Fish Tossing

I began to remember The Muppet Show when my daughter turned three, and I began to wonder what of my own childhood I wanted to share. I showed her “Mahna Mahna: two pink singing things, irritated by an orange-haired thing, who couldn’t help scatting. She dug it. We watched a few more videos, and then a few more. 

I had grown up in New Zealand in the 1980s, with two television channels and no cable, and The Muppet Show always seemed to be on. I didn’t love it, but I did watch it with a kind of low-grade marvel. How did this bunch of puppets come to be running a theater? Why were they called Muppets? Who got to be a Muppet? I had no idea about late-night talk shows, or sketch comedy, or the basic form of the variety show that so dominated the early decades of television, and which the Muppets creator Jim Henson spent hours and hours watching as a kid himself. The Muppets never questioned the fact they were alive or how they came into creation, and so I didn’t either. The United States could have been secretly awash with similar puppets shows, and New Zealand just happened to get this one. I didn’t even notice that one of the puppets was named after my country. 

Just after the publication of The Hobbit, but before he began writing The Lord of the Rings, J.R.F. Tolkien wrote an essay arguing that fairytales gave us three things: recovery, escape, and consolation. His earnestness jolts, in a very agreeable way.  He didn’t think much of modern society, thought we had broken off relations with the natural world, and argued that fantasy was our way of trying to heal the breach, to learn how “to converse with other living things.” The unhappiness of the world, as he saw it, was not something to be trivialized. It was not a bad thing to want to escape it, as a prisoner rather than a deserter (which was the difference to him between escape and escapism). Because our world was as oppressive as it was, a happy ending was not trite, or easy. He termed the word “eucatastrophe” to express the intensity of such an event, of experiencing joy “beyond the walls of this world, poignant as grief.” Happiness that cuts like a knife: He wanted his readers changed when they returned from his world; to make decisions differently, expect a different outcome. For him, fantasy was radical, profound.

He would have likely taken a dim view of the silliness of The Muppet Show. (He died in 1973, three  years before the first show aired.). But he would’ve detested the shows my daughter is “supposed” to watch even more: their emotional register, a flat-line of joyful tranquility, recovering nothing, escaping into simplicity, offering the consolation of immediate understanding. And he would’ve grudgingly conceded that the Muppets, at least, offered a version of the world no one then (and now) knew how to name. Unlike more traditional puppet theatres—where puppets resemble their world or an agreed upon category of tale (prince, dragon, ballerina)—the Muppets were interstellar, fuzzy creatures with feathers and loopy ears and eyes. 

Over five seasons and 120 episodes, the cast of Muppets expanded without much fanfare or direction. There were no announcements when a new one came along, no stable taxonomy that could be inferred, no reason penguins and chickens almost never sang, but rats and frogs definitely did, why there was only one Lew Zealand with his sad, maniacal grin and his fish tossing. The Muppet universe boiled with new creations, ever-expanding outwards, like a pot of milk rising under heat—and this movement outward was in the reverse direction from most other puppetry that offered a world in miniature, appealing in its simplifications. The Muppets lived in our world, but we also knew they couldn’t possibly be in our world. The cognitive dissonance involved was not all heat and air.  

Jim Henson didn’t intend The Muppet Show to be for children, which may be one reason why some of this loopiness was tolerated by studio executives. Though the puppets looked, with their bright colors, fur, and feathers, like they were meant for children, they spoke like adults. Re-watching it with my daughter, I now see how it provided me with an entry-way into the adult world, a gentle introduction into the ways in which recovery, escape and consolation are not easy things even when you’re all grown up. In The Muppet Show, the characters’ compulsions are often the core of the joke. Fozzie is a bad comedian who can’t stop making jokes. Miss Piggy loves Kermit with a grand passion, doesn’t care who knows it, but rarely enjoys a similarly public and ardent devotion in return. Gonzo doggedly pursues greatness, despite his spindly arms and cheap silver cloak and passionate devotion to cheeses and chickens. Animal can’t help himself, ever. Sam the Eagle lives in a fallen world that he can never get to stand straight. 

Try to imagine the Muppets’ ages, and I’ll bet that with the exception of Robin (Kermit’s nephew) and Scooter (the privileged son of the theater owner), you wouldn’t have identified any of the Muppets as young. They’re all working artists. When they hold auditions, the joke is that the newcomers are all better versions of themselves. The shows are never that good, even without Statler and Waldorf yelling it from the balcony. The jokes are groan-aloud pun, and skits reliably end in a melee. Their jokes often involve Muppets turning to laugh at the (Muppet) audience, trying to egg them on: if they laugh, then the joke has to exist. The dubbed laugh track duly obliges—and you almost suspect that the Muppets know this fakery too, and have made their peace with it. Laughter is a way to milk humiliation, to draw it off, to redirect it away from more venomous outcomes. 

Nothing really changes, show to show, season to season. The consolation is that they get to continue, which, if you think about the experience of being an adult, sums up quite a lot. For me as a kid, The Muppet Show was a fairytale about adulthood, a way to anticipate knowledge that would’ve weighed me down almost any other way. It was no eucatastrophe, but it also showed me that failure was not catastrophic. Until my early twenties, I was quietly convinced that Sesame Street—Ernie and Bert, Elmo, Grover, the whole lot—were completely unrelated to the Muppets. They were just too nice, too young. The difference was so distinct to me that I was willing to overlook the mountains of evidence that suggested otherwise.  

How, then, does one build a world like The Muppet Show? It appears so complete in its idiosyncrasies it is hard to imagine its evolution. Henson’s various biographies appear to map it out. By the time the show’s first episode aired, Henson had been developing many of the puppets for more than two decades. He started young, booking his first TV puppeteering gig as a seventeen-year-old. By the time he entered the University of Maryland to study stage and television design, he was performing short segments for a variety of local TV stations, lip-syncing the puppets he built in the family basement to popular records. (The Muppet Show regularly included skits that basically did the same, and Henson kept lists of likely songs in his notebooks.) 

With a classmate of his, Jane Nebel (they would later marry), Henson landed a 5-minute show at the local TV station WRC when he was a freshman in college, which aired right before the Tonight Show. The premise is very similar: Sam and Friends revolves around a good-natured puppet, who is buffeted by the good regard and zany antics of a few close friends. One of the puppets is even a milky blue creature called Kermit. Sam and Friends has the same slapstick humor, both gentle and absurdly violent, puntastic, and playful, as The Muppet Show. Ad agencies started contacting him, and a series of 10-second spots he created for Wilkins Coffee Company (featuring two puppets called Wilkins and Wontkins) went 1950s viral; viewers tuned into a show in order to watch the ad breaks and to find out what mayhem Wilkins was visiting on Wontkins for refusing to drink coffee (beaten, drowned, shot out of a cannon, etc.) These ads were then syndicated and sold to local coffee companies in New York, Boston, and Minnesota, all with their own regional TV stations and regional audiences. By the age of twenty-one, Henson was earning more than $100 000 a year (approximately $750,000 in today’s money) and was still living in his parent’s basement. 

Most people would point to these shows as the direct antecedents of the Muppets, but to my eye, what seems more significant was Henson’s next big break, the invitation to guest-star one of his Muppets, Rowlf the Dog, on the Jimmy Dean Show in 1963. (Again, note that this was thirteen years before The Muppet Show.) This was the first time Henson had regularly appeared on a show with national syndication, beamed out simultaneously across the land, and the distinction meant a great deal to him: regional syndication had allowed him to make serious money, but national syndication was entrance into the zeitgeist. 

For the Rowlf’s first appearance on the show, they had the dog lip sync to “Moon River.” So far, so normal—but in the second week of filming, they decided to jump the human-Muppet species divide for the first time, and have Dean actually talk to Rowlf. You can see the footage on YouTube. Dean is immensely likable—he has an easy, slightly surprised air of amusement about everything—and he didn’t miss a beat with Rowlf, responding to the puppet as if it were the most natural thing in the world to chew the fat with an aspiring dog musician. Dean had hired a stable of old school variety show comedy writers, and they worked on Rowlf’s part as intently as Dean’s, moving beat for beat through the 9-minute dialogue, building the easy tidal rhythm of family-friendly jokes that amused more than one age and for more than one reason. Rowlf’s paw gestures and pauses were mapped out as precisely as they did Dean’s. 

The effect is remarkable. Rowlf listens intently to Dean, shaking and nodding his head in sympathy. He touches his arms gently to make a point. Rowlf was a live-action puppet, which meant that Henson manipulated the mouth and one hand, and Frank Oz (a recent hire, barely graduated from high school), wedged up into Henson’s armpit, manipulated the other hand.  The degree of coordination required between the puppeteers for Rowlf to “play” the piano or even clap his paws was considerable, but Dean never let on that there were two grown men crouched right beside him. The dog cracks him up in the same way that a friend might. 

The crew on set regularly forgot too. Sometimes the cue-card men would angle the cards for Rowlf to read, and other times, the boom operator would swing the microphone over Rowlf’s head, forgetting that Henson was actually speaking into a mic head-set from behind the low wall. What also seems remarkable is how, thirteen years before The Muppet Show, Rowlf’s character and voice were fully formed: wry, generally happy even when he’s sad, and always with a laugh. Rowlf received more than 2000 fan letters a week, and ended up appearing on the show for eighty-five out of eighty-six episodes. 

Knowing this, The Muppet Show becomes less of a surprise. What is it, after all, if not another just variety show where the host and regulars happen to be puppets and the guests happen to be human? Rowlf’s appearance on The Jimmy Dean Show pinpoints a quality in The Muppet Show that didn’t as much evolve as expand as Henson hired more people over the years. In puppet shows, marionettes telegraph the action, but with the Muppets, it isn’t about the action as it is the reaction, the look they give each other or the audience: Kermit’s scrunched nose and slow shake of his head, Piggy’s toss of her hair, or Rowlf’s head flying back when he laughs, his open mouth. You anticipate, with real delight, Sam’s firm shake of his head, his despair. 

The Muppet Show gave me, as a kid, a crash-course in style through response, through reaction. Style is a fundamental coping mechanism in this world, an elliptical, improvised dance between commission and omission. (When expected to play a piece of classical music for the show, the band leader Dr. Teeth listens and asks, “What’s this bummer called again?” Told it was Bach’s Minuet in G Major, he advises to send it back to the minors.) The show asserted the importance of character rather than plot, which is a lesson I am very willing to pass on to my daughter.

This is one reason why I’d argue the transition from television to the movies didn’t work so well for the Muppets. Henson had never had to worry about a narrative arc of that size before. He produced the first (The Muppet Movie) and directed the second (The Great Muppet Caper) of (currently) ten Muppet movies. The plots in all wereplodding enough to flatten the illogical complexity of the television show. There were supposed to be other compensations in the films, mostly to do with feats of design ingenuity and technical expertise. In the television show, the puppets didn’t hide the rods holding up their arms, and it was quite obvious why we only almost always only saw their upper halves. Indeed, the joke often relied on that knowledge. In the movies, there were remarkable set pieces that focused on whole moving Muppets’ bodies, sitting on a log, or dancing, or riding bikes through Central Park. 

But these achievements, paradoxically enough, reversed one of the latent charms of The Muppet Show and its quiet and persistent joke about realness. In the television show, guest stars had also seemed to enjoy exposing the rods to their own careers: Debbie Harry converted a frog scout troop into punks, complete with pink hair and safety pins through frog flesh, and Spike Milligan punned with such tenacity and rapidity that it appeared more a tic than a choice. Stars got to be silly versions of themselves: rather than sucking in their career gut, they let it go. But in the movies, stars played characters: Steve Martin as a waiter, Richard Pryor as a balloon vendor, and Orson Welles (yes, really), as a media mogul. The casual complexity of being yourself in a different world was overwritten by the caricatural simplicity of a cameo. 

This flattening effect was easily overlooked by many—at least initially—because the jump from television to cinema was seen as a sign of successful worldbuilding, an indication of imaginative oomph that the Muppets could metastasize through media, one generative world begetting others. In 1984, Muppet Babies began airing, an animated television show about the core cast of the Muppets, living in a nursery. It ran for a fairly astonishing six years. In 1996, The Muppet Show was rebooted as Muppets Tonight (this time set in a television studio rather than a theater). Ten episodes were aired before it was canceled (though twenty-two were made). In 2018, Muppet Babies started up again, this time in CGI. Through the 1990s, into the twenty-first century, Muppet movies continued to be released. 

There were two obvious effects of these expansions. The first was that the Muppets became recognizable as two-dimensional images rather than three-dimensional puppets. The second was that they became associated with children rather than adults. Purists, knowing of the eventual sale of the Muppets to Disney in 2004, like to blame the behemoth. They point to The Muppets at Walt Disney World, an hour-long TV special made in 1990, as evidence of two distinctly different world views. In the show, the Muppets wreak havoc at Disneyland: Gonzo and Camilla have a tete a tete in the laundry room on top of the employees’ uniforms, Rizzo the Rat is told he’s not welcome, and Animal chases Snow White down Main Street. The Muppets appear fundamentally, irresistibly subversive in this context. Yet it was also Henson who initially developed Muppet Babies, well before Disney. He was willing to let go of the Muppets “puppetness,” and obviously had no qualms about reorienting the writing towards children. When Henson swapped the three-dimensional object for the two-dimensional image, he redefined what made the Muppets the Muppets. He disaggregated the pleasure of performance and minimized the fact that some of the Muppets’ performers had developed their characters for twenty years. What Disney ended up purchasing—and what Henson offered to them—was the Muppets image, rather than movement and voice. From the mid-1980s on, the life of a Muppet was not intrinsically dependent on the life of the performer lying beneath it, though it turns out there is a small and critical difference between Kermit as performed by Jim Henson, and Kermit as performed by Steve Whitmore (and now, Matt Vogel), a certain reediness and wryness that is particularly pronounced when Kermit sings. 

As performers died or aged out of the business, as images rather than puppets proliferated, the Muppets became more muddled, less distinct. I watched the most recent Muppet movie in real pain: the intentions of reviving the Muppets are so laudable, and the result so mediocre. It is now easier to access on YouTube all subsequent Muppet programming than the original Muppet Show, which is only reliably available on DVD. That situation is squarely on Disney’s shoulders, who in recent years has shown a particular taste for building an empire by acquiring other world-building enterprises like Lucasfilm and Marvel. In 2019, 40% of all the tickets sold at the box office in the United States were made by studios owned by Disney. Many of these films are now set in worlds vacated by their creators, and we prefer to not hold the creators accountable for their desertion. I am fairly sure Tolkien would have viewed this all as a desecration. 

My daughter and I sit on the sofa, snuggled together, typing key terms into the computer. She knows the names of sketches. We’ve given up on understanding the rhythm of whole shows. To be sure, The Muppet Show has real problems. The show frequently falls back on racial, sexual, and cultural caricatures to make a joke. (Look at their cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Lime in the Coconut,” and you’ll get my drift very quickly.) Miss Piggy is the only central female character in the show, and though some people think of her as a feminist icon—she’s a working woman, unrepentant about what she wants—the ways in which her determination is lampooned is often more sneering than supportive. Her size is persistently emphasized. (When Rudolf Nureyev agreed to guest-star and requested to do a duet, they made another version of Miss Piggy, creating a human-sized fat-pig suit in which they put a ballerina. Miss Piggy’s head in this iteration is three times as big as Nureyev’s. He dances Swine Lake with her—apparently, the lady has trichinosis—and most of the humor comes from the obvious cuts between him struggling to lift his lady love with the ballerina inside, then tossing the suddenly empty fat suit up in the air or whipping her around his body. It’s funny, as long as you don’t think too hard about it.) 

There’s a lot in The Muppet Show that requires this kind of skipping-stone viewing momentum, all in the name of fecund silliness. From the very beginning of his career, Henson worked hard and fast. Even in university, his schedule was unremitting: Henson and Nebel would write scripts during the day, practice in the afternoon and build puppets and paint sets, rehearse in the early evening, then perform that night, and all in between classes at university. The weekly rhythm continued with The Jimmy Dean Show—and it explains why Henson thought he could essentially film and edit one episode of The Muppet Show per week, writing and directing at breakneck speed. The frantic back-stage conceit of the Muppets was simply a reflection of the show itself; just as the Muppets wheel around Kermit, the crew found themselves wheeling around Henson. 

I watch the Muppets now, and I think about the virtues of speed and mistakes, a thrown-back head, of the dogged pleasure that comes from continuing. I think about the hands inside those puppets and the futility and grace of creating other creatures in order to create a conversation that might jolt us—for a moment—away from ourselves. Other shows, in comparison, just seem a little too stingy in their pursuit of technical, or educational or ethical perfection. My daughter’s eyes track the screen, fascinated, amused. I think about what my parents tried to show me from their own childhood, and what it revealed of them. My Mum: the plucky heroine in musicals. My Dad: the careful listener, head tilted to one side, listening for the obscure, lightening quick aside. While I watched the Muppets, I always had one ear out for the sound of them in the kitchen, continuing my childhood, one meal at a time. I needed them, just as I also needed recovery, escape, consolation: now resisting, as much I can, the desire to dilute any of it.  

Jenni Quilter teaches at NYU. Her most recent book is New York School Painters and Poets (Rizzoli)