I adore The Muppets, who will be here out referred to as people. I’ve loved them for as long as I can remember. And I’m certainly not alone on that one. So whenever “they” decide to bring The Muppets out – in film, TV, what have you, I’m excited. But I’m also nervous. Case in point: ABC’s The Muppets.
I was not a fan of this reincarnation of The Muppets. The humor was mismatched and it felt like they were trying to hard to make you feel like the Muppets were hip. That’s insane. The Muppets succeed because they aren’t hip. They’re real and genuine and eager. If they got big because they were cool, they wouldn’t have lasted this long. “Cool” changes. It’s ambiguous. Sincerity is well-defined. It’s constant. This is why the Muppets are legit.
So I watched, with bated breath, the “reboot” of a currently running series, which is bizarre but whatever. In short, they replaced their showrunner, since the series was bombing.
And… it’s better. It feels a little more Muppety. The plot of this first reboot was super meta, including how the show needs more joy, more Muppets, etc. The only time I felt real Muppet joy was during the impromptu Muppets Theme Song performance in the writer’s room. I also LOVED martini-swilling baby penguin Gloria Estefan and Uncle Deadly. They are my new favorite show.
But, okay. There are still problems. The biggest problem is with the format of the show. They’ve taken the loudest, most dramatic theatre folk, and stuck them in corporate. It’s the actualization of what happens to Kermit in The Muppets Take Manhattan.
But let’s go even more specific. There is ONE element to the new Muppet show that is precisely why the show doesn’t work yet. And it’s the talking heads.
Muppets are not meant for talking heads. Because they themselves are living (I know), breathing (I KNOW) talking heads. Here’s a breakdown:
The “Talking Head” shot has been super popular over the last 2+ decades, particularly in comedy. It’s become its own joke structure. A TH serves, in comedy, as a scene for a character to convince the camera, thereby the viewer, of their true feelings.
That means that what we’ve seen thus far of the character, has not been “true.” The TH serves as a “confessional,” like in the Real World days, where the character can finally say what they’ve been thinking, or maybe reaffirm their beliefs after some time to reconsider what they’ve said openly.
The other, simpler purpose of a TH is physically comedic. It relies on the actor’s delivery – tone of voice, body language, facial expressions. Clever use of these traits allow the actor to share with the camera how they actually feel – Are they being sincere and raw? Are they playing to the camera? Are they desperately trying to convince themselves? A TH with a good actor will let us know. This brings us to our first problem.
Problem 1: It’s not their strong suit for physical comedy.
I say this with love. But the Muppets do not always lend themselves well to facial expression and body language up close. Most of the Muppets are designed to emote with their mouths. The Muppeteers go to great strides to bring to life these foam creations, and for all intents and purposes, they are real. But up close, they’re boxed in. Some are lucky enough to have a second moving part – eyelids, eye brows, hands. And that works, to an extent. But it’s limiting. There’s only so much comedy that can be pulled from a Muppet in a TH shot. Attempts at physical comedy on such a minute scale feel stiff and underplayed.
Problem 2: It’s an energy-killer.
The Muppets THRIVE on energy. They’re the best when they’re interacting with each other. Even the drier characters (Sam the Eagle, I love you) are hilarious because they give their lines amidst the chaos. (Sam’s “Why am I here?” in the Muppet Family Christmas might be my favorite Muppet line ever. But it was funny because he said it surrounded by Christmas craziness. If he stared at the camera, by himself, speaking, sure it could be funny with the right timing. But not classic.)
THs are usually used as scene interrupters or buttons, intentionally placed to break up or cap energetic scenes. This works AGAINST the Muppets in every way. The Muppets are the embodiment of theatrical energy. Putting them in an office setting, under florescent lighting? Offices instantly bring with them tension. Tension is bottled energy. Talking heads are supposed to be a safe place to alleviate tension. The Muppets are not tense. They are open, honest, unbridled energy. Which leads us to…
Problem 3 – The biggest problem of them all: The Muppets have nothing to hide.
They emote openly. Whatever their feelings, whatever their attitude, there’s no shame, no fear, no protecting their reputation. They say what they mean. Every time.
This is what makes them unite as a group, as a family: Unabashedly being yourself, speaking your mind, wearing your heart on your sleeve. Using THs implies there’s a distance now between them and us, and between the Muppets themselves. For some reason, they can’t just be themselves here.
Additionally, and along the same lines, THs make the Muppets too self-aware. Now they’re playing a game. This immediately depletes any sincerity or eagerness that made us root for them in the first place.
A well-used TH should not only be funny, but build emotional complexity. It should make characters appear more human, more relatable with lots of “That’s what I was thinking!” moments. This is just not the case with the current Muppets.
In fact, I might argue it takes away from them emotionally. In past productions, some of the most emotionally-heavy moments have been when any given Muppet (though most often Kermit, since he’s the one who bears the most responsibility) is in a scene alone or as a pair. These scenes serve as serious punctuation marks to the typically maniacal movement of the Muppets. Kermit, sitting at his big desk, in his giant chair. The camera pulls back as he looks down. He’s feeling alone. He doesn’t need to say it or explain it to anyone. We feel for him in that moment. And that heaviness, that weighty, real-world emotion is what The Muppets’ “realness” hinges on. It’s not ironic or deliberate. It’s a felt frog puppet emitting a wave of emotions without being asked to.
There are other issues with the new show, as well. Firstly, making Piggy the talk show host was questionable. Piggy is a diva. Divas don’t share the stage. A good talk show host shares everything. This puts Piggy in a position that in effect diminishes her character.
Denise is a problem. I know in this episode, they’re pulling her back for awhile, so we’ll see where that goes. But Denise made Kermit mean. And Kermit is not mean. He’s warm and emotional and frazzled and loyal. But he is not mean.
Ultimately, the Muppets need space. They need space to play, to run, to be free. Boxing them up, whether literally in a closed office space or figuratively in a one-shot, is the worst. It’s like keeping a Golden Retriever in a studio apartment. It’ll be fine. But it won’t be living up to its potential.*
So I say again – if a talking head is a scene where a character expresses their true feelings, either verbally or physically, to an audience, then each Muppet is a living (I know), breathing (I KNOW) talking head, living in an open world of dozens of other talking heads. Feelings and words and actions, all intermingling in a brilliant ball of buzzy optimism and fun.
Let’s ditch the talking heads, the cold, corporate environment, the sad need to be trendy. We’re the ones who must live in that world; the Muppets don’t.
We need the Muppet world more than the Muppets need ours.
Honestly – how else would a pig love a frog, a prawn and a rat be BFFs, and a Gonzo exist?
* I live in a studio apartment and desperately want a dog. This is what I tell myself every day I walk by the dog park.