Where Are the Muppets of Yesteryear?

The wisest thing I ever heard said about the Muppets (and just how often do you get to use that phrase, anyway?) came from a college classmate. This was back in the heyday of Muppet movies based on classic literature: you know, Muppet Treasure Island, Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Wizard of Oz, and the like. One evening over zucchini and pasta in the dining hall a bunch of us were complaining about how the contemporary Muppet oeuvre was so disappointing to those of us who had grown up watching the original Muppet Show on tv.

“I don’t want to see Muppets be actors,” someone said. “I want to see Muppets be Muppets.”

Well, there’s a new Muppet show on tv this fall. I haven’t seen any episodes, but here’s the trailer for the show.

The Muppets – Official Trailer via ABC Television Network

I know a lot can happen between the proof-of-concept pitch for a show and when it actually goes on the air, but to me this looks like Muppets being actors. It’s Muppet The Office. Muppet 30 Rock. That’s not what I’m interested in watching.

Now, to be fair, the old Muppet Show was far from perfect. We’ve been rewatching some of it via Netflix lately; a lot of the material was already dated at the time and it hasn’t aged well. On the other hand there are things that transcend time and shine as brightly now as they did forty years ago. Mahna Mahna, for instance, is one perfectly formed comic gem.

Mahna Mahna via Constantine Trayanov

I’ve been giving this some thought recently and I think I’ve identified three essential elements of fundamental Muppetosity.

1. Muppets push the limits of what you can do with puppetry

Take a look at the Swedish chef making donuts and consider the technical artistry that went into designing and performing even such a simple sketch.

Swedish Chef – Donuts via SUBSCRIBE! (Y)

2. Muppets have emotional reality

Check out this Hugga Wugga sketch and watch how even a fuzzy purple alien can experience pride, anger, confusion, exasperation, smugness, surprise, fury, and shock.

Hugga Wugga via GreenGimmick

3. Muppets live on the verge of chaos without ever quite succumbing

Watch the madness unfold in the background as the estimable Dr. Honeydew continues to calmly explain his latest inventions.

Muppet Labs – Fireproof Paper via dorcm1973

The Muppets just aren’t what they used to be, but don’t despair. There are other places to find the three keys of Muppetociousness. Here are some of the true heirs to the Muppet mantle:

Community

Ostensibly a sit-com about community college students, Community flirts with chaos and pushes the boundaries of what a sit-com can do while staying grounded in the emotional reality of the characters. Here’s how a friendly game of paintball goes down at Greendale Community College.

A Fistfull of Painballs via thanatos101b

Aardman

The claymation studio that brought us Chicken Run and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit knows how to make wonderful comedy out of such ordinary things as a dog who’s at the end of his rope trying to deal with mischievous little bunnies.

Wallace and Grommit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit via Aardman Animations

Pixar

I don’t think all of Pixar’s work quite measures up to the best of the Muppets, but sometimes they can really deliver the goods. Here’s one to take you all the way back.

Luxo Jr. via Lukas blalbla

What do the rest of you think? Think the Muppets have still got it, or is there someone else who’s doing what the Muppets used to do?

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

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