Saturday, September 26, 2015

Is "The Muppets" the Muppets?

This week, the first episode of the 2015 Muppets television reboot aired to mixed reviews.  Being branded as a more self-aware and edgy take on the franchise, The Muppets provides a modern context for these classic characters to continue their schticks, while also promising a deeper look into their personalities and lifestyles.  Some like the new fresh take while others are clamoring for the random charm of The Muppet Show and it's variety set-up.

In the months (years) leading up to the new show's premiere, I have tracked the progress of the Muppets in this next chapter of their lives.  Beginning with the movie of the same name in 2011, the resurgence of the Muppets seemed to be driven by nostalgia.  So it's bizarre that the choice was made to not present us with a The Muppet Show: Part 2, but rather a completely new idea based of the modern mockumentary style sitcoms.

Right down to the mundane title screen.

However, I would argue that this lack of consistency is completely in keeping with the Muppets' oeuvre.  Each television show, special and movie appears to reintroduce the Muppets in a new setting with the thematic glue being that these are characters attempting to "put on a show."  Only three works of Muppets lore actually attempt to provide a connective tissue to the true Muppets history and those are The Muppet Movie (which admits that it is a fabricated story that only approximately covers the "truth") and surprisingly 2004's A Very Muppet Christmas Movie and 2011's The Muppets (which both have direct references to earlier works).

My point is, I'm not going to use the new premise of 2015's The Muppets to affect my take on it.  We have to now assume that the Muppet crew runs a late-night talk show called "Up Late with Miss Piggy."  This allows for each Muppet to find a role that fits them based on the roles that were established on The Muppet Show.  Kermit is still in charge as executive producer, trying to keep everything afloat.  Miss Piggy gets to be the star of the show.  Fozzie is now the warm-up comedian and comic sidekick for the host.  The Electric Mayhem is the house band.  Scooter is the production assistant.  Sam the Eagle is the show's censor, working on behalf of the FCC.  And Gonzo is in charge of the show's variety entertainment.  Each character is in a position where they can be true to themselves and that's what we come to watch.

The gang's all here! Even if "here" is new and unusual.

But the mockumentary format also brings a few differences along with it which have the potential to be the show's strength or detriment.  For one, it makes episodes a little more muddled in handling it's guest stars.  Just using the original Muppet Show as an example, there was a nice formula to the show that allowed each episode to be accessible to a new audience, no matter which episode they began with.  Each episode had only one main guest star, who would perform in about 3 of the 10 sketches/songs for that show, as well as the intro and outro.  This "one star" per episode tradition continued in the two follow-ups to the series, MuppeTelevision and Muppets Tonight, and every episode was now easily identifiable.  You can remember "the Steve Martin episode" or "the Alice Cooper episode" based on their signature performances alone.

Yet here we are with our first episode "Pig Girls Don't Cry" and I'm wondering, would this ever be considered the "Elizabeth Banks" episode?  She wasn't the only guest star.  And her role in the plot was easily interchangeable and could have worked for any modern celebrity.  At least Tom Bergeron's role in the episode would only work for Tom Bergeron.  I could chalk that up to it being the first episode not having enough time to come up with a celebrity specific plotline, but I hope future guest stars are a little better integrated.

That being said, Elizabeth Banks had some great lines to work with, aside from the Hunger Games puns.

In addition to the main guest stars, we also had appearances by guest stars not playing themselves.  In Fozzie's plotline (which I'll discuss later), we have three characters played by people who I've recognized in earlier roles.  And we have multiple humans working in the background of the production studios.  This isn't out of the ordinary for a Muppet movie, but it's a bit strange to see multiple humans working alongside the Muppets.  It subtly conveys the idea that the network doesn't trust the Muppets to carry a television show by themselves (both in-universe and in real life).

Now, all of that aside, I found myself enjoying this format for one main reason.  We actually get a chance to personally connect with the characters.  If you've followed this blog in the past, you may have noticed that I really appreciate it when the Muppet characters are able to step beyond their jokes and show some humanity.  The Muppet Movie really made you feel for the dreams of Kermit the Frog, and it established that Jim Henson wanted us to care about these characters as people.  So whenever a moment occurs in our post-Henson world that reveals the true layers of these puppets, I take notice.  From Miss Piggy's meltdown on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee to Fozzie losing the money to save the Muppet Theater in A Very Muppet Christmas Movie to Gonzo patiently coaching the Cowardly Lion to overcome his fears in The Muppets' Wizard of Oz, sincerity is my favorite attribute of modern day Muppets.  It's rare, but it's there.

In my review of the final episode of Muppets Tonight, I applauded the show from breaking away from the forced guest star storylines to focus on a personal journey for one of the new Muppets, Johnny Fiama.  I said that had the show continued, it may have found and audience willing to watch these more introspective pieces.  And in my review of Muppets from Space, I wished it had succeeded in it's original efforts of just being a character study of Gonzo to make way for similar movies focusing on the other characters.  It appears that we are finally getting that opportunity to see that play out.

Even the depths of Big Mean Carl are explored with the talking-head format.

We get two storylines about relationships in "Pig Girls Don't Cry."  The overly-hyped one about Kermit and Piggy splitting up which many people were upset about (which never made sense to be at all because if you understand the Muppets at all, you know that Kermit is a very reluctant participant in that "relationship").  I was afraid this would be played for stupid jokes, but I was curious to see where they were going with it.  And the way it was presented in this first episode was surprisingly realistic, with Kermit dealing with the breakup that he initiated in a very human fashion (rebounding with a similar looking girlfriend, overeating, and becoming more hot-tempered).

I could see people being upset at this version of Kermit being too mean, but I thought it was a strong choice to present us with Kermit at his absolute lowest.  We're all so used to the character being the level-headed (and constantly frustrated) voice of reason, so to see his emotions get the better of him was startling.  It wasn't out of character for me.  It was a new dynamic.  Dan Caffrey of the A.V. Club said that hearing Kermit the Frog condescendingly snap at Animal with "Animal have a better idea?!" made his heart hurt.  Good.  It made mine hurt too.  That's what powerful emotions can do.

As first episodes go, this one had some very poignant scenes.

The other storyline was a little more lighthearted, despite being grounded in a very real issue.  Fozzie starts dating a human woman and has to meet her racist parents who hate everything about him.  Fozzie is at his best when failure just gets dumped on him.  And the awkward dinner scene was a highlight of the episode.  It struck me as I was watching it that we are literally seeing the Muppets as citizens of the real world.  They are not just going to struggle with the absurd problems of the Muppet Theater anymore.  They are going to have to navigate real life as well.  I loved all the little touches of this storyline, from Fozzie wearing his "going-out" bow-tie to him just looking so visually out of place in his girlfriend's home.  It was absurd and delightful.

Aww, he thinks he's people.

So that brings me to my initial question.  Is this new show going to fit with our pre-conceived notion of what a Muppet show should be?  I say yes.  For all the new camera angles and production changes, at the heart of it, the Muppets are still who we've always known them to be.  Sure, there were some jokes that fell flat, and some lines came a little too close to being to out of character (it's weird hearing Kermit say the word "girlfriend" in reference to Piggy).  But even when something felt unusual, we'd have that old Muppet sense of humor to fall back on (Bunsen shocking Beaker came off as a bit too sociopathic for him, but the moment was saved when he expressed that he was being safe by wearing rubber gloves).  We have to be comfortable with the fact that new writers are handling our beloved characters, and they are trying to present us with something we've never seen before.

Reviewers may complain that the Muppets aren't as funny as before or the realism is too depressing.  Those reviewers are missing the point.  The Muppets have succeeded for decades precisely because we have accepted them as three dimensional beings.  Enough craft and creativity has gone into keeping them alive as real life individuals.  To this day, many people dream about meeting Kermit.  Not Steve Whitmire (although I'd love to meet him too), but Kermit the Frog himself.  We are now being given the opportunity to see new sides to these characters that remain true to them.  This is not a reboot.  It's a continuation.

Puppets have feelings too!  They can be injured just like the rest of us!

I am looking forward to the rest of the series.  If it has more moments like Piggy and Kermit's surprisingly subdued break-up outside of a movie theater or sad-sack Tom Bergeron always being within earshot of people insulting his "celebrity" status, I'll be happy.  This 30 Rock/The Office vibe is not yet a perfect fit, but it's something The Muppets can grow into.

And I can't wait to see what they do with the inevitable Gonzo episode.

He only had 7 lines and he's already the MVP of the series.

Friday, February 20, 2015

My Favorite Muppets, Part 4: Jerry Nelson

Now let's take a look at Hunt's standard puppeteering partner, Jerry Nelson.  I wrote a tribute to him back in 2012 after he passed, where I noted that despite his lack of "huge" Muppet characters, he had more than his share of signature roles that showed his heart and humor.  Read that article if you haven't, as I don't want to repeat myself too much.

Nelson was great at the "sweet" character.  The little guy who only wanted to succeed in life, yet was crushed at every turn (physically or metaphorically).  Although he's not on this list, some honorable mentions would go to Emmett Otter, who was the star of his own tragic Christmas special and Mr. Johnson, the put-upon everyman who was constantly abused by Grover's incompetence.

But Nelson was never one to complain.  He remained loyal and supportive as long as his energy would allow him.  His last major performance was in The Muppets where he reprised the role of the Announcer.  He clearly still loved his work, even if it was hard sometimes.


10) Herry Monster - Sesame Street

Herry was definitely more prominent in the '70s and '80s than he was in the '90s when I was introduced to Sesame Street, so I feel like he was often overlooked when it came to the core characters.  But he proved that even though a monster may look big and scary, they can be really sweet when you get to know them.  Sometimes he made mistakes and messes, but he always apologized and try to fix his errors.  And he sleeps with a dolly.  How can you not love Herry?

9) Female Koozebanian Creature - The Muppet Show

Of the core five puppeteers, Nelson had the best "female" voice.  It came in a few varieties and it was mostly used for elderly women, like Fozzie's mother, or chickens, like Camilla.  But I chose the Female Koozebanian Creature because her giddy laugh is so infectious and it makes the sketch that results in her mating ritual sacrifice all the funnier.

8) Count von Count - Sesame Street

Before the Count, children would count to 20 without Transylvnian accents and maniacal laughter.

7) Floyd Pepper - The Muppet Show

Floyd was Nelson's choice as the character he identified most with, allowing his philosophies and interest to shine through in the character's dialogue.  I personally like the groovy strutting that Floyd did whenever he walked from place to place.

6) Dr. Julius Strangepork - The Muppet Show

Man, I wish they had used Dr. Strangepork a lot more than they did.  An elderly German scientist is already great to have in your team of loonies, and the pig element only adds to the visual humor.  In fact, call me crazy, but I think I would have preferred it had Dr. Strangepork replaced Dr. Bunsen in the "Muppet Labs" segments.  Not only would it have paired Nelson with Hunt again, but it would have allowed for more zaniness.  Strangepork usually played the straightman in the "Pigs in Space" segments, and he was sometimes given the opportunity to play a Dr. Frankenstein like mad-scientist, but he always struck me as more endearing than Bunsen.  He's a pig I wouldn't have minded accidentally watching torture poor Beaker.  Bunsen just comes off as a creepy, heartless jerk.

But mostly, I just want more people to know who I'm talking about when I mention Dr. Strangepork.

5) Gobo Fraggle - Fraggle Rock

With The Frog Prince and Emmett Otter, Nelson proved he could play the lead character without issue.  Fraggle Rock was very much a belated gift to the man who deserved star treatment.  Gobo isn't just a generic "leader."  Like many adventurers and heroes before him, Gobo is the small man who comes into greatness.  He is the Frodo of Fraggle Rock.  He's a positive force to all those around him, but he also makes mistakes and gets in over his head.  But he yearns to experience more, even when he fails.  He is one of my few puppet role models.

4) Scred - The Land of Gorch (Saturday Night Live)

I've already discussed the rise and fall of the first attempt to bring the Muppets to an adult audience with the SNL misstep, "The Land of Gorch."  But leave it to Nelson to create the breakaway character from the sketches.  The sly and sarcastic Scred probably dealt with more shady dealings than all other Muppets combined, be he was just so lovable as a character.  Apparently, Scred was the inspiration for the Skek-Sis villains of The Dark Crystal (and Nelson even played the eldest Skek-Sis emperor who dies at the beginning, which leads me to believe that he is just and older version of Scred).

3) Thog - The Great Santa Claus Switch, The Muppet Show

While many of the giant Muppet monsters tend to blend together, the warm-hearted Thog is worthy of iconic status.  He was the only surviving character of the lackluster early Muppet Christmas Special The Great Santa Claus Switch, despite being part of a duo.  His main shtick then involved dancing to romantic ballads with female guest stars because he was basically a big blue teddy bear.  For anyone who has trouble believing that Nelson was just a big softy, look no further than Thog.

2) Robin the Frog - The Frog Prince, The Muppet Show

I've already said so many wonderful things about Robin, but what I like the most is that he is inspired by Kermit.  Like Nelson to Henson, Robin observed the trials that Kermit underwent to become the star that he became today.  He was the first frog to leave the swamp and make a name for himself.  Robin wants to similarly be like Kermit.  But he isn't a copycat, nor is he overbearing.  He is timid, but self-aware.  He knows that he is smaller and less noticeable than the rest and is therefore unlikely to stand out, so he uses that to his advantage, singing songs that show the power one small individual can have.

1) Uncle Deadly - The Muppet Show

And while Robin is a perfect choice for the best Nelson character, my own personal favorite would have to be Uncle Deadly.  As I said with Link Hogthrob and Sam the Eagle, part of it had to do with the fact that I was more familar with The Muppet Movie than The Muppet Show and these awesome looking creatures with hidden backstories would stare at me from my Muppet memorabilia.  When I learned Uncle Deadly's story, I thought he was just the coolest.

The closest thing that the Muppets could have to a villain (besides general critics/man-eating monsters/squares) was this former star, feeling that that Muppets were disgracing his stage with foolish antics.  He was a thespian of old and he commanded dignity.  But unlike Sam the Eagle, who just complained a lot, Deadly's dignity was well-earned.  He carried himself with grace and his beautiful voice was haunting in all senses of the word.

I wish he had become more of a hit amongst the fans, because I'd like to have seen what else he could have gotten up to.  I'm glad he resurfaced in The Muppets, fulfilling the role he was meant to play, but by then, Nelson was no longer at the helm.

Like Deadly, Nelson was a talented man.  He was strongly devoted to his craft and he held out for a long time, even while others moved on.  He lived to perform and he will forever be remembered for it.  And it goes to show that even though giant talents can make one a monster, one can use those talents to showcase a more sensitive side.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

My Favorite Muppets, Part 3: Richard Hunt

My my, where does the time go?  Let's see...where was I?

Oh yes, my favorite Muppets!  Today I wanted to look at Richard Hunt.  I've discussed this puppeteer at length in my posts on Scooter as well as the failed series Dragontime, but I never actually nailed down who his greatest characters were.

The important things to know about Hunt were that he was born to be a puppeteer.  He never truly felt as free or as outgoing as he did when there was a puppet attached to his arm.  Through his characters, he showed his childlike wonder, his boundless energy, and his array of funny voices.  He loved to help others.  He was often found performing as the extra arm for a live-hand puppet, meaning he'd be right up alongside Henson, Oz, or Nelson as they performed their iconic roles.

But most importantly, he loved to make people laugh.  He was the puppeteer who would most likely entertain guests by grabbing a random puppet and putting on an improvised performance.  These fun-loving elements bled into his characters, and it's a shame that soon after Henson passed away, Hunt followed.  While he may be gone, he is not forgotten.


10) Belmont - The Christmas Toy

I always try to include one Muppet based on a pure-design aesthetic and to me, none of them are cooler than Belmont the rolling horse.  (Even the builder Ed Christie chose Belmont as his greatest creation in 22 years of work back in 2000.)  Hunt plays him as more of a dim-witted character who is at once easily-excitable and slow-talking, creating a strange speaking pattern.

9) Gunge - Fraggle Rock

While Hunt is better known for his turn as Junior Gorg in Fraggle Rock, there is another childish ogre character of his that I prefer more.  So instead, I chose Gunge as the representative from this show.  Along with Philo, the two rat-like creatures serve as right-hand-men to Majory the Trash Heap.  Like Hunt, Gunge is the more naive and energetic of the two creatures.  Hunt tends to find himself playing the "child" character to a more mature counterpart, possibly due to his youth when he joined the Muppet repertoire.  (Of the main five original puppeteers, he was the youngest.)

8) Don Music - Sesame Street

Before I began this blog, I had no idea who Don Music was.  He was cycled out of the show by the time I had started watching it regularly in the early '90s, allegedly due to the bad influence he had on children (namely, banging your head on hard objects when things don't go your way).  Maybe that's true and maybe it was a good thing to remove him from impressionable eyes, but hey, Hunt was an artist.  And artists get frustrated.  And sometimes they need to release that frustration in destructive ways.  Every Muppet puppeteer used their characters to unleash the feelings that they couldn't reveal in public, and Don Music only provided a cushy felt medium that also produced a funny sound whenever Hunt got upset.  If you can't use a puppet to slam against a piano, what can you do?

7) Right Head of the Two-Headed Monster - Sesame Street

Richard Hunt and Jerry Nelson were quite the dynamic duo.  They portrayed many live-hand puppets and puppet pairs together so it was only a matter of time before those were combined into a single puppet with two heads.  The Right Head (named "Stein" according to some sources) always seemed to be the more light-hearted and bouncy of the two heads, fitting with Hunt's childlike wonder.  He was the brother who was more likely to get his ego hurt and his confidence shattered.  Hunt enjoyed playing vulnerable characters, and he especially enjoyed playing off other characters, and the wide-eyed Right Head allowed him to do both.

6) Janice - The Muppet Show

Okay, so Hunt has some very impressive voices in his arsenal, but I always felt his choice for Janice was out of place.  It sounded too much like a more masculine Scooter, which isn't quite the persona that Janice was aiming to capture.  That being said, Janice has an impressive wit.  While based on the valley girl stereotype, she is not a ditz.  She holds her own during the "Veterinarian's Hospital" sketches and she really shines with her ad-libs during the Muppet movies.  Hers is a character I would have liked to see more from outside of the hospital and Electric Mayhem appearances.

5) Placido Flamingo - Sesame Street

Placido Flamingo is just another Sesame Street pun Muppet.  But that bird can sing with the best of them.  It seems as if all of Hunt's Sesame Street characters had a musicality to them (Don Music, Gladys the Cow, even the mute construction worker Sully could play the piano).  But Hunt really showed off his impressive vocal abilities when performing operatic parodies that taught children how to use the phone.

4) Scooter - The Muppet Show

Oh wait, I forgot.  No one cares about Scooter.

3) Beaker - The Muppet Show

I'm a bit of a Muppet hipster, so when it comes to extremely popular Muppets, my knee-jerk reaction is to say, "Yeah, he's funny but he's no Link Hogthrob."  So, I'm always trying to come up with ways as to why Beaker is just a one-note Muppet, unworthy of fame.  But, that one note ("Meep") is such a hilarious one that I can't justify my scorn.  Beaker is quite similar to the character Mr. Bill, in that they both suffer with their falsetto screams.  Even as a child, I was instantly drawn to Beaker because he is such a simple character to grasp, and his lack of a consistent language makes him relatable to everyone, regardless of age or ethnicity.  This was one of Hunt's "fun" characters, and it shows.

2) Sweetums - The Muppet Show

Although he didn't portray him in his first appearance in The Frog Prince, Hunt made Sweetums his own, allowing the giant's heart and excitement to become a central aspect of his character.  (The first Sweetums was a lot meaner initially).  It's clear that Hunt enjoyed playing around in the puppet, as can be seen in behind the scenes photos and footage.  For the first time, Hunt could really get lost inside of a puppet.

1) Mudwell the Mudbunny - Fraggle Rock

I know it seems blasphemous to place a one-shot Fraggle Rock character above all of Richard Hunt's iconic characters, but Mudwell was a truly special creature.  His personality, his mannerisms, and even his voice were unlike any character Hunt had portrayed before.  Hunt usually tries to find the humor in every scene he is in, filling in the role as resident clown when needed.  But, due to the story line of his signature episode, Mudwell is a more serious and introspective creature.  It's hard to discuss Mudwell without spoiling the storyline of his episode, but it's kind of obvious what's going to happen when his only episode is titled, "Gone, But Not Forgotten."

After getting injured in the deep caves of Fraggle Rock, Wembley is rescued by Mudwell.  Although Mudwell is more mature than Wembley, they still quickly bond over fun games and songs and food.  However, after his injuries heal, Mudwell rudely kicks Wembley out of his home, and tells him never to return.  Upset, Wembley returns to confront Mudwell for his rude behavior and learns that a Mudbunny's life is very short.  Mudwell passes away in front of him, crushing Wembley's spirit.

Yes, Mudwell is the center of an episode teaching the Fraggles (and the young viewers at home) all about death, and having someone taken away from you so suddenly.  Much like Hunt, Mudwell provided as much joy as he could in his short time on Earth.  This episode would have been production right as Hunt became diagnosed with HIV, so it isn't too far of a leap to conclude that this storyline was influenced by the sad news.

Richard Hunt passed away five years after this episode aired, and while he may be remembered for his more wacky characters, this "farewell" will always represent Hunt's softer side.  However, there was one thing I left out of my episode synopsis.  After Mudwell literally turns to dirt and dust, a new creature is born from his remains.  A young Mudbunny who, while different, retains some of Mudwell's memories and philosophies.

Hunt also plays Mudwell's reincarnated form and establishes that while his body may leave, his spirit may live on.  Whether it be through a metaphysical means or just through memories of the past, he will never truly be gone.  I almost interpret this reincarnation as Hunt's acknowledgement that he is survived by his characters.

While characters like Scooter were momentarily retired after Hunt's passing, the Muppets have the gift of immortality.  Scooter will return, Sweetums will return, Beaker will never go away.  Hunt left a myriad of gifts filled with life and energy that allows us to always remember him.  And that's why I appreciate Mudwell as much as I do.  He was real.  As real as the man who loved to play pretend.