To watch TV these days is to feel that the line separating a clever concept from a dystopian hallucination is growing worryingly thin. On a recent episode of “The Masked Singer”—the Fox reality-competition show in which a panel of judges tries to figure out the identity of a crooning celebrity who is dressed, mascot-style, in a head-to-toe costume—an enormous, spangled snail gave a plodding rendition of Hall & Oates’s “You Make My Dreams.” For me, the performance raised many questions. Why would a snail need to wear a velvet top hat on its shell? What was the deal with the roses gyrating in the background? Would I ever be able to forget the assessment “snailed it!,” uttered by the judge and former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger? For the members of the panel, however, only one thing mattered: Who was doing the singing? They threw out some guesses. Seth MacFarlane? Jay Leno? Perhaps, even, Senator Ted Cruz? (This was not as outlandish a possibility as one might think: a couple of seasons ago, a pastel-colored bear had turned out to be the former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.) Finally, to the audience’s rhythmic, strip-club-esque chants of “take it off,” the snail’s hat was removed, and out popped Kermit the Frog, his felted mouth open in a show of glee. The judges gasped, the crowd roared: the masked celebrity was not a man but a Muppet.
Back in the late nineteen-seventies, when Jim Henson’s “The Muppet Show” ran, in syndication, on CBS, Kermit was the mild-mannered leader of his own troupe of performers, a ragtag gang of puppet characters who sang, danced, and told jokes in a quaint old playhouse. Now the frog had found himself in a vulgar reality jumble, his no-frills costume wedged inside one that was far flashier and more grotesque. Whither childhood? Granted, others might not experience this shift so keenly: I realize that I am just about the exact right age to feel an acute nostalgia for the low-key pleasures of the Carter Administration, before the malevolent, seductive gleam of the Reagan years came into view. (“The Muppet Movie,” the franchise’s first theatrical release, with its wistful hit song, “Rainbow Connection,” was my first moviegoing experience, at age three, in the summer of 1979.) But now younger generations will be able to get their own taste of Henson’s brainchild. Earlier this year, “The Muppet Show” began streaming, for the first time ever, on a digital platform; all five seasons are available on Disney+. (The Walt Disney Company purchased the “Muppets” property from the Henson family in 2004.) For all I knew, Kermit’s appearance on “The Masked Singer” was an instance of clever product placement by Disney (which also owns Fox), to remind people that the Muppets exist, and, if this was indeed the case, it made the segment even more chilling. And yet I was willing to forgive. There are some things that can be justified if the trade-off is being able to binge-watch a favorite childhood program.
The format of “The Muppet Show,” which ran from 1976 to 1981, remained constant during the time that the show was on the air. Kermit and his fellow-puppets put on a variety show featuring a different human guest star each week, and which consisted of a loose string of performances—songs, skits, interviews—à la popular shows of the era, such as “Laugh-In,” “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour” and “The Carol Burnett Show.” Unlike Henson’s other hit puppet-based series, “Sesame Street,” which began airing on PBS, in 1969, “The Muppet Show” was meant not only for children but for adults, as well. The show, not educational but, rather, gently satirical and often wildly zany, featured the long-suffering, quietly exasperated Kermit, as our m.c.; Miss Piggy, the volatile, sensuous diva; Fozzie Bear, the sweaty comedian; Gonzo the Great, the excitable fuckup; Scooter, the eager young gopher; Statler and Waldorf, the mean-spirited hecklers; Sam the Eagle, the moralistic prig. There was a hippie throwback house band; and then, of course, the human guests, who included, in the course of the show’s run, genuine superstars of the time, like Elton John, Liza Minnelli, and Diana Ross, as well as more niche luminaries, Liberace and Phyllis Diller among them. Similar to other comedy series that came in its wake—“The Larry Sanders Show,” “30 Rock”—the show poked fun at the minor backstage dramas that beset desperate and self-important show-business types, but it also celebrated these characters’ excitement and their inchoate artistic ambitions.
Today’s family-friendly shows often pick a mode and stick with it: “The Masked Singer” is rowdy; Michelle Obama’s Netflix puppet show, “Waffles + Mochi,” is warmly educational. But “The Muppet Show” was comfortable with a wide range of feelings and tones. The Muppets lived on the spectrum between quiet and loud, serene and clamorous, and the switches from one end to the other were some of the defining marks of the show’s humor. Upon rewatching the episodes on Disney+, I was reminded of the program’s subversive, near-sadistic vaudeville. In a Season 2 episode hosted by the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, a performance of “Swine Lake,” which Nureyev performs with a pig Muppet, escalates into chaos, as Nureyev honks his partner’s nose before tossing her aside like a pile of rags. In another episode, in Season 4, hosted by the folk singer Arlo Guthrie, an initially sedate Muppet square dance devolves into cheerful brutality, with the participants punching and kicking one another. In a Season 3 episode hosted by the actress Marisa Berenson, Kermit is literally pulled off the stage with a hook, and Miss Piggy, after asking Berenson for help tightening her corset, crashes into a dressing-room wall after Berenson lets the laces go. In these scenes, and many like them, there is a dependable comic rhythm of jollity paired with sudden violence, and the inherent docility of the Muppets’ bodies allows viewers to observe this theatre of aggressive impulses from an amused distance.
And yet the show also offers something gentler and more touching, psychological at its core, highlighted by the Muppets’ raggedy vulnerability. One of my favorite characters is Beaker, a test-tube-shaped lab assistant, who is prelingual, and communicates predominantly in high-pitched “mee” sounds. In an episode in Season 4, he timidly performs a rendition of Morris Albert’s “Feelings,” and gets booed off the stage by the audience. As I watched the scene, I suddenly flashed back to viewing it as a child and shedding tears over Beaker’s dejection. And though my sadness didn’t express itself in tears on this rewatch—my heart must have hardened some in the last forty years—it did occur to me that Beaker’s quandary exemplifies a very adult lesson that “The Muppet Show” teaches: sometimes life is painful, and there’s not much one can do about it. But coming to terms with this doesn’t have to be entirely distressing—there is something a little bit funny, too, about Beaker’s shape, about his tuft of orange hair and potato-ish orange nose, about the odd sounds he emits, about his ambitious but misguided attempt to perform a song. In this way, “The Muppet Show” feels like a predecessor to a genre later perfected by Pixar: tragicomic commercial art made for both kids and grownups, in which shabby objects can be comedic implements as well as carriers of heartrending inner lives. On “The Muppet Show,” bits of fabric and glue and yarn, animated into life, become complexly real.
One of the most common emotions experienced by the Muppets is frustration. Beaker has feelings but will never be able to fully communicate them; Fozzie Bear wants to tell jokes but will never be funny; Miss Piggy wants to seduce Kermit and will never fully succeed. (The only happy customers in the house are, perhaps, Statler and Waldorf, since their satisfaction depends on constantly being disappointed.) It is all this frustration that gives “The Muppet Show” its energy; the show goes on, and the fuzzy, shabby, google-eyed, low-tech Muppets keep trudging. In one episode, Fozzie begs Kermit to let him perform a reading of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” After Kermit relents, Fozzie goes onstage and begins reciting, only to be hindered by Gonzo, who has insisted on performing his “tango number” at the same time, alongside a troupe of chickens. As the number wears on, both Muppets continue their spiels stubbornly, each offended by the other’s pushy interruptions, until, in the end, Fozzie begins singing the words of Frost’s poem to the tune of the song. “And miles to go before I sleep, olé!,” both Muppets cry together, to the sound of the audience’s applause. It’s all here: hurt feelings, foiled ambitions, near-violent skirmishes, but, also, a show-must-go-on mentality, and joy. To look at the Muppets is to look at life itself.