Saturday, May 1, 2010

WHAT? NO! NO, THEY CANNOT WATCH THE SHOW FROM BACKSTAGE. THAT'S IT! THAT'S WHAT'S BEEN MISSING FROM THE SHOW! THAT'S WHAT WE NEED! MORE FROGS AND DOGS AND BEARS AND CHICKENS AND... AND WHATEVER! YOU'RE NOT GONNA WATCH THE SHOW, YOU'RE GONNA BE IN THE SHOW! COME ON, EVERYONE! In watching The Muppets Take Manhattan with the girls again today, I found myself drawn to the meta question: does this movie (and, really, do any of the Muppet movies) take place in the same narrative universe as The Muppet Movie? Because clearly the Muppets can't have both formed in the sequence depicted by The Muppet Movie as well as attended college together before making their way towards Broadway. It's irreconcilable on its own terms, but I've got two ways worth looking at it:

The first comes from The House Next Door (who else?), which posits that each Muppet film essentially is a new production from a troupe of actors:
It occurred to me that the Muppets—as defiantly modernist as any children's entertainment (dig the fake film-burn midway through The Muppet Movie, which caused the projectionist at the theater I used to program to freak out mid-screening)—are also an update of one of the hoariest and oldest theatrical traditions: a Commedia dell'arte troupe. Establish Kermit and Miss Piggy as The Lovers (their love plot serves as a major narrative thread in nearly every Muppet movie, including this one) and the rest of the troupe falls into place: Gonzo as the deformed, foolish Pulcinella; Rowlf as the self-effacing, loyal Pedrolino; Fozzie as Arlecchino, the slow-witted clown. The Muppet films speak to us in part because they reapply centuries-tested comic traditions to addressing and critiquing television and film themselves. Part of Jim Henson's creative genius was that he understood how to walk that delicate line between traditional storytelling and self-conscious address, and The Muppets Take Manhattan is a thorough application of his style. There is no narrative continuity between The Muppets, The Muppet Movie, and The Muppets Take Manhattan, and it's the creators' strong ability to create dynamic characters that allows them this freedom.
The other theory is my own, and it's one which strives to integrate continuity into the film universe. Much as The Muppet Movie is a movie-within-a-movie about how the Muppets received The Standard Rich & Famous Contract and became stars (including towards its end the newly-famous Muppets filming an origins film), The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Great Muppet Caper and all the other Muppet films should be seen as the other films the now-famous Muppet actors are making within the universe of the first film. In other words, the first film is a story about the "real" Muppets becoming actors, and the rest are the films those actors have made -- with Fozzie Bear playing a character named "Fozzie Bear," etc. It explains, for example, how the "Kermit" and "Miss Piggy" characters can marry (in a musical within a movie, but for "real") at the end of Manhattan yet this marriage isn't acknowledged in subsequent films. These are the movies which Lew Lord of Worldwide Pictures signed them to make.

To be sure, Caper makes an explicit wink in this direction -- Kermit talks at the start of the film about the reporter roles that "Kermit," "Fozzie" and "Gonzo" are playing, but does so without tying himself to the prior narrative. Why not extend this all the way throughout the films? Isn't "The Muppet Show" just the variety show that these actors produce on their off days? Or, as usual, is this just a part of my brain which should have been more profitably devoted towards learning ERISA law?


  1. Heh. "ERISA."

  2. At my first firm, it was proposed to me that I train myself into becoming an ERISA litigator.  It was the first time it really hit me that it was up to me to chart my own career and not to just do whatever my employer told me would make *them* happy.  At this point, I can't even issue-spot something well enough to say "I think that presents an ERISA question.  Ask our ERISA guy."

  3. christy in nyc10:33 PM

    Well, I've definitely always thought of the Muppet characters in the movies as ficitonal characters being played by the "real" Muppets.

    With your offshoot theory, you mean that the The Muppet Show the TV show is the variety show they put on in their spare time, not The Muppet Show the stage show within the TV show? I ask because it seems pretty clear that the offstage personas of the characters on that show are professional failures and flat broke. I suppose that would have to be the case in either the original theory or the offshoot theory because, either way, The Muppet Show happened AFTER the Muppets starred in a big movie, both in real life and within the movie itself.

    I think with all the metatheatre going on in all the Muppet productions, we as fans crave to know which origin story is "real" for many reasons. The near-constant theme of shows about shows about shows invites the question. The fact that most of their movies are origin stories invites the question. The characters being mostly consistent despite the lack of story continuity invites the question. And the fact that we care about and relate to the characters, fully knowing that there's yet another meta layer of realness to them, in the form of a guy with a headset and a tired arm standing just below them invites the question. If none of these stories are "real," and yet there is a "real" Kermit, what's his "real" story?

    Even with order of the movies and shows being what they are, any one of the origin stories could be "real," in the sense that they are actually the "real" Muppet characters, now famous, going back and making a movie or show about how they met. They can't ALL be true, but one could be. The Muppet Movie and The Muppet Show are the two most likely candidates for this, I think. I'd lean most strongly toward the Muppet Show, if it weren't for the guest stars. I know it wasn't like SNL, where the guests were like "check out my latest movie," and most of the guests did have a timeless quality to them. But how to explain the appearance of, say, 15-year-old Brooke Shields? Then again, within the cannon of the show, having celebrities at all doesn't really make any sense, since The Muppet Show the stage show was nothing that would attract celebrities. So who knows?

    The more I think about it, the more it seems it might have been deliberately inscrutable. Also, this is more confusing than LOST.

  4. You're right to flag that issue with the tv show, because under the terms of the Rich and Famous Contract we wouldn't have the whole construct of needing to set up shop in Scooter's uncle's theater, etc.  So it would have to be the former if this fits at all -- namely, that they're "playing" somewhat struggling types but because they're in fact Rich and Famous they can land Mummenschantz and the stars of Star Wars to their show.

  5. 1.  No one's brain space should be devoted to ERISA law--though I know just enough to know "hmmm, maybe this is an ERISA problem--that's complicated.  I will flag it for someone else."

    2.  Why has children's entertainment been reduced so much in the past 20 years?  Yeah, there's more of it, but very little of it plays on the double level that made great kids' shows of the 70s-80s so effective (Muppets, Animaniacs, et al.)--offering both something for the kids and something for the parents.  This week, while on vacation, I was flipping from channel to channel and briefly watched an episode of "iCarly," which is apparently quite the tween sensation--my lord, it was awful--lazy writing, plotting, etc.--it made "Family Guy" look like a masterwork of story construction.  What made the older shows great is that they offered something for everyone, rather than narrowcasting.  There's a real space for that still, and I hope it's rediscovered.

    3.  The articles I've read about the upcoming Segel/Stoller Muppet relaunch is that it largely follows Adam's proposed storytelling technique/canon.

  6. Yo Gabba Gabba, Phineas and Ferb, hell Sesame Street all have things working on multiple levels.

    iCarly is brain cancer. It's one of the that-guy-from-Head-of-the-Class shows.

  7. christy in nyc12:38 AM

    Yeah, I think there's always been a wide range of really, really crappy kids' entertainment, among which are a few hard, shimmering gems, and today's field does have a few good ones. For every Animaniacs there were a thousand Popples, and man did I love both in their days, when I was the target age. It's just that the bad ones are so disposable that we barely even remember them once they're over. Plus the Muppet Show and Muppet movies weren't really for kids anyway.

  8. EnidV1:31 AM

    My son's favorite cartoon is Curious George.  We like it because it doesn't talk down to a 2 year old, and there's always narration or dialog that goes over his head but we laugh at it.  I don't let him watch a lot of the other kid's programming - nothing for him to get out of it and completely brain dead for adults.   The Muppets - and also Bugs Bunny - had plenty of over-their-head jokes.  Maybe the writers were more intelligent back then - and assumed that the audience was too...

  9. Lou W1:40 AM

    The Muppet Show was at least as much of a variety show aimed at grown ups as it was a kids show.  My whole family used to watch it, in the same way we all watched Cosby or MASH.  But there are kids shows today that my wife and I watch as well.

    As a parent of a 7, 6 and 4 year old, I can't believe anyone thinks this is a down period for Children's TV.  There are more kids shows on TV now that I enjoy than there were when I was a kid!  As mentioned, Phineas & Ferb is brilliant (I own the soundtrack for me...and the kids), Batman Brave and the Bold is the best superhero show for 6 & under ever (my kids have the entire book of Music Meister memorized), Avatar is the finest animated series I've ever seen, except for the Justice League series that ended a couple of years ago.  In educational programming I find Cyberchase to be shockingly effective at teaching my kids match, and suprisingly enjoyable.  Word Girl is laugh out loud funny and my 7 year old loves dropping his new words into conversations.

  10. Jenn.1:56 AM

    I have long wondered of the myriad Muppet origination stories, which one was the right one.  But maybe they are saving that one for the Next Great Muppet Movie.  In other news, have y'all seen the Muppets Stand By Me movie?  As the boyfriend would attest, I snicker inordinately.

    As a summer associate after my 2L year, I remember thinking, "The ERISA people at this firm are really nice, interesting people, and their lifestyles seem pretty good for firm lawyers.  It's a pity that I have no interest in ERISA."

  11. Robin3:07 AM

    A) I accept your Grand Unified Theory of Muppet Movies.
    B) It makes me sort of hate myself that commedia dell'arte makes me think about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
    C) Muppets Take Manhattan is my Return of the Jedi.  I'll explain: Return of the Jedi is way crappier than the first two Star Wars movies, but there exists a certain age window that refuses to acknowledge this because they saw Return of the Jedi at exactly the right age, which is I think is a small bell curve around age four, and it was the first Star Wars movie they saw in the theater.  Beware the children of the late 1970s!  Now, I was two months old when Muppets Take Manhattan came out, so I'll assume I saw it on the cable runs described in that House Next Door post.  But the important thing is when you are four, Muppets Take Manhattan is fucking amazing, and there are too many jokes in the Muppet Movie that you don't get (read: everything but "a fork in the road"). But even now that I'm older, I refuse to listen to reason about Muppets Take Manhattan being inferior, because part of me will always be the small child who had her first geekout when the Sesame Street cast appeared in the wedding scene.
    D) ERISA, ew!

  12. How fun!  I had a friend and her six year old son over for dinner last night and to watch The Muppet Movie - they'd never seen it.  Although, come to think of it, I've never seen the other Muppet movies. 

  13. christy in nyc9:27 AM

    The Muppets Take Manhattan is also my fave (like, my favorite movie, not even my favorite Muppet movie), and I won't listen to anyone saying it's not as good, and I was also quite young when it came out, and it's definitely the kid-friendliest of the three. That may even be why I like it most to this day--i have a natural inclination toward the kid-friendly, even as a grown-up.

    But there definitely were a lot of things that went over my head, mostly the New York references. And I think when I watch a movie enough times before I'm old enough to get references, it actually takes me much longer than they should to get them once I am old enough, because my brain goes on autopilot when I watch them. I've lived in New York for ten years now and my brain still has only the most tenuous of connections between the Central Park of the movie and the Central Park I know, or the Empire State Building of the movie and the Empire State Building I know. I think I was in college when I was in a food store and staring at a can of hominy grits, finally getting that one joke. ("How should I know how many? Count 'em yourself!")

    But my favorite Star Wars movie is Star Wars, so who knows?

  14. Benner9:59 AM

    Muppets > Everything, therefore Muppets > Erisa Law.  

    I did an ERISA class action case -- well, it was really a securities fraud case but brought under ERISA where the plaintiffs got the benefits of relaxed pleading and a statutory fiduciary duty, but the trade off was a much smaller class and having to litigate over the plan documents whose priority number one is to make it hard to sue over.  Really, I did the insurance coverage case over the ERISA lawsuit settlement, so I'm not sure any of this constitutes ERISA law.  

    "I got great tickets!" "Yeah?" "On the first train out of town!"

  15. Genevieve10:29 AM

    If it has to do with whether people are going to get their pension or health benefits, it's ERISA.  It's not that hard, and it's pretty darn relevant.  The new health care bill?  Mostly ERISA.  Bernie Madoff?  Mostly ERISA.

  16. One offshoot of this theory that hadn't occured to me is that "Robin" need not be Kermit's actual nephew, but just some well-connected child actor for whom the studio wanted to find a role in these films.

  17. Jordan12:35 PM

    I don't have much to add, since everyone's pretty much covered this Muppet universe thing, so I'll just say this:

    I find the Swedish Chef to be the high-point of comedy--if you don't find it funny, well, then you don't really have a sense of humor then, do you?

    also I've never been so moved by something on tv than when I was five and "Just One Moment" was on.

  18. Watchman5:02 PM

    It's like this...

    These particular muppets are the ones that Jacob identified as candidates, touched and brought to the Island of Manhattan.  One of them will have to replace him when he falls in the brave battle to keep evil (YMMV depending on your theology of Smoke Monsterhood) contained in Gotham. 

    Oh yeah, almost forgot.  This post is brought to you by the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42.

  19. KCosmo7:36 PM

    There's a hundred and four days of summer vacation, till school comes along just to end it
    and the ultimate problem for our generation is finding a good way to spend it:

  20. Heather K7:38 PM

    I was doing summer theatre the summer that Muppets in Space came out, and at the same time the Hastings in town was offering free rentals on children's movies including Muppets Take Manhatten, Great Muppet Caper and the Muppet Movie and it touched off a Muppet obsession!  And really even the bad Muppet movies are quite endlessly entertaining, and true true true loves of my heart (I too was the right childhood age for Manhattan).

    Also, if you are not aware almost all of those movies are available Netflix on Demand right now.

  21. Heather K7:40 PM

    I lied, just Manhattan and From Space.  I guess caper was bumped.

  22. Joseph J. Finn11:02 AM

    So were does The Muppet Christmas Carol fit under this theory? 

  23. christy in nyc5:33 PM

    Actually--as if I haven't commented on this topic enough already--I'm more curious how the Muppet Family Christmas fits in. That one brings together the core Muppets, the Sesame Street Muppets, and the Fraggles (plus Doc and Sprocket) under one roof (Fozzie's mother's) for Christmas.

    To me, it's pretty clear that despite the sense that the core Muppets are playing characters in their movies and shows, the Sesame Street Muppets "really" live on Sesame Street. And I'm less certain but still think that the Fraggles "really" live in Fraggle Rock. And all the characters in the Muppet Family Christmas play themselves. So is that "real"? Or were ALL those Muppets coming together to do a Christmas special, the plot of which is all those characters get stuck in a house together? I think it must be "real"--the Sesame Street characters "know" they're famous, sort of (it would get pretty complicated to hash that out actually), but how would Doc and Sprocket come to be in a TV special?

    With Muppet Christmas Carol, as with most licensed versions of that tale, I think it's pretty clear that Kermit the actor is playing Bob Cratchit. Mickey Mouse also played the same character. Plus, that's post-Henson, albeit one of the better post-Henson ones.