The Muppets: kids’ stuff or subversive adult comedy?

With The Muppets out in UK cinemas on Friday, Terence looks back over the history of Jim Henson's much-loved creations and their subversive comedy...

The Muppets, depending on where you live, are about to return or have returned to the big screen, with that wonderful new blockbuster paradigm of a movie that is both a reboot and sequel (or prequel) at the same time.

Simply titled The Muppets, the movie stars and is co-written by Judd Apatow regular, Jason Segel. The original songs are written by one half of Flight Of The Conchords, Brett McKenzie. The traditional Muppet movie roster of celebrity cameos includes the likes of Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis and Neil Patrick Harris.

So: are the Muppets getting a little edgier this time around? If you look at the history of the Muppets, not really.

Right from the start, the Muppets (much like Bugs Bunny, Popeye and even Mickey Mouse) have been aiming their unique brand of one-liners and slapstick humour primarily at an adult audience.

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The story of the Muppets is filled with many pushes and pulls between entertainment aimed at kids, adults, or both.

According to Brian Henson, the son of Muppet mastermind Jim Henson, “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.”

Jim Henson first introduced the Muppets (albeit under a different name) in 1955. He created a puppet show called Sam And Friends that aired live, twice daily in five minute segments that ran only in the Washington DC area. The show featured an early progenitor of a puppet that later would become a Muppet known as Kermit The Frog. The early shows generally consisted of the Henson’s puppets lip-syncing to popular hit songs of the day.

Some of the lip-syncing was to songs that included such decidedly adult fare as I’ve Got You Under My Skin and That Old Black Magic. The show also contained a regular running parody of the then-current news program The Huntley Brinkley Report and of the popular Western TV series Gunsmoke. Not exactly parody tailormade for six-year-olds.

Sam And Friends ran until 1961. Not long after, Henson and his new creation now known as The Muppets, moved on to an even bigger audience: The Ed Sullivan Show.

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The Ed Sullivan Show was one of the highest-rated TV shows of its time. It was a classic early TV variety format. Hosted by Sullivan, a nationally renowned American newspaper entertainment columnist, it aired at a time when there were only something like four channels on TV (in most areas). Needless to say, there weren’t a hundred different cable channels that each catered to a specific niche audience in those days. Instead, they had one show that featured something for everyone. A typical edition of the Ed Sullivan Show would feature jugglers, opera singers, numbers from current Broadway musicals, stand-up comedians, impersonators, Jazz trios, rock n’ roll bands and, sometimes, The Muppets.

Jim Henson’s Muppets (or “Jim Newsom’s puppets” as Ed once introduced them) appeared on Sullivan’s show 25 times between 1966 and 1971. While often categorized as a children’s act on the show, many of the sketches involved various Muppets getting eaten by or eating other Muppets, cross-dressing, psychological torment and, in one of Henson’s favorite comedic forms, lip-synching to popular songs (even one of The Beatles’ more druggy tunes, Come Together).

During this time, Henson and his Muppets were also quite busy in the field of advertising and industrial films. One of his clients, interestingly, was IBM.

Circa 1967, The Muppets appeared in a number of different IBM training and sales films. IBM was launching the first electric typewriters, word processors and computers. These newfangled gadgets, in order to be sold properly, had to be explained to the general public and, perhaps more importantly, to IBM’s own sales staff.

Some of the films featured The Muppets working as IBM sales reps. Was that supposed to appeal to kids? What kid in 1967 would have been on the IBM sales staff? I mean, today, sure, but never in ’67.

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In 1969, Henson and the Muppets got the break of their career when they landed a gig on the innovative children’s educational TV series, Sesame Street. The show made the Muppets, especially Kermit the Frog, a household name.

For Henson, Sesame Street was both a blessing a curse. It brought fame to his creation but it also cemented an impression in the minds of the general public and TV executives that the Muppets were strictly children’s entertainers.

Henson, eager to break the kids TV typecasting The Muppets had fallen into, made a deal with an all new and different non-prime time TV series that had just made its debut. The series was called Saturday Night Live.

It made sense. Saturday Night Live was, at the time, groundbreaking late night TV. It was one of the first shows do jokes about drugs, sexually liberated lifestyles, rock music and generally address a growing post-hippie youth subculture that had been largely ignored by mainstream TV.

The result was The Land of Gorch, a series of ‘adult’ Muppet sketches – pretty much the polar opposite of Sesame Street, in other words. The Gorch sketches followed the story of some rather nasty looking mythical creatures on a far away planet. The design of the SNL Muppets was more raw and intense than anything Henson had created up to that point. Typical sketches dealt with issues like alcoholism, sex, and death. All in all: a pretty big departure for the Muppets.

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Unfortunately, The Land of Gorch sketches were something of a disaster. The sketches were written by SNL and not Muppet writers – Gorch was doled out as a punishment or as an initiation for new SNL scribes.

Audiences didn’t really know what to make of the sketches either. Here are Muppets in a kind of childlike fantasy setting, they have the same voices as many of the Sesame Street Muppets, yet they’re making the archetypal 70s SNL “I am so stoned” kinda jokes. They were too confused to laugh most of the time.

Henson himself probably put the experience into perspective best when he said years later:

“I saw what he (Lorne Michaels) was going for and I really liked it and wanted to be a part of it, but somehow what we were trying to do and what his writers could write for it never jelled. … When they were writing for us, I had the feeling they were writing normal sitcom stuff, which is really boring and bland… Yeah, it just never jelled with the particular writers we were working with, but at no time did I ever lose my respect for the show. I always liked what they were doing.”

Fortunately for Henson and the Muppets’ career, it was around this time that Henson landed the deal for the now legendary Muppet Show. Still unable to convince any of the US networks that the Muppets were not just for kids, Henson finally sold the idea of a Muppets TV show to the British broadcaster, ITV. The shows would be produced in Great Britain and syndicated internationally.

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The ensuing 1976-81 series was, of course, a massive hit. It firmly cemented the Muppets’ fame outside of the Sesame Street realm. It also became a cherished childhood icon for an entire generation. The show featured guest stars like Elton John, Sylvester Stallone, Liza Minnelli and John Cleese, to name a very few. There were many clever and, for the Muppets at the time, risque lines. Yet there at the same time were talking animals and lots of physical comedy. So, essentially, The Muppet Show became the classic case of a crossover show attracting both young and old audiences alike.

Major hit motion pictures followed: The Muppet Movie (1979), The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984). The pattern continued – they were movies with a major family friendly crossover appeal, featuring adult oriented celebrity cameos and the occasional line that could have you thinking, “Whoa! I can’t believe the Muppets just said that!”. Generally, though, the the Muppet films appealed more to younger rather than older audiences.

In 1982, Henson again attempted to break the mould with The Dark Crystal. The film was a serious, dark fantasy adventure film featuring new puppets and innovative creatures that were not unlike something that might have appeared in The Land of Gorch. The Dark Crystal met with mixed critical and financial success, but later would garner a cult following on home video.

In 1986, Henson made Labyrinth, a more family friendly fantasy musical adventure starring (in what was a major departure for him at the time) David Bowie. Like The Dark Crystal, the film met with mixed critical success but better box office success than The Dark Crystal. It too would achieve a cult following on home video in the years to come.

On TV, Henson attempted to continue the darker material with a series called The Storyteller. Later, in The Jim Henson Hour, he attempted to mix classic Muppet humour with more edgy material. The Jim Henson Hour only lasted 13 episodes. He fared much with shows like Muppet Babies and Fraggle Rock, which were aimed exclusively at children.

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Sadly, Jim Henson died of pneumonia in the spring of 1990.

Henson’s son Brian carried the Muppet torch after that. He produced a series that the senior Henson had been developing before his death, called Dinosaurs. The 1991-94 series featured live action anthropomorphic Dinosaurs (all creations of the relatively new Henson Creature Shop) in a sitcom setting. Dinosaurs owed a great deal to both The Flintstones and The Simpsons. Despite attempts to humorously deal with more serious issues like drug abuse, pre-marital sex and media censorship, Dinosaurs still tended to appeal to a younger audience.

Brian attempted to bring the franchise back to slightly more adult territory with Muppets Tonight. The show aired on the ABC network in the US during the 1995-96 season. Later, The Disney Channel picked up the series and ran nine more new episodes in the 1997-8 season. Similar to the original Muppet Show, Muppets Tonight featured the backstage antics of the Muppets attempting to produce a show. This time around it was a TV show as opposed to a live theatrical show, as was the case in the original Muppet Show.

Muppets Tonight was hosted by a new Muppet, Clifford, the “homey made of foamy”. That by itself creates a pretty clear impression of where the younger Henson was trying to go with the show. The series featured guest stars like Prince (known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince at that time), Coolio, Jason Alexander and Cindy Crawford. Much of the humour attempted to attract older viewers, but sadly, the series only lasted 13 episodes on US network TV.

Muppet motion pictures also continued throughout the 90s with The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Muppet Treasure Island (1996) and what would be the last theatrical feature film for Henson’s creations for 12 years to come, Muppets From Space (1999).

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In 2004, the rights to the Muppets characters were sold to the Walt Disney Company. It was, in fact, the conclusion of a deal that Jim Henson himself had begun negotiating not long before his death. The Disney deal would certainly mean the end of any more adult or riskier material, right?

Um…maybe not.

In a surprisingly hip move, Disney did a deal with Jason Segel to star in and write The Muppets. They were reportedly swayed by his the puppet Dracula musical featured in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Bret Mackenzie was brought on board to write the original songs. James Bobin, who directed all 22 episodes of the Conchords series, was hired to direct. Presumably, all the interesting cameos fell into place after that.

So the question remains: is the new Muppets film merely kids stuff? Subversive adult humour? The answer, as ever, is definitely both.

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