Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Random Muppet #31: Clarice Lemons

On the Muppet Wiki, there is a "Random Muppet" button which sends you to the page of one of the thousands of Muppets in existence. I will press the button and discuss the importance of the Muppet that comes up, no matter how obscure. No skips. No redos. This is the Random Muppet Challenge.

Random Muppet #31: Clarice Lemons

A trusty companion.

Performer:  Unknown

Muppet Universe of Origin:  Sesame Street

Most Significant Appearance:  Sesame Street, May 3, 1988, "Episode 2477"

Sesame Street parodied the Boss's "Born to Run," with the similarly named "Born to Add."

This song was also the hit single for the Born to Add album, whose cover mocked the famous pose in which Springsteen leaned on the legendary Clarence Clemons, his saxophone player.


But, as we can see, Bert and Cookie don't appear in the video.  Instead, we get Bruce Stringbean and Clarice Lemons.  Now, the Springsteen parody is pretty spot on, but it seems as if someone made a fact checking error when they went to make a Muppet version of Clemons.


Why Is She the Most Important Muppet?

Eventually, every celebrity will find themselves Muppetized. But some go through a bit of a historical tweaking as they make the transition from human to puppet. Why did Clarence become Clarice?

Well, let's look at the songs.

"Born to Run" takes the perspective of a young adult talking to his girlfriend Wendy, attempting to get out of the horrid life they have found themselves in, living on the streets, moving from place to place.  The aimless spirit of these unprepared individuals is supposed to clash with the notion that America is a magical land that will instantly provide better lives for everyone.  The singer only has Wendy's company to find solace in, because he needs something permanent in his life to hold on to.  Because tramps like them, baby they were born to run.

"Born to Add" is about two kids who like adding, a toddler's greatest fear.

They live on the edge of society.  Mathematical society.

Clarice fulfills the Wendy role of the original. Bruce pleads with her to join him, adding all day long. Apparently, addition is as much of a societal issue as homelessness, because these tramps also have their run-ins with the law.

Addition?!  Not on our street!

Clarice/Clarence are the rocks that the Bruces rely on. Whether during a performance or in the context of the songs, these individuals support each other. Without that connection, the two would be lost, without direction. So yes, Clarence and Wendy had to merge into "Clarice," to become that single pillar of support that you can always...

...COUNT ON!  

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Greek Myths, Part 4: Freedom

"Death cannot stop true love.  It can only delay it for a little while."
- Westley, The Princess Bride (1987)

The previous three stories have each shown the consequences of men who try to avoid fate.  And while Orpheus may not be as well known as Perseus, Theseus, and Daedalus, his quest for love in the face of absolute failure may be the most apt love story of all time.

Orpheus was one of the world's greatest musicians.  When he played his flute, everyone and everything was charmed.  His artistry and creativity makes him the perfect hero for the story that is about to follow,  because for once, he can control the fate of others.  As an artist, he chooses how people can feel.  His music is a most powerful weapon.

Careful, he's got a recorder!

His music is so alluring that it calls a wood nymph out of the tree.  Her name is Eurydice and the two instantly fall in love.

A normal day in ancient Greece.

But there are no happily ever afters in Greek myths, and once again, fate comes crashing in, beckoning Eurydice back into the forest where she belongs.  After being chased around by a lusty satyr, a snake bites her foot, killing her.  Orpheus refuses to play anymore music because he is so distraught, but the satyr encourages him to venture into the Underworld and bring Eurydice back.

You had better listen to John Leguizamo.

Orpheus is the first living soul to venture into the Underworld.  At this point, at least.  Soon all the Greek heroes will be doing it.  As such, the boatman Charon refuses to let him cross the river Styx into the lair of Hades.  But Orpheus can charm anything and his melody delights Charon, who has not heard music in a long time.

Come sail away with me, lad.

Orpheus's music however does not work on Hades himself.  Hades instead delivers a brilliant lecture on how death is inescapable and no matter what Orpheus or any man does, Hades will always have the upper hand.

You mortals bore me.

Hades's wife Persephone, however, sympathizes with the two lovers, especially since she resents Hades for dragging her into the Underworld prematurely.  She begs with Hades to give the two one more chance and Hades agrees.

Behind every strong god, there is a stronger goddess.

Hades allows Orpheus to travel back with Eurydice on the condition that he does not turn back and look at her until reaching the surface.  He must put all of his faith into this one instance that Hades is being honorable.  Because Eurydice is just a shade, she is unable to make any noise to communicate with Orpheus.  Charon also knows that he cannot help Orpheus by confirming that his love is behind them.  By the end of his journey back, Orpheus cannot bear the tension any longer and even though he has reached the surface, Eurydice hadn't by the time he turned around.  She gets sucked back into the Underworld, never to return.

Orpheus bemoans his loss for the rest of his days, turning down all other women (who eventually rise up and dismember him).  His head floated to the island of Lesbos, where it remains singing eternally.  Had Orpheus not trifled with death, he would have achieved exactly what he wanted, a reunion with Eurydice in the afterlife.  But, for mocking the power of Hades, he is stuck in his own thoughts and sorrows forever.

The problem with love stories is that it puts a lot of weight on the relationship between two people, making it seem as if it is the most important thing in the world.  And, when you're in love, that's certainly how it feels.  But there will always come a point in which it is time to let go.  Orpheus never reached this conclusion.

The only way to escape the binds of fate is to accept the inevitable.  One cannot worry about that which they have no control over.  Whether it be love, death, or regrettable mistakes of the past, some things are out of your hands entirely.  Only when we acknowledge this are we truly free.

Greek Myths, Part 3: The Man Who Knew Too Much

The story of Daedalus is confusing when compared to the prior two stories of Perseus and Theseus.  The idea of a Greek hero had been well established in the other two stories.  Either they are a super strong half-god who can do no wrong, like Perseus, or a tragic individual who is only trying to do what he feels is best, like Theseus.  Both were men of brawn.  But Daedalus is different.  He's a thinker, supposedly the best.  However, it's hard to say whether or not he is a hero.

Most people are familiar with the story of Icarus.  In order to escape isolation, inventor Daedalus creates wings for him and his son to fly towards freedom across the ocean.  But the wax used to hold the feathers together melts when Icarus flies too close to the sun, teaching us a valuable lesson in biting off more than you can chew.  For most, the story ends there, leaving Daedalus a tragic victim, but this episode weaves together more of his tales, creating a bigger picture for the character.

It's not just about flying too high.

Daedalus also had a nephew known as Talos, who was just as smart as he was, possibly smarter.  In the original story, it is unclear whether or not his rivalry with Talos occurs pre- or post- "Icarus incident," but here, we see it as an influence on the later misfortune.  Originally, envious Daedalus attempted to murder Talos by throwing him off the Acropolis and Athena spared the boy by turning him into a partridge.  Here, Talos gets no such luck, and dies.  But the murder is treated more as an ambiguous accident, where Daedalus goes momentarily insane over the fact that Talos is more talented than his own son.

The wunderkind Talos, building a saw.

A recurring vulture appears to Daedalus, tormenting him over his own insecurities.  It is what first prompts him to kill his nephew, and again it appears to remind him of his crime.  This is an original character used to tie the two tales together, even though the flying boy motif was enough.

Daedalus's spirit animal

Once in Crete, Daedalus builds the Labyrinth to house the Minotaur for King Minos (as seen previously) and since Minos doesn't want the secret about his bull-child/maze layout getting out, he imprisons Daedalus and his son.  Daedalus escapes and Icarus flies, etc., etc., and childless Daedalus ends up in the service of King Cocalus.  When Minos searches for the intelligent escaped prisoner, he issues a contest in which a thread must be passed through a spiral seashell.  Daedalus ties a string around an ant and allows the ant to pass through the shell maze, allowing King Cocalus to win the challenge.  Minos finds Daedalus and plans to execute him.

Well, it's clear that Minos is a meanie.

Daedalus, having also designed Minos's plumbing system, manages to boil Minos alive while he is in the bath, thus allowing Daedalus to escape.  And live happily ever after, I guess?

This is where we run into the issue of Daedalus?  Is he a hero?  He manages to kill three people due to his intelligence.  One is by accident, one is on purpose, and the other is ambiguous.  But I suppose this is a series of myths that was told to remind us that the world is not black and white.  We don't always have clear cut heroes and villains.  Daedalus is not necessarily someone to root for.  He is someone to pity.  His downfall is not his intelligence, but rather how he handles himself due to his intelligence.

Sometimes, the smartest thing to do is just to stay out of trouble.

Greek Myths, Part 2: Trapped

In the debate between fate and free will, the idea that free will is just an illusion is a main point of argument.  For the characters in stories, clearly they have no free will as they must do whatever the story dictates, but we still act as if they are the one's making the choices, whether they be positive or negative.  "Theseus and the Minotaur" is technically the first part of this miniseries, so it shows our Storyteller and Dog becoming trapped in the infamous Labyrinth while escaping those they have wronged.  This inspires the Storyteller to relate the most famous tale of the maze, in which the choices made by the characters cause their misfortune.

As seen in "Perseus," those who try to run from fate are doomed.  This story presents two instances of men with shameful secrets that they'd prefer to keep hidden.  The first is King Aegeus, who fathers Theseus with a common woman and leaves her, forbidding her from revealing his secret.  Years later, when Theseus yearns to learn of his parentage, he tracks down the King of Athens, who has since married the witch Medea.  Medea tries to poison Theseus so that her own children can remain the heirs to the throne, but Aegeus stops her plans.  As a result, she curses the two, promising that they will find grief at the end of the year.

Don't mess with Medea.

Meanwhile, in Crete, another king is keeping his own son hidden.  King Minos is the father to the half-man, half-bull Minotaur and keeps him locked in the Labyrinth.  Daughters and sons are continually brought into the Labyrinth as prisoners, and soon meet death at the hands of the Minotaur.  Only his sister Ariadne sees the man behind the monster, and tries to keep his humanity alive with secret visits.

Like Beauty and the Beast, if they were siblings.

When Theseus learns of these horrible sacrifices, he travels to Crete, planning to defeat the Minotaur.  Ariadne helps him traverse the maze, knowing that he can help put the creature out of it's misery.  During the battle between the two discarded sons, Theseus gains the upper hand and, despite Ariadne's change of heart to spare her brother, he kills the Minotaur.

His only crime was being misunderstood.

Theseus then promises to marry Ariadne, but steals away to return to Athens with the head of the beast.  Ariadne is distraught and laments the man who came and ruined her life.  Theseus sails home, hearing her cries, and accidentally wraps the head of the monster in the white sail that he promised to fly when he returned home, signifying to his father that he is all right.  Aegeus waits by the sea and instead sees the black sail and leaps to his death, fearing his son as died.

And so, Theseus, now the beloved King of Athens and slayer of the Minotaur, lives the rest of his life suffering from terrible nightmares in which he remains in the maze, hunting and killing his loved ones while he takes the guise of the Minotaur.

We are trapped with the choices we make.  We build our own Labyrinth of decisions and often find ourselves trying to escape it.  As Theseus learned, you cannot run from the truth.  When you come face to face with the monster, spare it, because sometimes it is difficult to tell heroes and monsters apart.

Who will I become?

Greek Myths, Part 1: Fear and Fate

After finding success with the Storyteller series, Henson planned an extended run focusing on Greek myths.  This four-episode mini-series was presented in a similar format, with a narrator telling the tales to his dog, but the time period had moved out of the medieval ages to an earlier ancient Greece.  New effects and creatures were created to tell these grand tales, allowing for deeper exploration into the world's oldest stories.

The biggest change came in the replacement of John Hurt with Michael Gambon as the Storyteller.  While Hurt presented a more humorous and passionate narration to his tales, Gambon was a tragic character, lost within the famous Labyrinth, telling stories to pass the time.

The dog is the same, though.  Maybe it's an ancestor of Hurt's dog.

The first episode that aired encapsulates that which sets Greek myths apart from the other folktales, making for a good starting point.  "Perseus and the Gorgon" contains all of the familiar tropes one expects from these ancient myths.  There is the prophecy that tries to be avoided and ends up fulfilled, a half-human, half-god hero, and a quest to kill an unbeatable monster that relies on the hero's wits and gifts from other gods to achieve victory.

Nowadays, most of the events in these tales gets ascribed to Hercules.  After all, if you've seen one demi-god hero, you've seen them all.  So, in that sense, Perseus doesn't really bring anything new to the table of heroes.  He is just a pawn that lets the story play around him.

I am a legendary hero, sir.

Fearing an oracle's vision that says Perseus will kill his grandfather King Acrisius, the aforementioned king locks his young daughter Danae in his dungeon, where Zeus impregnates her via beam of golden light.  Discovering the child, the king locks the boy and his mother in a chest, intending to drown them in the sea.  This takes them to Seriphos where the King Polydektes attempts to make Danae his wife. Perseus, a young man at this point, reaches the conclusion that if he can slay Medusa, the Gorgon woman with a head of snakes and a stare that can turn any man into stone, he and his mother will be free to go.

Don't look directly in her eyes.

Along the way, Perseus meets with other figures of Greek mythology, such as Hermes and Athena who lend him winged shoes, a cap of invisibility, a sword, and a mirror shield to fight the Gorgons.  After seeking directions from Atlas, the Titan who holds up the heavens, as well as the Gracae (who share one eye with which to see the future), Perseus fights Medusa by using his shield to look at her reflection as he swings his sword around aimlessly.

The most awkward epic battle in ancient history.

He defeats her and brings the head back to Polydektes, who foolishly wishes to see the head has proof.

Whoops! Bad call, Polydektes.

Other story threads are quickly tied up (Perseus turns Atlas to stone to give him a much needed rest from bearing the weight of the world, and he later accidentally kills his grandfather in a discuss throwing contest) and Gambon shares with us the message of the story.

We cannot fear the future.  Characters who suffered were those who tried to avoid their fates, while those who faced their fears head on succeeded.  Medusa represents all that which paralyzes us and prevents us from living our lives.  These messages are as old as history and they remain relevant to this day.  It's no wonder we enjoy revisiting these ancient tales.

Coming up are three more stories that hold more universal lessons and trace the journey of the Storyteller's own fate.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Man, the Myth, the Legend

Legends are an endangered species.  Thanks to technology and the constant recording of modern history, myths have a more difficult time of taking shape.  Back in the 4th century, figures like Beowulf became world-renoun the hard way, by word of mouth.  And, with the telephone effect in play, each retelling of Beowulf's story brought him closer to the gods than to humanity.

Outside of joking memes like the "Chuck Norris facts," modern culture doesn't hold onto actual heroes for very long.  It is all to easy to learn about a person's flaws and mistakes to ever bring them to the level of ancient heroes.  Yet, there is one man that has become the face of the American legend.  Someone that our country can look to as our own private demigod.

That man is Abraham Lincoln.

Also, he's on Mars now.

Due to the significant contributions he gave to this country as president, we have collectively decided that he is the man who can do no wrong.  The above image is from Adventure Time, where Lincoln is literally depicted as a supernatural being that overlooks all of creation.  And this isn't even the strangest interpretation of the character!  Lincoln has appeared as a time-traveler, a ghost, a vampire hunter, an awkward teenaged clone, and an unusually high number of killer robots.

Based on Disneyland's Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the animatronic version of the 16th president has been a popular choice for fictional mayhem.  So naturally, in the Muppets Tonight episode concerning positive heroes in entertainment, a destructive Robot Lincoln lays siege to the studio.

After Sam the Eagle laments the lack of role models in modern culture, Muppet Labs attempts to rectify the issue with their own "perfect" hero.  When Robot Lincoln malfunctions, he takes on the role of Frankenstein's monster, causing chaos wherever he roams.  It seems as if he is just a brainless destroyer, but at the end, he has an introspective moment, noticing how people fear his presence.  This inspires guest star Paula Abdul to warm his heart with a rendition of "Lean on Me" and Robot Lincoln is welcomed by his peers.

He just wants to be loved.

Lincoln is the only person that is perfect for this part.  He's the president we are fascinated with and, as seen by the surge of recent movies (both fictional and non-fictional), his popularity will not go away for a long time.  Lincoln is the president that we can just have fun with.

Sure, we may write songs about Washington's raw power or feature Nixon as a ruthless power-hungry super-villain but Lincoln?  Lincoln knows how to party.  Some of this material may be seen as offensive or improper to the legacy of a great man, but the fact that he has inspired so many bizarre and creative interpretations goes to show that legends still exist.  It ensures that history never dies.

Whether he is a bloodthirsty automaton or a sagely wizard, Abraham Lincoln is and always will be a legend.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

What Is Love?

We tend to overcomplicate things.  The curse of our complex brains has resulted in years of analysis, creation, destruction, and boomboxes held over heads all for this tricky concept known as love.

We've said all there is to be said about it.  Yet we can't stop talking about it.  Perhaps it's because, whether we're happy, sad, in it or out of it, we love to talk about love.


Of all the philosophies out there on love, Ernie and Bert seem to have gotten it correct.  If you ask Ernie what love is, he'll tell you that it's being able to tolerate the negative qualities in another individual.

Love and all its aspects can be the most frustrating concept in the world.  Maybe you're in love and you don't know how to say it or you don't know how to find a balance or you can't meet the needs of your significant other.  Or maybe you're not in love and you want to be or you want to avoid it entirely.  It's strange that the frustration that develops out of this biological concept doesn't surface among our other biological needs.

"I've never been hungry.  I just haven't found the right sandwich yet."

"I could spend an eternity drinking this glass of water!"

"Sleep is just a scam concocted to sell greeting cards."

When it comes time to teach children about love, Bert opts for a different route.  Unlike Ernie, who revels in the bond between him and his friend, Bert bluntly states the obvious, with his song, "That's Love."

Does love deserve all the attention that it receives?  Who's to say?  It is what it is.  Stop worrying about it and enjoy it.  Love what and who you want to love.  If someone loves you, let them love you.  If two people are in love, let them be in love.  Love is nice.  When did it become so complicated?

As we get older, we want to believe that there is a deeper meaning behind everything.  Simplicity is for children.  Complexity for adults.  Just compare Sesame Street's approach to love with that of The Muppet Show.

Is this version better or worse?  Do they even need to be compared at all?

Pictured:  Love.

No one is going to answer this question in a satisfactory matter.  Love is the one element of life that everyone perceives as being unique to themselves and we like it that way.  We can look up jealousy, anger, fear and any other emotion in the dictionary and come to a general consensus on the definition.

But not love.  Never love.  And that's why, year after year, we celebrate it and let it take over our lives.  It's all we can do.

Accept that this is never going away.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

To Those Who Wait

Patience is a virtue.

Self control is the hardest ability to master.  And, as our lives become more advanced, instant gratification is always a button away.  Especially, when it comes to our art and entertainment.  With little effort, we can track down exactly what movie we want to watch, what song we want to hear, or what season of television we want to consume in one sitting.  So, when I say that a trip to an art museum is a test of strength, I'm not being facetious.

Everything about the place is challenging you to break the rules.

Welcome to the First Circle of Hell, Cookie Monster.

At first glance, the plot of the 1983 Sesame Street special Don't Eat the Pictures has little to do with the name.  The title refers to Cookie Monster's feeble attempts to refrain from eating the paintings of food that look good enough to eat.  And, being trapped in the Metropolitan Museum of Art all night long, there is quite a toll being placed on Cookie's character.

But why is he trapped in the museum all night?  Well, at the end of a day trip to the institution, Big Bird realizes that he has yet to see Snuffy who promised he'd meet him there.  This was during the time that Snuffy was thought to be imaginary, so, when Big Bird strays away from the adults to find his friend, the whole gang resolves to track him down.  Why they didn't alert the security guard is anyone's guess, but here we are.  The cast of Sesame Street have the museum to themselves all night.

Each character has a little moment to themselves to reflect on the art inside, which reminds us that the passage of time in a museum is a strange concept.  Try to do some people watching the next time you go, and you'll realize that many people struggle to "take in" the art for an appropriate amount of time.  Not including those who are actually educated on the subject of art history, you'll find that many just don't know what to do with themselves.

How long should you stand in front of a painting or a statue to actually experience it?  How long is too short?  Too long?  The point of a museum is to preserve for an eternity.  And at times, it can certainly feel like it.

Oscar amuses himself by admiring the broken statues, considering them to be "the most beautiful trash" he's ever seen.

Is that distasteful?

Bert and Ernie engage in some witty banter, trying to decipher just what exactly is going on in Washington Crossing the Delaware including a safety lesson on whether or not you should stand on such a small boat?

It counts as appreciating art if you make jokes about it.

And Cookie Monster?  Well, he slowly declines into madness over his moral dilemma.

Hallucinations are a normal part of the museum experience.

But just what does Big Bird get into all night?  Well, he meets the spirit of a 4,000-year-old Egyptian prince who has been trapped in the museum and is unable to become a celestial body until he correctly answers Osiris's  nightly riddle.  He also has a permanent smugness about him that probably comes from being an immortal child.

So what if I can't solve a stupid riddle.  At least I got a cool ghost cat.

Big Bird tries to help him solve the riddle "Where does today meet yesterday?"  And, I bet that even before you finished reading that sentence, you know what the answer is going to be.  SPOILER ALERT: It's "a museum."  Yet, we have to follow this story for an hour before they reach that conclusion.  And thus, we, too, learn what eternity is like.

I waited 4,000 years for a giant bird and shaggy elephant to save me.  Just as the prophecies foretold.

The characters aren't the only ones who get cabin fever.  Even Osiris himself, who instituted this idea in the first place, has grown weary of asking this question for nearly 1.5 million nights in a row.  The fact that an eternal powerful deity can succumb to impatience shows how ill-equipped we lowly beings are for the task.

"I even made it an easy question!  It was funny for the first couple centuries, but now it's just sad."

As we live our lives, we get used to the routine and the speed at which we receive what we want and what we need.  But at any moment, the universe can intervene.  And we find ourselves stuck, trapped, and without access to our usual amenities.  It is in those moments we must master our own patience and self control to reach enlightenment.

Take a breath, look inward, and don't eat the pictures.