I am squarely a child of the ’70s and ’80s. Even though I grew up without a television in the house, certain elements of pop culture osmotically made their way into my awareness – particularly if there was a movie associated with it.
One of these elements that cemented itself into my psyche was the Muppets. Not just the Muppets that were on Sesame Street, although there was some of that when we would visit the neighbors. No, I’m talking about the rambunctious and wily characters that appeared first on the Muppet Show, and then in Hollywood with the Muppet Movie.
A little aside: most of the music in our house came from the radio, and it was always set to the public radio station that played classical music, which my mom loved. That was the substrate of our lives. But it was also the adult music. My sister and I acquired a Fisher-Price record player sometime in the mid ’70s. It was plastic and it folded up. When it was closed, it looked like a pair of jeans, with the stitching on the back pocket. I joke that we had three records that we played on it: John Denver, John Denver and the Muppets, and The Muppet Movie soundtrack.
The Muppets of my childhood were raucous and wild and crazy. They were silly. They crossed the lines. There were something vaguely dangerous about them. When I watched them, I understood that they were geared toward adults, but they were letting the children in, too. They stirred something in my heart, a yearning and an understanding that maybe, just maybe, the line between child and adult wasn’t as firm and clear as I’d been led to believe.
Fast forward to The Muppets of 2011, as re-imagined by Jason Segel and Disney. I wanted more than anything to love this movie. But it ended up lacking that transgressive quality that Jim Henson captured so well. Here’s what I said at the time:
It was too sweet and treacly. My mom said it was like old Mouseketeers. At first I thought she had misspoken, but then she explained how Amy Adams was like Annette Funicello – this mix of innocence and sexiness at the same time. My mom said how stacked Annette was. But that was exactly it. Disney has this knack for taking anything and sanitizing the shit out of it. The edge that Jim Henson had was gone. I loved feeling like a badass when I was a kid watching his stuff. I felt like I was transgressing something, watching something that seemed like it was for adults, even though it was for everyone. Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem? PLEASE. GIVE ME MORE LIKE THAT. Jack Black, I love ya, but I don’t think kids find you scary one tiny bit. I could be wrong on that.
The Muppets themselves were always central to the story. They were these silly bits of felt and plastic, who through the magic of puppeteering, came alive. The humans in Henson’s world served the Muppets. But Jason Segel couldn’t see that, and neither could Disney. They made the humans the central figures in the updated version. I think this clip of Steve Martin as the insolent waiter in the original movie captures the inversion so well. He is literally serving the Muppets, and he’s aware of it, AND we know it and are let in on the joke:
Would love to hear your thoughts on all things Muppets, from the Rainbow Connection to Kermit in Russia (yes, I’m such a deeply devoted fan that even though they ripped my heart out, I’ll probably go see the new movie).