An Open Letter to the Creators of the New Muppet Show

Dear Disney and ABC,

Holy crap, how could you assholes so monumentally blow it!?

Whoa… I’m… I’m so sorry, that just came out. I totally meant to intelligently build up to that point.  Sorry, let me start over:

Dear Disney and ABC,

There is precious little joy in our world. Such little magic and wonder. Far too little care-free innocence.

When we connect through media today, our lives are more commonly associated with terrorism, disease, economic meltdowns resulting from greed, natural disasters, child shootings, police brutality, suffering, intolerance, hatred and the ongoing horror and assault of the seedy bottom half of real life.

Hold on, before you jump into writing me off as some “the world is going to hell, whatever happened to the values of this great country” kind of person, who worries that video games are perverting our youth or thinks television should be censored or whatever, please know that I enjoy violent video games and I like seeing movies and TV shows that push the limits of acceptability. Things change. Boundaries get crossed. That’s progress, art and evolution. Live and let live. No I truly don’t give a crap about breaking the rules and pushing the limits of inappropriateness.

But over the last several weeks I’ve discovered that I actually do give a crap – a really big, fat, loving crap, about the Muppets.

A New Muppet Show!

When I heard that you were bringing the Muppet Show back – with a new, more modern take – I remember thinking, “YES! It’s about time!”

The news was reason enough for celebration. I told my wife and some friends and they too shared the very same sentiment. Who wouldn’t? One would have to carry a very cold, dark heart not to feel that way.

But as I have been exposed to your new pre-show clips, teaser, pseudo press releases and marketing, a slow dawning has crept over me. It took a while, but I have begun to feel something unsettling that has taken some effort to define.

In fact my initial elation has now settled into deep disappointment.

Although as of today the show has yet to premiere, I believe (but continue to hope you’ll prove me wrong) that you have mistranslated and misunderstood Henson’s great, iconic legacy. Worse, I believe you may be in the process of undermining it, surely unintentionally. But surely nonetheless.

Until I saw the teaser for the New Muppet Show (UPDATE: the video has been pulled) I confess I took the long-standing values of the Muppets and the reality of their world quite for granted; how they behaved, how they deftly interacted with our real world at arms length. They made it seem effortless.

And one of those values, a key attribute, perhaps the most critical of all, is that the Muppets never – ever – fell below THE LINE.

The Line

When I talk about the line, I mean the line above which the Muppets remain arguably pure creatures at heart, connected to the joyful world they came from, and largely driven by the pursuit friendship and the spreading of happiness. Sounds a bit corny – but in fact isn’t. And the line below which the Muppets would become just another part of real-life’s ugly bottom half, inconsistent, undependable, self-centered and cynical.

Naturally, good humor demands breaking boundaries, stepping over some line. And at their strongest, the Muppets were so very good at doing that.  The Muppets always broke boundaries. They understood magic – of playing with the medium (whatever medium they were contemplating) – of breaking the 4th wall – of being surprisingly self referential. And in so doing concocted their own, very recognizable, brand of magic.

And I imagine, aside from Henson’s obvious challenge of inventing, or rather, raising the art form to a new level, it must have taken tremendously hard work and commitment to that vision to maintain that position – above the line.

Henson, Oz and company always stayed above the line. Dependably. They clearly worked very, very hard to find new humor and boundaries to break above the line. Satire and social comment are all possible above the line of course. Tear-inducing laughter is possible above the line. Pixar, for example, dependably and successfully lives only above the line. Boundaries can be broken above the line. And like it or not, the Muppets made clear that being above the line was a fundamental tenant of the brand.

As I reflect on my feelings upon seeing your new teaser, the pseudo PR and marketing for the new show, I believe the tone with which you are approaching the new Muppet Show, the direction your underlying compass is aimed, is fundamentally inauthentic and careless.

I further argue, that this approach you’ve taken, this direction, required very little effort. You merely chose the easy path.

You’ve just drug The Muppets way below the line, sacrificing everything that came before it, in exchange for a few cheap laughs.

You’ve just drug The Muppets way below the line, sacrificing everything that came before it, in exchange for a few cheap laughs. You chose the dark side.

You chose the dark side.

Did you think, for one second, that the temptation to do what you have just done was not an easy temptation all along to the original teams, just as it was for you?

Do you think that living in 2015 somehow suddenly makes such a thing a good idea? Perhaps that only now would we “get” such a joke? Give me a break.

Yes, yes, the Muppet Show was made “for adults”. And quite often the show would venture briefly into comically dark places. But these ventures always fell short of true cynicism of cold reality. Never would the Muppets cross the line into the seedy underbelly of real life. Of genuine cynicism, grime and fear. The Muppets were never cynical, they were never crass. They always reassured us with a deft wink. They were always tethered to a balloon that kept them floating, kept them from descending. And in so doing they defended and insulated us from the bottom half of life. That was their role and very reason for being after all! They gave us a world that we could to escape into. One that wasn’t reality.

Why then have you concluded that being an“adult” today must equate to being cynical, inwardly conflicted and cold?

I have no doubt that as the new show and its tone was being developed words like “edgy, fresh, and real” were used. Which always, bar none, sounds like a good idea in any board room.  Who wants to be the opposite of that?  Further that you probably felt the writing of the later Muppet movies and presentations were growing stale and you must have talked at length about breaking through that staleness with a “modern, fresh take”.

I do not believe, as you must, that the Muppets innate lack of cynicism, and consistent distance from the grotesqueness of the bottom half of real life, was the reason the material was not compelling enough, not fresh. That, I believe, would be a misdiagnosis on your part.

We can debate the quality of much of the writing in later movies and years. Some of it was admittedly a bit tired and occasionally not very good. Not as good as Pixar. Some of the later movies suffered a kind of lack of meaningful stakes for the characters to respond to (one might also argue this was true of Most Wanted). But, and I suppose this is one of my main points, I do not believe, as you must, that the Muppets innate lack of cynicism, and consistent distance from the grotesqueness of the bottom half of real life, was the reason the material was not compelling enough, not fresh. That, I believe, would be a misdiagnosis on your part.

What’s worse, by depicting The Muppets in our often tragic, imperfect real world via the reality-TV, documentary style, and imbuing the characters with peculiar new behaviors, inconsistent with their legacy, you have, perhaps unintentionally, established that anything the Muppets may have been before – any purity or innocence they may have shown us in the past – all of that was actually unreal, an illusion, just show. That by rewriting their characters and motivations to be able to exist in our world, you have introduced the idea that whatever we thought they were – with their original personalities, these were just parts, roles they’d been playing before. That only now are we seeing the “real” Muppets, their real lives, behind the scenes, for the first time. The suggestion is that they were actually like this all along, we were just never exposed to what they do off-camera before now.

As a result, you have instantaneously undone and debunked Henson’s entire great legacy.

What a shame.

As a result, you have instantaneously undone and debunked Henson’s entire great legacy. What a shame.

Yes, Miss Piggy, and others as well, have made occasional appearances in our “real world” for decades.  And it was always met with a level of heightened enthusiasm from audiences.  It’s pretty transparent that this partly inspired your approach.  But it was not so simple.  These appearances, and the occasional overlaps with our real world was always a delicate balancing act. Those brief appearances were a magic trick that only worked because their world, the Muppet’s world, still existed somewhere. Piggy was only visiting us, breaking the 4th wall of their world.  And we were all in on the joke. Her dips, so precariously close to the line on those occasions, were handled with extreme care and awareness.

And on a superficial level, yes, most of the movies even appear to happen in our world – but they never did. It was always the muppets own world, and it only looked a lot like ours. On the Muppet Show and in every Movie, human actors always joined the Muppets in their world.  Not the other way round.

…one instantly feels that we were never meant to see any of this.

But by eliminating the existence of the Muppet’s safe, insulating world, as the new show appears to have done, you have scraped them raw. Laid them bare. There is no Muppet world left to poke through or join into. The magic has been surgically removed. Like pulling the skin off a live animal, we now see with discomfort, the organic muscle, ligaments and bones hidden underneath. And one instantly feels that we were never meant to see any of this.

Fozzie

I think the appearance of Fozzie in your teaser best captured this problem and as such caused my heart to sink most of all.
So, Fozzie has a sexy human girlfriend. Um… ok. Feels quite out of character and slightly creepy, but alright, I’m sort of with you, maybe, MAYBE that could work, Miss Piggy was briefly attracted to William Shatner years ago (although that WAS absolutely in character for her).

COMIC howard the duck magazine 7

Howard the Duck and Hot Girlfriend

But then you bring us to the real home of his girlfriend’s disapproving human parents, they reveal their “secret” romance, she calls him “Honey”, Fozzie’s panic over his pending unemployment, and all that stark reality is run through a way-below-the-line, icky exploration of a kind of cartoon bigotry and a clear intimation of sexuality. Such ideas were somewhat funny in the Howard the Duck comics – a comic world specifically designed to explore these topics – but feels utterly out of place and even grotesque here because this is not some random bear. This was, we all thought, our innocent, beloved Fozzie. But it slowly dawns on us that, no, this is not our Fozzie, it’s a strange imposter. Even Fozzie’s voice change, no longer performed by the brilliant Frank Oz, might have passed by without bothering us much, but packaged within a sweaty real world just makes us feel queasy.

As a result of this scene, we are not so subtly asked to consider Fozzie’s underlying drive for survival and even his reproductive needs. Requisite mental images of the two of them “sleeping together” conjure naturally as a side effect of your scenario. Oh, sorry, you didn’t even think of that, right? Images of the two of them having sex? Never occurred to you? Uh huh, sure, how sick of me to even think that. Yeah, right, convince yourself of that.

Images of the two of them having sex? Never occurred to you? Uh huh, sure, how sick of me to even think that. Yeah, right, convince yourself of that.

Face it, the joke of that scene – the uncomfortable humor – comes from the fact that a real woman is really truly dating a bear puppet. Ha ha ha. The rest of the mental images are just falling dominoes.

Gonzo’s love affair with Camilla the Chicken never had this kind of real-world context and intimated followthrough.

You’re showing us inauthentic things that, speaking as a viewer, we never wanted to see. You’ve pushed deep below the line and opened a big ol’ can of slimy worms: if Fozzie can be unemployed, does he get unemployment checks? Since he’s in our world, well, one must assume that he does. If he can’t afford food does he go hungry or beg? Does he mooch off his friends? Either way this is all a kind of undeniable, below the line thread that just feels icky. But why stop there? One is almost encouraged then to wonder all sorts of things – perhaps whether Fozzie gets feces stuck to his fur when he defecates. Does he wear a condom? No, don’t feign surprise at all this. Please see that this is the natural result of pushing below the line as you have. You have broken those boundaries, and opened these thoughts, not us. Though undoubtedly you would feign surprise at such implication.

Good god, Disney! You have whole buildings full of departments in place devoted to ensuring that Mickey is never caught in compromising positions. How dare you turn around and do this to our dear old friends.

Kermit and Piggy

Good god, Disney! You have whole buildings full of departments in place devoted to ensuring that Mickey is never caught in compromising positions. How dare you turn around and do this to our dear old friends.

Really, now Kermit actively dates and is “hopelessly attracted to pigs”… in general? Ugh, too much information, yet again.

Gonzo was insane – and loved chickens. That worked. It never dipped into sexuality because he was truly an eccentric. But Kermit is sane, he’s our hero, the reasoned one – and therefor this new intimation that Kermit sleeps around is once again moving towards the too-real grotesque. And this focus on his and Piggy’s TMZ break up – as though they actually ever had a relationship – seems totally misguided.

IMG_0933b

The garbage can in the foreground says it all.

Yeah, yeah, we get it, if they are “broken up” it gives the characters and narrative something to build to. And it’s tabloidy which plays into the whole theme, and maybe most important of all, serves as free marketing.

Brilliant.

Hey, you’re the writers, but throughout the Henson years, the beauty of their story was that, well,  Kermit and Piggy never really had an official relationship to break up over.  They flitted around the idea, flirted with it you might say, Piggy always on the offensive, and Kermit never quite connecting. Like so many other things, even their relationship always hovered just above the line. They’re so-called relationship was a slippery and elusive concept. Totally non-committal.  By design.

But by bumbling into the the Muppet universe flailing, mouth-breathing and drooling as you seem to be, you are knocking over these delicate constructions, it seems, without much care for the original rationale or their great benefits.

Gonzo

This failure, like the others, is so obvious and easy to see.

In your teaser you chose, of all characters, Gonzo to criticize use of “the office interview” format.

Should have been funny. I wanted to chuckle because the observation was a good one. But I found myself wincing a bit. Don’t you see, you chose perhaps the only character in the entire Muppets main cast, next in line perhaps to Animal, who lacks enough self-awareness to even have such an opinion in the first place? So it just feels strangely “off” somehow. Not to mention that Gonzo’s, well “GONZO” has been completely denied. Now Gonzo is suddenly just some calm, rational guy? Seriously?

Hello?! Gonzo is many things, but calm and self-aware was never – and I mean like ever – one of them.

TMS.301.GonzoPiano

Gonzo recites the seven-times table… balancing a piano. Naturally.

This is the guy who overenthusiastically agrees to every insane, wrong idea, no matter how absurd – in the name of art. That’s who he is. You see that, right? The guy who shoots himself from cannons, wrestles a brick, tap dances in oatmeal, recites shakespeare while hanging from his nose, Plays bagpipes from the top of a flagpole, recites poetry while diffusing a bomb, hypnotizes himself, and wants to go to Bombay India to become a movie star because it’s not the “easy way”.

Did you, even for a second, consider that just maybe Gonzo was the completely wrong guy to feel vaguely self-conscious and introspective enough care about such a subtle little narrative device? Do you really think he, of all characters, would really care? Piggy sure, Fozzie maybe, but freaking Gonzo?! You’ve lost me. The reason that joke wasn’t funnier (and it should have been), is because you chose the wrong guy. You went fully against his long-standing character. And we all felt it. Maybe younger viewers don’t remember enough to care, and maybe most long-time viewers couldn’t quite put their finger on why – but sure enough – it just felt weird. And it’s another example of your apparent inability to defend and shepherd The Muppets at a most basic level.

What Worked

Lest you think I did not appreciate any of your effort, there were, what I would call, a few “authentic, above the line, classic Muppet moments” in the teaser too.

Miss Piggy’s walk, smack, into the glass, leaving a nose print. A brilliant moment.

That creepy “incredibly obscure character” with glasses who talked with his tongue between his teeth was funny as crap.

I’m conflicted on Rowlf wearing the big surgery collar. I laughed authentically at that. And although that doesn’t sit above the line, maybe ON the line, a very careful, self-aware break like that can clearly work, so long as the Muppet universe is still intact.

Work Harder

Look, truth is – the idea that, say, a puppet is dating a real girl, probably has sex, meets her disapproving, real parents, and maybe loses his job and all that, that’s actually really funny.

ted-article

Ted smokes weed.

Seth Macfarlane’s Ted did that a couple years ago and it was a good movie. A teddy bear that has sex, smokes weed, swears – it’s totally juvenile and funny as Hell. I loved it.

And then there’s “Meet the Feebles”, Peter Jackson’s obscure, disturbing puppet movie that includes a frog prone to vietnam war flashbacks, a pornography-directing rat, suicide, adulterous three-ways, alchoholism, drug-running and all sorts of other far below the line topics.

meet_the_feebles_04_stor

A gun to the head of a character in “Meet the Feebles”

But the Muppets? In one of your bumpers Rowlf talks about being followed by cameras into his bathroom at home. It’s kind of funny, but so now Rowlf uses the can? This is a very slippery slope you’re on.

In the old days these topics could never find their way into the Muppet consciousness. The Muppet world was intentionally disconnected from all that. But now, stripped from their world, these  real-life concepts begin to co-mingle, and indeed they will.

And that’s not who the Muppets are. You should have known better.

“Hey – you’re making all this up! We never said they had sex, and we definitely would never show them doing drugs or taking a dump!!” you say.

No? But that is the world you have directed them to inhabit. All these ideas, and a lot more, exist in our real world, and you have placed them in that exact real world. You have provided no buffers. No signals. No insulation from the edges of that very cold reality. Indeed, your every creative decision has amplified it. You have said, “They live with us here, amidst our real-life challenges, filth, and complexity.”

What a monumentally bad call.

You have said, “They live with us here, amidst our real-life challenges, filth, and complexity.”  What a monumentally bad call.

If that’s the show you wanted to make, why, oh why didn’t you just work harder, take some risk (e.g.. by not trying to rely on the automatic, positive associations we all have for the characters), and instead invent a new set of colorful characters of your own. Some who could more naturally play out the decidedly unMuppet-like topics you are shoe-horning our old friends into? I would have actually enjoyed seeing that show to be honest. I would have tuned in, and I’m sure I would have laughed. Ironically the connection to the the Muppets and every other pillar of innocent puppetry would have been obvious. But at least then you would have been arguably protecting and defending something the world still needs.

We needed the Muppets that Jim Henson left us.

We needed the Muppets that Jim Henson left us.

But instead you chose to exploit our gentle, rainbow-yearning friends into the same old, daily gutter that we were all, ironically, trying to escape. All in trade for a couple easy, if uncomfortable, laughs and the benefit of a built-in audience.

“Hey, the Muppets were all about cheap laughs.” True, but you did it at the utter expense of their very long and hard-earned legacy. You threw that gentle, magical, innocent legacy under the bus of reality. And that is not where The Muppets great and endearing humor belongs.

In doing so you have so far proven yourselves unworthy guardians of these beloved icons.

And from Disney of all places. Hard to imagine.

Well, I’ve made my point ad nauseam. So all I can do now is beg you, please, please be more careful.

These are our dear friends.

And corny as it sounds, the world still needs that rainbow.  Maybe now more than ever.