The Disney Muppets: why that just isn't funny
THERE is a story about Jim Henson and the early days of the Muppets that sounds so in keeping that it doesn’t really matter whether it’s true.
Despite one of his previous creations, Big Bird from Sesame Street, having been on the cover of Time magazine the year before, Henson was unable to get funding in the US for his new project, The Muppet Show. Eventually, having made several distress calls, he was finally offered a deal by Lew Grade at ATV, on the understanding that Henson came over and filmed The Muppet Show in the UK.
“It will give your people something to do, and keep my people busy,” Grade explained, in the midst of coping with a militant unionised workforce.
And so Henson and his colleagues packed their Muppets in a series of giant trunks, and left sunny California for rainy, recession-hit Britain. That much of the story is fact.
Where it crosses the border into righteous apocrypha, however, is on the night that they landed in the UK, when Henson’s people started unpacking the Muppets. As they celebrated their new project, and discussed ideas for the forthcoming shows, they are said to have carefully removed from the heads of their Muppets a generous supply of the best psychedelic drugs the West Coast had to offer. Dr Teeth and The Electric Mayhem were devoted to prime West Coast marijuana while Kermit, apparently, had the acid.
Even if this story isn’t actually true, it is at least figuratively true. In the mid-1970s, Jim Henson did smuggle a psychedelic experience into the UK in the heads of the Muppets. If British music went from black and white to colour in 1967 with Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, then The Muppet Show in 1976 is when TV finally went Day-Glo. While British children’s TV had dabbled in lysergic imagery previously — Mr Benn (1971) and Bagpuss (1974) spring to mind — it was an oddly melancholy, suburban, nostalgic psychedelia, very “Sitting in an English garden/ Waiting for the sun”, and centred on shops, and terraces, and no adventure being so great that you couldn’t be home in time for tea. The Muppet Show, by contrast, had an unmistakably American take on psychedelia.
It centred on optimism, modernism — no passing fad, from roller-skating to Star Wars, was ever overlooked — and things such as Elton John singing Crocodile Rock surrounded by crocodiles, rockin’. The Muppets would take off into space, sail the theatre out to sea as a pirate ship, turn into Hell’s Angels, or all get murdered; albeit in an amusing way, and by Liza Minnelli. Furthermore, the show, in an excess of energy, would often deconstruct itself as it went along, whether it was Sam the American Eagle’s neocon analysis of the acts (“This is degenerate”) to Statler and Waldorf’s sour running commentary (“Just when you think this show is terrible, something wonderful happens — it ends!”).
Given the show’s genuine air of hippy joy, anarchy and inventiveness, it’s hard to work out which is the bigger surprise: that the 120 episodes of the The Muppet Show eventually ended up with a devoted, worldwide, weekly audience of 235 million people — or that it wasn’t even bigger. It was, certainly, seminal television. Even today, 14 years after it ended, most people can do an impression of Fozzie Bear, sing Manamana (“Do do do doodoo”), tenderise a steak in the style of the Swedish Chef, or karate-chop a social irritant with the unmistakable porcine cry of “Hi-YAH!”
Taking all this into consideration, it’s easy to see why last week’s announcement by Disney — that, having purchased the copyright on the Muppets last year for $30 million (£16 million), it planned a worldwide Muppet relaunch to include ringtones, a film, The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz starring Quentin Tarantino and the R&B star Ashanti, and a TV series with guests Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Gervais — was greeted with mixed, but passionate, reactions. Since The Muppet Show fell into abeyance in 1981, the Muppets have been semi-retired, save for the occasional outing of a Muppet movie. Yet 235 million people — and now, thanks to the box-set of The Muppet Show, their children — have been very keen to see the Muppets return.
The problem is, do they want the Muppets back so badly that they’re willing for Disney to be in charge of them? Let’s face it — on most analyses of the company’s business practices or its artistic oeuvre, modern Disney sucks. And while there are many things that it sucks at — theme parks, fending off hostile takeover bids from Comcast, keeping any parent in its children’s films alive past the first reel — what it surely sucks at the most is being funny. The entire Disney corporation couldn’t tell a joke if Mickey Mouse’s life depended on it. Or, rather, it could — but it would first have to pass it through three focus groups, all its senior management, Disney’s representatives in China, the National Rifle Association, the League of Decency and, probably, Condoleezza Rice, just to check that it wouldn’t offend anyone, and subsequently lose the company a single $5 ticket at the box office.
That’s the thing with conservative, global monoliths — they’re not very good at quick, off-the-cuff one-liners. They can’t do irreverent because, when you’re as big as Disney, who are you going to be irreverent about? Yourself?
Having seen every Disney film ever produced — and all, indeed, a great many times — I can tell you that the funniest line Disney ever came up with is in the 1973 animation of Robin Hood. In the chase-sequence towards the end, Prince John shouts “Seize the fat one!!!” while pointing at a big hen in a bonnet. It’s a bit of a “you had to be there” moment.
Typically, Disney humour — such as it is — is a blend of cutesy visual gags that will play well in Albania (a bird lands on Beast’s nose; the Prince in Sleeping Beauty accidentally kisses his horse) and that cheapest of modern humours: wisecracking.
“Not getting cold fins now, are you?” asks Ariel in The Little Mermaid.
“That’s it! The reports are in! Life is officially unfair!” screams the parrot in Aladdin.
The problem with wisecracks — aside from most of them being unfunny — is that they come at the expense of characters, depth or variation. Disney is by no means alone in its reliance on the wisecrack, but the result is that, in almost any mainstream film these days, everyone wisecracks — goodies, baddies, princes, princesses, mermaids, gangsters, parents, children, passers-by, animals, the dead — which makes everyone fundamentally interchangeable. In the end, all you’re left with is a screen full of plastic merchandisable figurines, swapping abstractedly similar, “smart” one-liners. And then having a bird land on their heads.
Of course, you might say: “But what about recent Disney hits such as Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Toy Story? They’re funny. Their humour is character-based. Toy Story had Cliff from Cheers as an irreverent, postmodern, sex-starved Mr Potato Head. This proves that the Muppets could work at Disney.”
The problem is that Pixar, a Disney subsidiary, which has been at loggerheads — both creatively and financially — with Disney for the past few years, makes all of those films. One of Disney’s most recent moves was to announce that it would be exercising its copyright, and making sequels to Pixar’s Toy Story and Finding Nemo — without involving Pixar at all. As you can imagine, this has peeved Pixar no end — particularly as its films pretty much comprise the totality of Disney’s critical and box-office successes this century. Indeed, the last rumours to come out of Hollywood were that Pixar was finding the production of enjoyable, amusing films so difficult under Disney’s aegis that it was going to go independent as soon as its contract expired, next year. Not a good omen for the Muppets’ future.
The problem is that Disney — as one must expect from a global business enterprise — tends to think of its intellectual properties in terms of merchandising opportunities, rather than the opportunity for some great chicken-gags. It’s telling that the announcement about the Muppets’ relaunch mentioned that Muppet ringtones and screen-savers would precede any actual artistic content. And, indeed, that Disney is apparently very keen to resurrect and expand the animated spin-off Muppet Babies — a much more “wisecracking merchandisable figurines”-able format than the real, tatty Gonzo and his battalion of chicken-wives.
Of course, the possibility of a culture clash between Disney and the Muppets always seemed quite obvious. Until recently, let us not forget, Disney would not employ anyone with a beard at its theme-parks. One look at any picture of Jim Henson and the 1970s creative nebulous of The Muppet Show, on the other hand, reveals a group of hairy hippies, most of whom look like Robinson Crusoe at Day 405 on Treasure Island. The Muppets are essentially joyous and irreverent — their currency is pigs loving frogs, caterpillars smoking hookahs, Dr Teeth and His Electric Mayhem having “bummers”, and a disgruntled Statler and Waldorf trying to assassinate the whole cast. It’s hippies parodying reactionaries, bread-heads, divas and bores. It’s hard to see how they will fit, intact, into Disney’s cleaner-than-clean, carefuller-than-careful corporate world.
Indeed, as if to illustrate this point, when I contacted Disney its vice-president of corporate communications for Europe replied: “Disney has deemed irreverence as one of the five core equities of the Muppets (humorous, heartwarming, puppet-inspired and topical being the other four).”
I would say that’s pretty much case closed.
Jim Henson was an incredible artist — one of those very rare men with the imagination and drive to create a whole, alternative reality that could appeal equally to toddlers, rock stars and grandmothers. He once said that his only aim was to leave the world “a little better than when I arrived”.
This ecstatic gentleness — Frank Oz, who “is” Miss Piggy, says he never once, in 27 years of working with him, heard Henson raise his voice — was absolutely evident in his work. His irresistible gregariousness was part of the reason the show could call on so many celebrities to appear. Steve Martin, Paul Simon, Gene Kelly, Debbie Harry, Spike Milligan, Dizzy Gillespie — they were often fans, rather than mere bookings.
When Peter Sellers appeared on the show, it was as a long-time follower of Gonzo, whom he saw as an influence on his portrayal of Inspector Clouseau. When Brooke Shields pitched up in the fifth series, still at the tender age of 15, she spent two days in the Creature Workshop being taught how to make Muppets. One of Henson’s big plans was to try to reunite the Beatles through the show. Paul and Ringo were up for it, apparently, but John was killed — although, thankfully, not by Statler and Waldorf — before the scheme came to fruition.
It wasn’t just artists who were won over by Henson’s creative, joyous anarchy. Even Lew Grade, that wily old businessman, was so charmed by Henson’s energy that he entirely did away with paperwork for The Muppet Show — the whole ATV deal was done on no more than a handshake. In return for this trust, Henson created Dr Bunsen Honeydew in Grade’s image, which was said to have tickled Grade immensely.
Presumably, it’s under the assumption that Disney’s Muppets will still be part of this sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational world that stars such as Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Gervais have already signed up to do the new Muppet Show, and Robert De Niro is happy to be seen “hanging out” with Kermit the Frog. They want to be part of, as Kermit put it in the 1979 Muppet Movie’s key musical number, The Rainbow Connection, “the lovers, the dreamers and me”. Or, as Miss Piggy put it, “The freaking weirdos.”
But there are “global domination deals” instead of handshakes
now. There are ring-tones before Gonzo has eaten a single tyre. Henson
died, suddenly, of pneumonia in 1991, and someone else does Kermit’s
voice now. When The Muppet Show comes back, for the first time, it will
not be Henson who says: “It’s The Muppet Show — yeaaaaaah!”