Growing up with the Muppets gives you an unrealistically high standard for children’s fare – few other works really measure up. The Muppet Show remains timeless for its clever skits, excellent musical performances, and Jim Henson’s remarkable talent for creating unique characters that are well realized. Apart from its unique qualities, The Muppet Show was one of my first experiences with watching work as entertainment. Putting on a show is a thankless grind, and Kermit has his work cut out for him what with a diverse cast of various species and temperaments, guest stars requiring varying levels of maintenance, and balancing an endless list of conflicting interests. The show must go on, and Kermit demonstrated that even simple entertainments were tremendous work, and at the end those old guys in the balcony don’t appreciate shit.
This theme is of great value to recognize, and is expanded upon in The Muppet Movie, not only a great work in its own right, but an inspiring film that teaches its audience that success only comes after a long, meandering journey, surviving attacks from inexplicable sources, and inevitable failure. Yes, The Muppet Movie is about, above all things, that failure is a part of everything we value. You deal with it and move on. Not a new or profound lesson, but what entertainment is there for kids where such a theme occurs? More on that later – The Muppet Movie is an origin story for this extended family borne in the desire to be famous, and bring joy to the world.
The origin for our heroes is humble. Kermit strums his banjo in the swamp, while Fozzie toils as a stand up comic in a seedy bar (The El Sleezo Cafe is not for the faint of heart). As he brings his meager comic gifts to bear (wocka) on a hostile crowd, we begin to understand just how grim such an existence can be. Kermit has a simple life, but lured by the encouraging words of Peter DeLuise’s father, he considers the meaning of the Rainbow Connection, and a bridge to realizing those dormant dreams. As he sings, he seems hesitant, as if knowing that he is as likely to find disappointment as happiness, most likely both as there is no such thing as a pure victory. Kermit and Fozzie meet up and their first impromptu act bombs terribly (“If you think the crowd is ugly, you should see the dancing girls”). Still, hope springs eternal, and they hit the road to Hollywood and acquire an entourage of like-minded… things. The songs are lively, the dialogue highly quotable, and the vision of artistic ambition remains the single-minded focus.
“A bear in his natural habitat. A Studebaker.”
“Where did you learn to drive?” “I took a correspondence course.”
“Sparkling Muscatel, one of the finest wines of Idaho.”
“I’ve seen detergents leave a better film than this.”
On the way, the Muppets are beset by problems as inexplicable as they are hilarious. Doc Hopper pursues Kermit with fanatical greed – he wants the talented frog to help advertise his Frog Leg franchise. This is fucked up in that even before he is a star, he is pressured to sell out his talents and his species. Presenting such a concept as negative is almost quaint today, but such a temptation is an important part of any story about success. We all have abilities, and determining when and on what terms to sell them is a universal struggle. Later, Mel Brooks does a cameo as a mad German doctor, one of my first exposures to Nazis as cinematic villains, along with the face-melty guys from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The machine he has designed for Kermit is as creepy as it is awful, intending to turn him into a mindless model. The suggestion is that greed brainwashes us all, although I’m not sure how the Third Reich figures into it. I like to think of his device as a television, designed to insulate and amuse rather than enlighten while robbing you of your essence, much like the Scientist’s diabolical machine from The Dark Crystal.
There are many things to love about The Muppet Movie, but my favorite over the years has been the numerous segments with life lessons embedded therein:
– Montages will not save you. Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem bust out some George Clinton-style type shit while disguising Fozzie’s Studebaker with a trippy color scheme to facilitate their evasion of Doc Hopper. Except it doesn’t work. Even great ideas fail miserably, even when carried out in a montage. What other movie ends a musical segue like this?
– Don’t leave Sweetums behind. That’s the behemoth who works as a Jack at Milton Berle’s used car lot. He wanted to come along, but the gang did not wait. That sumbitch would have come in handy for any crew, despite scaring off the trim.
– Women are not to be trusted. Miss Piggy has no hesitation about leaving when her agent calls her with a job opportunity. Rowlf croons dishearteningly that “you can’t live with em, can’t live without em…” Well, kids need to learn this stuff eventually. Along those lines,
– Women are mercurial and impossible to understand. Miss Piggy is truly one of the most well-realized female characters ever created, in that she is starved for attention, insists on being both sides of any conversation, runs hot and cold with no warning, and any attempt to make sense of it is both fodder for terrible comedians and an utter waste of time. Kermit sort of endures this, as he is somewhat passive in a romantic role; Piggy takes care of the man and woman half of the relationship, so he only needs to show up. Fair enough, as he needs to concentrate on running the fucking Muppet Show, so that sort of bullshit is best left to the Pig.
– Waitstaff hates you. From Hooters to anonymous pubs, the people who work in them put up with you only because you are paying them and they are unlikely to successfully dispose of your body. Steve Martin’s short-shorted waiter is truly the archetype of sub-minimum wage drones, and he is right to be rude as shit. Kermit doesn’t know dick about wines, and he is unlikely to tip anyway.
– Failure is a part of success. When Kermit and the guys arrive at the office of Orson Fucking Welles, he calls for the Standard Rich and Famous contract. Surely his greatest effort if it wasn’t for Unicron. But when the Muppets assemble their stage play about their fantastic journey, it never reaches opening night. The whole set collapses into ruin and the ceiling is ripped open. The rainbow is not a happy ending, but an acknowledgement that there is no ending. If you succeed, the chapter after The End could involve finding a dead hooker under your toilet in the morning. If you fail, the next part may be the phoenix from the ashes. Keep believing, write your own ending. Sure, many circumstances are beyond your control, but that is no excuse to assume a bad patch is the rule. We could all stand to learn from The Muppets, in that life is about getting screwed over, losing your way on the way to your dreams, and having fun with it all nonetheless.