Monday, January 2, 2012

Appealing to Id

In 1969, Jim Henson decided to try his luck at expanding the Muppet brand beyond commercials and variety show appearances.  Hoping to build a pre-existing audience through name recognition, Henson got in touch with the associates of cartoonists Johnny Hart and Brant Parker, the minds behind The Wizard of Id.  A fan of comic strips, Jim thought that puppetry would be a great way to translate the humor from the comics onto television.  The authors expressed interest and Henson made up a quick test pilot.  This was the first time established copyrighted characters were represented in Muppet form.

The Wizard and King of Id (Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl, respectively)

While the pilot only lasted 5 minutes, the drawbacks of making a show about a comic strip became readily apparent to Henson.  Using dialogue from the strips, the flow of the show was very clunky.  Because comic strips are meant to be enjoyed in mere seconds, once-a-day, the focus is entirely on the jokes.  The characters only speak as a means to get to the punchline.  While this is not uncommon for comedy routines and sketches, an entire show of punchlines can become aggravating to the viewer.  And without an audience to provide laughter, the jokes had to be punctuated with a simple musical sting.

The complaints are already pouring in.

So how does Henson combat this stale humor?  By pushing it to the extreme!

The episode starts off bland and stays there, settling in to a repetitive groove.  Setup, punchline, music.  Eventually, the puppets begin to break the forth wall, essentially mugging to the audience after every joke.  The jokes get so cheesy that the audience becomes lactose intolerant!

Just wanted to make sure everybody caught that last pun.

The hamminess escalates to the point that every musical cap extends longer and longer, after the joke, allowing the characters to do a little celebratory dance for each successful punchline delivery.  It no longer becomes about the Wizard or the kingdom of Id, but rather how long these puppets can make fools of themselves.  And of course, it ends with multiple explosive deaths, as every Muppet production should.

The eternally imprisoned Spook doesn't have to worry about his captivity for too much longer.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), the staff at The Wizard of Id did not get back with their approval fast enough. Always the busy man, Henson found himself swamped with another little show that was just beginning (Sesame Street) as well as numerous other Muppet productions. So, Jim was able to break away from the limitations that this show would have placed on him, exposing an international audience to the wonders of his puppetry skills. But it is at least nice to see that even in this conformity, the essence of Henson is able to poke out its head. The post-modern twist on the corny little puppet show transforms it from a mediocre skit to a true Jim Henson work of art.

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