Muppet Monday

Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and Animal all facing the viewer, severely lit from one side, the other side of their faces in shadow
Photo © 2011 and characters TM/® The Muppets Studio LLC.

Above is a neat homage to the iconic, oft-mimicked Robert Freeman photograph
used on the cover to 1963’s With The Beatles and early the next year for the US release Meet The Beatles! It’s from a recent Parade article titled “Meet the Muppets (Again!)” — which is also the general theme of this post.

I’m of the first generation to grow up with Sesame Street, which is where I first met the Muppets. Perhaps because I was an early reader, however, it didn’t have much to teach me in terms of letters and numbers; I was better suited to its PBS companion The Electric Company. The Muppet Show was actually much more like The Electric Company or the grown-up SCTV than like Sesame Street, with its conceit of showing
us not only a series of skits and songs but the backstage antics that were taking place in the fictional universe where the Muppets themselves — rather than the human Muppeteers, production crew, et al. — were staging the production.

Sesame Street can still fill me with nostalgia, though, and what’s more it still holds
my interest on the admittedly rare occasion when I check in on new episodes. I took a class on Sesame at Oberlin — it was one of the most popular courses in the ExCo (Experimental College) department, and I think I gained a greater appreciation for the show as an adult than I had as a kid. A TV special called Sesame Street: 20 and Still Counting aired on NBC the year before (Sesame and I, born in 1969 and 1970 respectively, are both in our 40s now); that special was followed by the debut of the short-lived series The Jim Henson Hour, an anthology whose segments included The StoryTeller (which later ran on HBO) and an unsuccessful Muppet Show update called MuppeTelevision.

Part old-time vaudeville, part contemporary variety series, The Muppet Show also
came with a heaping dollop of the irreverence found in the more counterculture, postmodern sketch projects of the era like SCTV, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Saturday Night Live. Yet it could also be eminently sincere, and that’s a large measure of its charm — the rascally but reassuring Muppet spirit abounded whether Steve Martin was goofily guest-starring or the show was staging a surreal sketch around Harry Nilsson’s “[Put the Lime in the] Coconut” or Kermit the Frog was duetting with Helen Reddy on her endearingly schmaltzy single “You and Me against the World” (penned by Paul Williams, who co-wrote “The Rainbow Connection” for The Muppet Movie).

There’s a short video accompanying the aforementioned Parade article in which
Kermit and Miss Piggy offer gift-giving tips. Over at the Muppets Studio YouTube channel, among the most recent content is “Animal’s Holiday Guide”; while the spot is little more than another promo for The Muppets, any excuse for a dose of Animal is
all right by me.

As the winter holidays are drawing near, I’m rounding out this post with some recommendations of my own for the Muppet enthusiasts in your life. Links in bold go to entries on the unofficial but insanely informative Muppet Wiki. [Note: There were also links to purchase various items on Amazon; I’ve opted to discontinue the blog’s affiliate status.]

My sister loved the 2006 DVD set of Sesame Street: Old School Volume One, covering 1969-1974, which I got her one recent Chanukah. I’ve yet to see it, because she has the nerve to live on the other side of the country, but she periodically threatens to bring it when she visits. The only thing keeping me from getting it for myself is the fact that I already have so danged many things metaphorically if not literally queued up to watch.

I suspect that I’ll be moved to get ahold of those Old School packages once I read Michael Davis’s Street Gang: The Complete History of ‘Sesame Street’. Among the many official and unofficial items released around the show’s 40th anniversary, it was quite well reviewed, and I picked up a remaindered copy of the 2008 hardcover at Borders last year. I’ve always loved reading behind-the-scenes stuff, in print and these days online, at times even more than I enjoy reading or watching the stuff that’s being written about. The 2009 softcover apparently corrects some errors from the first edition; audio versions are available too, both abridged via Audible and unabridged on CD, read by Carroll Spinney (performer of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch).

For a wider look at Sesame Street’s history than the Old School efforts, there’s the
2009 set Sesame Street: 40 Years of Sunny Days. The extras that complement the best-of excerpts on this pair of discs, which also comes with a commemorative booklet, sound awesome. And where else can you find Batman, Alicia Keys, Pixar’s Luxo Jr., Fonzie, Pee-Wee Herman, Robert De Niro, and Madeline Kahn all in one box of educational goodness?

One more DVD to note before we move on from Sesame Street is The Best of ‘Sesame Street’ Spoofs!, released this past summer. It contains song parodies like “Hey Food” and “Rebel L”; such TV spoofs as “A’s Anatomy”, “Hill Street Twos”, and “RSI: Rhyme Scene Investigation”; and the bonus clip Grover’s “Smell Like a Monster” (which I shared here previously).

When The Muppet Show: Season One was released on DVD in 2005 for Kermit
the Frog’s 50th anniversary, I was thrilled, only having seen compilation VHS cassettes now and then since the series went off the air in 1981. I’m still waiting to get ahold of it (as well as later seasons) and dig in; the home-video release of the new Muppets movie next year might be just the occasion. You’ll find a breakdown on The Muppet Wiki of just what’s in the collections devoted to Seasons One, Two, and Three. A Season Four release was announced for 2010 and then postponed; no word on when it or Season Five will be released at The Muppet Wiki, which notes on its Season Four page that Walter of The Muppets fame pleaded with Disney to put them out in a promotional interview for the film. You’d think that the film’s own release would be the perfect time, because not only is there a resurgent interest in everything Muppet but The Muppet Show itself is a plot point in the movie.

I’d already planned on trying to carve out some time for rewatching the first, original, accept-no-substitutes Muppet movie, 1979’s The Muppet Movie, and its successors when The Muppets arrives on DVD. The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, and Muppets from Space were all either rereleased in 2005 or — in the case of Manhattan and Space, whose distribution rights apparently rest with Sony rather than Disney — rereleased in 2011 as Blu-Ray/DVD combo packs.

Last month a cousin of mine who one day could well join the ranks of creative folks
at Disney, Pixar, or Muppets central (if he doesn’t launch his own company instead) received from me as a birthday gift Henson’s Place: The Man behind the Muppets. I haven’t seen it yet, but the 2010 DVD sounds great; it’s a documentary made in 1984 covering Henson’s career from his first TV series, Sam and Friends — which debuted in 1955 and introduced Kermit in pre-frog form — through the planning of the feature film Labyrinth, with attention naturally paid to Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, the first two Muppet movies, Fraggle Rock, and The Dark Crystal.

Of course this only scratches the surface of Muppet material out there, but I hope that
it points you in the direction of discovery or rediscovery — whether you’re shopping for a Muppet maven or looking to treat yourself.

Related: Muppet Monday (Sept. 26th) Heart, Felt Muppet Monday (Dec. 26th)

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