It’s the Essay on It’s the Muppet Movie about it’s the Muppet Show


The Muppets have become a forgotten relic of The Fabric Age, a pre-pixel, pre-Pixar tactile Cambrian of singing, animal-shaped socks.  But with a big cast reunion, smart musical numbers, and special guest stars, Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, and the rest can win back the hearts of their old fans, and their fans’ children, in an era of crass humor and street savvy that the sincere Muppets have always eschewed.

That would be great, of course, if I were writing, I don’t know, an Entertainment Weekly (?) piece about the Muppets’ attempted comeback with their new movie, The Muppets.  But what I’m describing is, in fact, the very plot of that very movie.  The story OF The Muppets and the story IN the Muppets, in other words, are exactly the same.  And I’m not sure how I feel about that much self-referentiality. Art Spiegelman just released a making-of-and-what-he’s-done-since version of Maus called Metamaus; maybe this version of the Muppet movie should have been called Meta-Muppets.  Adding to the meta was the pre-movie announcement not to talk on cellphones, featuring the Muppets in a movie theater audience apparently waiting to see the very movie that they’re about the star in, about the return to Hollywood fame of the Muppets.

But it’s not just the meta that surprised me about the movie—it was also the maudlin.  Yes, the bits, gags, and songs were awesome—I’m still singing “Am I a Man or a Muppet?” to myself (and I’m not sure, personally, what the answer is; Flight of the Conchords’s Brett McKenzie, who wrote the music, is still obsessed with masculinity, a la “I need a small man’s wetsuit”).  But the exposition—that is, the plot details of getting the old group back together, renovating the old theater, learning the old acts, ___ing the old ___—everything between and setting up the set pieces—was nostalgic in the most depressing sense. 

And the other plot vehicle that drove the Muppets’ meta-reunion was the most bizarre love triangle of the year, including that even-more maudlin movie about the consumptive girl who must choose between the centenarian sparkly vampire and the Native American werewolf’s abs.  Here, Jason Segal’s Gary is essentially forced to choose between Walter, the Muppet brother whom he cares for, and his long-time girlfriend, Amy Adams’s Mary.  She wants Gary to be there for her, but, in an unintentional but unmistakable metaphor for caring for a family member with a severe disability, he’s always shunting Mary aside to make sure that Walter is OK. 

OK, so maybe I’m a jerk for pissing all over a great children’s movie, unlike, say the preview for Alvin and the Chipmunks VIII (or whatever), which made me want to firk out my eyeballs with a melon baller.  So the important thing is this: in forgetting the Muppet’s maudlin meta, I’m guilty of the same nostalgia that The Muppets traffic in, since I blocked out that the Muppets have ALWAYS been meta, and they’ve ALWAYS been maudlin. 

The golden age 1970s Muppet Show was never a Muppet Show; its tagline was “It’s the Muppet Show,” predating It’s Gary Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show by being a Muppet show about the making of The Muppet Show, a kind googly-eyed 30 Rock (unless 30 Rock is itself a googly-eyed 30 Rock).  Kermit spent most of his time backstage, on the phone, and arguing with his cast and crew.  Special guest stars appeared in the sketches but also, weirdly enough for a children’s show, making demands from their dressing room.  Those old hecklers made it clear that they were watching the same show that the audience at home was, rather than that they were part of the show itself.  The only way The Muppet Show could have been more transparent would be for them to display the puppeteers, a la Julie Traynor’s Lion King.  But they didn’t need to go that far; when they pulled back the opening curtain, it was already clear that they weren’t hiding the man pulling the strings.     

And I also forgot how sad Kermit was, how fraught and fragile, how dysfunctional his inter-species, gender-role inverted relationship with Miss Piggy.  There was It’s Not Easy Being Green, of course, even though Kermit’s brand of melancholy seemed particularly white.  And at least that song ended positively: “But green’s the color of spring/ And green can be cool and friendly-like.”  No, it’s Rainbow Connection, a song so wistful, so elegiac, so full of unrequited yearning, that it’s beyond redemption:

Why are there so many songs about rainbows
and what’s on the other side?
Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,
and rainbows have nothing to hide.
So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it.
I know they’re wrong, wait and see.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

Who said that every wish would be heard
and answered when wished on the morning star?
Somebody thought of that and someone believed it.
Look what it’s done so far.

The end of the movie, with its roaring crowds and post-credit Deus ex Machina, may finally cure Kermit’s melancholy.  But I doubt it, and, I suppose, it wouldn’t be The Muppets without it.  So even if the movie is critical of current movies’ obsession with being hip and ironic, The Muppets, seeming sincerity to the contrary, still have a lock on modern mind’s twin concerns: consciousness, and conscience.  Not bad for a talking sock.

Of course, this means that I appreciate the Muppets on a much deeper level than you do.

 Time: 60 minutes. Close call.

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6 thoughts on “It’s the Essay on It’s the Muppet Movie about it’s the Muppet Show

  1. Johannes says:

    I love this blog, and am avidly following it!

    I’m thinking, hasn’t Kermit always been on the cutting-edge of meta and deconstruction? Remember the awesome Sesame Street segments where Kermit the news reporter is live at some fairy tale story? My favorite part in those scenes is when he’s chatting about something, unawares that he’s already on record.


    • jkavadlo says:

      Thanks, Johannes! I totally agree about Sesame Street-era Kermit. The main thing that jumped out at me was his catchphrase, “This is Kermit the Frog,” which I guess is what a reporter would say but is also weirdly self-referential, detached, and illeistic.

  2. Johannes says:


    That’s so interesting about “the Frog” epithet (I don’t really know what “epithet” means)–I’m wondering whether the two other self-referential Sesame Street characters might be Grover (“It’s Grover, your cute, furry, etc. monster”) and, somehow, the Count?

    Comparing Sesame Street and The Muppets Show, what came to my mind was that cliche of music criticism: you know how invariably an artist’s second album will be evaluated as “not having quite the raw creative energy of the first album, but making up for it with a more polished sound.” Looking at the two shows now, I feel Sesame Street had more of the completely absurdist Dada feeling; as much as I adore The Muppet Show, maybe it was already a tad more calculated? Anyway, just rambling here–sorry for starting a muppet sub-blog,

    I was intrigued by you disability reading–by extension, would there be an implication, the whole Muppets crew is a disability community? And I gotta say, from what I remember, I tho\ught the Walter character was unbearably dreary; and I was so disappointed by what he then found as his talent–the whistling fit right in with his sentimentalized character. I’d hoped for something like him teaming up with Gonzo for some crazy action. (Would be way more empowering, and move away from the “you’re disabled so we’ll pity you” subtext.)

    See!! Your blog’s already creating process energy elsewhere!!! Thank you! (In case you need some topic suggestions: do you want to write sometime about the gym theme you mentioned on Tuesday? I almost started laughing hysterically when you were describing this, because I imagined something like Marx and Engels on treadmills at Gold Gym, watching daytime TV and formulating their Manifesto.)


  3. jkavadlo says:

    Johannes, this is such a thoughtful reply that I don’t know where to begin, other than to say you need to start your own Muppets-only blog.
    First: yes, a lot of Muppets (Elmo, Grover, The Count, Cookie Monster) refer to themselves in the third person. Is it a puppeteering device? Self-referentiality? A coincidence? Interesting.
    Second: I love the sophomore album analogy.
    Third: I thought about deleting the line about Walter as disability metaphor, because unlike some of the other disability in pop culture metaphors (Wizard of Oz, various cyborgs), this one is tough to put a positive spin on it. But I think it’s there nevertheless. What your post made me realize, though, is that the Muppets–the occasional stunt scene excepted–are always filmed from the waist up; they literally do not have anything below. It makes me think of FDR and the possibility that, if the Muppets do have a larger disability metaphor, maybe it’s potentially positive: what you see is what we have, but we are fully realized and need nothing else.
    Today’s blog: wrestling! So I’ll work up to exercise. Thanks again.

  4. Johannes says:

    Well, a muppet blog would be tempting–and I do have a perfect title, “Blogs in Space”–but I think such a blog would be something for Alicia and Abbie to start . . . Okay, I do have a blog idea (and yes, this thinking is being spurred by your blogging; I’d perhaps become a copycat blogger), it would be a blog about, well, language silence and translation and post-Holocaust poetry, and those kinds of Johannes themes. It does feel like such a seductive format. I am thinking about it.

    I’m wondering, isn’t the third-person self-referencing (sorry, word blob) connected to early childhood language use, before a sense of “self” develops? Ha! In a Derridaean twist, we could then say, we actually all start out on a meta level. (Johannes should perhaps read some Lacan before thinking these are great insights?)

    Interesting: I think the few times we see the complete body of Kermit (riding the bike, for instance) it seems to have a somewhat disturbing effect–I dunno, don’t those thin legs make him appear to be–crippled?

    What do you mean by “positive spins” for disability metaphors? I’m channeling my inner, dormant radical disability activist who claims that any depiction of disability is per se demeaning and, well, disabling.

    (Sorry for chatting so much here–don’t feel obliged to respond. It’s just so much fun commenting on your blog. And the layout is really awesome, I think.)

  5. jkavadlo says:

    You’re do right about self-referentiality as a childish mode as well as (rather than?) some kind of intellectualization. It explains Herman Cain’s and Donald Trump’s illeism, anyway.

    I’m not sure I accept that “any depiction of disability is per se demeaning and, well, disabling.” It reminds me of what I think of as Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War problem: any depiction of the war, even if his purpose it clearly to horrify viewers, at the same time tacitly glorifies war. But I wouldn’t want to see filmmakers stop depicting war, or people with disabilities, just because it’s so easy for it to be insulting or patronizing. It can also do good.

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