The third best gift of all: The Muppets and Laughter
Over the past few weeks, I had several discussions with friends and acquaintances about the upcoming Muppet movie. People were excited. I discovered that people my age grew up with the Muppets–first with Sesame Street and then the Muppet Show, with some Fraggles thrown in. My earliest movie-going memory is seeing a Muppet movie, probably “The Muppets Take Manhattan” (1984), with my dad and brother. I may remember it because my dad snored through the previews, movie, and credits–despite my brother nudging him constantly.*
But the Muppets are lodged in my memory for more than my dad’s critical response to the film, of which Statler and Waldorf would no doubt have approved. My sense of humor was shaped by the show and movies in ways that are hard to define–a mixture of bizarre (Gonzo and his chickens), cornball (Fozzie), counterculture (Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem), anarchic (Animal; Crazy Harry), musical (Rowlf; musical numbers in general), absurd (The Swedish Chef; Beaker), brash (Miss Piggy), and sentimental (Kermit).
The Muppets helped to define humor for me and many people my age, along with Saturday Night Live, Looney Toons, the movies of Mel Brooks and John Hughes, The Simpsons and other sitcomes, and the stand-up of the 1970s and 80s. And then the Muppets faded. The Muppets movies of the 1990s, following the death of Jim Henson in 1990–Christmas Carol (1992), Treasure Island (1996), and Muppets from Space (1999)–were largely forgettable.
The new Muppet movie is planned as a reboot of the franchise, with a self-referential plot about the fade and rediscovery of the Muppets through what the Muppets do best: putting on a show. A main reason for hope for the new Muppet movie was the presence of Jason Segel at the helm. Segel wrote and stars, and his love for the Muppets as a comedic touchstone from his childhood shows through the film. When Segel stated in an interview that he cried the first time he heard Kermit read lines he had written, I understood. The new Muppet movie was thus overlaid with a heavy layer of generational nostalgia and the desire for a beloved childhood icon to return to past glory.
Thus, my expectations for the film itself were quite high: I wanted to be entertained. And entertainment is what the Muppets are all about. And the film is entertaining–from the opening montage of Segel and his brother (a muppet named Walter) through the big show in which the Muppets attempt to save their theater. A few dud moments–the “rap” of the evil villain Tex Richman, the unnecessary “Moopets”–are quickly glossed over in favor of highlights, including a few great musical numbers–the chickens clucking Cee Lo Green’s “F*ck You”; a Queen-inspired “Man or Muppet?” [listen below]; and a moving version of “Rainbow Connection.”
If I had gone into this movie simply wanting to be entertained, then the movie would have been a solid success. I laughed, I got sentimental, I enjoyed the celebrity cameos. I rooted for the good guys to overcome the villain, knowing full well that the Muppets always win in the end. But once the movie was over, my academic mind began to think over the movie, assessing its position as a humorous work. It’s difficult to approach a subject critically that has such a nostalgic connection to childhood. But I had promised to write a review for this website–something possibly insightful. I have never written a movie review–academic or otherwise–but here goes:
The main thrust of the movie is that the Muppets have been forgotten in an age of crass and cynical humor, exemplified by the most popular TV show of the day: “Punch Teacher,” which is what is sounds like. Walter, the muppet (who may not realize he is a muppet) raised in “Small Town” America, discovers the Muppet Show as a child. As he grows older, but not taller, he becomes the Muppets’ biggest fan–owning a plethora of merchandise and stating “as long as there are Muppets, there is still hope.”
Coming to Hollywood, Walter and his brother (and his brother’s girlfriend) discover Muppet Studios in decline–the buildings condemned and the Muppets scattered. The plot is not terribly important. To save the studios, Walter and Kermit reunited the gang, repair the theater, and plan a show to raise money to save the studio and the very rights to the Muppet name. The self-referential nature of the money plot points to the very fate of the Muppets as a property of the Disney Company. The movie’s commercial success (an estimated $42 million) will undoubtedly ensure the Muppets continued commercial relevance.
But commercial relevance and comedic relevance are different things. The thesis of the movie, in terms of humor, is that the Muppets had become relics in an age of hard and cynical humor. Jason Segel, in an interview, stated as much:
Here’s the thing: All the things you mentioned are true, but The Muppets are also still edgy, so that’s what’s kind of amazing about them. They managed to be edgy without it being at somebody else’s expense, and I thought that was kind of an important message to send to kids. You don’t have to get laughs by making fun of somebody else and it can still be cool. This movie — and I know, I wrote it — in my opinion, it’s pretty cool in addition to being nice and sweet … There is a temptation to give in to what you know will be popular and successful, which is mocking people, but The Muppets would never give in to that.
The desire to be humorous without being mean is central to the movie, although the movie attempts to link the decline of the Muppets’s popularity with this style of humor. As a fictional television executive tells them, “you guys aren’t famous anymore.”** Kermit’s response is to launch into a speech about how he thinks “kids are better than…” at which point the door to the office opens, squashing Kermit. That joke is great, deflating the pretensions of the premise, and the movie teeters on the edge of wanting to make a point about entertainment and wanting to be good entertainment. It is better when it sticks to the latter.
The movie is thus predicated on the belief that humor for children has become overly aggressive, violent, or crass. The muppet impostors–“the Moopets”–personify the specter of the muppets being replaced by an inferior product. The vague racialization–or at least urbanization–of these Moopets, as opposed to the small town innocence of the Muppets is vaguely discomfitting, and the satire of the current state of humor lacks the bite of similar satires (say, for instance, of the character of “Poochie” on the “Itchy and Scratchy Show” as part of The Simpsons–video here).
By displacing the Muppets’s problems onto children’s entertainment in general, and onto the specific oil tycoon who threatens to tear down the studio, the film blames the Muppets’s problems on outside factors, rather than on the quality of their own humor after the death of Jim Henson and the takeover of Disney. It would have made more sense if the villain of the movie was a studio executive who wanted to reboot the franchise to appeal to some image of hip youth culture–or, even worse, to dumb them down to appeal only to children.*** The Muppet Show was always about show business; the plot being driven by discovery of oil under the studio makes little sense. Disney could have withstood some polite ribbing about their neglect of the Muppet franchise.
So the show’s vision of two humors–one cynical and one genuine–may thus be a false distinction. Movies aimed at a mixed child/adult audience continue to be both good and bad, but the most successful (the Toy Story franchise, Up, and others) continue to appeal to a mix of humor and sentiment that may disprove the movie’s thin satire.
But in the end, this point may be less important than the movie’s focus on entertainment. The point is to put on a good show. The key moment comes when Walter and his brother seek out Kermit to convince him to get the Muppets back together. Walter tells Kermit: “You give people the greatest gift of all.”
“Children?” Kermit replies.
“No. Laughter,” Walter replies. “Laughter is the third greatest gift of all.”
Based on the laughter of the audience in the theater–including the almost uncontrollable laughter of the person next to me as the chicken’s clucked “Forget You”–the movie was a success.*** The plot foibles, the plot itself, may matter less than the gift of laughter, which the movie provides consistently and enjoyably. Even the lame villain has enjoyable muppet sidekicks that he instructs to laugh maniacally at the appropriate points by saying “maniacal laughter, maniacal laughter.”****
The Muppets is undoubtedly best when it does what the Muppets do best: entertaining laughter. The satire of the state of entertainment is less interesting, but luckily that fades once the movie gets rolling with jokes, bits, songs, whistling, cameos, and general entertainment. Part of me–maybe the academic part–wonders if the movie missed an opportunity to capture some of the subversive spirit of the original Muppet Show. The other part of me is glad the Muppets are back.
*To be fair, my dad will snore through anything.
**The TV executive, played my Rashida Jones, offers this assessment stating: “I am going to shoot straight with you.” After the assessment, Fozzie Bear replies: “I wish you had shot curved.” Fozzie remains a key exemplar of “anti-humor”–see the end of this post for more on this subject.
***Like most movies aimed at multi-generational audiences, the success of the Muppets has been the appeal to both children and adults, which the new movie seems to succeed at.
****Part of the plot is that Tex cannot laugh, apparently due to some childhood accident related to the Muppets (although much of this plot was apparently edited out). I viewed his statements of “maniacal laughter” as a type of laughter–a meta-laughter, if you will–that he used to get his henchmuppets to laugh for him.
(c) Tracy Wuster, 2011-3
Tracy Wuster is the managing editor of “Humor in America.” He is currently an adjunct professor at both the University of Texas and St. Edward’s University. When asked what Muppet he identifies with, he is split between Scooter–the nerdy stage manager–and animal. His favorite part of the movie was the animal subplot, in which animal tries to resist playing the drums but rediscovers his passion during “The Rainbow Connection.” That part made him happy.