The Muppet Show: The Enduring Genius of Jim Henson

03/10/2014

As my son has gotten older, my husband and I have had great fun introducing him to the television shows and movies we loved when we were his age. It’s been a rare treat watching him enjoy for the first time the shows that shaped our youth. What’s also been great has been how Greg and I are watching them from a different (read: adult) perspective, thereby allowing us to appreciate things we did not before. And what I’ve taken away from watching The Muppet Show this time around is that, among other things, I miss Jim Henson more than ever. Although I always knew the man was a genius, I didn’t appreciate how much of one he was until I started watching The Muppet Show again. He was an exceptional talent.

While Sesame Street (which also stars Muppets) is for young children, The Muppet Show (1976-1981) was for older kids. It no longer concentrated on helping children read or learn their numbers and colors but instead focused on teaching kids about popular culture (via its celebrity guest stars and musical numbers), different forms of word play and, most importantly, about our society. In its guise of a variety program directed by Kermit the Frog, The Muppet Show was, in actuality, our society in miniature. And although he didn’t depict many pie-in-the-sky ideals, Jim Henson and his staff slyly provided commentary on what it is we do.

“I’ve always tried to present a positive view of the world in my work. It’s so much easier to be negative and cynical and predict doom for the world than it is to try and figure out how to make things better. We have an obligation to do the latter.”

Henson’s view of the world did make things better. For example, one of the biggest stars was Miss Piggy (a literal ham), an unapologetic narcissist who nevertheless showed girls what a truly empowered female with high self-esteem looks like. She presented herself as both feminine and assertive, demonstrating that women can be many different things at the same time. In one scene, she could be dressed in a pink satin dress and talk in a breathy voice (a la Marilyn Monroe) while in the next act, she would be assertive and use a big voice to make sure she was heard. Miss Piggy had no problem calling herself liberated and she always went after what she wanted. I particularly enjoyed the fact that, as a pig, she liked to eat and did so without abandon. This was a clever message to girls that “ladylike” can mean whatever we want it to mean, even so far as eating what we want, being plus size and taking up space (“Pigs in Space!”).

Miss Piggy wasn’t the only one exhibiting women’s rights though. Many of the Muppets and guest stars flexed their feminist muscles. In one such skit, guest star Candice Bergen made some hilarious faces to the folksy song “Put Another Log on the Fire” (a song about how poorly a man treats a woman) and ended the skit by putting on a t-shirt with the female symbol on it and leaving the singer.

Henson also was ingenious in how he presented new perspectives on old concepts. In doing so, the show became subversive, something that in and of itself is quite unique. Just try and name a show for children as revolutionary and rebellious as The Muppet Show was. I’d be willing to bet that even with the thousands of channels we have today (with some designed exclusively for children), you can only come up with one or two. Yet The Muppet Show was fearless in how it depicted our society, both as it is and how it should be. For example, one skit took on the meaning of beauty and how people see the world by showing how paintings of a beautiful woman reflect the artist: Miss Piggy painted herself, Animal threw a riot of paint on the canvas, and Gonzo painted a woman with his nose.

Other examples included themes and gags that ran throughout the show. There were the two old men hecklers (modeled after the famous movie reviewers, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert) who demonstrated Henson’s gentle way of mocking his critics. There was the indictment of corporate America via Scooter, the nephew of the man who owned the theatre. Scooter didn’t have much talent or ability but, through his connections, almost always got what he wanted. Sam the American Eagle – that symbol of our national pride – may have been Henson’s way of tweaking conservatives. Sam always talked about traditional values and was excited to introduce acts by the bland Wayne and Wanda but something bad always happened to them and they never finished a song.

One of the biggest subversive themes was in how love was presented. Henson gave us several interesting couples but it was the duo of Miss Piggy and Kermit that underscored his refrain of acceptance. Although the inter-species romance of a frog and a pig was played for laughs, through them Henson turned the tables on how we view couples. Miss Piggy, the female, was the one who was domineering and desirous of affection. Kermit, the male half, was theoretically in control yet gave in to her demands not just to avoid conflict but also because he cared about her and believed in the power of love. It was no accident that he was the one who sang “The Rainbow Connection,” a sweet song about love, dreams and magic; Kermit was the romantic. And the fact that the two of them were so different was just an accepted fact, not a reason to keep them apart.

Another one of Henson’s most enduring bits of genius is the “Mah Na Mah Na” song. Although it originally played on Sesame Street, I saw it for the first time on The Muppet Show (for those playing along at home, the episode with Juliet Prowse). Not only is the song catchy, it is memorable and imminently singable, even for kids. In fact, my family bonded with a fellow traveler a while back when we discovered that he had the song on his iPod because his 5 year old son loves it so much. However, it is not just the song itself that is so wonderful; it’s also the symbolism it represents.

For those of you who are not familiar with it, the song has a “Doo doo” refrain sung by two creatures interspersed with a “mah na mah na” said/sung by a man. At times, the man tried to joyously insert his own melody only to be stopped when the creatures look at him and shake their heads. Although they are puppets with unchanging expressions, you can tell that they disapproved of his efforts to deviate from the norm and the man allowed his individual melody to be silenced. However, while letting them be in overall control, he also put his own unique spin by saying his line from different places – up close, far away and, finally, in a telephone call to Kermit from off-stage. Thus, the message I think Henson was trying to give is that when your unique nature is repressed, find other ways to make yourself heard. That’s what he tried to do.

Jim Henson once said, “When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world. My hope still is to leave the world a little bit better for my having been here.” You can rest easy, Jim, because you certainly did.

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