On The Muppets

It’s time to get things started. 

Recently I started reading Live From New York, a behind-the-scenes history of Saturday Night Live.  In the first season of SNL,  there was a recurring sketch called “The Land of Gorch,” which featured a cast of what could be called Muppets-for-adults.  Although Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and company were the puppeteers, the sketches were written by the SNL writers who absolutely loathed writing for puppets.  The Muppets (adult or no) were a bad fit for SNL, and they were eventually dropped, but one line in Live From New York stands out for me.  Writer Alan Zweibel complained that:

There was one character named Skred [sic], and I remember we’re reading the sketch, Jim Henson’s reading the pages, and he gets to a line and says, “Oh, Skred wouldn’t say this.” And I look, and on a table over there is this cloth thing that is folded over like laundry, and it’s Skred. “Oh, but he wouldn’t say this.”

This, I think illustrates two important points.  The first is that the original SNL writers (who were admittedly wrapped up in their own self-importance) never understood the magic of the Muppets and refused to buy into it.  The second is that Jim Henson understood exactly what he created.

Over the past few months I have been rewatching all of The Muppet Show episodes that have been released on DVD (including an episode with SNL legend Gilda Radner), and it strikes me that even though I had not actually watched a full episode since I was young, I feel exactly the same about the Muppets now as I did back when I was but a child.  In fact, I would say I appreciate the Muppets more now than I ever did back then.  Now I understand broad comedy, and vaudeville, and the brilliance of one-liners.  I know exactly who the guest stars are, and I appreciate their contributions to the show.  A child may not know who Ethel Merman is and still enjoy her appearance, but an adult can fully appreciate seeing her sing “There’s No Business Like Show Business” with the cast of The Muppet Show. Perhaps not surprisingly, I cannot remember watching any specific sketches as a child, but now so many of them are indelibly etched in my memory.

One thing that has not changed for me though is the most fundamental truism that I learned as a child.  The Muppets are real.  Yes, I understand that they are all made of fabric, that they are controlled and voiced by puppeteers, and that their lines are written by writers.  Nevertheless, the Muppets are real, far more real than any other television or movie character.  They have their personalities, their own voices, and their own outlooks on life.  The Muppets are quite simply alive.  Jim Henson understood this, and that is why he knew what Scred would and would not say.  What Zweibel appears not to understand is that what makes the best fictional characters so memorable is how shaped their personalities are.  Just as Alyosha Karamazov would never take a gun and start shooting everyone around him, Lucy Ricardo would not decide she just wants to be another housewife, and SNL’s own Lisa Loopner would never suddenly be cool, we could never expect the Muppets to act out of character.  When I watch the Muppets (or Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, etc.), I do not see puppets.  I see fully realized characters interacting with the world around them.

No Muppet illustrates this more than Miss Piggy, perhaps the most fully realized Muppet of all.  Kermit is the put-upon leader of the group, who at heart is completely innocent, Fozzie Bear is a deeply insecure soul who just wants to be liked and uses his perception of humor as the means of winning approval, Rowlf the Dog is a world-weary show-biz veteran who expresses his inner self through music, and Gonzo is an attention-seeker who goes to greater and greater lengths to be noticed.  But Miss Piggy is different; she is larger than life (no doubt she would try to karate chop me for saying this, but I swear, it’s not a fat joke, it’s a comment on her personality.)  Every action she makes is informed by a surprisingly rich inner life, an inner life that the audience neither knows nor needs to know anything about.

Miss Piggy, like Fozzie is deeply insecure.  Unlike Fozzie, she does not just want to be liked; she wants to be adulated.  She is someone who both knows at her core that she is a star and fears that she is not.  In the first season, Richard Hunt and Frank Oz switched off playing Miss Piggy, but her personality formed as she became the sole possession of Frank Oz, so much so that she is undoubtedly the character most identified with him (out of a cast that includes, among others, Fozzie, Cookie Monster, and Yoda.)  Oz saw Miss Piggy as a truck driver, and that is the key to her personality.

The truest way to understand Miss Piggy is to realize that she is a drag queen.  Miss Piggy is an exaggerated version of the diva just as a drag queen is an exaggerated homage of glamorous women.  A woman cannot play her; it has to be a man.  Despite her attempts at ultra-femininity–the faux-French, the “kissy kissy” mannerisms, the all-around glamor–Miss Piggy is the most testosterone-laden Muppet out there, and every karate chop (followed by the feminine smoothing of her hair) is testament to that.  The femininity is a (poor) disguise for how masculine Miss Piggy really is.

But that is what makes Miss Piggy both so memorable and so lovable.  Although a human being with her personality would be diagnosed as a narcissist and would be intolerable to be around, Miss Piggy’s foibles are what make her both beloved and real.  At their core, the Muppets, no matter how violent and crazy they may seem, are innocents.  If there is a complaint against their verisimilitude, it is that they are too innocent and too pure to be real.  But that is why they are so lovable.  They are like the Velveteen Rabbit; because of all the love and affection that I had and have for them, they do not just seem real, they are real.  With every episode I have rewatched, I am struck by how the guest stars too seem to believe that.  Whether it is Bernadette Peters singing Just One Person to Robin, Julie Andrews serenading Kermit, or Elton John doing a duet with Miss Piggy (Eat your heart out, Kiki), the guests too seem to buy into the illusion of reality.

I have not been able to get excited about the new movie coming out.  I know some other fans of my generation are thrilled by it.  But just as one does not simply get a new voice, I cannot reconcile myself to the Muppets following Jim Henson’s death (and the deaths and retirements of other Muppeteers.)  I think this is not necessarily a bad thing.  I cannot accept these changes because, despite the fact that the Muppets are completely improbable, they are too real to be simply interchangeable.