How The Muppets were post-modern before it was cool
Posted on: 24/09/2015
Earlier this month Jim Henson’s beloved Muppets went back to air with a brand new TV show inspired by the mockumentary format of The Office. It's the latest in a long history of the Muppets playfully interacting with their audience. Critic Luke Buckmaster revisits all eight theatrically released Muppets movies and explains how they were post-modern before post-modern was cool.
Fans of The Muppets have been greeted with lots of good news in recent years. Jim Henson’s beloved puppet-like comedy troupe have entered the zeitgeist afresh, with two movies since 2011 and a recent TV show marking their first foray into prime time in two decades.
The show’s format has been given a contemporary rejig, using a mockumentary style inspired by The Office – complete with handheld documentary-like footage and cutaways to one-on-one direct to camera interviews. Floppy-nosed daredevil Gonzo described the technique in the trailer as “a totally over-used device.”
The so-called ‘mockumentary sitcom’ did indeed spread far and wide, the structure for many shows arriving in the wake of The Office including mega hits Modern Family and Parks and Recreation. It is nothing if not post-modern: an effective way of drawing attention to (and playing with) storytelling conventions.
A still from the new The Muppets Show
There is more than a patina of truth in jokes about the format being stale and hackneyed, but it is nevertheless a great fit for The Muppets. The gang of colourful furry creatures have a long, storied and pun-spangled history in self-aware storytelling; they were being post-modern and breaking the fourth wall before it was cool. The latter expression is often associated with characters looking directly at the camera but can apply more broadly to an awareness of their fictional nature.
The recurring commentary from Statler and Waldorf, the old men who heckle characters from their balcony seats, is the Muppets’ best-known self-referential running gag. But the Muppets movies – eight in total, excluding those made for TV – are strewn with other examples, from shows within shows to commentary made directly to the audience and various ways of playing with form and character.
Statler and Waldorf
The original Muppet’s film, 1979’s The Muppet Movie, begins in ultra meta mode, opening in a studio lot where the cast gather to watch the movie we’re about to see. In this movie-within-a-movie Kermit sings "The Rainbow Connection" in his swamp home (all these years later a beautiful, magical scene) and is approached by a Hollywood agent in a canoe.
The agent says he has lost his sense of direction. Kermit responds by asking whether he has tried Harry Krishna. When Fozzie repeats the same gag to a different character, Kermit’s response is tailored for the audience: “That’s a running joke,” he explains, as if articulating for the young viewers a crash course in comedy screenwriting 101.
The most memorable breaking the fourth wall moment occurs when, instead of explaining events already depicted in the film (and thus boring the audience) Fozzie hands a character he meets a copy of the screenplay. It is then read aloud, describing the first scene with Kermit in the swamp (“Exterior, swamp, day…”).
The opening credits for the first sequel, 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper (directed by Jim Henson) are displayed over images of a bright blue sky and a hot air balloon populated by Kermit, Gonzo and Fozzie. When Fozzie expresses concern that they might get struck by lightning, Kermit reassures him that “nothing’s going to happen, this is just the opening credits.”
A scene from The Great Muppet caper
Later, when fashion designer Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg) rattles off a seemingly irrelevant story to Miss Piggy, the pig asks why she told her that to which Holiday responds “it’s plot exposition, it has to go somewhere.”
Frank Oz took over directing duties for 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan, which begins with a twist on the show-within-show concept. The gang perform on stage to riotous applause, in a college auditorium where we learn the Muppets are students and not professional performers. When a man in the audience yells that they should go to Broadway, they take the suggestion seriously.
The next two movies – The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and Muppet Treasure Island (1996), both directed by Jim Henson’s son Brian – are the Muppets at their least adult-like, pitched for very young viewers. The most interesting part of the former is the cheeky way it plays with the role of narrator. Gonzo introduces himself as Charles Dickens; Rizzo the Rat calls him out on it and heckles Gonzo throughout with random interjections.
Gonzo and Rizzo in Muppets Christmas Carol
Michael Caine is only a vaguely curmudgeon-like Scrooge, the centre of a familiar story about a grouch mellowing out after being scared witless by ghosts. When Scrooge walks around searching his house with a lamp, we listen to Gonzo narrate the scene. Rizzo interrupts him and asks how, given he is not inside, he could possibly know what Scrooge is doing.
"I keep telling you, storytellers are omniscient. I know everything,” Gonzo replies. His rodent pal, unimpressed, responds by lambasting him for being “hoity-toity.”
Muppet Treasure Island continues the pattern of recruiting a singing celebrity to play a famous literary character, casting Tim Curry as Long John Silver. The film has very few self-aware touches – one of the reasons, perhaps, it is one of the blandest productions in the Muppets showcase.
“We saved the pig and the frog,” says an unexpectedly heroic Statler to Waldorf near the end. You’d be forgiven for agreeing with Waldorf’s response: “Well it was too late to save the movie!”
Muppets From Space (1999) doesn’t have many self-aware flourishes either, but it’s very good fun and features a rarely developed role for Pepe the Prawn (for the record, his full name is Pepino Rodrigo Serrano Gonzale). The debut feature of Nickelodeon alumnus Tim Hill, it is an elaborate exercise in backstory development focused on Gonzo’s attempts to trace his ancestry. There are splashes of satire including fun poked at 90s staples such as Men in Black, Independence Day and the Spice Girls (recast as the ‘Mice Girls’).
Muppets in Space
The turn of the century heralded a decade-old hiatus for the gang. They returned with a bang in 2011’s The Muppets, which features the best all-round collection of songs – including the wonderful "Life’s a Happy Song" and the Oscar-winning "Man or Muppet". Helmed by Flight of the Conchord’s director James Bobin and co-written by star Jason Segal, the post-modern touches are less direct than in previous offerings.
Inside a car stuffed full of passengers, Fozzie presses a “travel by map” button and the scene segues to a picture of a map with a red line marking their journey. When tasked with cleaning a theatre, Walter (a new Muppet introduced in this movie) exclaims “you’re the Muppets, you do this to music!” which leads to a montage.
Muppets Most Wanted, which was released three years later and cast Ricky Gervais as an art-stealing villain, returned to more traditional ways of breaking the fourth wall. It begins where the previous instalment finished, in a very literal way: a replication of the last shot of the film.
Muppets Most Wanted
Walter asks “did we get it?” and a man on the set announces through a megaphone that the movie is a wrap and instructs people to go home. Walter stares directly into the lens and asks “what’s the camera still doing here?” before the character break into a song about making sequels.
That scene is a fitting prelude to the upcoming TV show, in which direct to camera addresses will form a key part. We can expect the Muppets to look into lens more regularly than ever. And, after the last of the episodes go to air, we can expect the creators to dream up new ways to play with the relationship between audience and characters.
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