Into the rainbow with the Muppets
As far as sexually transgressive art creations go, Jim Henson’s Miss Piggy even challenges Dorian Gray. This hot, horny sow, whose current puppeteer has described her as “one of the most famous drag acts in the business”, may be innocently beloved by certain children for her karate chops and glamorous outfits. But she was created, as were most of the Muppets, with an adult audience in mind. Of his father’s aims, Brian Henson once said: “The years with the Muppets, it was really all targeted to adults. It was in a time when everything had to be safe for the whole family. But he was targeting adults.”
Henson, who died at 53 in 1990, was long open about his grown-up intentions for a barnyard of misfits prematurely herded into Sesame Street and the subsequent idea that he was “just” a children’s entertainer. But even if he had not been so candid about his MA15+ ambitions, Piggy made it plain.
Piggy, a former regional beauty queen who pulled herself up by the trotters to become the porcine world’s most famous fashion plate, always had progressive tastes. In her one-off 1982 variety special The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show, she personally selected Tony Clifton as her featured lounge-act. Clifton, a spoof lewd enough to make Charlie Hebdo read like Archie, was the work of the late Andy Kaufman and had been otherwise shunned for extreme offence and bad singing. Piggy was always as free as a connoisseur of art as she was of her love objects. It wasn’t just anyone who could offer Andy Kaufman a berth on TV, nor was it just any old pig who could publicly hump Rudolf Nureyev.
In 1978, Nureyev appeared as a guest star on TV’s original The Muppet Show, which was filmed, because of an initial lack of US network interest, in Britain. Arguably, the most influential and highly regarded male dancer of the 20th century, Nureyev appears with Piggy in a steam room to sing the steamy standard Baby, It’s Cold Outside. Piggy, who switches her voice, then provided by Yoda’s puppeteer Frank Oz, from one of heightened femininity to a truck driver’s sotto voce, pulls off the dancer’s towel, threatens to herself disrobe and rubs her snout lasciviously against his naked, perfect torso. Kermit, having been moments previously sow-handled by the insatiable Piggy, is unavailable to introduce the performance and so his Muppet-child nephew Robin apologises to the audience that the usual host is indisposed due to “high-heel marks on his face”. Elsewhere in this episode, Sam the American Eagle, Muppet superego and Richard Nixon caricature, has expressed disgust at the thought of dancing men in tights. Here, we have BDSM, homosexuality, female lust, nudity and a daddy president worried that he can’t contain all of this non-normative desire.
The very next week, Elton John appears as a guest and Sam demands to know why the star is so colourfully dressed, “like a stolen car”. He is told, by Scooter, that both Mozart and Thomas Jefferson wore more wigs and powder than Elton – a performer, we are reminded by Jordan Schildcrout (one of a surprising number of scholars writing on the Muppets truly “adult” themes), who had outed himself to press as queer the previous year – and that cross-dressing is a noble tradition. I missed all this felted perversion as a child, but this was of no matter to Henson, who really never played to children.
The new Muppets, simply called The Muppets and recently scheduled to air on US network prime time this year, no longer has the hurdle of appearing to appeal to kids. The show, yet to be locally scheduled, has a very promising trailer and appears to be a self-aware “behind the scenes” look at a Letterman-style talk show hosted by Piggy – finally, a woman of substance on late-night network TV! – and features many of the original Muppets. Superego Sam is present to disapprove and Animal, the Muppet id, reappears and promises, unprovoked, that “Animal do nudity, if tasteful”. Fozzie, the wretched comedian bear, is there, this time in an interspecies relationship with a human female whose family disapproves of the union. (“Where will your children go to the toilet? In the woods?” asks his fiancée’s father. Fozzie replies that this is an “offensive stereotype”.) Gonzo is back and openly appalled by the hackneyed reality show single-camera interview format, while the famously green Amphibian-American, who appears to be quietly enamoured of a new and even sluttier pig, maintains his usual neurotic enthusiasm for the show to go on. Beaker the industrial lab accident, the Swedish chef, jaded dog accompanist Rowlf and Dr Teeth with all of his Electric Mayhem are returned to a menagerie that will be judged by the world’s finest senior critics, Waldorf and Statler.
And, to television, this is not before time.
It was in 2011 that the Muppets released their first movie in 12 years and arguably the best of their long careers. With a screenplay by Jason Segel of How I Met Your Mother and original songs by Flight of the Conchords musical comedian Bret McKenzie, The Muppets was a full return to the characters and a close return to the sensibility that had made the original Henson production so very good. What this film, marketed to children, lacked in adult complexity it certainly made up for in disposing of middle-period Muppets such as the forgettable Clifford, a sort of Jar Jar Binks remnant with dreadlocks who called himself a “homey made of foamy”, or those sickening Muppet Babies. That it inspired critique from Fox News anchors, who claimed its plot to save the Muppet theatre from development was “communist”, was another point in the film’s favour. Only a Murdoch employee could see Stalin in a puppet’s proscenium arch.
Now that Fox has erroneously spoken, the Muppets have proved themselves viable and those of us weaned at the teat of a pig have grown to midlife in a post-Harry Potter market disposed to milk all our childish longing, the conditions for a true Henson revival are probably ideal. Finally, perhaps, this visionary will get the audience he always wanted.
Henson was just 17 when he took his first Muppet to television for an adult audience, and in the 1960s he produced a series of Muppet-led training films for IBM sales staff that were as hilarious as the genre could allow. Here, Cookie Monster eats a Muppet mainframe with the same heedless relish he would later visit on cookies. In the same decade, Rowlf, the been-around-the-block piano-playing dog, was selling dog-food on TV to the adult grocery buyer. Although Henson is commemorated with great respect by the then Children’s Television Workshop, he reportedly regretted the success of Big Bird, Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street for the way it transformed the filthy Muppet into a wholesome tool for early education. In an effort to shake off this ill-gotten innocence, Henson had his Muppets join the cast of the fledgling Saturday Night Live, where they were not well-received by writers, who considered them kids’ stuff. “I don’t write for felt,” said one who thereafter consigned the Henson skit, called The Land of Gorch, to the fate of punishment for unpopular SNL writers. The skit was quickly cut.
When Henson was offered a prime-time slot on ABC 40 years ago to test his creation, he gave it an unambiguously adult title. The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence included a beauty pageant for the Seven Deadly Sins, a Muppetised Mount Rushmore, three heads of which agreed that George Washington was a crashing bore, and featured a cameo of a waltzing Bert, who is struck by the charm of his partner whom the audience recognises as Ernie in a blonde wig.
Like all the very best nonsense, Henson’s provided audiences with something more than just a human construct based in the sociohistoric real. Like much of Lewis Carroll and a good deal of Dr Seuss, the performances within the Muppet-verse are able to exceed the everyday. Characters such as Gonzo the Great or Zoot the blue saxophone player are not situated within any ethnic or racial identity and even though Muppets tend to be gendered and overwhelmingly male, female Muppets, such as diva Piggy or rock-star Janice, don’t behave as ladies generally do. Henson’s was not exactly an Adults Only world. It didn’t exclude children but it certainly excluded behavioural and artistic norms. And not necessarily because Henson was trying to do, as has been copiously suggested by other critics, only a kind of social good. It was because he tried for so long to do artistic good.
When artfully arranged, the internal dynamics of nonsense can, like Carroll’s wonderland, momentarily refer only to themselves. The non-normative sex jokes in The Muppet Show were brilliant and we can only hope these and the contemporary political and media satire will be upheld in the new iteration by show runners Bill Prady (The Big Bang Theory) and Bob Kushell (Malcolm in the Middle). It’s not Muppets if it’s not sexually queer and culturally disrespectful.
But nor is it Muppets if it’s not completely off-its-face in the best absurd traditions. Let’s hope for those instances of penguins singing in a tabernacle choir, of Fozzie shrieking “the comedian’s a bear!” and of the gobbledegook of Mahna Mahna, as sung to Kermit by telephone, as much as we hope that Piggy will ravish a sexually ambivalent dancer or that Sam will make fun of Jeb Bush.
Satire is a powerful force for understanding and has always informed the Muppet way. Nonsense, on the other hand, liberates us from the need to understand. Let’s hope there’s enough Henson left in the Muppet workshop to give us just a few precious moments in which we understand precisely nothing. Mahna Mahna.
CINEMA Sydney Film Festival
Various venues, Sydney, June 3-14
VISUAL ART Here&Now15
Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Perth, until June 27
THEATRE The Goodbye Girl
The Arts Theatre, Adelaide, June 3-13
FAMILY Barunga Festival
Heritage Park, Barunga, Northern Territory, June 5-7
MUSIC Perth International Jazz Festival
Various venues, Perth, until May 31
CULTURE Scots Wha Hae: 200 Years of Scottish Influence
Immigration Museum, Melbourne, until May 31
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2015 as "Into the rainbow ". Subscribe here.