The Muppets: An Exercise in Humorous Metacinematic Irony
Michael Giles Purgason
Editor’s Note: Michael Purgason was a student in one of my courses this past year. Even though Michael was a graduating senior who was applying for medical schools, he took a keen interest in the subject of my English class and in the “Humor in America” blog. Tragically, Michael was killed in a car accident in July. With the permission of his family, I am publishing the piece below, which he was in the process of making final revisions for “Humor in America.” –Tracy
As a child growing up two of my favorite films that I watched frequently on VHS were Muppet Treasure Island and A Muppet Christmas Carol. One thing I always noticed about these two films in particular was that they were the only two Disney movies my parents and older siblings would be happy to watch with me consistently, and they would laugh hysterically right along with me. To this day these films remain two of my favorites, and they make me laugh every time without fail.
After my most recent viewing of Muppet Treasure Island I began to ask myself, “what is about these puppets that are so clever and humorous?” While I’m sure that I have not narrowed down all of Jim Henson’s genius in my mind, I believe that I have set out on a productive path to answering that very difficult question. Before I get into any sort of Muppet criticism, a lot of the humor is pure good old-fashioned cleverness on the part of the writers. The roll call scene before the Hispaniola sets sail in Muppet Treasure Island is one example of a scene that renders its viewers into fits of side-splitting laughter without using too much complexity.
The first aspect of the complex and clever humor that goes into a Muppet film is each individual Muppet’s very real presence in popular culture. The Muppets are presented publicly as though they are real life Hollywood figures. They show up on the Red Carpet, they are invited to be presenters at awards shows, they make guest appearances on Saturday Night Live, and they frequent other such public appearances. What is significant is that they are presented as though there are actually living and witty puppets walking around living their lives as working Hollywood actors. The ways in which other celebrities converse and interact with them indicate that they are real and they have their own place in the society of actors. If the logical minds of human audiences didn’t know better, they would believe that The Muppets are in fact real life conscious entities. This creates a false consciousness in the minds of audience’s in which we live in a world where Muppets exist as real and conscious entities.
With this false consciousness established, The Muppets can then be cast in films as though they are each getting paid to play their respective parts. The credits of a Muppet film never assign credit to the person manipulating them or doing their voice, but rather the credits give credit to the Muppet that exists in the established false consciousness. The credits roll after A Muppet Christmas Carol and the roles of Charles Dickens and Bob Cratchit are credited to The Great Gonzo and Kermit The Frog respectively.If The Muppets are real actors, then they are responsible for their performances. Responsibility, however, does not necessarily mean that artistic quality will follow. In fact, the exact opposite effect is intentionally put into practice.
The main construct of the humor attached to the presentation of Muppets in films is ironic performance on the part of the Muppets as actors in a film. As a performer, a Muppet never actually takes on a role seriously or tries to alter their persona to fit the character as a human actor might, but rather they aggressively apply their own persona to the role they are playing. The other Muppets in the film are all very aware that each other are acting ironically, and most of the time they just portray themselves.
In A Muppet Christmas Carol, for example, The Great Gonzo portrays Charles Dickens and tells the audience that he wrote the novel long ago and will now narrate the events for the audience. “Charles Dickens” however is followed around by Rizzo The Rat, who has chosen not to adopt any sort of alternate persona to fit the story, and seems very suspicious that “Mr. Dickens” is not who he claims to be. In fact, at one point “Charles Dickens” falls off of a fence, and in an alarmed frenzy Rizzo screams “Gonzo! Gonzo!…I mean…Mr. Dickens!” thereby breaking Gonzo’s character and shattering his adopted persona of Charles Dickens.
Another aspect of this cinematic irony is that when a Muppet does portray a character that is supposed to be human, the other Muppets still address him or her as an animal. In Muppet Treasure Island, Miss Piggy and Kermit The Frog are portraying the characters of Benjamina Gunn and Captain Smollett, and while arguing about Smollet’s abandonment of Benjamina at the altar, Benjamina declares to him “You’re a frog! You’re supposed to have cold feet!” The irony of these Muppet performances is emphasized by the juxtaposition of well-known human actors portraying at least one of the main characters that are not acting ironically. The humans are fully engaged in their role, and usually play it quite well. Michael Caine’s performance as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Muppet Christmas Carol is powerful enough that the audience still feels emotion for him despite all the ironic humor surrounding him. Similarly, Tim Curry manages to portray the character of Long John Silver well enough in Muppet Treasure Island that he is quite a vile villain in the midst of hilarious comedy.
The cinematic irony of the Muppets also means that they are very much aware that they are being filmed in a movie, whereas a human character stays committed to his character and is only aware of the universe within the story. Using their awareness of the audience, the Muppets consistently ‘break the fourth wall’ or even verbalize their awareness that they’re in a film, and not some sort of reality. The cinematic irony of the Muppets indicates that they are less engaged with the film they’re supposedly acting in, and more engaged with the audience.
Using cinematic irony, the Muppets create an impression that they have sneakily invaded the set of a film being made by humans for artistic quality and are intentionally trying to mess it up to entertain the audience.
This makes films with Muppets metacinematic. The intended film exists within the film the Muppets have instead kidnapped and presented to the audience. Treasure Island and A Christmas Carol would be good interpretations of the stories with the strong performances of Tim Curry and Michael Caine, but instead, The Muppets took over and made Muppet Treasure Island and A Muppet Christmas Carol: messes of comedy intertwined with drama in a metacinematic irony.
The most prominent example of this is when Rizzo The Rat commissions to make a profit by setting up a vacation for a community of affluent Muppet rats on the set of Muppet Treasure Island. Throughout the whole movie, there are small breaks in the story in which the vacationing rats instead become the subject of focus. Despite the fact that Muppets are supposed to be in the past where the story takes place, the vacationing Muppet rats exist in the same time period as the modern audience. They water ski, they drink margaritas, and they even have a troupe of cheerleaders following them around. At one point during a particularly serious moment of the Treasure Island universe, a tour guide for the rats tells them “and this is the actual set for the movie Muppet Treasure Island!” In a very sly and clever manner, The Muppets are able to make the audience engage with a Shakespearian metadramatic concept of “film within a film.”
So what is it that makes the Muppets so funny for any audience? Other than non-complex moments of pure cleverness, the humor of The Muppets comes from their operation in a complex network of metacinematic irony.
Donations in memory of Michael can be made through:
MICHAEL GILLES PURGASON FOUNDATION2007 Misty Creek DriveArlington, Texas 76017