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The Muppets: So….What’s Next?

Let’s take a look at the few main options, shall we?

Live Appearances

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The news about The Muppets performing live at the Hollywood Bowl this coming September was certainly welcome (even if I’ll never be able to enjoy it myself). Ever since the San Diego Comic Con panel back in 2015, Disney seems to be loosening the binds on their precious illusion. Before then, the company seemed determined to ‘keep the magic alive’ by keeping the Muppet Performers hidden in almost all appearances. There have been some great events since that time, including a panel at the D23 Expo called The Magic Behind the Muppets, An interview with Steve Whitmire and Eric Jacobson at last year’s Vulture Fest in New York and the incredibly performed live appearance by the Electric Mayhem at Outside Lands in San Francisco.

The Hollywood Bowl performances will likely be conducted similarly to the way The Muppets were performed at their Just For Laughs Gala in Montreal a few years ago. There will be a mix of the audience seeing the puppeteers and the Muppets “standing” behind props and sets. I can imagine it will be a very raw, off the cuff type of performance with plenty of guest stars to interact with. Hopefully it will be the beginning of many live performances to come, not only in America, but around the world (please?).

While some people may not be comfortable with seeing the Muppets in such an illusion-cracking way, so many others, such as myself, would love the opportunity to see the Muppet Performers work, while still enjoying the characters as we know and love them. Personally, I’m more a fan for the art and the performers of the Muppets then I am the actual characters. To state the obvious, the characters certainly wouldn’t be who they are without the talents and skill of their puppeteers. Any recognition they receive through these type of appearances is always welcome.

Whether it’s a television appearance, stage appearance or even a convention panel, you can bet that I’ll watch and laugh, while inwardly hoping I can catch a glimpse of the performers. If there is any direction Disney is taking the franchise in that I approve of, you can bet that this is the one.

YouTube

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With the new Pigs in Space skits now being released (if my information is correct, we should be expecting at least two more), there has been discussion on what other Muppet Show sketches could come back for a very brief cameo. Veterinarians Hospital returned during the two-part finale of The Muppets (2015), confirming that Bill Barretta, David Rudman and Eric Jacobson would do a fine job with Rowlf, Janice and Piggy if more sketches were to be produced in the future. There are other classics like At The Dance and Bear On Patrol, which may make for great videos, but probably wouldn’t get the same popular reaction that the former two sketches have already received.

Some of the best content we’ve seen from the Muppets for the past 10 years has been on YouTube. And by best, I generally mean that the characters stay ‘true to themselves’ and are able to return to their roots. The Muppet Show consisted of short sketches and songs, something which can be easily replicated on a video-oriented platform. Whether they are doing their own thing or collaborating with YouTube stars, it’s not difficult to recognise that there is potential in The Muppets putting content on a platform that is so attached to social media. There will always be more opportunities online, especially with the cost to produce videos being substantially lower than a TV show or even a stage show.

If there is anything I’d really like to see in the future, it would be 5 to 10 minute mini-episodes with The Electric Mayhem trying to get a gig as the opening act for different touring bands and failing miserably. Not only would the featured bands get to promote their stuff, but we could see a lot more of the Mayhem and discover what makes them tick as a group. Unlike other secondary Muppets, the Mayhem don’t seem to need Kermit or Piggy present for casual fans to recognise them as Muppets (of course, Animal probably has a lot to do with that), they can just be their own little branch of the franchise. Boy, do I wish this would become a reality!

Campaigns

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about The Muppets influence in popular culture and what they might be able to accomplish with that kind of power. Sure, they can use it to promote and produce more Muppet content, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but what about the wider world? With so much negativity in the world, the Muppets have what it takes to follow Sesame Street and become a powerhouse in promoting a mentally and physically healthy lifestyle while being tolerant and understanding of others, among other things. The Muppets certainly have taken part in charity drives and welfare campaigns in the past, but there is always the need for more.

One particular idea I’ve concocted is for Miss Piggy to become an ambassador for an organisation along the lines of I Am B.E.A.U.T.I.F.U.L where she promotes a healthy sense of self-esteem for women of all ages. Piggy could do funny videos with celebrities or interview women who have battled with their internal struggles in the past. To have a feminist icon like Piggy approaching such a touchy and heavy-handed subject in a way that is both entertaining and educational could be beneficial for those who may be too scared or confused to confront their own issues.

Of course, you could also have a male Muppet do the same for an organisation supporting men’s welfare. What better way to get the Muppets out there then to have them be a symbol of positive change in the world? Get Kermit fighting for the environment, have Rowlf support the adoption of animals from shelters. Heck, even have Gonzo endorsing different types of arts, even in its oddest forms! The Muppets can be great teachers and it would be a shame to not use them to their full potential.

Another TV Show?

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Ever since The Muppets (2015) flopped its sorry way to cancellation, there have been many attempts to pin point what exactly went wrong with the series. It seemed to be heading in a very promising direction, which may have improved if it had been given a second season to grow. Was it the premise? The adult humour? The lack of Muppet music? The characters being pushed a little further than what the audience was comfortable with?

I’m going to keep it simple and suggest that it was all of the above. While there were many plotlines, bits of dialogue and moments that had fans tugging at their collars and wincing, there were still a few stand out episodes that made the show worth watching. Episode nine, Going, Going Gonzo was an excellent example of what could be achieved if the writing was of great Muppety quality. The idea behind having the series be a mockumentary was the opportunity to explore the characters in our ‘reality’, while still having that same irreverence and quirkiness the Muppets are renowned for. Not only was Gonzo able to explore that crazy side of himself and figure out why exactly he loved his stunts, but the episode’s humour brought out the best in (most) of the characters.

So, if a mockumentary format isn’t right for The Muppets, then what is? I constantly see online comments from fans suggesting they bring The Muppet Show back for a hugely belated sixth season. While I would love to watch a small series of reunion specials, bringing back such an iconic show isn’t necessarily a foolproof idea. People would certainly watch it for the nostalgia, but once that wore off, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the popularity quickly drop off, or even cause complaints that the current Muppet team has run out of original ideas. I’m certainly not suggesting that the current Muppet Performers and writers couldn’t pull it off, in fact, they’ve proven to match up to the old guard on multiple occasions. I just think that The Muppet Show should be left where it is: in the past with Jim Henson, Jerry Juhl and the old team where it can stay an untouched classic.

If the executives of The Muppets Studio were to drag me to their headquarters, stick a laptop in-front of me and demand that I come up with a concept for a new show (If only they would!), I’d start by looking at the best and worst attributes of The Muppet Show, Muppets Tonight and The Muppets (2015). I’d then examine current entertainment/comedy shows and try to gain a general consensus of what Muppet fans (both obsessive and casual) want from their beloved characters. Perhaps I’d even delve into Muppet history and see if there were any promising projects that never came to fruition.

Even without doing all of that, I do have a concept for a Muppet show based on what I’d personally like to see. The show would consist of both live and pre-recorded segments. Basically The Tonight Show with the humour of The Muppet Show and a structure similar to Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday. Scooter and/or Pops could run the cold openings and Kermit could attempt to try to get through the opening monologue without some Muppet mayhem ruining it. The celebrity guest stars would be encouraged to try and do things they usually aren’t allowed to do. As you can imagine, this would lead to songs and sketches. There could be at least one interview per episode, conducted by any Muppet the interviewee requests. They could even showcase newcomers to the entertainment scene (including puppeteers)

You may be thinking this is just like The Muppet Show with a couple of small changes, but this concept, which I’m calling Muppets Up Late for a working title, is just as much about showing the world how to interconnect as it is about making people laugh. How many real-world dramas have been created due to a lack of communication and understanding? How many people need to learn how to laugh at themselves and appreciate the quirks and flaws they have? My concept includes segments where various Muppets venture into the world to experience different cultures, events and learning new ideas. Among the usual chaos and hilarity, why not make the audience think that little bit deeper?

Another Movie?

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Perhaps this could be an option in the near future, but considering how Muppets Most Wanted fared, and then the cancellation of The Muppets (2015) a year later, I think it would be wise to rebuild everything from the ground up. With all the other options I have discussed in this article, a feature film doesn’t seem to be a top priority. Would it be great to see The Muppets in the cinema again? Yes, certainly. But Disney doesn’t seem to be interested in throwing money at a franchise that barely made a profit from its last film. I’d suggest sitting back and enjoying the smaller projects as they come. When a new film is on the horizon, The Muppets will hopefully be in a much better place.

Super Quick Reviews: Into the Woods (2014)

(Super) Quick Reviews: Into the Woods (2014)

Genre: Fantasy/Musical

Based On: Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine

Director: Rob Marshall

Screenplay by: James Lapine

Cinematographer: Dion Smith

Composer: Stephen Sondheim

Starring: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski and Johnny Depp

Synopsis: When a witch reveals she placed a baby-preventing curse on the household of The Baker and His Wife, she gives them a chance to have the spell removed. As they set off to find the Cow as White as Milk, The Cape as Red as Blood, The Hair as Yellow as Corn and the Slipper as Pure as Gold before the blue moon, they stumble across other fairy-tale characters in the middle of their own adventures. Inadvertently, each and every one of them find their stories intertwining, with the Woods as the stage.

I’ve never seen the original staged-musical, but even then, I still can’t help but think that the plot is rather squished into a feature film format. There were some scenes which were obviously rushed for time and the plot sometimes leaves some blaring holes. Other than that, there’s certainly nothing to dislike about it. The casting was well executed (Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp in particular), allowing for fresh and fun performances throughout. I particularly enjoyed the cinematography, not a single boring shot in the entire film. It couldn’t have been easy to work with such earth-oriented settings, but the warmth and coldness of the forest was portrayed rather well.

Highlight: ‘On the Steps of the Palace’ had a wonderful concept behind it, with Anna Kendrick as Cinderella contemplating what she really wanted while time simply stops. Wouldn’t we all like time to pause for a moment when we have important decisions to make? It’s a great idea and a huge pleasure to watch.

Lowlight: While I realise they were going for perception-through-obscurity, it was a shame they didn’t give Frances de la Tour more screentime as the Giant.

The music was masterfully performed and the songs themselves were fun, but I couldn’t call it my favourite musical. A solid effort in any case.

3/5 Golden Slippers

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Dirty, Rotten Muppets: Lessons for the Muppet “Critics”of the Comment Sections

You’re on YouTube, watching a clip of one of your most favourite Muppet moments. For example, let’s say that you’re once again enjoying Alice Cooper and his Muppet monster band rocking to ‘Welcome to My Nightmare’ on The Muppet Show. The clip ends, you’re smiling away and just for kicks, you decide to cruise through the comment section.

But then you see them.

The ever-present banes of every Muppet Fan’s online experience.

‘Best Seseme Street episode EVER!!!’

‘What’s next? Marilyn manson with the telletubies?’

‘Are you kiddind me? This is way to horrible 4 kidds!!! Wheres Emo and big bard?’

(Okay, I’ll admit I made that last one up. But come on, you know you’ve seen comments exactly like that!)

I’ll also admit that the annoyance many of us feel is rather silly and irrational. Despite what we’d love to believe, not everyone has a Muppet encyclopedia installed in their brains. It really shouldn’t be that surprising, but we are still taken aback that some people haven’t even the slightest bit of knowledge. We’ve seen it with the whole Cookie Monster/Veggie Monster debacle, Kermit and Piggy’s relationship and Bert and Ernie’s friendship. As irrational as it may be, the Muppet Fandom still has to contend with people who can’t even bother to spend 10 seconds on Google to debunk their grievances.

So what exactly should we tell -if we can be bothered-people who get angered by the slightest bit of adult humour in Muppet productions if they don’t even know the necessary differences? For this conversation, I’m keeping it to the characters owned by The Muppets Studio.

Although they were an extreme case, One Million Moms were not the only ones disappointed and annoyed by the mature themes explored in The Muppets (2015) TV show. Personally, I loved that aspect of the show, considering it was done rather tastefully in my opinion, but many other viewers are still hung up on the nostalgia factor. They didn’t want to hear Kermit talk about ‘cross-promoting’ or watch Gonzo catfish a women while online dating. They just wanted the happy-go-lucky, crazy singing and dancing Muppets they remember from The Muppet Show.

Is it just me or are they forgetting that The Muppet Show wasn’t always that innocent either?

The Muppets are Not Sesame Street

The Muppets and the Sesame Street ‘Muppet’ cast are not one and the same. They are not exchangeable and they follow two very separate agendas geared towards different demographics. I know this has been previously covered on ToughPigs.com but it’s an important enough factor to be explained again here.

There are two common causes for this particular misconception. The first being a certain green, 11 point-collared frog who has even wandered into Fraggle Rock. Kermit the Frog was among the original cast of Muppets in the very first season of Sesame Street. The kids of the 70’s would be lectured on the alphabet by Kermit in the morning, then watched on as he tried to keep the Muppet Theatre in one piece on The Muppet Show at night. Many of these kids have grown up to be those same adults who complain about new Muppet projects being ‘too adult’. Their memories of Kermit have faded, then blended together in a Sesame/Muppet Show haze. Suddenly, they believe they remember Miss Piggy teaching Big Bird his ABC’s, when really, she was trying to karate chop him because he unwittingly insulted her. Miss Piggy, just like all of the other Muppets, has never officially been on the Street. Kermit is the only exception.

Update: As it turns out, I stand corrected! It’s been pointed out on the ToughPigs.com Forum (thanks to Ryan Roe for the shout-out!) that Beautiful Day Monster has also been on Sesame Street in the past.  I really should have taken into account that some of the more obscure characters had a habit of turning up where ever they were needed. I guess you really do learn something new everyday!

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The second cause for confusion with casual fans would be the fact that the Sesame and Muppet Show Muppets have teamed up on multiple productions in the past. During the Jim Henson era, his company owned the characters of both of these productions. This lead to multiple cross-overs, including Sesame characters guest-starring on The Muppet Show, making cameos in the Muppet films and a few projects such as The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years where just about every character came together at once. That can’t happen these days. Not without careful legal planning anyway. The Jim Henson Company sold the Sesame cast to Sesame Workshop in 2001 and then The Muppets to The Walt Disney Company in 2004. Kermit can no longer appear on the Street, although Sesame does have permission to use the Kermit-clips produced before 2004.

The characters of Sesame Street aim to educate children in an entertaining fashion. The Muppets are an entertainment troupe who work together to make people of all ages laugh without offending anyone. They have absolutely no obligations towards their former cousins to behave just as innocently. There’s no age-restriction blocking the Muppets’ material, so they can be as clean or as raunchy as they want. The reason why they haven’t gone too far is due to the current Muppet Performers, writers and producers want to continue Jim’s method of accommodating for everyone.

Which brings me to my next point-

Nobody Should Expect the Muppet Performers to Act like Saints

Recently, long-time performer Dave Goelz during the 2015 D23 expo’s Magic of the Muppets panel, remarked on how a lot of what they do is to keep themselves entertained during the extremely draining production period, which can easily be up to 16 hours per day.

You can listen to Dave at the D23 Expo on episode #259 ofThe MuppetCast at MuppetCast.com

In between takes, it’s not unusual for the performers to begin goofing-off and have a play around with the characters. The Muppets may say and do things that the producers wouldn’t dare to release to the public during these breaks, which recently sparked the idea for the hilariously crude Puppet Up improv shows that the Jim Henson Company have been running. This practice helps to keep the overall performance and energy fresh.

In fact, there have been many times where this playful improvisation has caused the performer to discover something new about the character. Miss Piggy wouldn’t be the feminist powerhouse she is today if Frank Oz hadn’t been messing around with her just before a take, karate-chopping Kermit instead of punching him as the script directed. Frank ended up using the idea in the actual take and poof, a star was born!  Her complicated personality was ignited from that one single moment in time. Sometimes, it’s extremely important to allow The Muppets to be ‘adult’ because it can spark something entirely new.

Things really aren’t that much different on Sesame Street. For those of my readers who aren’t familiar with all of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans, the performers who work there function very much the same way. Code words such as ‘blue-sky’ are called out when there are children present, simply to keep the performers in check with thier language. They are adults. They are not going to censor themselves the entire time they are on set and nobody should expect them to. Considering that more than half of the primary performers on Sesame also work freelance with The Muppets Studio, I’m really not surprised they don’t change their work-ethic despite the change in age demographic.

No matter what the casual Muppet fans may complain about, the Muppet Performers certainly do care about the presentation of their characters, but they also need that space to just be adults. They’re just having fun with it and have no intentions of hurting anyone’s feelings in the process. Yes, sometimes things can slip through the cracks that end up on the TV screen, but is that really such a bad thing? Let the Performers mess around. Their job is painful enough without constantly having to censor themselves.

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Jim Henson Would Not Be ‘Rolling in His Grave’

Okay, first of all, Jim was cremated after his death, so that is completely invalid. How many times have I come across that one ‘fact’ in a Facebook comment section?

From 1955 to 1961, the late-night, 5-minute time-slots Jim had been provided with every night for Sam and Friends on WRC-TV in Washington, had been filled with skits and sketches that emulated Jim’s very clever and mature sense of humour. This was something he had wanted to build upon as his projects slowly grew bigger in ambition. However, despite his success with Sam and the obscure cast of Muppets who accompanied him, there was a certain question that began to linger in the back of his mind.

Was Jim wasting his time playing around with puppets?

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He had known since he was a kid that he was destined for television, and the Muppets had been his key to breaking into the business, but was it really what he wanted to do in the long run? The answer came from a life-altering trip around Europe, as Jim came to discover how seriously puppetry was taken as an art-form in that area of the world. The maturity and sensibility of the performances he had witnessed in Europe was something Jim wanted to emulate in his own work to a certain degree. He wasn’t wasting his time with The Muppets, Jim was just looking at it from the wrong perspective.

When Sesame Street rolled around in 1969, Jim biggest fear was that he would become trapped under the label of ‘children’s entertainer’ as the show became more and more of a smash hit. While he would always be proud of his contribution to the show, it had curbed that very adult sense of humour Jim was so fond of  wielding. Jim needed to go bigger. He needed a project which would be in his full control where he was far less encumbered by an age demographic.

Which is where The Muppet Show came in. Unsurprisingly, the big US networks didn’t find the thought of giving 30 minutes of prime-time to the man behind the cutesy kiddie-show puppets very appealing. Jim was going to have to play hard-ball with this one. The first attempt, The Muppets Valentine Show pilot (1975) didn’t exactly bring the offers rolling in, but the second attempt, which Jim subtly entitled The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence, seemed to get the point across. Although not to the US Networks, but to Lord Lew Grade over in England, who eventually snapped Jim up and offered him the chance of a lifetime. It’s just as well- Jim and his colleagues were one more sketch away from being thrown off Saturday Night Live anyway!

For the sake of not turning this article into a thesis -long event, I won’t make up a list of ‘adult’ Muppet moments (that’s for another article I’m going to have a heap of fun researching for). The brief history lesson I just gave should be enough to convince people how Jim actually fought tooth-and-nail for any opportunity to provide the type of entertainment he excelled in. The Muppets have always been and will always be for people of all ages. They can relate to everyone from the newest born baby, all the way up to the oldest person in the world. They aren’t children’s characters that can appeal to adults, they are adult characters that are child-friendly.

So there you are! I’m sure the vast majority of Muppet Fans would love it if we didn’t have to put up with people who don’t understand these three very simple concepts. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has put her fingers to work, responding to these types of silly comments in the hopes that we might just leave someone who little bit more educated about the topic they tried to critique. But let’s face it, who really has the time and the patience to do that every single time?

Certainly not me. That’s for sure.

Special thanks to Muppet Wiki for being my savior when it comes to providing info for my articles.