show failed, the penguins were fortunate to live on, threatening the safety of Disney Parks visitors daily.

What's black and white and red, white, and blue all over?

The penguins are the universal Muppets.  No matter what your background, they create comedy that appeals to all.  Their flapping beaks and flippers can bring a smile to anyone's face.  And according to the Muppeteers themselves, they are as fun to perform as they are to watch.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Gift for Everyone

The Christmas special is an odd beast.  Because we place such importance on the holiday, we expect any tributes to the 25th of December to adhere to certain guidelines.  Many deal with some threat to the event, requiring the "saving of Christmas."  Others are used to rehash classic stories, to remind us of Christmases past.  Even those that take an unusual approach wrap up everything nicely, revealing the "true meaning of Christmas."  They exist for a moment to make us smile and then we forget about them until the following year.

Rarely does the Christmas special focus purely on pleasing the audience.  Yes, we are pleased when Charlie Brown's friends decorate his tree and we are pleased when the Grinch's heart grows three sizes and we are pleased when Ralphie gets his BB gun from his old man but that is because that is what these stories entail.  We expect Christmas stories to have happy endings.  They are pleasant out of necessity.

But I am referring to a kind of special that is crafted solely to make the audience smile from beginning to end.  One where conflicts are minimal, jokes are aplenty, and each moment is endearing, unique, and memorable.  That Christmas special is A Muppet Family Christmas.

Three of the best words in the English language.

In 48 minutes, nearly 100 Muppets appear and 22 Christmas songs are sung.  Yet, it never feels rushed or overstuffed.  Instead, it is the perfect gift for any Muppet fan.

The invitations sent from the Muppets to you to celebrate Christmas with them.

Because of the copyright nightmare that this special created, it is impossible to find an unedited version on video or DVD.  For many years, the only full version could be viewed at the Henson Archives at the University of Maryland's Performing Arts Library in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

But, thanks to the modern age, the entire uncut special can be found here.  (Also, so as not to repeat what many others have already said about this program, a great analysis can be found here and some fans' scene-by-scene commentary with brilliant observations can be found here.)

I'll give you some time to watch it first.

As you can see, there is very little by way of story.  The Muppet crew unexpectedly arrives at Fozzie's mother's house to spend Christmas.  This premise just exists to gather every single character that we love into one location and see what happens.  What is marvelous about this special is that it is just a series of moments, allowing all of Henson's characters to interact.  Everyone has a favorite Muppet from The Muppet Show or Sesame Street or Fraggle Rock and each one gets their moment in the sun (save for Elmo, who hadn't yet become a star).

Each moment is presented so as to appeal to the fans in the biggest way possible.  One segment that is unfortunately cut from the video versions is the Muppet Babies footage, which returns to that iconic scene from The Muppets Take Manhattan. Plus, it introduces the puppet version of Baby Animal!

The numerous crossovers allow for a lot of humor at the expense of the creators (such as how Cookie Monster and Animal are basically the same character, or how Rowlf can talk while Sprocket can only bark, or how the Sesame Street cast have to talk about pre-school-related topics).  But they also allow some new dynamics to unfold, such as the subplot about the Swedish Chef trying to kill Big Bird for the Christmas feast.

A once-in-a-lifetime moment: a beloved character's brush with pre-meditated death

Despite all that is happening, there is still time to introduce two new characters with their own story arcs!  In Fozzie's story, he creates a snowman that comes to life, becomes his new comedy partner, and is shot down during his first attempt at stand-up by Statler and Waldorf.

It's better this way.  He probably would've melted before he hit it big.

In Gonzo's story, he competes with the suave, cunning Christmas Turkey for Camilla the Chicken's affections.  All this after the Turkey convinces the Chef to roast Big Bird.  That is a lot of plot for a brand new Muppet.

What a weird looking creature.

And of course, it would be ignorant of me not to mention Kermit and Piggy's story, as the blizzard separates them on this Christmas Eve night.  Unlike the John Denver special which focused mostly on Piggy and Denver's relationship, this reminds us of the chemistry between the frog and pig, which, for all of it's absurd problems, is sweet and genuine.

Actually, everything about this show is what the John Denver special should have been.

Thanks to the skills of go-to writer Jerry Juhl, each scene stays focused and unforgettable as each character is treated with dignity.  He makes sure that we remember what it is exactly that we have loved about these characters for so many years.  Not one puppet seems out of place in this gaggle of crazy individuals.  The spirit of each original show is captured in each scene.  While everyone my have their favorite moments, the piece-de-resistance is the journey down to Fraggle Rock where Kermit and Robin learn of the Fraggle gift-giving tradition.  Instead of everybody buying new gifts each year, there exist a few small gifts that are annually passed from person to person.  The honor comes from being the next recipient, being trusted to hold on to it for another year.

Mokey gives her gift, a yellow pebble to Boober, who, in turn, passes his new gift to Robin.  Later on, as Robin passes it on to Grover, we can truly feel this Henson universe expanding.  A bit of memorabilia has crossed the hands of multiple unrelated characters, forming a bond that shall forever remain.

This special is the gift Jim Henson gave to all of his fans during the 30 years he spent with the Muppets. This was the last Christmas special he made before passing away and it is a fitting tribute to the legacy he left behind. During the final moments of the show, as the dozens of characters join together in song, we get a rare glimpse of Jim, overseeing the festivities. As the '80s drew to a close, Henson had been working on separating himself from the Muppet brand. It wasn't that he no longer cared about them, it was just that they had become too big for him to handle. He was always trying to create new stories and test different ideas. But the Muppets were an entity unto themselves and demanded a lot of attention. Eventually he would have to say goodbye. And this how he chose to depict that.

The Muppets are no longer his. They belong to the world. This was Jim's gift to us.

It is up to us to pass it on.

"Yeah, I like it when they have a good time."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Yes, Big Bird, There is a Santa Claus

"Youth is wasted on the young," - George Bernard Shaw

When we become adults, we look back on our time spent as children, wishing that if we only knew then what we knew now, we would have made the most of our growing years.  This causes a paradox of sorts because the very reason we admired childhood was exactly because we did not know what we know now.  Before we learned the ways of the world, we just had to accept strange phenomena as they occurred.  Magic and reality went hand in hand.  And the reason we thought this was because our parents, who we turned to for education, fed us these stories.

Babies are brought by storks.  The tooth fairy takes our baby teeth while we are sleeping.  Santa Claus...well, is Santa Claus.

When we become new parents, many of us decide to perpetuate these "truths" to the younger generation.  Since we cannot become young again, we must prolong the childhoods of our children so that they may appreciate what we neglected to.  Children live in an interesting state.  Magic continues to be possible even when evidence to the contrary is brought before them.  As a child, I was fully aware that adults did not believe in Santa Claus, and there would come a day when I too would stop.  But even knowing that, I continued believing, like it was my duty to Santa.

Big Bird, the voice of children everywhere, was known for his curiosity.  When children across the world asked questions about life, Big Bird would as well.  On Christmas Eve, Oscar the Heretic Grouch puts a piece of doubt in the bird's stocking by asking a simple question: how does Santa Claus fit down a chimney?

A question that has plagued mankind for centuries.

This devastates the bird to no end.  Not because it convinced him that Santa is fictional, but because he is afraid that it is impossible for Santa to bring presents to Sesame Street, where the chimney's are just tiny pipes.  Big Bird recruits everyone he can find to help solve this puzzle so that his fears will be assuaged. To a person thinking logically, Big Bird's actions present another conundrum.  Whether or not Santa can fit down a chimney, Big Bird knowing the answer won't change what happens at midnight.

But Big Bird lets his emotions get the better of him and does not rest until the truth is revealed.  He turns to Kermit, who decides to launch an investigative report by interviewing kids, since they know the most about Santa.  "Knowing = Believing" and vice-versa for the young children, and what results is a cavalcade of roundabout explanations that only a child could dream up.

None of these answers convince Big Bird, so he takes it upon himself to find out by manning a late night stakeout on the roof of 123 Sesame Street.  Because he is behaving irrationally, he neglects to tell any adult of his plans, prompting everyone (even Oscar!) to start a frantic search for the lost child.  The cold snowy weather is worse up on the rooftops, and it causes the bird to drift in to a hypothermic sleep.  He could very well freeze to death while his guardians have no idea where to search for him, all because they decided to keep the truth about Santa a secret.

Our need to have children believe in magic comes at a cost.  Ignorance is bliss, but it it is also highly dangerous.  Eventually, adults have to teach children the truth.  But wisdom means that childhood is over.  It's not a fair trade.

We can't stay here forever.

Fortunately, Big Bird never has to grow up!  As he is finally found, he is brought inside to discover that all of the presents have been delivered successfully.  Big Bird laments that he failed to witness Santa, but as Gordon explains to him, it doesn't matter because the gifts were delivered anyway.  Whether Big Bird saw it or not, Christmas still came.  So, he had might as well enjoy the mystery for at least another year.  Unlike yesterday's episode of Fraggle Rock where Gobo's lack of faith resulted in a new appreciation for the holiday, Big Bird is allowed to keep living in bliss, while it is the adults around him who have learned to pay close attention to the loved ones in their life.

*      *      *

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street is exactly the kind of Christmas special that Sesame Street deserves.  Unlike the terrible special that would premiere a few days later, this special focuses solely on the Muppet characters instead of phoned-in celebrity cameos.  It presents a natural look at how the inhabitants of this street perceive the holiday.  While Big Bird and Oscar's squabble over the existence of Santa provides the crux of this episode, there are other moments that make it worth checking out.

The special begins with the cast ice skating.  Most of the footage is from the Sesame Street portions of "Ice Follies," a touring ice-skating show.  While the full-sized Muppets' antics are played for humor, there is a tender moment where a little girl teaches the clumsy Big Bird how to skate.

All set to a solemn instrumental performance of Feliz Navidad.

Ernie and Bert completely recreate The Gift of the Magi, selling their prized possessions (Rubber Duckie and a paper clip collection respectively) to Mr. Hooper in order to afford gifts for their best friend.  Ernie saying goodbye to his duck is touching, but they way Bert's voice cracks as he tries to get one last look at his paper clips is downright heartbreaking.

Never have office supplies been so meaningful.

It eventually comes time to exchange the gifts.  After some brilliant slight of hand disguising the fact that the Bert puppet cannot physically open a wrapped present, the realization that terrible mistakes have been made in selling their favorite items sets in.  Fortunately, Mr. Hooper returns with the sold items, presenting them as his own gifts!

Otherwise, Mr. Hooper wouldn't have gotten them anything this year!

Other highlights include:

- Bob wishing Mr. Hooper a Happy Hanukkah with a sly wink, as if Judaism is a secret this year.

We mustn't let the kids learn that there is a holiday that has eight days of presents!

- Oscar singing about how he hates Christmas (which eliminates the need of that other special entirely).

- Cookie Monster's inability to write a letter to Santa without eating his materials.

- Kermit's winter outfit:

- And of course, this girl, who has the best explanation of how Santa works.

She has pushed the button to my heart.

All of these elements come together to create a special that blends the best of Sesame Street with the best of Christmas.  Everyone can become a child again on Christmas Eve.  It is the right place and the right time for true magic to occur.

Although, too much Christmas magic can leave you feeling bloated.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Seasonal Depression

If you know your Christmas history, then you are aware that the birth of Christ and December 25th do not exactly match up.  The December date was chosen as a way to take advantage of the pagan winter solstice celebrations occurring at the end of the year anyway.  With so many feasts and parties going on, this was the high point of the year, a great time for our biggest holiday to be celebrated.  But why were these events even happening in the first place?

As Uncle Traveling Matt observes, we partake in some very silly habits on Christmas Eve.

The winter solstice marks the beginning of the snowy season with the shortest and darkest day of the year (in the northern hemisphere, at least).  Because the freezing cold temperatures and prolonged lack of sunlight make for an unpleasant time, many cultures decided to mark the day with a celebration, filled with lots of food and mythical gift-giving characters to raise everyone's spirits.  The end of the year became a time to look forward to, rather than reluctantly endure.  It was as if everybody decided to ignore Mother Nature's annual season of misery.

In Fraggle Rock's only holiday special "The Bells of Fraggle Rock," Doc prepares his home for Christmas by embracing the traditions of other cultures.  He introduces these various customs by teaching his dog Sprocket about the winter solstice.

It's December 21st! Time to break out the piñata!

Down in Fraggle Rock, the Fraggles have their own holiday associated with the beginning of winter known as "The Festival of the Bells."  According to tradition, there lies a Great Bell at the center of the rock that must be rung to prevent the rock from freezing completely.  In order to awaken the Great Bell, all Fraggles must ring their own personal bells.  As with all of these events, games, dances, songs and giant meals accompany the festival, making the time very merry indeed.

Finally, a chance for the Fraggles to sing and play!

But Gobo Fraggle (Jerry Nelson), after some deep thinking, surmises that there is no point to all of these silly traditions.  Every year they ring their bells and every year nothing changes.  It still gets cold, it still gets dark, he still never hears the Great Bell and his spirit drops.  He recognizes that people enjoy this day, but as he gets older, the fun has been drained from this once festive occasion.  He tries to convince his friends that all of their ringing is for naught, as no one has actually seen the Great Bell in person, and it most likely is just a myth and nothing more.

When the wise minstrel Cantus (Jim Henson) comes to officiate the bell-ringing ceremonies, Gobo tries to ask his faith-shaking questions about the holiday but receives only metaphors and vague responses.  Frustrated, he leaves the ceremony, using an old map of the Fraggle Rock tunnels to locate the Great Bell.  If no one else will answer his questions, he will discover the truth by himself.

His best bet would be to start with that bell shaped camber in the center of the rock.

Gobo's friends plead with Cantus to bring their friend back from his quest, agreeing to put the festival on hold until they both return.  Despite the fact that the temperature is dropping rapidly, Cantus sets forth to retrieve Gobo.

And with a confusing array of lyrical dialogue, he is off!

Eventually, he catches up with him just as Gobo discovers the door to the center chamber.  Cantus warns Gobo that by opening the door, he may not be prepared for what he finds and that it is best to turn back.  However, Gobo proceeds, for he needs to know the truth.


The Path to Enlightenment

Gobo opens the door, heads inside, and discovers that the chamber is completely empty!  The Great Bell does not exist and it never has!  Centuries of legend destroyed in an instant!

Life is meaningless.

Wise Cantus leads Gobo back to his family, trying to explain what he just saw.  So it's true, there is no Great Bell.  So what?  Every year, the rock keeps thriving.  People keep living and they stay happy.  Even if there is no Great Bell to keep everyone safe, people can still look out for each other and make their own meanings in life.  The world's answers are not going to lie behind some door.  Some things will forever be a mystery to us.  It is better to accept it and embrace the life that you have.

Gobo resigns to this fate and sadly returns home.  Unfortunately, home is not the same as it once was.  With the Festival of the Bells postponed, the great freeze did indeed come, freezing everyone solid!

It's just as creepy as the ending of The Shining.

How could this be?  Gobo just learned that there was never a Great Bell to prevent a freeze like this.  How could it suddenly happen?  It then dawns on Gobo that no one rang their own bells.  By staying put and not moving, the freeze was able to take over.  It is the act of ringing the bells that keeps the rock warm enough to survive the cold.  There is a Great Bell at the center of the rock!  Gobo unleashes his own Great Bell to help revive everyone once and for all.

Life has returned with a warming glow.

It is not every children's Christmas special that deals with such a complicated topic as the lack of faith.  Yet, it is exactly what many people experience during the winter holidays (and was, in fact, the reason these holidays were invented in the first place).  There may not be some great metaphysical reason behind our celebrations, but as humans, we have chosen to observe them for a valuable purpose.  Winter is the season of death.  Plants die, food becomes scarce, and life becomes difficult.  Without our annual pick-me-up encouraging us to stay close together, our species may not have survived as long as it has.

When the world is at it's coldest, we supply the warmth.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Dreidels, Menorahs, Porcupines and Grouches?

As mentioned previously, Sesame Street quickly became an international phenomenon due to its colorful characters and philosophy towards childhood development. The versions that aired in other countries all followed the same general formula: clips/episodes from America would be dubbed in to whatever the national language was, and additional material would be created using a local cast and new puppets, mostly for the "street scenes." In the late '80s, Israel received its own copy of the program called Rechov Sumsum.

The stars of this show were a giant pink porcupine named Kippi Ben Kippod and the grouch Moishe Oofniwho lived in a car, rather than a trash can.
The show lasted a few years, and would later be rebooted in the late '00s with many more characters to represent the ever expanding American cast. But other than the change of location and culture, there wasn't much that set this Sesame Street apart from any others. There was, however, a closely related spin-off of this program which followed the original run of this series.  Lewis Bernstein, the Vice President of Global Production for Sesame Workshop, proposed a bilingual co-production between Rechov Sumsum and Sesame Street to allow American children to get a better perspective of the Jewish culture in Israel. Clips from both shows would be used as familiar and new characters would alternatively speak in English and Hebrew. The result was Shalom Sesame.
The show catered to a slightly older audience of elementary and middle school students. This series also underwent a reboot when Rechov Sumsum resumed production. Each episode specifically focuses on an aspect of Israeli life, rather than the usual pre-school curriculum. One of the original eleven episodes that aired in 1990 was about Chanukah.
Featuring Jeremy Miller from TV's Growing Pains!
There is little plot to this special, as it mostly consists of Jeremy performing in various scenes and sketches that explain some aspect of Chanukah, whether it be the history...
Time-traveling fun in "Maccabee to the Future!"
The fifth day of Chanukah is widely regarded to be the best day.
...or customs of the holiday.
Such as everyone's favorite game show Dreidel of Fortune!
While the show is ambitious in covering new ground for an American audience, the execution seems a little haphazard. For example, because there had not been a Chanukah episode of Sesame Street, there was no appropriate footage to use from the English version. The closest connection that could be made was with the fact that there are eight (8) days of Chanukah, so almost every song and sketch that dealt with the number 8 was included. I suppose if there is one fact that children should know about the holiday, it's that it lasts eight days.
Ah yes, the Octopus: The Chanukah of Sea Creatures, if you will.
The main storyline that pokes it's head periodically throughout the special involves Kippi carrying a torch (à la the Olympic relay) to light a menorah at the end. See, a menorah is used on Chankuah...
Well, not everything has to make a lot of sense.
And what Chanukah special wouldn't be complete without Moishe Oofnik trying to sell stale sufganiot (jelly doughnuts)?
The special may be all over the place, but it has good intentions. This was the first of it's kind, especially for a Henson production. It's nice to know that the spirit of Sesame Street can be used to inform people about more than just the alphabet and numbers. Chanukah would later be revisited in other specials, such as Elmo's World: Happy Holidays and Shalom Sesame's Chanukah: The Missing Menorah (which is able to reuse the Elmo's World footage for the American segments).
Baby Bear teaches Telly the proper way to play Dreidel.
Despite being a minor holiday that has been inflated by the media to compete with Christmas commercialism, Chanukah remains quite under represented in the television specials field. The few that exist maintain a quiet presence that focus more on education of the event, rather than becoming an over-the-top production. Mostly, they serve as a reminder that while Christmas can be overwhelmingly present, it is not universal. A diverse population covers this Earth, each with their own family traditions. Take some time to learn from each other.
Happy Chanukah!