In Defense of the New Muppets Show: A Meditation on Self-Aware Comedy

Rachel Blackburn

Here’s the thing. I really don’t like to get too political on social media or other public platforms, but my frustration with the critiques of the new Muppets show has reached peak levels – peak levels I say! And so, like the great critics of our time – the Edward R. Murrow’s, the Frank Rich’s – I must take pen to paper in passionate defense of what I view as the brilliant new direction of The Muppets.

Critiques since airing the pilot episode last month range from so called muppet show controversy nudity frontal“friends” on Facebook, who claim the new incarnation has “ruined childhood,” to conservative news outlets such as Breitbart, where John Nolte claimed, “By making the Muppets ‘edgy’ left-wing partisans who attack Fox News, come out as pro-abortion, and hurl sex jokes, the once-universally beloved franchise has been doomed…More proof the old saying is true: Liberals ruin everything.”  Well drink it up, new Muppets show haters: I’m leaving this matzah ball out for all to see.

Firstly, a lot of the chief complaints are variations on a theme: that the new show can’t compare to the original version (which aired 1976-1981), and that this new incarnation carries a kind of cynical modernity, distastefully embodying the mockumentary filming style of shows like The Office. For starters, these criticisms contain the classical logical fallacy of “argumentum ad antiquitatem,” or “appeal to antiquity.” This is the fallacy which falsely argues a “thesis is deemed correct on the basis that it is correlated with some past or present tradition.” In other words, the older idea is better, because it’s old. Or conversely, the new idea doesn’t work because it doesn’t adhere to the old one.new muppet show production meeting

Folks: art, like the individual Muppets themselves, evolves. And the new
show, rather than being cynical I believe, is spoofing shows such as The Office. The Muppets does not seek to become The Office (or 30 Rock, as some uneducated simpletons have claimed, who conveniently forgot that the original Muppets was also behind-the-scenes of a vaudeville-style variety show): it is taking comedy to the next level by parodying them. Here, I would cite the beginning moments of the pilot episode in which Gonzo mocks the one-on-one interview (within a one-on-one interview) as a tired format which portrays a character stating one idea and then contradicting himself in the next; this is followed by Gonzo exclaiming, “I LOVE the one-on-one interview!” only moments after Kermit makes the announcement that cameras will be following the show. It demonstrates a heightened self-awareness and tacit acknowledgement of the very genre they are mocking.

In short, The Muppets has always been subversive; if this new incarnation has ruined your childhood, it’s because you’re remembering The Muppets with the same brain in which you consumed the show as a child – that of a 7 or 8 year old’s understanding of their world, where you wouldn’t have caught the adult humor that was always present in the show. For those old enough to have caught that style of humor the first time ‘round, this is nothing new. And for the fellow at Breitbart who feels oh-so-offended by the sexual humor: I say to you sir, the original version of this show contained plenty of sexual humor! Anyone who ever witnessed Animal chase after a running, scared female exclaiming “WOMAN! WOOOOMMMAANNN!!!” would back me up on this one. Plus, who could forget Rita Moreno’s performance of “Fever” on the original Muppets Show? If that’s not simultaneously sexual, funny, and Muppet, I’m not sure what is.

My second point is this: the new Muppets is fully embracing the idea that the Muppets themselves dismantle and disrupt racial, gendered, and able-bodied/disabled binaries, also taking The Muppets show to the next level, comically. The show has already in its first three episodes explored race, gender, and physical ability both in dialogue and in context. Here, I would cite Pepe the King Prawn’s admitted attraction to Josh Groban in episode two: “Josh Groban, he gives me the feels too. What? Gender is fluid,” thus untangling gender from sexuality while simultaneously acknowledging gender as a spectrum. Or see episode three, in which Christina Applegate learns that Dr. Bunsen Honeydew’s real first name is Meegan, and she congratulates Bunsen on “living your truth”: a nod to the transgendered community.

When Fozzy Bear meets his (human) girlfriend’s parents, the show explored common racist tropes associated with interracial dating, one of several examples in which we are asked to consider race tropes in relation to all the animal kingdom and Muppet alike, exploding the black/white binary.

The new show has highlighted differences in physical ability as a spectrum as well, contextualizing Muppets as neither disabled, nor fully abled in a human-dominated world that caters to able-bodied human abilities. I particularly enjoyed the moment when Kermit frog-leaped onto Josh Groban in an act of hostility, crying “FROG LEAP!”, only to slowly and awkwardly slide down his body in a failed attempt to intimidate him.

Finally, the feminist critique leveled at the portrayal of Miss Piggy as too emotional and high-strung carries with it a valid intention I believe, but not a valid conclusion in light of two things. First, the moment when Kermit acknowledged the male landscape of late night talk show hosts, reminding Miss Piggy that, as produced by Josh Groban, she was allowing her agency to be taken away in terms of creative control, which she promptly reversed. Again – a very self-aware moment for the characters and an example of the show acknowledging current feminist issues, such as having zero representation of women in the current late night talk show circuit.

Certainly, we can allow Miss Piggy to be a three-dimensional pig: like other female pigs, let’s not reduce her to merely her faults, shall we? In critiquing Miss Piggy for behavior that we consider to be stereotypically gendered, we also are not acknowledging the intersectionality of her identity: that she is a late night talk show host, that she has a high-profile job in the entertainment industry, and – my final point – that this is not new information about her character from the 1970s incarnation to this one. If she were a male pig, would we be making the same critique about her emotive sensibilities and simply consider him good at his job, a stereotypical show business personality?

If you want the show to remain in its 1970s comic aesthetic, by all means, watch the original version, which I still adore immensely. But the new show – a glimpse into our current comedy landscape in light of television history since airing the original Muppet show – goes above and beyond, for my money. [Cue Kermit the Frog waving his arms wildly proclaiming “Yaaayyyy!!!”]

(2) 2015, Rachel Blackburn

Advertisements

3 responses

  1. YES! Exactly – all this. I was a bit taken aback at first, I’ll admit, but because I love all things Muppet, I’ve watched the 2nd and 3rd episodes and loved them both. Yes, it’s new and different – but still truly brilliant as ever.

    1. Rachel Blackburn | Reply

      I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Your article is extremely thought out and well written, however when you get the characters mixed up and miss spell their names it doesn’t help your cause. It was the Swedish Chef, not Bunsen Honeydew, that Christina Applegate was talking to and this is the correct way to spell Fozzie.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: