Monday, October 31, 2011

The Phantom of the Muppet Theater

It's Halloween!  A night to revel in the spooky festivities of horror and ghosts and creepy-crawlies.  How odd is it that we actually take a day to celebrate fear and encourage scares.  That's because there is a sense of playful fun that accompanies any sorts of haunts and frights that occur on this night.

While The Muppet Show featured its share of colorful monsters, only one creature was supposed to be the scariest of them all.  It was the deceased thespian Uncle Deadly, cursed to haunt the Muppet Theater, having been killed by his critics during a performance of Othello.

What fools these Muppets be.

For those unfamiliar with him, Uncle Deadly was a strange presence, often lurking in the backgrounds of scenes.  His actual introduction occurred a few episodes after his first appearances.  Here, he was revealed to have been trying to flush out the Muppets to prevent any tomfoolery occurring on his stage.

His efforts obviously were all for naught as the Muppets were here to stay.  But he had a passion for great acting and horror, so he was allowed to stay as a recurring cast member.  He got along quite well with guest star Vincent Price in their first Halloween episode.

With Price, Deadly was able to enjoy the stage once again with a fellow horror connoisseur.  Vincent Price started off as an average dramatic actor, but his signature slick voice and preference for the macabre made him a horror icon.  He could bring a certain joy to what was once considered terrifying.  Suffice it to say, Uncle Deadly idolized this great star.

Price, in his later career, would often take the role of host to a great many horror films and stories on television, film, and radio, starting with the anthology series The Price of Fear, and later, PBS's Mystery!  Uncle Deadly was supposed to follow in his footsteps with a Tales from the Crypt kind of show called Uncle Deadly's House of Badness.  Unfortunately, as with most Muppet horror specials, the project was canceled.

It seemed as if the puppet devoted to other-worldly tales could not catch a break and was regulated to crowd scenes in later Muppet projects.  But, there is a bright star in this ghoul's future!  In the upcoming movie The Muppets, he has been placed in the role of the villain, alongside Chris Cooper!

Apparently he's alive and well and wearing a business suit.

Details are fuzzy at the moment, but at least this former great actor can be brought into the limelight once again, ready to terrorize a whole new generation of children.

So on this Halloween night, enjoy the scares and tricks and treats as you remember that this is a day to celebrate the unknown and unfamiliar.  It is a day to enjoy that which is weird and not normally celebrated.  Let loose and scare someone half-to-death!  Halloween Night is Mischief Night!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Facing Your Monsters

As long as there have been humans, there have been monsters.  The original monsters were those misunderstood and dangerous beasts that could devour us if we drew near.  Bears, wolves, and lions were what early man feared.  These creatures, in addition to more fantastical interpretations such as dragons, wove their way into our tales, playing the villains.  As time went on, monsters began to develop human-like qualities.  Intelligence and cunning was far scarier than the wild chaotic bestial nature of the first monsters.

And so, monsters evolved into a physical representation of our fears.  And it is our fears that define who we are.  As the monsters grew to be more like us, harder to identify, it became evident what these creatures truly were.  They were our shadows.  The parts of ourselves we choose not to see.  The parts of ourselves we hate.  The parts of ourselves we are afraid of the most.

In every culture, myth, and story, it can be determined who the monsters truly are and which humans they belong to.  Take The Dark Knight for instance.  A great superhero story about the battle between good and evil.  Or was it?  It was more like order and chaos.  And who was to say which was better?  Batman feared the Joker not because he did harm, but because he reminded him of himself.  A masked loner who brought terror to the citizens of Gotham.

Jekyll and Hyde.  Frankenstein and his creation.  Captain Ahab and Moby Dick.  Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.  Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.  All of these pairings of heroes and villains are just opposite sides of the same coin.  They fear and need each other to continue living.

For children, their fears our based on more primal instincts, like early humans.  The monsters in their closet are big, furry creatures with sharp teeth and claws and horns.  They only exist to take them away from their families and eat them.  These unknown creatures are the biggest threat to children everywhere.

And Sesame Street is full of them.

Welcome to your nightmares, kids!

What is the meaning behind this?  Sesame Street is supposed to be a welcoming environment where children can learn and play!  Yet roaming beasts wander the sidewalks, free to reign terror upon the land.   Except, they don't.  They are all caught up dealing with their own flaws and problems.  They too are quite young.  While we may fear monsters for being too similar to us, Sesame Street is forcing children to look at their own negative personality traits, as depicted by these monsters:







When the Count debuted on the show, many people were outraged at such a demonic creature being treated in such a positive, friendly light.  One letter in particular felt it was wrong to teach children to trust vampires and monsters, because they are beings of pure evil.  The staff produced a letter in response.

In this letter, it is noted that the monsters "are meant to be a mirror of the silly but endearing aspects of all of us."  And that's what children are being taught.  It is not to trust unfriendly beings.  It is to accept the monster within.  We all possess qualities that we sometimes wish we didn't have, but we must live with them.  If we can look them in the face and learn to appreciate our idiosyncrasies, we can conquer our fears and become better people in the process.

You may notice that one notable Sesame Street monster was missing from the above list.  That is our good old friend Grover who represents all of our insecurities.  He means well and wants to aid society, but his own failures get in his way and keep him from doing so.  He is the most insecure creature on the block.  But even he knows that sometimes, you have to brace yourself, look in the mirror, and welcome the monster you see staring back at you into your life.

If you don't wubba your monster, it won't wubba you.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Unfinished Halloween Specials

The Muppets endured a great many holiday specials, but for some reason, their Halloween specials never seemed to get off the ground.  It was as if that day were cursed.

The first attempt at a special was entitled "Johnny Carson and the Muppet Machine."  It was to air in 1969, as a tie-in with The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, which had featured many Muppet sketches over the years.  The premise was that Carson would enter a strange machine filled with ghouls and monsters and a swindler who kept trying to sell him useless junk.  As a comedy special, it was not intended to be scary, but it was based around Carson's fears.  A group of creatures known as "Groans" would appear whenever Carson made a joke that didn't land and he would have a final confrontation with a beast known as "Fearzog."

Henson's concept art featuring Carson, the Groans, and Fearzog

Ultimately it was decided that Carson couldn't be the straight-man to a bunch of Hollywood puppets for an hour, so it was dropped for being too similar to his regular duties (Zing!).

But don't worry, Fearzog lives on in a series of figurines based on Henson's doodles (which is an amazing thing that exists).

After that came a test pilot for The Muppet Show known as "The Muppet Halloween Show."

With your favorite characters That Guy and That Other Guy!

This also never got far and was reworked into "The Muppets Valentine Show" since Halloween was no longer relevant in February when it premiered.

Other specials came and died as time passed and favor was given over to other projects.  A full length movie known as The Muppets' Haunted House was put into production and then scrapped for being too awesome a concept(?).

Because of this, we do have as wide a selection of Halloween goodies to choose from.  But isn't the fact that all this potential went to waste the scariest thing of all and really the true meaning of Halloween?

No.  So here's a spooky Muppet Show clip to tide you over for tonight.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Where Fear Comes From

Fear is a strange thing.  It is a bodily response that is both pleasant and unpleasant at the same time.  It protects us from danger, but also prevents us from taking risks.  We seek it out in safe environments, like scary movies or haunted houses, but we go to great lengths to avoid it as well.  Bravery and absence of fear is considered a virtue in our society, despite the fact that we need it to maintain a long, healthy life.  Without fear, there is no initiative, no drive.

The second episode of The Storyteller involves a young man who does not possess fear.  As such, he does not possess much other knowledge either, and skates through life through his naivety and dumb luck.

Beacuase young Fearnot has no fear, he often overstays his welcome in dangerous situations.  He is not afraid of monsters.  He is not afraid of thieves.  He is not even afraid of his sweetheart's angry, possessive father who throws flowerpots at him when he tries to serenade her!

She's worth a few concussions.

After his latest bout of unintentional non-cowardice, Fearnot's father sends him off into the forest and tells him not to return until he has learned how to be afraid.  He undergoes many tests with the help of a new friend, a scheming con-man who only intends to win his money if he can successfully spook him.  He places Fearnot in the path of underwater demons, menacing ghosts, and even pulls a "knife" on him threatening to slit his throat.

Fearnot endures scarier and scarier situations, culminating in spending a night in a cursed castle.  His innocence and ignorance lets him live through the night, where countless others have perished after being frightened to death.  As a reward for living through the haunted castle, Fearnot discovers a room filled with wealth and gold as far as the eye can see.  He comes home rich and famous, thanks to his exploits resulting in the banishment of several ghouls.  Everyone adores him and for once, his lack of fear has brought him nothing but good fortune!

And, so, it goes to show that without fear, one can live happily ever- Wait!  He still has to go share his new glory with his one true love!

He rushes to her house to tell her the good news, but finds her mournful father, who tells Fearnot that due to his departure, she has fallen deathly ill with a broken heart.  He kneels down beside her, begging her to wake up.

And, for the first time in his life, Fearnot shuddered.

Fear may keep us from accomplishing a great many things.  Without the fear of pain, embrrassment, sadness, and rejection, we are able to become all that we've ever wanted to be and more.  But at what cost?

To truly love something in this world, we must also truly fear.  It is the fear of loss.  When you get down to it, fear is what results when you lose all control.  You no longer have any influence over a situation and and so you subvert to your involuntary insticts to shield and protect yourself.  Fearnot gained so much because what he lacked in wits, he made up for in his ability to take control of any situation he was in.  But his grasp only extends as far as the factors of his own life.

We cannot control what happens to our loved ones.

And that is where fear comes from.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Stay for the Music

 What I like my music to do to me is to awaken the ghosts inside of me.
Not the demons, you understand, but the ghosts.
- David Bowie

The children's educational programs that Henson is best known for are Sesame Street, which focused on expected preschool knowledge, and Fraggle Rock, which focused on societal norms and relationships.  He also produced a short series completely devoted to music education and appreciation called The Ghost of Faffner Hall.  With the help of two music professors from the Canadian University of York, the writers of the show incorporated their curriculum into easy to follow concepts about the world of music.  Many great musicians would guest star to help teach that week's message.

The main plot of the show followed the titular ghost Fughetta Faffner.  She "haunts" the music conservatory Faffner Hall, but she is not a menacing presence.  She loves and supports the growth of music, but the hall becomes inherited by her great-great-gandnephew Farkas Faffner, who hates music and tries to get rid of the musicians and instruments.  With the help of her living friends, Fughetta manages to thwart Farkas's evil schemes.

And for some reason, the living souls are a lot creepier looking than the ghost.

As with many children's shows, celebrities just show up and no one blinks an eye.  In the following clip, Fughetta and her companions are on ghostbusting quest to eradicate the building of other spirits (apparently, only one ghost is allowed to haunt a building at a time).  They follow the noises in the back storage areas, only to discover legendary jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie (and his amazing cheeks), who of course is just hanging around.

Randomness aside, there is a lot of heart in this show, which only tries to promote the musical arts in a loving and kind way.  Fughetta is normally transparent, but she solidifies when she hears great music.  The memories associated with music are so strong that they are able to raise the dead.  The spooks and specters that haunt old buildings are believed to have unfinished business, preventing them from crossing over into the other side.  They can be frightening to come across, but they mean no harm.  In this case, a musician's passion was so strong that she could not bear to leave this world.

Music is a strange phenomenon.  It exists purely in an audio form and is only pleasurable in that form.  A book of sheet music can translate the experience, but it cannot come close to imitating it.  Music only exists to be enjoyed.  A random assortment of sounds can be arranged methodically and rhythmically, but if they do not appeal to our ears, we all say the same thing. "That's not music."  Those who can create music are sharing a wonderful gift with the world.  They are able to speak directly with our emotions, crossing cultural and language barriers.  Other animals who communicate with sounds do it with music.  Birds are tweeting, crickets are chirping, and whales are singing.  Music is shared across many species and each one elicits a different response.  The brilliant piece of music is strong enough to conjure up complex feelings and long forgotten memories.  Faint images of the mind and soul, much like a ghost.  Whether ghosts are real or not, there is a sense of strong emotion tied to them.  They are memories trapped in time and space.  Long-lost relatives and loved ones whose presence was so admired in life that they leave an imprint behind after they depart.  When you encounter one, a feeling overcomes your whole body, instructing you that you are in the presence of something special.

The only difference between a ghost and a song is how you experience it.

Who knows what awaits in the afterlife.  There could be great pleasure, immense pain, or absolutely nothing.  It is scary to think about, and even scarier for the recently deceased.  Some people are not quite ready to face the unknown.  After all, who can ever be ready to leave the music behind?

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Arithmomaniac

In 1972, a dark shadow descended on Sesame Street.  A mysterious figure appeared from a foreign land, Transylvania.  His hypnotic gaze could force innocent victims to do his bidding.  His supernatural immortality protected him from death.  His sharp teeth could pierce the thickest skin and drain the blood from a full grown man in less than a minute.  He had the power to destroy civilizations.  He had one desire.  One passion.  One urge.


He came to count.  Count von Count was his name.  Probably some distant relative of the infamous Count Dracula, the Count of Sesame Street shared the iconic voice made famous by Bela Lugosi.  His original puppeteer Jerry Nelson was feeling particularly clever one day and presented this new character to Jim Henson.  He loved the idea of a count whose sole purpose was to teach counting.  But it's not as if he had any choice.  It was all the purple man could do.

(Thanks to the humorous "censored" version of the song, the original can not be uploaded.  But you can watch it here.)

The Count's love of counting is not completely based on the pun in his name, however.  It can be traced to a an actual affliction that many suffer from.  Arithmomania is a specific type of obsessive-complusive disorder that manifests itself in a need to count something, either out loud or in one's head.  Sometimes it can be mild and harmless, such as counting steps as you go up them, and once the counting is over, it has no further effect on the counter's life.  But sometimes, the need to count is so strong, that the counter will feel uneasy or convinced that danger will result if the counting is not completed.  This can result in the afflicted person repeating tasks (like turning a light switch off) multiple times, making sure the task was done "properly" and the "correct number of times."  Other times, people or objects are assigned numerical values so as to organize everything in the victim's mind.

Somehow, in ancient Eurpoean folklore involving vampires, these creatures were thought to suffer from arithmomania.  If being pursued by a vampire, one could escape by throwing a handful of rice or seeds so that the pursuer is compelled to stop and count them all.  As a precaution, graves of those believed to have the potential to become a vampire were surrounded with grain and seeds so that the newly undead being could not travel very far.

Count von Count possesses this quality to such an extreme that he posits no threat to anyone on Sesame Street.  There are an infinite number of things to count, and he is easily distracted by any of them.  Although he has the fangs and attributes of a potential blood-drinker, his weakness prevents him from causing any harm.

But he can cause a lot of annoyance.  As seen in the following parody of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Count's disorder prevents them from getting past the first scene.

This is one monster who is cursed to live an afterlife with his internal demons.  At least he is using his ability for the good of mankind, instructing today's toddlers how to count and not making them his zombie slaves.  And, despite his exaggerated problems, he is still the best vampire role model we have at this current time.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Starving Artist

Every giant Muppet monster primarily exists to eat the smaller puppets.  But the first monster to do this was not very big.  In fact, he was barely a complete head.  All that was really needed for the effect was a mouth, and a mouth is just what Yorick had.

Nom nom nom.

Like his Shakespearean namesake, Yorick was once a source of immense humor.  In Hamlet, the protagonist laments that all that remains of the beloved jester from his youth is a bare skull.  The man who could once use his body to display great physical comedy now is reduced to a few bones, incapable of life and indistinguishable from the earth.

And he doesn't smell too keen, either.

But Henson realized that sometimes a head is all you need.  One shouldn't let severe disabilities like a lack of limbs/life prevent them from achieving their dreams.  And so, he had Yorick join the cast of his first television production Sam and Friends.  Being only a head, he was best for talking and eating.  And when Henson could not settle on an adequate voice, eating was his main function in a sketch.

His iconic skit involved a young Kermit lip-synching to "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face" to what he assumes is a friend.  But hidden beneath the surface was the gluttonous Yorick.

As usual, Kermit was in drag.

(Although I was unable to find one of the original performances, Jim's son Brian recently performed the sketch using and different frog and an updated Yorick.  Other than that, the sketch is virtually unchanged.)

Surprisingly (unsurprisingly?), Yorick was voted to be the most popular member of the cast, beating out Kermit and the lead star Sam.  Once again, Henson showed that there was elegance in simplicity.  There was no reason to explain who this creature was or why he ate everything.  He just did and it was funny.

That being said, there was one routine that was just made for the blue skull.  One that provided a look into his psyche and showed us that he is just like us.  Using a Ken Nordine spoken word jazz-track, Yorick shared his inner-musings with us.  This usually silent creature now had a voice, creating something even scarier than a beast with an appetite for flesh.  This was a monster with a brain.  A rationalizing, intelligent mind who planned his meals carefully.  Like Hannibal Lecter, he knew what he was doing was frowned upon, yet hunger can be a powerful urge.  I challenge you to watch the following and not start to feel a little peckish yourself.

We can all relate to the basic bodily functions.  It creates an instant connection to the characters on screen.  Those who struggle against all odds to get a drink of water or gasp a breath of fresh air or fight for someone they love or, in this case, eat SOMETHING, those are the ones we sympathize with.

Alas, poor Yorick.  He manages to exist beyond death, continuing to share his gift of humor to the world.  But he is devoid of the pleasure that a simple meal once used to bring him.  Without a tongue, he cannot taste.  Without a stomach, he cannot digest.  Without a body, he can never be full.  And so he continues to eat. 

And eat.

And eat.

Because he can never be satisfied.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Bean Norman Bunny, Part 3: Down the Rabbit Hole

All things must come to an end, and for Bean Bunny, the ending came a lot sooner than he had expected.  Bean's puppeteer was Steve Whitmire, who was the youngest to join the original Muppet Show crew.  He was given a variety of new characters to perform, such as Rizzo the Rat and Wembley Fraggle.  It seemed as if Bean would be his breakout hit, but just as the bunny started gaining attention, Jim Henson unexpectedly passed away.  Whitmire was assigned to take over Jim's biggest roles, namely Ernie and Kermit the Frog.  Bean Bunny was forced to become an afterthought, because Whitmire's new schedule only allowed him to play the important characters.

However, Bean Bunny was not simply ignored.  He became the unwilling victim of all the negative feelings of the collective Muppet Company.  At first, he was just given minor, usually-non speaking roles.  His biggest role in a Muppet movie to date is the poor, starving child in The Muppets' Christmas Carol.

How the mighty have fallen

But malnutrition and neglect were not the only pains this rabbit had to endure.  Having grown tired of his "cute" schtick, any excuse would be made by the producers to deliver abuse to the poor bunny.  He would become the punchlines of scenes, literally.  He would get smashed by doors, trampled on, or eaten whenever he made an appearance in a future filmed Muppet event.

As Brian Henson noted, "Inside the Muppet Company, we love to hate Bean Bunny."

Even in non-live material, Bean Bunny got the short end of the stick.  In one "Muppet Kids" story book, Bean (who is still the same age he always is) moves into the Muppet community and is shunned by everyone else.

I miss the Bunny Picnic.

In certain ancient/unmodernized societies like the Romans or some aboriginal tribes, punishment for a terrible crime would result in banishment.  Basically, people would be forced to live on the outskirts of the community and, while they would be protected and helped in times of emergency, they would not be invited to partake in the society's events and customs.

But for even WORSE crimes, the guilty party would be forced to stay and participate in all of the society's events.  However, everyone else would ignore them.  Shunning in its purest form.  This was considered to be harsher than banishment, and was stopped by the federal law in Amish communities for being "cruel and unusual punishment."

The Muppets have shunned Bean Bunny.  He is allowed to appear in everything they do, but he is not included in the fun.  He is shoved to the background, and only brought forth to be humiliated.  Bean's only crime was being himself, an attribute that was widely celebrated and encouraged for a couple of years, and then it became the cause of all his torment and anguish.

Too much of a good thing can have unfortunate consequences.  Just look at all of the celebrities whose lives have been ruined because we could not accept just a small amount of their talents.  Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Ted Williams (the homeless man with the golden voice).  These were all people who had a gift, had that gift exploited, and then turned into beaten washed up versions of what they once were.

The Muppets should have been immune to this sort of thing.  They are living cartoons.  They're personalities and lifestyles rarely change.  But the audience can change.  And in this case, a harmless little bunny rabbit took the bullet.

R.I.P. Bean Bunny's career (1986-1990)
Simpler times.  Cuter times.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Bean Norman Bunny, Part 2: Overexposure

After The Muppet Show had been off the air for years, Jim Henson hoped to try a new style of television to show off his new creations and experiments.  The show was dubbed The Jim Henson Hour and it each episode would be made up of two parts (usually).  The second half would focus on a story or special involving Henson's Creature Shop, usually old episodes of The Storyteller or something new like "Dog City."  The first half would be called "MuppeTelevision" and would run like The Muppet Show.  There would be sketches, songs, and guest stars but the segments would be shot as if the Muppets ran a television studio rather than a theater.  Many new characters were brought in as lead roles to perform along side familiar favorites like Kermit, Piggy, and Gonzo.  But to draw in the younger demographic they needed Bean Bunny.

To quote Kermit, "We hired Bean to be cute so the rest of us don't have to bother."

The cast of "MuppeTelevision"

Unfortunately, the show struggled to build an audience in the primetime hours, and one of the last episodes that aired confronted the ratings disaster head on.  It was soon discovered that ratings were at their highest whenever the show featured sex, violence, or Bean Bunny (or a combination of the three).

And so, Bean Bunny was shoehorned into as many sketches as possible to maintain an audience.

Leading to horrible abominations such as these.

However, Bean's presence could not keep the show afloat, and soon it was cancelled.  This setback did not hinder his fame, though.  It allowed him to move to the forefront of the action partaking in many other endeavors.  As the Muppets started joining forces with the Walt Disney Company, Bean Bunny was first in line to reap the benefits.

Doing whatever it takes to rake in the dough.

He became one of the stars of "MuppetVision 3-D," a Disney Parks attraction that still runs to this day.  Thanks to excellent timing, Bean Bunny has gained immortality due to the wonders of the third dimension.

Not so little anymore.

Bean Bunny was so omnipresent that he even arranged to join the cast of the Muppet Babies!  The logic that all of the Muppets knew each other as toddlers was stretched pretty thin to begin with, but then to add in a character who was deliberately a child when he was introduced to the Muppet family and say that he was a baby with them as well?  Well now you're asking too much of us!

On top of that, he's the only one who is toilet trained!

Bean Bunny was on top of the world.  At this point, anything was possible.  The world was his carrot patch and he could have been on Easy Street for the rest of his life.  Sure, he was being used for his cuteness, but he did not care.  Everything was coming up Bean Bunny.

But as with most child actors, the initial charm fades, and the antics do not seem as cute anymore.  He was on a path towards destruction, one that he could not have foreseen.  The bigger they are, the harder they fall.  And Bean Bunny was about to hit rock-bottom.  Join us tomorrow as we learn about the tragic aftermath of the young kit who had so much potential and promise.

Play us out Bean (jump to 11:42):

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Bean Norman Bunny, Part 1: Humble Beginnings

Late in Henson's career, there arose a young new Muppet eager to join the well-established cast of The Muppet Show.  The main crew had fixed themselves as stars in the eyes of the world, but there was one area in which they were sorely lacking: Cuteness.  Kermit's nephew Robin was young but had a complex maturity that did not resonate with children.  Meanwhile, on Sesame Street, a furry red monster named Elmo was making waves, preparing to take the street by storm.  As his popularity was rising, the Muppets needed someone who could balance out their ensemble.  Someone who was their "Elmo."  And so, the Henson crew turned to a little fuzzy face that had already made a name for himself in the saccharine television special "The Tale of the Bunny Picnic."

Bean Bunny, the littlest rabbit

While on an afternoon stroll with his daughter Cheryl, Jim Henson observed a group of rabbits convening, seemingly in the midst of an important discussion.  Suddenly, a large dog appeared and scared them all off.  He was inspired to create a springtime special focusing on the backstory of that random cute event.

Below is the full hour-long special, but I shall provide a summary for those who are allergic to an overabundance of cuteness.

As the story goes, to celebrate the arrival of spring, a large group of bunnies hold the annual Bunny Picnic.  They leave in a peaceful warren, close to a farm stocked with many delicious vegetables.  The mean old farmer, in an attempt to rid himself of the rabbit infestation, adopts an dog to kill the rabbits.  The dog is disrespected and mistreated by his master, as evidenced by the fact that he is not even bestowed with a name.  He tries his best to carry out his duties, but has many difficulties.

The Dog, both the main villain and victim of the tale

In the community of bunnies, everyone has a role to play.  Everyone contributes to the picnic, save for little Bean Bunny, who is shunned by his older brother Lugsy for being too small to help.  In order to avoid the negative criticisms of his size, Bean disassociates from reality, imagining himself to be anything but a little rabbit.

Even when he turns into a menacing dragon, he can't help but be adorable.

Bean is the first to discover the dog and no one else believes him.  But once the dog attacks, Bean uses his clever imagination to come up with a scenario to rid the warren of the beast.  Everyone pitches into help, but his bigger brother takes credit for all of the work and places himself in charge of the proceedings.  But when Lugsy gets captured by the dog, it is up to Bean to step in and prove that being little does not prevent him from doing great things.

Such as scaring off a dog in a giant bunny costume.

I do not want to spoil the climax (the huge fake rabbit is just the beginning of things), but after all is said and done, Bean Bunny is treated as a hero to his people and finally earns the respect he deserves, especially from his older brother.

He is a savior to us all!

Bean Bunny enjoyed his new fame and hoped to live out a peaceful existence in the warren, having served his purpose and made a name for himself.  But fate had different plans in store for the young buck.  His audience demanded more.  Very soon, he would be ripped from the warm rabbit den and thrown into the world of television, hype, and success, unlike anything he had ever dreamed of experiencing.  The power would soon go to his head.  His fluffy cottontail would be marking his territory all over the Muppet landscape.  This would not be the last we saw of that little pink-nosed bundle of joy.

Tomorrow, we will continue our look at one of Hollywood's most tragic stories of abuse, corruption, and self-destruction as Behind the Muppets continues.

Monday, October 17, 2011

C is for "Complicated"

We make the world a much harder place than it needs to be.  We fight and argue over trivial matters and arrive at complex conclusions that take years to understand.  And although us grown-ups have grown accustomed to the difficulties of the world, we place an unfair burden on the babies.

From some mysterious ether, they arrive, due to our own personal wants.  They spend nine months, safe in a warm cocoon, unaware of the dangers and complexities that lie behind that embryonic wall.  Suddenly, without warning, they our thrust into our world and wave after wave of new, frightening information comes pouring into their tiny minds.  It is too much knowledge for our great philosophizers to handle and we expect these newborns to just roll with the flow and join our society.

From day one, they have to start learning.  How to move, how to control their bodily functions, and eventually, how to communicate.  They are born without language and must be instructed to learn the tongue of those in their immediate vicinity.  They learn to manipulate sounds and identify symbols used to represent our communicative styles.  And since there are an infinite number of things to discuss, the new process can be quite overwhelming.

Letters can do so many things!  They represent sounds and ideas and they can change on a whim depending on the context.  How can our toddlers keep up with this ever-evolving system?

Fortunately, there is one beast that understands their plight.  A creature that only relies on his natural urges and infantile desires to continue his existence.  That wonderful being is the Cookie Monster.

The calm before the storm

As soon as the child discovers the treasure that is the cookie, life becomes meaningful.  We are put on this Earth to partake in this wondrous dessert.  Whether it be warm and gooey with a chocolate center, or crispy and cool with a caramelized crunch, this round treat from the bakery can solve all of our problems.   This sugared goddess, the companion of milk, the righter of wrongs, and the solace in the hurricane of life is all the young child needs.  Life comes with joys, and it is up to us to enjoy them.

And so, when we're learning to speak, A can be for "apple," and "aardvark" and "alimony," and B can be for "bread" and "banana" and "bourgeoisie," but C?

C is for "cookie."

That's good enough for me.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Happy birthday?  Why bother?

In Episode 117 of Fraggle Rock "Marooned," bubbly, fearless and optimistic Red Fraggle is assigned the duties of distracting the negative, melancholy Boober Fraggle on his birthday so that his friends can throw him a surprise party.  She is upset that she has to spend time with the pessimistic Fraggle, working hard so as not to spoil the surprise for a person who would not appreciate it anyway.  She takes the nervous worrywart to the Spiral Caverns and soon they both find themselves trapped in a cave-in.

Surprisingly, while faced with the sudden realization that this could be their last moments in Fraggle Roack, Boober becomes calm and level-headed while Red panics.  No one places any blame on the other, and no animosity is shared.  The two friends are in this together.  When all hope seems lost and they can no longer hear their companions trying to free them, they comfort themselves with "The Friendship Song."

Try a little longer for your friends.  Try a little stronger for your friends.

After the song, the air starts getting noticeably thinner. This prompts Red to ask the hardest question she has ever faced.  "What do you think it's die?"  Boober does not have the answer, but instead he describes a beautiful soap bubble he once saw.  Perfectly round and full of amazing colors.  And in an instant, it was gone.

Fraggle Philosopy 101: Mortality

Life is harsh and mysterious because it is so fragile.  We can not fully understand it, but with a friend by our side, we can cope and make it meaningful. We can discuss and exchange our thoughts.  We can learn from each other, about each other, and in a way, improve each other.

The bonds of friendship remain a constant theme in Henson's universe.  The connections we make with other creatures were, to him, the purpose of life.  The strength of friendship is so great that it even brought one mythical animal into existence!

In the early years of Sesame Street, Big Bird met a bizarre looking beast known as Mr. Snuffleupagus.  This wooly-mammoth-esque thing would only appear to Big Bird, and whenever Big Bird attempted to tell the adults on Sesame Street about him, he would conveniently disappear, making Big Bird look like a liar and a fool.  They cited Big Bird's large imagination to the creation of such an animal.  For fourteen years, this stunt lasted.  Bird and Snuffy grew closer and closer.  No one else had a chance to interact with Snuffy, and many assumed he did not exist.

Eventually, the writers of the show realized that 1) they could no longer come up with scenarios to keep Snuffy comically hidden from the adults and 2) this was not a safe concept to be teaching children.  From a child's perspective, they were learning not to inform adults about strange occurrences and people in their life for it would only annoy them and they would not believe you.  It was decided that it was time to introduce Snuffy to the world.

With Elmo's help, Big Bird succeeds in getting the Snuffleupagus to stay put.  The adults finally meet him and most importantly, they apologize for doubting Big Bird.  This friend was an important aspect of his life and no one was willing to acknowledge that.  This frustration caused a lot of tension for the young bird.  But, nothing was more nerve-racking than when he finally revealed his best friend to his Sesame Street family.

As you can see in the clip, he goes back and forth on deciding whether this is what he really wants.  Yes, he wants to be respected, but part of him enjoyed being the only one who got to experience Snuffy.  It made their relationship all the more special.  Only he and Snuffy shared secrets and adventures that no one else was allowed to be a part of.  In his mind, Snuffy was the greatest friend he had ever met.  What if no one else sees him that way?  What if no one else understands him?  What if no one else gets along with him?  Or worse...what if they do?

What if he likes someone else more than Big Bird?  What if he realizes he has more in common with Bob?  Or Linda?  Or Susan?  Or Gordon?  What if, by letting him free, Snuffy decides he is better off not being friends with Big Bird?

No.  Big Bird made the right decision.  It would be selfish to keep such a great person all to himself.

Although no one would blame him for trying.

Back under Fraggle Rock, Boober and Red have also discovered that friends can appear right when you least expected it, in the bleakest of situations.  When the weight of the world is looming down on you and you've lost all hope, that's when you must rely on your friends.  You may have given up, but they have not.  They see the greatest potential in you.  They will continue to encourage you when no one else will.  They ask for nothing but the assurance that you trust them.  They will love you, no matter what happens.

On a Fraggle's birthday, they are instructed to learn a great wisdom to reflect their new maturity.  Boober learned a valuable lesson while trapped under the boulder.

Believe in your friends.  Whether they are far away or right by your side, they are always there for you.

Happy Birthday!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Old Friends Who've Just Met

A dear friend once said to me, "I was not a fan of Gonzo."

I can fully understand how one would come to that conclusion.  He is quite a handful.  His masochistic lust for danger defines him.  He fancies himself to be a daredevil, but his stunts are usually looked down upon by the rest of the Muppet crew.  His feats would be impressive if they did not fail most of the time.  Without the skills to make it as an artist, he just wastes everybody's time and gets on their nerves with his near constant presence.

Wow!  I almost died!  Let's do it again!

Unlike Kermit, who's maturity and serious nature makes him appealing and multi-dimensional, Gonzo exists as pure comic relief, a punching bag for the puppeteers who enjoy slapstick and violence.   There is little room for growth.  Throw in the fact that he is a bizarre-looking creature with twisted features, and one can see how he would not be everyone's cup of tea.

I covered the practice of puppet recycling before and Gonzo was another victim of that practice.  He originally appeared in the special "The Great Santa Claus Switch" along with a variety of other strange figures known as "frackles."  His name was "Snarl" based on his hooked nose.  When he was repurposed for The Muppet Show it was unclear as to what exactly he was supposed to be.  He was written off by the other characters and the staff as a "whatever" or a "weirdo."  Nobody knew and nobody cared.  But Gonzo did not seem to mind.

Being the only one of his kind, he developed bizarre attractions to fowl.  His longest relationship was with a non-speaking chicken named Camilla.  This almost bestial fetish made him even more unappealing to the others around him.  Yet, he had no one else to relate to.

Deep within Gonzo's soul lies a certain loneliness that cannot be replaced.  He knows that he doesn't quite fit in on this planet and he chooses to look on the bright side of life to get through the days.  But, in one rare moment, Gonzo reveals there is a lot more to him than meets the eye.

This looks familiar.  Vaguely familiar.

Shortly after meeting a new group of friends in a strange distant land, Gonzo shares his introspective melody "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday."

In one brief moment, this fuzzy blue weirdo has opened his heart to complete strangers, having already made the decision that these are the ones to trust.  He is far from his true family, and his past is a mystery, but here, he feels safe, letting these new people into his life.  His memories of traveling through the atmosphere give him that exhilarating sensation of belonging somewhere, as if he has a purpose.

He has found his home.  His new friends may not understand him, but they are all he needs to continue.

Everyone has a least favorite Muppet.  Many are broad caricatures good for a laugh and nothing more.  They remind you of the people in your life you'd rather not hang around.  But everyone deserves a chance.  First impressions are not the end all be all.  People from vastly different worlds can find a common ground if they take the effort.  

One of the best decisions that can be made is to start a conversation with someone you barely know.  And don't let it die.  If you put in some effort, you can reach deeper levels that extend beyond the surface.  Take the time to get to know the weirdos in your life.

They might end up becoming your best friend.

Close to my soul, and yet so far away.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What the Meep Do We Know!?

"At Muppet Labs, the future is being made today!"

And with Dr. Bunsen Honeydew in charge, that future does not look too bright.  The goals of science are to understand the ways of the world and then use that knowledge to enhance the lives of humans and to better the world.  While seemingly competent, Dr. Honeydew seems to have gotten his wires crossed when it comes to the betterment of the world.  Through what could only be described as magic, Bunsen has created countless inventions that manage to work despite disobeying the laws of physics.  Unfortunately, despite harnessing god-like powers, Bunsen's inventions only cover trivial problems that he believes plague the world and must be stopped.  Electric nose warmers, edible paperclips, and banana sharpeners are just a few of the creations altering life as we know it, thanks to Muppet Labs.

Finally, office supplies and snacks in one handy location!

Whenever Bunsen succeeds in making something useful, he sends in his hapless assistant to test out the kinks.

There are always kinks.

As the assistant, Beaker must endure all of the grunt work necessary to create these magnificent accomplishments.  We often find the scientists in their testing phase of the new inventions, and Beaker is forced to volunteer to be the guinea pig on which these miracles of technology are performed.  His will having been pulverized into dust ages ago, his fruitless attempts to escape the experiments are met with condescending remarks and laughter from his superior.  His voice has evolved into a series of high-pitched "meeps," for these are the only sounds of protest he can muster.  This gibberish has replaced his vocabulary entirely, suggesting the long, grueling hours he has spent in the lab.

Beaker's first appearance.  He is already suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The years of abuse from his nonchalant boss are enough to drive anyone mad.  But Beaker trudges on, in a state of perpetual panic.

Beaker's character is reminiscent of the member of an older comedy duo, Stan Laurel of "Laurel and Hardy."  In the usual routine, Laurel's ineptitude would put create hardships for Hardy, putting the two in "another fine mess."  Quick to anger, Hardy would berate his companion, causing Laurel to immediately burst in to tears and try to fight through his sadness and fear.  It is this anxious state that is encapsulated in Beaker's persona.

The torture that Beaker must experience can be all to familiar to our hard-working scientists trying out new hypotheses and being met with failure.  It makes one wonder why Beaker does not just quit.  It will relieve him of his pain and trauma.  He will suffer no more broken bones, random explosions, or accidental cloning.  He will be free to live life in a blissful state, free from the hardships and electrocutions that most definitely await him whenver he enters the lab.

Yet he stays.

He can not turn his back on the world that easily.  It is not only his duty to experiment, it is his passion.  The answers to the universe are within his grasp and it would be wrong to ignore them after he has come so far.  Ignorance may be enough for some, but not for good ol' Beaker.  He selflessly places himself in harm's way for the advancment of mankind.  He has seen and experienced phenomena only dreamed of in the minds of our great thinkers.  No other puppet scientist has personal time-travel, teleportation, and rapid matter reduction/growth on their resume.  His is a career to be envied.  It may take a toll on his body and mind, but he is connecting with the universe in a way no one else has.

At the very least, he's grown more cautious.