Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Coffee or Death

"Things just seem to happen to people who don't drink Wilkins Coffee."

Young Jim Henson brought his puppets to television during his college years at the University of Maryland.  His little 5-min shows caught the attention of a coffee company called Wilkins.  They instructed him to create a series of 10-second spots featuring his puppets.

Ten seconds.  That goes by pretty fast.  Henson knew that he had to get the audience's attention and he had to get it fast.  Something loud, something bold, something unfit for daytime television.

Cold-Blooded Murder

Henson used his limited time frame to his advantage, creating a mockery of advertising techniques that are all too common.  He understood that you need to convince the audience they need the product to survive.  However, instead of promoting the product's qualities, he created a deranged mascot that would threaten anyone who didn't buy, enjoy, or possess knowledge of Wilkins Coffee.

Here are just a few of the 179 commercials made.  More can be found online, and you'll quickly find yourself desensitized to the needless violence.

Every commercial follows the same general structure.  Wilkins will offer Wilkins coffee to his companion Wontkins, who won't drink the coffee.  For this, he shall perish.

Surprisingly, the ad campaign was a success in the eyes of the company.  They even started encouraging children to buy their own Wilkins and Wontkins dolls.

"Hey kids!  Now you can experience the fun of brutal carnage at home!"

Today, we may scoff at the parents of the past who found television to be "too violent" but it turns out, they were right!  Advertisements like these would be boycotted and pulled from the airways as soon as a gun appears (around the 5-second mark).

Wilkins naturally responded to all protesters with cannon fire.

Each ad Henson constructed can be considered an apt parody of advertising in general.  As seen from the clip, Wilkins encourages Wontkins to join the bandwagon (which promptly crushes him).  He uses scare tactics to "convince" Wontkins that he actually does like the coffee.  He endlessly beats the notion into poor Wontkins's head until the poor man-thing starts to believe it himself.  Not once do we learn about what makes this product different from all other coffee brands.  But Henson knew that advertising ultimately appeals to the lowest common denominator.  If you don't remember the ad, you don't remember the product.  While it may not actually strike fear into the hearts of the consumer, it is an unforgettable campaign.

One of the first lessons Henson learned about puppets and business is that violence sells.  Puppets become living cartoon characters that can be mercilessly ravaged upon yet end up fine in the next scene. On The Muppet Show, Kermit is constantly abused by Miss Piggy, Beaker is mercilessly tortured by Bunsen, and Gonzo basically exists as an excuse for the puppeteers to throw a puppet against the wall.  The next time you watch an episode, just count the number sketches that end with explosions.  They are a lot more common than you realize.  While he treats all of his characters with care and respect, Henson never forgets that they are toys, and toys are to be played with.

Very few people would have been as bold as Henson to create such a sadistic advertising mascot as Wilkins.  Currently, edgy random humor has turned from a quirky fad into the norm in commercials (just look at the Burger King king), but Henson, as always, was way ahead of the curve.  With a permanent smile etched into his face, Wilkins challenges the viewer at home to tempt fate and buy a lesser brand.  And he's always pleased as punch to set you straight.

Sooner or later, you'll forget about Wilkins Coffee.  Then you will be punished.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Just Two Ping Pong Balls

Kermit the Frog is the world's first three-dimensional puppet.

Before Henson paved the way for adult-oriented puppet shows, puppets were widely regarded as kid's stuff.  Puppets were comic props, designed to look funny and behave in a humorous manner.  If a human and a puppet interacted, it would likely fall into the traditional vaudeville routine of a straight man dealing with the antics of a simple-minded caricature.  And the human would always play the straight man.  While the human would occasionally comment on the behavior of the puppet with sarcastic asides, it was the puppets job to dispense most of the jokes.

Kermit began as one of these humorous puppets.  He often played the hapless victim, getting devoured by larger creatures.  His innocent nature allowed him to evolve into the casual observer of his odd surroundings.  As the Muppet empire began to take shape, Kermit would become the recognizable face used to host or narrate specials.  Being the most famous Muppet at the time, Kermit was included as a character on Sesame Street to attract new viewers.

Unfortunately, due to the conceit of the show, all of the new puppets were to be portrayed as young and uniformed so that the adult humans could teach them lessons about letters, numbers, sharing, etc.  Kermit was not like these puppets.  He was as intelligent as the adults.  He did not really belong on Sesame Street.  He would eventually become the host of The Muppet Show, using his smarts and logic to become the de facto leader of a crazy cast of characters.

Fortunately, Kermit gained some experience in handling unpredictable moments during the "Muppet & Kid Moments" on Sesame Street.  These were segments unrelated to the rest of the show in which a child would be invited onto the set and their natural conversations with the puppets would be recorded.  The Muppet characters would usually try to engage the children in counting or reciting the alphabet, but ultimately, it was up to the children to decide what will happen.

"D...E...F...G-Cookie Monster!"

Take this interaction between Kermit and a little girl named Joey.  Joey had spent a little while getting acquainted with Kermit already, but it's evident she had hoped to meet a different star of Sesame Street.

During a routine recital of the alphabet, Joey insists on replacing letters with "Cookie Monster!"  She takes great joy in frustrating Kermit as he tries to plow through and continue the song.  She continues her random joke throughout the entire segment, prompting Kermit to leave in a huff.

There is something very important going on during this segment.  If you watch Joey, you'll notice that she makes eye contact with Kermit whenever she interrupts the pattern.  In reality, she is just sitting in a bare room, on a stool, with Jim Henson crouching just below her.  Yet she never looks down at the man operating the puppet.  She is not playing this trick on him.  She is genuinely trying to elicit an emotional response from Kermit.  She understands that Kermit likes things to go according to plan, and she definitely understands that he does not find her antics amusing.  But she continues with her joke.  When Kermit finally leaves, Joey realizes that she has hurt his feelings and calls him back with "I love you."  She did not mean to cause him pain.  She just wanted him to lighten up.

It is strange that out of all the puppets Henson has performed, Kermit is his most famous, for the two are very dissimilar.  Henson loved the wacky and the absurd.  He never got angry.  He understood that everything was playtime.  Despite giving him life, Jim was completely separate from Kermit.  This has allowed Kermit to become layered and immortal.

When Kermit appears "in real life" on a talk show or news program or game show, he is still Kermit.  We treat him like a human being because he behaves as one.  Even if his lower half is obscured, we never question the validity of his existence.  Grown adults who interact with the Muppets naturally look into their plastic and felt eyes, honestly assuming that these creatures possess intelligence and personality.

So, although some may see Kermit as a bland, humorless spoil sport, it is because he has adopted the stereotypical straight man role.  He is now the everyman.  Not the everyfrog.  Not the everypuppet.  He can laugh, he can love, and he can feel pain and frustration.  All of these emotions are expressed through his unique, froggish eyes.

Even a child can see that Kermit has a soul.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Definition of "Mahna Mahna"

In the short time he was with us, Jim Henson created multiple worlds where he brought thousands of creatures to life.  Animals, monsters, humans, aliens, giant birds, and other fantastical species that are too bizarre for words.  Although the stories he told ranged from comedic parodies to grand epics, I feel it is best to start with a song.

It is through music that Henson first showcased his craft.  He allowed his creations to move through the rhythms, experiencing emotions as dictated by the sounds.  It was during these moments that Henson first connected with us, and it stands as a testament to his appeal across generational and linguistic boundaries.

The premise is simple.  Two identical creatures are singing a song that an outsider wishes to join in.  When the newcomer threatens the integrity of the song with improvisational scatting, the original singers disapprove, raising the frustrations of the free spirit.

I present to you, "Mahna Mahna."

The Snowths and Mahna Mahna

Although it had been performed before on Sesame Street (with different puppets), it wasn't until its appearance on a 1969 episode of The Ed Sullivan show that the "Mahna Mahna" song gained its popularity.  Eventually, the song became synonymous with the Muppets as Henson and his crew would repeat the act on multiple other variety shows.  So it was no question about what song would be the opening number for the premiere episode of The Muppet Show.

It is this incarnation that I share with you today, for it benefited from repeated polishings and multiple takes (unlike the live versions, which have their share of errors).  This version also explores the limitless possibilities Henson saw in putting puppetry on television.  Dating back to his original college works in 1955, Henson loved the idea that the television screen created a natural border to present his puppets in.  Because the puppeteers could be completely obscured through clever camera editing, puppets had a wider range of travel.  As seen in the following clip, Mahna Mahna can travel from the foreground to the far background and can suddenly appear from the left, right, bottom, or top of the screen.  In this simple staging, the notion that we are watching puppets shatters, and we are left with abstract creatures inhabiting a three-dimensional space.

What is a "Mahna Mahna" indeed?

Why do we find this sketch so charming?  It falls into a simple pattern that escalates with each verse.  Mahna Mahna (the character) runs through the full gamut of emotions over this silly issue of being able to sing his own way and he explores various avenues to get his material into the song.  First, it is just accidental.  Then he tries to alter it to fit the needs of the Snowths.  Then he tries to sneak it in unnoticed.  But it's no use.  Ultimately he decides, it does not matter what the others approve of.  This is his music and he is going to have the final word.

Fittingly, Mahna Mahna is performed by the free-spirited Henson himself.  His need for unguided artistic expression defined his entire life.  He knew what he wanted to make, and more importantly, he wanted to have fun making it.  The unassuming Snowths (both played by Frank Oz, Henson's main creative partner) do not intend to cause pain.  They simply just reinforce the rules as they know them.  There is a structure to the song and alterations are not bad; they are just incorrect.  You can see the pain in their eyes as they must continue to crush Mahna Mahna's dreams.  It's not his fault, he's just not a right fit for this world.  One of the Snowths almost starts to like one of his scats, but after confirming with the other one, realizes that, no, not now.

Fortunately for Henson, he did not listen to the Snowths in his life.  He yearned to try new things because it made him happy to make others happy.  As Henson's company grew and grew, it was amazing to see how many eggs he had to juggle.  With so many different shows and movies in production, one would expect Henson to be a heartless money-making machine.  But despite his intelligent, calm, reserved nature, Henson never lost respect for the silly and whimsical.


Every time you see an old clip of Kermit flailing his body around shouting "YAAAAAAAY," he is attached to Henson's arm.

Henson understood the need for absurd entertainment.  For him, it was as pleasurable to create as it was to share.  It appeals to the child in us as much as it appeals to the adult.  If we aren't willing to sit back and laugh at the ridiculous, we have misguided values.  Our world is filled with rich colors, fascinating sights, and unique sounds.  Life can get serious yes, but it pays to stop and look at the happiness and humor that is all around us.  Nothing matters if it does not make you smile.  During Henson's memorial, Frank Oz noted of his departed friend that he did not see Jim as a creator, but "as an appreciator.  He appreciated so much.... He appreciated...just beauty.... I really don't believe that Henson could have been such an extraordinary creator if he hadn't been such an extraordinary appreciator..."*

So, as Waldorf explained to Statler, the question is not "What is a 'Mahna Mahna?'"

"The question is, 'Who cares?'"

*Oz, Frank "Jim Henson." Remembrances and Celebrations: a Book of Eulogies, Elegies, Letters, and Epitaphs Ed. Jill Werman Harris. Pantheon Books: New York, NY, 1999, 145–147.