Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Weihnachten in der Sesamstraße

During the '50s and '60s, an Austrian actor/singer named Peter Alexander became a huge star in Germany. By the '70s, Alexander (like many popular entertainers) began hosting many television shows, events, and specials. During this decade he hosted a variety show known as Peter Alexander präsentiert Spezialitäten or Peter Alexander presents Specialities. In 1975, one of those "specialities" included a yuletide visit to everyone's favorite inner city neighborhood Sesame Street, effectively making this the world's first Sesame Street Christmas special.

Peter Alexander reveals Santa Claus's secret.

Alexander explains to his German audience that he will be traveling to a magical place for the holidays and invites them to come along as he steps through his personal wormhole that leads directly out of the apartment building at 123 Sesame Street.  This trip only lasts fifteen minutes, but it allows the host ample time to interact with the famous characters, sing a few songs, and exchange gifts.  Oh, and the whole thing is in German.

Willkommen bei Sesamstraße!  Where everybody wears lederhosen now!

Our usual crew of Muppeteers were present to film the scenes, but their voices were dubbed over by their German equivalents.  It is a little jarring to hear these new voices coming out of their mouths, but this is what the German audience was familiar with.  Even if you cannot speak the language, you can still notice the sense of glee Peter Alexander has as he cavorts around the set with these iconic characters.  You can even tell where the corny jokes are placed, if you pay close attention.

Part One

Part Two

Very little occurs in terms of plot, and Alexander does not interview the characters or present anything new about their lifestyles.  It's as if he just decided to drop in and become a part of their family for a bit.  In addition to Christmas carols, he also gets a chance to sing the Sesame Street theme song as well as the classic song "Sing."  And, to be honest, isn't that exactly what you'd do if you visited Sesame Street?

Living the good life.

Even though Peter Alexander is a star in his homeland and was living the life of fame and fortune, this was his one opportunity to visit Sesame Street.  He was going to have fun with it.  Like a giddy child, he flits about, going from puppet to puppet just having a blast interacting with them.  When else would you have the chance to play jokes on Bert and Ernie, have a philosophical discussion/duet with Kermit the Frog, or get yelled at by Oscar the Grouch?

He hates me!  I feel so blessed!

To me, the most fascinating aspect of this special is not what happens when he comes to the street.  It is what happens when he returns home.  Clearly the Sesame Street segments were filmed in advance, over in America, before he made his show.  So it is not until he returns to the live portions of his program that we can see the audience whom we've heard laughing this entire time.

They are all adults.  Not a single child is in the audience.  While variety shows are usually targeted to families as a whole, it is amazing to see a giant audience filled with grown-ups enjoying the antics of children's show fare.  And I am not referring to the cases we see often where adults enjoy the shows of their youth and can easily look past the fact that the material was original marketed towards children.  Nor am I referring to shows that act like children's shows but secretly try to establish an adult fanbase as well.  This was 1975.  Sesame Street was a show just for kids.  It was an intelligently put together show, but still, it was not intended solely for adults.

Yet, here are many people who are not only enjoying it, but are very familiar with it.  A kids show from a foreign country, no less!  Name any other international kids show that could have warranted such a television event.  The German dub of the show had only been in existence for two years at this point, and, already, the nation was in love with it.

The original cast, on a break from spreading merriment throughout the world.

What better time than Christmas to become a child again?  To forget about the year's troubles and just celebrate togetherness and fun?  It is a rare treat to visit that street, but it is certainly a gift that would never be forgotten.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Santa vs. Santa

In my excitement of holidays past, I made a few errors in relating the truth about Muppet Christmas specials.  Originally, I said that 1977's Emmett Otter was the first special created exclusively by the Henson Company.  I knew that Muppets had appeared in other Christmas specials before then, but I wrongfully believed that the critters in Frogtown were the first members of an original Henson Xmas tale.  Turns out I was off by 7 years.  There was actually a 1970 special produced by The Ed Sullivan Show that dealt with a fierce battle between good and evil as horrific Muppet monsters threatened to take over Christmas.  It all went down in The Great Santa Claus Switch.

(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6) Sorry for the poor quality, but the film is quite rare.

The Muppets had already appeared a dozen or so times on The Ed Sullivan Show (including appearances in a couple Christmas themed skits which I've yet to track down).  So when Henson and script writer Jerry Juhl came to Ed Sullivan with this special, after struggling to find a producer, he allowed them to use his show's time slot the Sunday before Christmas.  Sullivan acted as narrator for the episode, but the main focus was on the Muppets and Art Carney.

Which Santa is he now?

Carney portrayed both Santa Claus and the oddly-named villian Cosmo Scam, who lives in a cave under Santa's workshop.  He schemes with his monstrous Frackles to kidnap and impersonate Santa so that he can easily break into the homes of every family in the world and rob them.  The Frackles come in many shapes and sizes, proud to serve their evil master.

Including the original Gonzo, who resided in Scam's cigar box.

On the surface, Santa Claus prepares for Christmas Eve with his singing elves.  

Not to be confused with the singing Elvises.

The hokey songs and characters seemed to suggest that this Christmas special would be an unoriginal exercise in the audience's patience.  Santa and his good elves and an evil Christmas hater with monsters? Sounds like the cast of every Rankin-Bass Christmas special ever.  But the quality of the show takes a turn for the better when this guy shows up:

It's that blue guy from The Muppet Show opening!  And I just saw him in the new movie too!

This big guy is Thog (Jerry Nelson), partnered with another green giant known as Thig (who never reappeared after this special).  Thig (Frank Oz) was the brains of the group while the other one.  His dopey demeanor, childish voice and sad eyes make him instantly lovable.  Never have I been so inclined to want to hug a Muppet as much as I did whenever he appeared on screen.  Scam instructs Thig and Thog to kidnap Santa and the two lumbering brutes set out to accomplish this task.  Fortunately for them, they choose the exact moment that the lowliest elf Fred (Jim Henson) is singing raucously about how he would do anything to protect Santa Claus, distracting him long enough to overlook the kidnapping.

Pictured: The moment this show went from mediocre to amazing.

Once Santa is in his grips, Scam starts masquerading as him up on the surface, arousing the suspicions of Fred.  He locks Fred up in his cave and replaces him in the workshop with a poorly disguised Frackle, setting off a hilarious chain reaction in which elves are replaced with Frackles one-by-one.

In his own cell, Santa starts to bond with his captors.  Throughout the whole process, he has remained quite level-headed.  He treats Thig and Thog with respect because he is Santa Claus, and Santa is nice to everybody.  Also, during the day, we have seen Santa attempt to fool his elves with parlor tricks like making coins disappear.  All of his tricks have failed, leading us to believe that Santa is a hack of a magician.  However, when Thog sheepishly approaches him with a request for a toy train, Santa is able to magically produce one, explaining that once Christmas begins, so does the magic.

The miracle of being imprisoned on Christmas.

The two giants, despite not being very threatening anyway, become huge softies as they learn what it is like to be nice to one another on Christmas.  When Thig exchanges his new teddy bear with Thog's truck, everyone watching this with me couldn't help but utter "Awwwwww."

The rest of the special is just as endearing and it should not be too much of a surprise to hear that Santa and the elves escape, Fred manages to prevent Cosmo Scam from ruining Christmas, and everyone lives happily ever after.   Even Scam is not punished in the end, for Santa understands that evil is as evil does. He gets off with a slight warning and everyone goes off to celebrate Christmas.

Because of the obscurity of this special, I was sure that it was not going to be anything great.  But the puppeteers and Art Carney really blend together throughout the entire show.  Carney does not act like a stereotypical Christmas baddie.  Usually the villains in these specials are over-the-top and ridiculous, but Cosmo just seems like a normal, yet immoral, human being.  Santa is also not this high and mighty omniscient individual, as he is often portrayed.  His goodness seems to stem from a personal choice.  He just notices that life goes better when people are nice to one another, so that's how he lives his life.  The evil Frackles have no choice but to become the good guys because it just makes logical sense.

The duality of a good and evil Santa is an interesting concept to explore.  I've seen evil St. Nicks before, but never paired with a good one to balance him out.  The Grinch has no adversary, Robot Santa Claus was not much worse than Bender Claus, and Jack Skellington really was trying his best.  No, this is the true Jekyll and Hyde of Christmas.

The Christmas spirit is strong with this one, and the laissez-faire attitude towards being kind and peaceful manages to keep this program subtle and charming, rather than preachy and schlocky.

Then, during the credits, we observe Cosmo, pouting outside of the workshop while the rest of the cast parties and celebrates a job well done.  Thog emerges from the small building and offers the villain a gift before escorting him inside to socialize.  It's contrived and schmaltzy, but I just cant help myself....


Monday, November 28, 2011

Seasons Greetings

The holidays are upon us!  That means it is time once again for my annual look at Christmas specials!  For those who followed my reviews in previous years, you'll know that I spend the month of December looking at Christmas movies and television specials.  Having already covered most of the big ones, I feel a break from the usual fare is in order.  I am still having fun with my look at the works of Jim Henson, so I will be combining the best of both worlds!  Over the past two years, I briefly covered a handful of Henson Christmas specials, and this year I plan to revisit at a few of them.  But I have discovered many more hidden gems and forgotten holiday moments, so do not fret about me repeating myself for four weeks straight.

There is a bit of an unspoken rule about this blog in that I try not to cover works made by the Jim Henson Company after his parting.  I greatly enjoy the creations where I can see elements of his personal touch.  However, I will make a couple exceptions for "Christmas Month," namely an in-depth look at The Muppet Christmas Carol, since many of you feel I judged that movie too harshly.  Perhaps a repeated viewing shall change my perspective?

But to kick things off, we shall start with the smallest medium.

Christmas cards.

A skull under the mistletoe.  I'm filled with warm feelings already.

Like all greeting cards, Christmas cards are a way to express to someone else that they are currently in your thoughts.  But Christmas cards have an additional purpose that other cards do not.  A greeting card is often associated with an event.  It could be a personal annual event ("Happy Birthday"), a planned event ("Congrats on the new baby!") or an unexpected event ("Get Well Soon").  These events can occur at any time of the year, and are related to whatever the intended recipient is going through at the moment.  Then there are holidays which have specific targets (Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day) and holidays which do not seem to warrant greeting cards at all, yet do ("Boo! It's Halloween! In case you forgot!").

All of these cards serve many purposes, but the brilliance of the Christmas card is that it applies to everyone universally.  It comes at the end of the year, so it serves as a great opportunity to connect with all of those in your life, whether you still keep in touch with them or not.  Families enjoy posing for photos and sending updates to their relatives, friends, and neighbors.  It's just a nice little tradition to keep everybody on the same page at the same time.

Large companies usually send these cards to their employees en mass, which diminishes that personal touch.  That being said, there are certain companies who use the Christmas card to provide some humor and allow employees to enjoy an aspect of their product that those outside the company rarely see.  Original art is showcased, only to be viewed by the corporate family.

In the early years, Jim Henson took this a step further and personally created the company holiday cards.

These cards ranged from simple doodles... complex sketches.

Some were abstract...

and others were informative.

And some were just silly.

As time went on, other staff members were in charge of creating the holiday cards, but the whimsical nature of the cards remained, reflecting Jim's philosophies.

Miss Piggy never looked so peaceful.

The tradition of recapping the year appeared on many of the designs (resulting in a multi-year slew of Dark Crystal cards, due to the ongoing production process).  While many of these cards lack dates on them, it is easy to place them in chronological order based on the content depicted.

Although The Land of Gorch card could really fit in anywhere, right?

These cards are still being created year by year (with last year's sporting the Fraggles in a festive spirit, signifying a possible return to Fraggle Rock) and each serves as a little reminder of the joy that accompanies the holiday season.  To see images of the 30+ cards created during Jim's lifetime, check page 160-161 of Jim Henson: The Works or view them here and pick your favorite!

Although it'll be hard topping the best one.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Must-Have Monstrosity

Black Friday has descended upon us.  While most of you are fighting crowds, attempting to get as much merchandise as you can grab while the sales last, let us not forget the individual who was born on this day to spread joy and peace throughout the world.  Although he brought messages of peace, wars have been fought over him and people have been critically injured.  I speak, of course, of Tickle Me Elmo.

Consumerism Incarnate

While the toy itself lacks any complexities (you touch or "tickle" it three times to send it into a vibrating laughing frenzy), this plush inexplicably became the hottest selling item of 1996.  Many people view Sesame Street as consisting of two time periods: the Classic Era and the Elmo Era.  This toy is what sparked the turning point.

Prior to that fateful Black Friday in 1996, Elmo had been mostly a background Muppet on the street.  When Kevin Clash picked him up after another puppeteer tossed him aside, he provided the small monster with a baby-like voice and a three-year-old's speech pattern.  He became very endearing and started to be used more and more.  Eventually he got has much screen time as any of the other characters, but the show was still and ensemble piece with Big Bird being the undisputed "star" of the show.  But, as with any work of fiction, the audience tends to have their favorite characters.

I recall a girl in my elementary school who was obsessed with Elmo.  It was quite bizarre because by second grade, most of us had moved on from Sesame Street and this girl in particular was very tomboyish and forceful.  But at the mention of Elmo, her knees would weaken and her heart would soften.  There was no denying that the furry red monster had a powerful effect on us.

Elmo had another huge fan, though.  One who had status and power and a daytime talk show with millions of viewers at her disposal.  I speak, of course, of Rosie O'Donnell.

The Queen of Daytime Television?

Rosie would frequently have Elmo on as a guest and was not shy about expressing her love for the puppet.  TYCO inventor Ron Dubren had spent years working on a ticklish doll using a device that would later be used to make cell phones vibrate.  He had originally planned on making a Tickle Me Tasmanian Devil, but TYCO lost their arrangement with the Looney Tunes franchise and so he decided that this young monster would be a fine candidate.  The toy was made in July and Rosie O'Donnell received one of the first ones.  She featured in on her show constantly, and by October, her staff received hundreds to give as gifts to the audience.  This was just the boost the toy needed, so, on that fateful Black Friday, history was changed.

Originally, 400,000 dolls had been expected to be sold throughout the season and they were all gone by the third hour of Black Friday.  This $29 dollar toy started appearing on the black market and other sources where people were known to pay hundreds of dollars for them.  The demand was so high that high-end jeweler Cartier placed one in their store window on Fifth Avenue wearing a diamond necklace and bracelet (a combined value of $1 million) and promised customers that if they purchased the displayed jewelry, Elmo would come with it for free.

It's nice, but does it come on a monster from a kids show?

In the following years, variations on the Elmo doll have been released, incorporating other characters and scenarios, but none have reached the heights of success of that original stuffed toy.  What was it about Tickle Me Elmo that made the whole world crazy one year?  Yes, Black Friday has evolved into a madhouse, a frenzy to satisfy our consumerism and greed, and a chance to see some bloodshed at the mall.  But is it all necessary?  Surely these store-goers were rational people who understand that this toy is not worth over $500.  Yet that is what many people paid for it.  Logic is no match for mob mentality.

Whatever the case may be, I find it fitting that the de-facto mascot of Black Friday represents what each and every one of us become during the holiday season: a self-indulgent monster.

Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! That tickles!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Grief and Gratitude

Twenty-eight years ago today, Sesame Street aired an episode unlike any they had ever done before.  Actor Will Lee, who had played the elderly grocer Mr. Hooper had passed away almost a year prior, and the show's staff was at first unsure how to deal with the issue.  They contemplated just writing his character out of the show, claiming he had retired and moved to Florida, but they understood that the children at home would be wondering when Mr. Hooper would return.  For the first time on Sesame Street, a difficult issue would had to be discussed: death.

Will Lee as "Mr. Hooper"

The writers and actors had to be very careful in approaching this subject.  They could not be too blunt, but they also did not want to sugar-coat the occurrence.  Also, due to the diverse audience of the show, they could not hint towards any religious beliefs towards death and the existence of an afterlife for fear of being biased.  This had to be the most simple presentation of a concept unfamiliar to young children.

It was decided that the episode would be broadcast on Thanksgiving.  The hope was that kids will be surrounded by many family members at this time, who could watch it with them and answer any questions they might have had.  This could also allow them to discuss the parting of any relatives which may have occurred in the child's life.

Finally, the biggest decision of all was to cover the material through the eyes of Big Bird.  Only Big Bird and the adults would discuss the issue, as he would ask many questions, some of which would be very difficult to answer.  He would go through many emotions (denial, confusion, anger, fear, and sadness) before fully understanding the situation and accepting it.

The episode in question can be found here.  This clip features all of the "street scenes" from the show, beginning with lighthearted material, then segueing into the main conversation about halfway through.  Please take the time to watch it before continuing.

The scene in question begins with Big Bird sharing some drawings that he made of his friends.  In reality, Caroll Spinney, his puppeteer, made these images.  After delivering them all, Big Bird mentions that he can't wait for Mr. Hooper to see his portrait.

He would have been proud.

There is an uncomfortable moment when Maria has to remind Big Bird that Mr. Hooper died.  "Remember?" she asks.  Apparently, they had discussed this before and the message did not sink in.  They felt they were over with the subject and could move on, but a child needs clearer explanations.  One by one, each adult gives Big Bird their support and knowledge, explaining that they too are shaken up about it, and there was no good reason for it happening other than "just because."

The show ends with an upbeat moment, celebrating the birth of a new baby in the neighborhood.  Lives are finite and many.  They end, but they also begin on a daily basis.  All is natural.

When we think of Thanksgiving, we think of family.  And for Big Bird, the neighbors on his street are his family.  Some take the role of his parents and educators while others, like Mr. Hooper, were like an uncle, who only supported Big Bird's endeavors and talents.

As you celebrate this holiday today, be thankful for those in your family, no matter if they are related to you or not.  These are the people who make up your life and, although you sometimes feel as if you have very little in common with them, they made you who you are today.  While you may fight, do not forget to love them.  Be grateful for them, and never forget those relatives and friends who have left you.  Some deaths are expected, while others come suddenly, but all leave a big impact on those they leave behind.  While they may have passed on, their spirits should stay alive.

All we have left are memories.

This post is dedicated to my uncle David, who passed away on November 17, 2011.  Rest in Peace.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Hey, A Movie!

Since the invention of film, there has been a sense of magic and triumph associated with going to the movies.  Even today, with our megaplexes cramming and endless supply of Hollywood drivel down our throats, we still feel as if an epic night is about to unfold when we visit the theater.  No matter what kind of movie we are about to see, they are each treated with the same respect.  Hundreds of people gather in a darkened room, and fall silent in unison as the picture begins.

The dimming of the lights is not only a way to see the film better.  It is a way to block all of our other senses so that we cannot help but be immersed in the world presented to us.  Outside distractions barely register with us and we start to care deeply about the images on the screen, and nothing else.  Filmmakers take advantage of this moment to present a myriad of exciting and dramatic adventures, so that we may live in fantasy for a couple of hours.  It has the exact same effect as a dream, only you are awake.

Everything is bigger in the movies.  The visuals, the effects, the budget.  Everything is grand.  The original Muppet movies appreciated that and used the new medium to explore new territory.  The Muppet Movie chronicles the exploits of the Muppets making their way to Hollywood to make the movie, so it is very self-referential.  But things are taken to a whole new level in the sequel The Great Muppet Caper.

It's gonna be terrific!

This film stands apart from all other Muppet films because it is an original story, yet the Muppets aren't playing their usual selves.  They are investigative journalists in London who get caught up in solving a jewlery heist.  I plan on discussing the film in depth later, but I just want to focus on the beginning where our characters set the stage.  They prepare the audience for an event unlike any they have ever seen with the opening song, "Hey, A Movie."

(Song starts at about 2:50)

Just the phrase itself gives me goosebumps.  By the time this opened, the world had experienced over half a century of the film industry.  It was no longer fresh and new.  Movies were standard.  The norm.  But this song revitalizes the exciting notion of going to the theater all over again.

The song was used agian in the television special "The Muppets Go to the Movies," where in famous scenes are recreated with the Muppets, as a tribute to how far the organization has come.  I prefer the Caper version of the song though, due to the mayhem and chaos that ensues.

The spectacle of it all is something worth revelling in.

And today, we get to experience that all over again.  The Muppets have made many movies since the original ones, but none have been treated with such aplomb and anticipation as today's new film.  This is an event worth celebrating, because we get to share the excitement together as a society.

It's time to get things started.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Just in Time

There is some part of the human brain that just enjoys making connections.  When something visual syncs up with its accompanying audio, we are pleased.  Just try watching a video with the sound out of sync for an extended period of time and you'll notice how agitated you begin to grow.

By simply pairing an image with music, a new world opens up.  Stories can be told, emotions can be stirred and humor can develop.  As always, Jim's early work falls on this principle of making a quick joke out of the absurd.  In his classic "Java" sketch, two tube like creatures dance to simple elevator music.  That's all you need, sometimes.

No words.  Just two eyes on a tube and sympathetic yet malicious characters are born.

This sketch was repeated many times (like many of the early pieces), but it almost failed on it's first run due to lack of preparation.  On The Ed Sullivan Show, the sketch was just starting and puppeteer Jerry Juhl realized he had left the fire extinguisher required for the punchline in the dressing room.  As the skit went on, Juhl raced through the studio, hearing the "Java" theme playing over the loudspeakers throughout the studio.  Finally, just in the nick of time, he made it to the stage to release the mist.

The original Javas (who were almost the only Javas)

It's funny how a performance that relies so heavily on keeping things in perfect synchronization had could have been a disaster had Juhl been off by one second.

This was the Muppets fourth appearance on the show, so it was still early enough in the career that mistakes could have been detrimental.  Fortunately, the Javas made it through the night and the Muppets continued to grown into the world-wide phenomenon that they are today.

And now they get to be preserved as museum exhibits.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Land That "Not Ready For Primetime" Forgot

The Muppets had a cameo appearance on Saturday Night Live this past weekend and reminded the audience that they actually used to be a regular feature on the show.  However, aside from one screenshot, they did not go into the sticky history between Henson and the show.

SNL premiered in 1975, and one of the reasons it got on the air was due to the involvement of Henson and the Muppets.  Its cast of players were virtual unknowns, so a portion of each episode of the variety show would be devoted to the Muppets to bring in an audience.  Henson had already made a name for himself through talk show appearances and Sesame Street and this was one of his early attempts to prove that puppetry wasn't just for kids.  He came up with a recurring segment with its own cast of characters called "The Land of Gorch."

The first step to keeping children at bay is visually unappealing puppets.

Each episode would chronicle the adventures of King Ploobis (Jim Henson) and his right-hand creature Scred (Jerry Nelson).  Usually he would have some problem that children would not relate to, like relationship issues, financial woes, and migraines.  Each sketch would end with a trip to see the Mighty Favog (Frank Oz), a statue of a deity who would request chicken sacrifices and give out shoddy advice.  He also talked out of the side of his mouth with a thick Brooklyn accent.

He was a crowd pleaser.

The main writing staff and cast of SNL were not very fond of having to set aside time for the "Mucking Fuppets," as John Belushi called them.  It prevented screentime for the actors and the scenes were not fun to write for.  Henson would remain in the writers' room making heavy edits to the scripts in order to uphold uniformity among his Muppet franchise.  Unfortunately, the skits did not win over the audience very much either.  As time went on, the Gorch sketches pushed the envelope, crossing over into more adult themed humor with drinking, swearing, drugs, and sex.  This territory, had it been given time to develop could have resulted in a very different turn of events for the Muppets as we know them.

The one and only time you could have seen Muppet-on-Muppet action, officially.  It's surreal.

The hunchbacked servant Scred became a crowd favorite, and he would become the unofficial voice of the Muppets, often commenting on the growing rift between the puppeteers and the SNL crew.

Scred, mocking the recurring "Killer Bee" sketches, with Gilda Radner, one of the few people who liked the Muppets

As the Muppets were gaining notoriety elsewhere, they were often in demand and, one week, they had to leave to perform at the Grammy Awards.  This was the final week with the Gorch set, and Chevy Chase decided to have a little fun at their expense, with a short play entitled "Paying the Milkman."

Sadly for the Muppets, this was the funniest skit performed in the Land of Gorch.

After a multi-week absence while the puppeteers were in London starting up The Muppet Show, the Gorch set had been torn down and it was clear that Henson and his staff were no longer welcome.  However, the puppets decided to go out in style, building sketches and appearances around the behind-the-scenes turmoil.  Scred and King Ploobis would roam the SNL stage desperately trying to work themselves into the show, but they would only be met with cold shoulders.  The human cast did not mind the departure because the puppeteers still had bigger and better opportunities to perform in.  All that would really be gone were the Gorch characters.

And no one cared because they were "just puppets."

So, in one of the final scenes, Scred and Ploobis make their way into the basement of the studio and uncover the Mighty Favog covered in dust.  They ask what they should do and he tells them to accept their fate and get into the storage trunk with the other puppets.  Reluctantly, the two climb inside as they are constantly reminded of the fact that it makes no difference because they are just pieces of felt.  They have no feelings.  They don't need to breathe.

And the final words from the king to his subjects: "You're not alive."

The most depressing ending to an episode of SNL ever made.

This was the only scene written by Jim Henson himself, and it shows.  There is something chilling about this moment that has not been captured in any Henson production before or since.  Although the original skits were mediocre at best, Henson has captured the pathos of these lowly puppets, nay, of all fictional creations that ever were and ever will be, in that one single line.

*      *      *      *

The Gorch characters did make two more appearances following this (perhaps to give them a more upbeat ending), but it kind of ruins the mystique set up by that final image of the trunk closing.  However, there are a few interesting tidbits with the two "Still in Storage" sketches.

In the first, the Mighty Favog and Scred promise that if they are brought back on the show, they will be able to make the Beatles appear has guests.  Apparently, Lorne Michaels (the producer of SNL) had been trying his hardest to get them to no avail.  But of course, everyone was trying to get them.  This was an impossible task and was written as such.

Coincidentally, Paul McCartney and John Lennon were in New York watching this episode as it aired, and debated whether or not to show up at Rockefeller Center (where the show was being broadcast live, remember) as a surprising joke.  They decided against it, thwarting what would have been a historic moment for both SNL and the Muppets.

So close!

In the last ever Gorch sketch, in the second season premiere of SNL, the puppets wake up in the "morgue" (read, filing cabinets in the basement) and comment on how they are not "family friendly" enough to appear on the newly created Muppet Show.  Guest star Lily Tomlin tries to lead them in a Muppet-Show-esque sing-along that goes poorly.  So poorly that Tomlin forgets the punchline to the scene, walks off awkwardly, and the puppets all confusingly bid farewell.

Just smile and nod....

So, with one ending that fails to deliver an epic show-stopping finale and another ending that fails to deliver a coherent sentence, you can see why I preferred the original Henson-penned sendoff to these misunderstood creatures of Gorch.

Friday, November 18, 2011

What Ever Happened to Baby Skeeter?

As Muppet Babies was being worked into a children's cartoon show, the creators encountered a problem while filling out their cast.  They would use the original six babies who appeared in The Muppets Take Manhattan with the addition of Animal because of his popularity.  Baby Bunsen and Baby Beaker would appear occasionally, but they were not as well developed as the rest of the cast so it was decided to use them sparingly.  However, the only female character was Piggy, who would be a terrible role model for any little girls in the audience.

An additional female would have to be added, but the original lineup from The Muppet Show did not offer great options.  There was Camilla... who was just a chicken.  The singer Wanda would only really work with her partner Wayne.  Annie Sue, Miss Piggy's rival, could provide some interesting dynamics...but then there would be two nearly identical female pigs on the show.  Hilda, the costume lady, was too old.  We're already at the fourth name and many of you are probably still wondering who Camilla is.

Things must be bad when we have to resort to Mildred Huxtetter as a viable option.

"What about Janice?!" millions of you are screaming right now.  Eh, they tried Baby Janice for one episode.  Her slow, deep voice just sounded creepy coming out of a little girl.  She worked better in the "Muppet Kids" series of books where she could be seen and not heard.

Also, for some reason, she was the oldest of all the babies.

Turning to the casts of Sesame Street or Fraggle Rock for their girls would have just created too much confusion so it was decided that an original character was the way to go.  After taking a long hard look at the established line-up, it was decided that there should be two Scooters, one with longer hair.

And thus Skeeter was born!

Brand new, yet eerily familiar.

Skeeter was perfect for the writers because she could be crafted to fit the gap in the personality diversity department.  They were stuck with the characteristics of the main seven characters because no one would take the show seriously if Kermit didn't act like Kermit.  While Piggy was the girly-girl with a hot temper, Skeeter could be her foil, a tomboy with an appetite for competition.  Piggy could no longer boss everyone around when Skeeter was present.  Also, to make her separate from her twin brother, Scooter's weak and nerdy tendencies were amped up to highlight the athletic and energetic Skeeter.  She was welcomed graciously by the young audience (Team Janice supporters, aside).

But while we could easily accept Skeeter as part of the group, her presence raised an important question:

If Muppet Babies takes place in the past, why has she never appeared as an adult with the other Muppets?

Did something happen to her?  Does she just have a bad relationship with her brother?  There is the possibility that Muppet Babies isn't even canon, due to it being based on a fantasy sequence from a movie.  But then, do the Muppets even have a canon?

She at least survived long enough to become a tween.

Numerous explanations have popped up over time.  The official word from Muppet designer Michael Frith was that she had disappeared while exploring the Amazon.  While that sounds epic, it is also a little too convenient.  Another explanation was that she was in the Witness Protection Program.  And for Robot Chicken's morbid hypothesis, check out this clip.

Whatever the case may be, it seemed as if she would never make an official appearance as an adult.  But then suddenly, she resurfaced in the most random of locations: a takeout bag from a Carl's Jr.


Down in the lower left corner of a 1992 bag advertising a line of winter themed fast food Muppet toys, standing next to her brother is Skeeter.  Notice how she is the only spectator looking directly at the camera.  It's as if she knows she's being watched.

This utterly bizarre paper bag was the hottest lead for a long while when she appeared again, three years later, this time in the background of a motivational picture book about love.

And she has a child?!

My personal theory was that she now works as a secret agent for the League of Extraordinary Gentleman.  She travels the world, going on classified missions to spy on enemies, retrieve artifacts, and take down evil corporations.  The Henson Company produced most of it's material in London, so Skeeter could very well be working for the British Secret Service.  It would fit with her persona and her desire for exploration in mysterious countries.  It would also allow the agency to have a connection with the puppet community, which is dreadfully underrepresented in government as of this post.

But this was just a fanciful notion.

Finally, in 2010, after nearly two decades of absence, all questions were answered in the BOOM Comics Muppet Show story arc entitled "Family Reunion."  Although the canonicity of this storyline (heck, even these comic books) are up for debate, at least we have an official resolution to the Skeeter saga.

They finally got her!

SPOILERS AHEAD!  Keep the mystery alive and stop reading now!  But if you're curious to find out what became of Skeeter, read on.

This appearance manages to incorporate all we know about Skeeter's whereabouts for the past few years while continuing to keep her shrouded in mystery.  She arrives at the Muppet Theater looking for a job while she attends college for a degree in archaeology.  She quickly returns to her old ways, teasing her dorky brother and showing up Miss Piggy at every chance.  Eventually, she gets caught up in Fozzie's ruse to convince his mother that he is the assistant of a very secretive detective to impress her.  Skeeter is told to play the role of his girlfriend, but she takes the opportunity to portray the fictional detective "Wormwood Soames" instead.  After the truth is discovered by Ma Bear, Skeeter decides to head back to school, leaving the Muppet Theater behind.

However, it is revealed that Detective Soames not only exists, but Skeeter is his assistant and special agent, and she has gone on many secret missions, each more dangerous than the last.

The true identity of Special Agent X

Looks like my conspiracy theories were right!