Last week, ABC premiered a new show which was the highest-rated new comedy of the year. Called The Muppets, it was a brand-new take on the classic characters created in the 1970’s by Jim Henson, who got his start in creating puppet-based sketches for adult television, broke into children’s entertainment with Sesame Street and went on to create such grown up fantasies as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.
The show was a pretty big success for launching a new series, had a huge amount of buzz going into it, and was promptly boycotted by certain family groups for being inappropriate, taking beloved children’s characters and turn them into adults with more grown up humor and a few bad words.
What’s intersting is this: Jim Henson never wanted The Muppets to be children’s characters. While he loved what he had created with Sesame Street, Kermit and the gang created for the original The Muppet Show were intended to be for adults. That’s where they had started (Henson’s first show, Sam and Friends, was not for kids, even though it featured puppets), had grown (with appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show and Today), and finally kicked into what he was hoping for: grown up humor as part of the inaugural season of Saturday Night Live.
As Henson himself said in 1983: “I want Muppet stories to address things my friends and I are interested in. I never saw them as kiddie characters.” When the stint on Saturday Night Live didn’t go well, it was Lew Grade from England who encouraged him to take his characters and create an entirely new show. The first pilot of what would go on to be called The Muppet Show was actually titled “Sex and Violence.”
For those who think Jim Henson wouldn’t have liked the new “The Muppets,” because of its more mature humor and themes, his daughter Lisa shares her thoughts in a recent article in Variety.
“The fact that the TV show is different in tone is consistent in what we’ve always done. We’ve always played the Muppets different tonally from one production to the next,” she says. “I feel like Bill Prady is picking up literally where my father left off,” Henson says of The Muppets creator, who began his writing career for Henson. “For insiders, it’s particularly interesting.”
The current show was created by Bill Prady, a man who worked with Jim Henson beginning in the 1980’s–it’s his script that millions of people have watched at Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s “MuppetVision 3D,” and who wrote and produced many episodes of Fraggle Rock in the 1980’s and wrote The Muppets Remember Jim Henson, a moving tribute to their creator after his untimely and sudden death in 1990.
The Muppet characters were softened a lot as his heirs tried to figure out what to do with them in the wake of their genius-creator’s passing. Brian Henson, Jim’s son, began the softening of the edge of his father’s creations. After the failure of a new TV show (Muppets Tonight, which nobody wants to talk about), the emphasis went to new films. With The Muppet Christmas Carol, where Kermit played the mild-mannered Bob Cratchit and Miss Piggy was relegated to a supporting role as a snack-hungry Emily Cratchit, the toning-down of the Muppet was in full view. The next films, Muppet Treasure Island and Muppets from Space, were disappointments and further pushed Henson’s not “kiddie characters” becoming just that.
This eventually lead to the finalization of something Henson had been working on before he died: the sale of The Muppets to the Walt Disney Company. Once Disney bought The Muppets, they also had no idea what to do with the characters. They continued making adaptations of classic stories (The Muppet Wizard of Oz), but it wasn’t until Jason Segal’s 2011 film, The Muppets, which reinvented the Muppets while paying homage to the past (and featured a depressed Kermit, the Muppet Chickens singing a song by Cee-Lo which has a title I can’t post here), that they began to see the power of the characters. A follow up film was not as successful, and when Bill Prady approached The Muppet Studios with his idea of a show like The Office meets 30 Rock, it caught on.
For those who think the some of the jokes in The Muppets were not up to the usual family friendly kind (even the ones that soared over the heads of little kids, much like some of the jokes on the original show did), it’s important to remember that since the beginning, the Muppets have always had their edge. When appearing on Cher’s show in 1975, Kermit asked her if she would like to “fool around.”
When Raquel Welch appeared on The Muppet Show she, came on to Fozzie Bear, telling him he is “sexational.” In 1986, while appearing on the premiere of Can We Talk with Joan Rivers, Rivers asked Kermit to rate himself in bed on a scale of 1 to 10. Kermit (performed by Jim Henson) responded with, “Are we talking about sex?” Frank Oz, the brilliant performer behind Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Animal, and so many others, described Animal in five words: “Sex, sleep, food, drums, and pain. That’s Animal’s character.” On The Jim Henson Hour in 1989, Kermit mentions what’s coming next, and to get more ratings, adds “and maybe some sex.”
The Muppet Wikia is full of well-researched information on what actually happened on The Muppet Show and Jim Henson’s original intentions with his characters. There are examples of poop jokes, times the Muppets have used bad words, and more. And less anyone forget, one episode with Alice Cooper had as a major plotline the attempt by Alice to get everyone in the Muppets to sign their soul over to the devil (my parents didn’t let me watch that episode).
The Muppets of the 1990’s were not the Muppets as originally created by Jim Henson. Just watching the original show as an adult, one can see many examples of more grown-up themes than what I remembered as a child. It was created to be different from Sesame Street, with characters that reflected the comedic sense and humor of Jim Henson and his collaborators. As to The Muppets on ABC, it may take time for some audiences to realize that this is a side of Kermit, Fozzie, and even Miss Piggy that they may not be familiar with–but it’s one that Lisa Henson says makes sense.
“Playing with the idea that the puppets are real celebrities, in a sense, Bill Prady’s whole show is taking that idea — they are real, they live in our world, they are celebrities, they have their own lives — and taking that to its natural extensions,” she says in the Variety article.
“We always thought it would be a very good idea to do a modern show-within-a-show. The original The Muppet Show was a show-within-a-show as well. It’s also a great format for bringing on celebrities in a very natural way. A Muppets show in primetime has to have a good model for celebrities. I think this is a more modern format where a lot of celebrities can participate in being on the Muppets, but they don’t have to be as silly as they had to be on the original Muppet Show.”
I’m a fan of the The Muppets and look forward to where Prady and his team of collaborators take the show. Word is the next episode is even better than the premiere (Josh Groban guest stars, and he’s actually a pretty funny guy–remember him as Andy’s brother on The Office?–in addition to being a fantastic vocalist). And I’m willing to give it a chance to grow. Is it a little edgier than recent fare? Yep. And I agree, The Muppets shouldn’t be watched by the same audience that watches Sesame Street.
Just because they are puppets doesn’t mean it’s a kids’ show. Like Walt Disney before him (who wasn’t interested in making kids’ entertainment, but happened to work in a medium that people thought of as “for kids,” so his films were labelled, especially in America, as kid stuff), Jim Henson’s genius happened to find itself in a form of art that people look at and automatically think it’s for kids. You can’t blame that on The Muppets. From their earliest incarnation (with Rowlf on The Jimmy Dean Show wondering if he and Lassie could “get together”) to their latest (where Kermit says “Hell” and is quickly corrected by Sam the Eagle), they were never meant to be just “for kids.”
I also understand if you didn’t like it. It’s not like The Muppet Christmas Carolor Muppet Babies. It may be a little too focused on the adults for your taste, and that’s ok. I’m not trying to get you to watch the show. But it’s pretty clear from the history of the Muppets that they used to be more grown up than you may recall. Remember, Jim Henson never intended for Kermit and the gang to live on Sesame Street.