The Muppets: Not for Kids?

Written by PTC | Published September 23, 2015

The Muppet Show was never a children’s show,” claims the producer of ABC’s new series The Muppets – and sadly, the new program’s more “adult” take on the beloved characters isn’t, either. From their early appearances on Sesame Street to their 1970s series The Muppet Show, and in numerous movies from 1979 to 2013, the Muppets have been among American pop culture’s most beloved characters with children and adults alike. Throughout the years, kids have been captivated by the strange-looking, zany characters, while grown-ups have been able to appreciate the off-kilter – though never before off-color – perspective and often cornball humor of the troupe. Thus, when the Disney corporation bought the rights to the Muppets, the company paved the way for its new property with a pair of movies, 2011’s mostly satisfactory The Muppets, and its far less worthy sequel, 2013’s Muppets Most Wanted (a song-and-dance routine set in a Soviet gulag? Really?) Thereafter, it was only a matter of time before the characters made an appearance on the Disney-owned ABC network. However, numerous reviewers have raised concerns about the new show’s take on the beloved characters – particularly the more “adult” humor in which the show will indulge. The backgrounds of those running the new version of The Muppets lend credence to such concerns: series co-developer Bill Prady was co-creator (with Chuck Lorre) of The Big Bang Theory, a program which – like all Lorre’s shows – has a heavy sidelight in sexual humor. Executive producer Bob Kushell’s previous work has included the Charlie Sheen’s sexualized FX sitcom Anger Management, while co-executive producer Randall Einhorn’s previous experience is on the raunchy FX comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. This abundance of experience on decidedly adult comedies likely explains the new, far more cynical concept of The Muppets…and the attitudes of its creators. “The Muppets kind of lost their way over the years when they became strictly a product for children,” claims Kushell. These sentiments are echoed by Prady, who alleges that “The Muppet Show was never a children’s show.” This is nonsense. Of course The Muppet Show was a children’s show. Yes, there were in-jokes children didn’t always understand (usually making reference to the human guest star’s past work); but there was never any off-color humor. The entire program was filled with a sweet, innocent decidedly lacking in the new show, by all press accounts. In his review in the Wall Street Journal, John Jurgensen remarks on “prop glasses of beer, wine and whiskey fill[ing] the tables,” as Miss Piggy “hoists a martini and brags about her morning commute by helicopter,” while Rizzo the Rat exclaims, “Mother Teresa on a stick!” Erik Adams of AV Club mentions “some mature language -- a ‘hell’ here, a ‘suck’ there -- and the occasional innuendo,” as well as the way the series renders Kermit the Frog, “one of the friendliest and sincerest figures in the pop culture canon, into something of a manipulative prick…In front of the documentary cameras, Kermit is cruel to Piggy, insulting to his guests, and weirdly smug.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s David Wiegand notes that “the puppets in the band are stoned, Pepe the King Prawn has to marry his girlfriend before she gives birth to hundreds of thousands of shrimpettes, Fozzie Bear is dating outside his species, and Miss Piggy is planning a butt lift and teat implants. The Muppets are back in prime time, [but] their spoken material isn’t suitable for 5-year-olds.” And, in the most extensive discussion of the “cynical and bitter” new show, Hitfix’s Alan Sepinwall reports, “When Zoot the spacey saxophone player is told that he's at a meeting, he starts to introduce himself like he's at AA. Sam the Eagle is now the network censor assigned to the show, and informs Kermit that he is banning the use of the words ‘crotchety,’ ‘twiddle,’ and ‘gesticulate,’ the last one because gesticulating leads to shaking hands, ‘which is the first step in making babies.’ It's a bit of a shock to the system, as are later jokes about Fozzie's personals ad being misinterpreted by people looking to cuddle a different kind of ‘bear,’ or Kermit alluding to the celebrity ‘free pass list’ he had while dating Miss Piggy.” In short, from innocent characters children could love, the Muppets and their program have been transformed into just another group of crass, snide, self-absorbed Hollywood pseudo-celebrities, in an industry already obsessed and overwhelmed with them. Co-creator Bill Prady confirmed as much when he stated the cynical, Hollywood-centric premise of the new series: “I always imagined that after they finished doing The Muppet Show, there was a bar across the street from the Muppet Show Theater where they'd go sit down and Kermit would have a drink. And I always wanted to be at that bar. So that's where this show is, it's in as close to the real world and the real personal life…One of the things we're saying is that in the movies, they were playing versions of themselves. So we're seeing them off-screen for the first time.” In other words, according to Bill Prady, the sweet and innocent Kermit the Frog, the wacky Fozzie the Bear, the off-the-wall Gonzo, and all the other Muppet characters that generations of children fell in love with – well, those were all fakes. Now, Prady says, my program will show you who the Muppets REALLY are: shallow, vain, vicious, backbiting denizens of Hollywood, who drink, use drugs, have affairs, and are no different from the celebrities depicted on Keeping Up With The Kardashians or TMZ. But in our celebrity-soaked culture, surrounded as we are with the constant tales of the misdeeds of those in Hollywood, do children need (and do adults want) to see the Muppets in “the real world, who get in a car and go to work and shop at Whole Foods and get stuck on the 405 and do the same things we do,” as Prady boasts they will? (And note the Hollywood-centric assumptions behind Prady’s statement. Do Muppet fans in Dubuque, Omaha, or Cincinnati know, or care, about traffic on the 405?) Whose idea of entertainment is listening to Kermit the Frog say, “When Piggy and I were a couple I found her unpredictable, spontaneous, and kinda sexy?” What parent wants their little girl to see Miss Piggy gesture at her breasts and rear as she says, “I've had these hiked, and I'm getting this thing hiked?” Speaking with TVLine, series producer Bob Kushell said, “Yes, there will be jokes that are pitched that are a little too risque. Part of the excitement of doing this show is to see where we can push the envelope.” The real question is: why do the makers of The Muppets feel they must “push the envelope” at all? Can’t there be one show in prime time that’s entirely safe for children? Is it really asking so much for the Disney-owned ABC network to provide families with one program – just one -- on the publicly-owned airwaves, that everyone can watch? Now, THERE’S an idea that “pushes the envelope.”

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