Thursday, August 30, 2012

Lost to Time

(Be sure to check out the first half of the one-year retrospective here.)

With so many creations under his belt, it's no surprise that many of Jim Henson's projects have been forgotten over time.  We know him as a puppeteer, writer, director, producer, and artist among many other roles.  But did you know he also planned on adding "musician" to his resumé?

No, Frank Sinatra doesn't really appear on this single.

During his Sam and Friends days, Henson released this single.  No one is really sure of the exact context it was intended to be used in (although the sound and style is very similar to soundtracks to his short films).  "Tick-Tock Sick" (with the B-side "The Countryside") is a rare gem.  It discusses the steady flow of time and how the mere ticking of a clock can disorient and change one's perception.  Give it a listen.

I felt this was a good way to introduce the latter half of my look-back over the year.  While we all have seen the more popular subjects of Henson's repertoire there are some posts that have not found as large of an audience.  Some are due to obscurity of the character or subject matter while others are due to poor timing.  Whatever the case may be, here is a chance to revisit some items you may have missed.

The Bottom Ten Posts

This list doesn't include any posts from the last three months, since it's hard to gauge how popular those are/will become.  Plus, those area ll too fresh in my memory and I'd feel like I'm just repeating myself.  No, the following ten posts have stayed at the bottom for a long time.

Topic: Link Hogthrob (Specifically, his role as captain of the Swinetrek)

It's disappointing when your favorite Muppet isn't appreciated by everyone else.  Since this is one of my earlier posts from "Pigs in Space" week, more time was spent discussing Link in this series of sketches only.  However, he was not confined to the Swinetrek and played many other roles in his career.  I've always been meaning to return to this character because there is more to him than just his inept space captain shtick.

Topic: "C is for 'Cookie'" by Cookie Monster

I guess a deep analysis of how some topics don't need to be deeply analyzed was too much for people to handle.

Topic: "Bein' Green" by Kermit the Frog

I'm not sure many people have noticed, but I always try to do something special and iconically "Jim Henson" for every 50 post milestone.  This was my 50th post, and I knew from Day One that this would be the special topic for such an occasion.  So I was shocked that Kermit's signature song wasn't a draw anymore.  When did society become so jaded?

Topic: Wayne and Wanda

Now this makes more sense.  Two minor characters who basically disappeared after the first season of The Muppet Show? Yeah, they aren't winning any popularity contests.  But, as with most obscure Muppets, I found them to be a lot more interesting that I thought they would be.  They were dropped for being unpopular (and their routine was probably getting old since the second performance) but I enjoyed each of their songs once I knew the joke because it became a challenge to top each previous number.

Topic: Super Grover

With Super Grover's approval rating this low, I'm nervous to see how people react to Super Beaker.  Apparently more people are Captain Vegetable fans.

Topic: "I Don't Want to Live on the Moon" by Ernie

Okay, it was the week after Christmas and nothing much was going on.  Everyone was tired.  So it's easy to see how this little song got overlooked.  But it's one I'd recommend checking out if you've never heard it before.

Topic: "Java"

Like "Mahna Mahna" and "Inchworm," "Java" is one of those classic early Muppet sketches that paved the way towards stardom.  And the story behind this one is especially important because it nearly self-destructed on live TV!  It could have cost Henson and the Muppets their careers!  And then where would we be?!  It's like the butterfly effect, man!

Topic: Marvin Suggs and the Muppaphones

This one should stay at the bottom, since I certainly do not advocate Muppet abuse.

Topic: The Muppets Valentine Show

This little-known special certainly pales in comparison to the great show that was to follow it (The Muppet Show, you may have heard of it).  So, I understand why people aren't actively seeking it out.  Still, anything featuring Thog can't be all bad.

Topic: Time Piece

Something about this being the least-viewed post out of 220 entries is just so bitterly ironic that I can't really be upset or confused about it.  This is, without a doubt, the most purely Henson creation in existence.  It is his mind, unfiltered and uncensored.  Apparently, too much Henson can be overwhelming.  Without any Muppets to buffer the impact, there isn't a huge draw to Time Piece.  Don't let the phrase "experimental film" scare you off.  It's worth checking out.  It is a perfect companion piece to "Tick-Tock Sick."  But maybe it's only for the true Jim Henson fans.  Think you can handle it?

And Finally, My Ten Favorite Posts

This list doesn't include posts that have appeared on the earlier lists.  Also, I'll leave out my commentary this time since these topics speak for themselves.

Topic: Yorick and the universal appeal of Muppet monsters

Topic: How Alice in Wonderland and the Muppets are a perfect stylistic match

Topic: Mokey's five-year journey toward self-discovery and defining herself as a Fraggle

Topic: The tumultuous history of the SNL "Land of Gorch" Muppets and puppet existentialism

6) The "What's a Muppet?" Posts
Topic: A history of Jim Henson and his Muppets, focusing on Sam and Friends, The Muppets on Puppets, Yoda and the Creature Shop, and the Walt Disney Company

Topic: Gonzo and why everyone's "least favorite Muppet," whoever they may be, deserves a second chance.

Topic: A Muppet Family Christmas and what it takes to be the best Christmas special

Topic: How the Muppet Babies episode "Gonzo's Video Show" accurately depicts a child's imagination

Topic: A case study of Frank Oz and Miss Piggy in which the puppeteer and puppet become one

Topic: Kermit the Frog and how his interaction with an uncooperative little girl proves he is the most important Muppet of all time

Clearly, there is a lot of angles we can take on the Muppets.  I hope you've enjoyed this look back.  I'm looking forward to the next year.  You may think we've covered most of the important Henson material, but we are just getting started.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Celebration of One Year

In 1955, as the first episode of Sam and Friends aired, Jim Henson had no idea of the legacy that was to follow.  He spent the next 30 years building a small empire based on what was once considered an entertainment niche: puppet shows.  But the Muppets' popularity wasn't dependent on the fact that they were puppets.  They were just a representation of the powers of imagination.  Henson capitalized on the human need to create, and for that, he is to be celebrated.

In January 1986, The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years aired, presenting a retrospective of Henson's accomplishments over the previous three decades.  The show itself is just a gathering of all of his puppets up until that point, telling the history of the Muppets through clips and montages.  Not much can be done in the way of analysis, for it is a clip show.  But it's interesting to see what was picked out of this large volume of work to represent Henson.

In honor of this blog's one-year anniversary, I have decided to present a retrospective of my own.  I chose Jim Henson as my source of inspiration because he accomplished so much in those 30 years.  Everyday I can find something new to discuss, and I've yet to grow weary of the man.  New characters, forgotten television shows, and epic projects are always waiting to be discovered.

In researching this website's statistics, I have been able to gather what the entire world finds most appealing about Henson's work.  Some posts featuring the more well-known characters fail to find an audience while others featuring random birthday cake puppets seem to garner the most traffic.

So, whether you've recently discovered this blog through the Muppet Central forums (thanks to reader Vincent for spreading the word) or you've been following the blog since day one, I hope you enjoy this look back over the year.

Ranking the Most Popular Henson Movies (That I've Covered So Far)

I was just going to rank most popular posts, but the movie reviews get the biggest amount of traffic.  Usually, the movies that I discussed earlier have more hits than more recent reviews, but since I break each review into five days, the results are more scattered.  So, here are the eight movies I've covered, along with their most popular section.

8) Muppet Treasure Island
Most Popular Post: Part 5: Buried Treasure

This was the latest film I reviewed so of course it would be last, yet apparently, everyone was dying to see how it ended, since this post surpassed many of the other earlier movie posts.  Spoiler alert: there is treasure on the island.  Tim Curry and Sam the Eagle should star in more movies together.

7) The Great Muppet Caper
Most Popular Post: Part 4: In the Pig House

I'm somewhat disappointed that my favorite Muppet movie ranks this low.  But I'm glad everyone recognizes how brilliant "Piggy's Fantasy" is.  Charles Grodin and Miss Piggy should star in more movies together.

6) Follow That Bird
Most Popular Post: Part 1: Bye, Bye, Birdie

The tale of Big Bird's adoption and subsequent running away from home is straightforward and simple, so it's probably not going to wow anyone with it's narrative.  However, I was sure "Bluebird of Happiness" would be the major selling point of this film.  Dave Thomas and Joe Flaherty should star in more movies together.

5) The Muppets Take Manhattan
Most Popular Post: Part 5: Meta-Musical Parody?

As I noted in my review, this is my least favorite of the movies (so far), but I do make a point to describe it's high points while deconstructing it.  I felt this movie had a lot more potential and it struggled to find a focus.  Rizzo the Rat and Gregory Hines should star in more movies together.

4) The Muppet Christmas Carol
Most Popular Post: Part 2: Old Ghosts

Everyone but me loves Waldorf and Statler as the ghosts of Marley.  Different strokes, I guess.  Michael Caine and anyone else should star in more movies together.

3) The Muppet Movie

Okay, The Great Muppet Caper may be my favorite, but even I know that this movie should be number one.  Or at least number two.  But, the Internet has spoken.  I'll give everyone the benefit of the doubt and assume they haven't seen it, in which case, they should remedy that as soon as possible.  Every Muppet ever should star in more movies together.

2) The Dark Crystal

Yes, that is such an unflattering picture to represent the movie, but it's all in good fun.  This was Henson's biggest flop, yet as we can see, it has a huge cult following.  I found the movie to be technically impressive, but the story and characters were too one-dimensional for me to get fully invested.  But, if you enjoy this film, I won't stop you from watching it.  I just hope you can have a sense of humor about it's shortcomings.  Gelflings and Skeksis should star in more movies together.

1) Labyrinth

Aside from my number one overall post, this is the most popular post on the blog, which proves that Labyrinth was tailor-made for fanboys and fangirls of the 21st century.  Something about this movie just reeks pure imagination.  It's by no means perfect, yet everyone who has seen it is instantly drawn to it.  It feels like it doesn't even belong on this list of movies because it is so separate from the rest.  David Bowie should star in every movie, period!

The Top Ten Eleven Most Popular Non-Movie-Related Posts

(Because otherwise numbers 10, 9, and 2-7 would just be Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal posts.)

Topic: The Monster at the End of This Book

There are hundreds of Muppet-related books, yet one is considered to be a true classic.  Grover's attempts to prevent the reader from reading the book creates a charming and stressful tale that introduces pre-schoolers to postmodern literature before it is inevitably covered in elementary school.

Topic: Skeeter

Many people were just as curious as I was of the mysterious background of Scooter's twin sister who originated in Muppet Babies.  We eventually found her, but what we discovered only raised more questions...

Topic: Uncle Deadly

Although I considered him to be a little-known Muppet, this Halloween post suggests that Jerry Nelson's Count wasn't his only vaguely creepy character.  Uncle Deadly is one of my favorite characters, and I am glad that others agree that he is worthy of attention.  Or maybe Vincent Price was just stealing his thunder.

Topic: Snuffleupaguses

My "Fascinating Species of Sesame Street" posts were a big hit, and I wasn't surprised to see Snuffy fans flock to this post.  It was the next one that confused me...

Topic: Honkers and Dingers

My only explanation for this one is that people were searching for a different kind of "Honkers."

Topic: "The Bells of Fraggle Rock"

This may be another case of misplaced Google searches, but at least those people arrived at a great Chirstmas episode of Fraggle Rock in which the winter solstice takes center stage and causes everyone to shut down, literally.  Also, Gobo finds enlightenment, which is more than many other Fraggles do around the holidays.

Topic: Animal

Some people want to watch the world burn.

Topic: Fozzie Bear, Waldorf and Statler

I had to do a post about all three of these characters together.  They just don't work on an individual level.  Each character needs the other two to work as a concept.  Otherwise we just have an unfunny comedian, an old man muttering to himself, or an old man muttering to himself.

Topic: Lefty the Salesman

Okay, I think the title of this post is what drew many people to check it out.  They were probably looking for behind-the-scenes gossip about illegal practices among the franchise's merchandise or something and instead they were treated to a long conspiracy theory about the trafficking and abuse of sentient letters in the Sesame Street universe.  I hope they learned their lesson.

Topic: Elmo Saves Christmas

I know Elmo is popular, but I'm surprised that his first Christmas special was such a sought after Sesame Street production.  The whole special focuses on receiving too much of a good thing, but hearing the phrase "Christmas Overload" is still exciting to us.

Topic: "Mahna Mahna"

This was my very first post and, thanks to a certain Slate article, the popularity of this post exploded.  No other post even comes close and people continue to search for the meaning of the nonsense phrase to this day.  It just goes to show that this one song captured the essence of Jim Henson so beautifully.  It almost seems as if the rest of this blog is completely redundant.  Almost.

There is still a lot of Henson creations out there.  Just covering Jerry Nelson's own resume of characters proved how one man can make so much happen.

Tomorrow, I shall return to some posts that may have gotten overlooked and then we shall move on from there.  Because there is a much deeper level to explore.

The celebration never ends.

(Also, be sure to check like "A Much Deeper Level" on Facebook so that you can join the discussion, receive updates and participate in polls about who was the worst Twiddlebug.)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Muppet Classic Theater, Part 3: Silly Stories

5) The Emperor's New Clothes

The Original Story:

An arrogant emperor hires some tailors who are actually swindlers.  They take advantage of the emperor's pride and convince him that they have crafted clothes out of a fabric that is invisible to those who are too unworthy, elegant, and intelligent.  The emperor naturally cannot see the clothes, but he doesn't want to appear unfit for the crown so he pretends that he can see the clothes.  His royal staff also claim to see the clothes, so that they appear worthy of their regal positions.  When he goes through town to show off his fine new clothes, a little boy states the obvious that the emperor is naked and the emperor carries on, although deep inside, he realizes that he's been hoodwinked.

The Muppet Twist:

The story plays the same note for note, with Fozzie as the emperor and Rizzo as the swindler, although there is an added message of not following along with everyone else in an attempt to appear "cool."

Also, the emperor is clearly wearing underwear.

But there is a subtle difference that once again ignores the original message, probably to make room for the new one.  It has to do with Robin playing the little boy.

How Does the Twist Affect the Original?

Well, we all know that Robin is very mature for his age.  As such, his character is celebrated as being one of the most intelligent children in the land.  Which is fine and all except in the original, the boy wasn't supposed to be wise.  He was just supposed to be normal.  It was his innocence that made him speak the truth.

Robin's too smart to play this role.  Bring back Andy and Randy Pig.

Because everyone recognizes Robin's smarts, the emperor's shame is quickly covered up and a big deal is made out of the situation (with Rizzo and his partners ending up in prison).  The original at least sticks to the whole pride angle, where the emperor's ego can't suffer any embarrassment, so he keeps his reaction bottled up and continues his parade through the town, grimacing all the while.  But by casting Fozzie (who wears his emotions on his sleeve), the emperor must be frightfully silly and imbecile.  It's not that he is arrogant, he just is surrounded by too many yes-men.

And he has too many beauty marks.

Rating:  Once again, the message is changed and once again, it's a step in the wrong direction (and it makes an already ludicrous story even crazier).  2/5

(A final thought on this story: Emperor Fozzie tries to make "Pop-pop-pop" a catchphrase.  He was years ahead of his time.)

6) The Elves and the Shoemaker

The Original Story:

A poor but kindly shoemaker is struggling to make ends meet.  Although his business is suffering due to lack of materials, he still shares his meager food and earnings with those less fortunate than him.  One night, when he has only one scrap of leather left, a group of elves secretly come in and make the most amazing pair of shoes.  It sells for a lot of money the next day and the shoemaker, after buying more materials, gives the rest to the poor.  The elves return and make more shoes as a reward.  With the shoemaker's business now booming, he works late into the night to meet demand.  There, he encounters the elves, returning for work.  To thank them, he makes them special outfits and they leave, never to be seen again.

Just like in Harry Potter!

The Muppet Twist:

Instead of elves, they are Elvises.

Thank you very much.

How Does the Twist Affect the Story?

This is what I've been waiting for.  This is what the Muppets are best at.  They take two familiar premises and mash them together and present the results.  Nearly every song/sketch on The Muppet Show had to do with the incongruity of two elements, often inspired by a pun.  They took pigs and made them vikings singing "In the Navy" by the Village People.  They took pigs and made them eskimos singing "Lullaby of Broadway."  They took pigs and made them the stars of a Star Trek-esque series.  They did a lot with pigs.

But nevertheless, "The Elvises and the Shoemaker" seems just like one of the old bits.  And the pairing works, because, of course, the Elvises get to work making blue suede shoes.

What else would they be doing?

And at the end, the outfits that the shoemaker presents to the Elvises are their rhinestone jumpsuits.

It all makes perfect sense.

I'm willing to forgive this story for dropping the charitable aspect of the shoemaker's character because we need to spend as much time as possible with these Elvises.  These bizarre creatures that don't seem entirely aware of the world around them and only act like Elvis out of a sense of duty (much like the original shoemaking elves, who are obligated to make shoes for some unknown reason).

Rating:  Easily the best of the bunch.  It's a hunka burnin' love.  5/5

So, Muppet Classic Theater.  It's certainly a joyful, non-threatening little treat.  And it played a large role in keeping the Muppets on people's minds during the hiatus between feature films.  If you grew up with it, I'm sure you have a favorite story and fond memories of this little endeavor.

For me, the stories from best to worst are:
1) The Elves and the Shoemaker
2) Rumpelstiltskin
3) King Midas
4) The Three Little Pigs
5) The Emperor's New Clothes
6) The Boy Who Cried Wolf

But really, my only qualms are where the stories deviate from the original.  Those that do it with a clever purpose fare better than those that just shoehorn in new morals for today's kids.

It's worth checking it out if you need a quick Muppet fix (and if you're a fan of Gonzo and Rizzo's relationship).  Otherwise, just stick with some old episodes of The Muppet Show because it has a lot more pigs in it.