Show Business: Those Marvelous Muppets

How Kermit, Miss Piggy & Co. captivate 235 million people a week

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After Floyd, Zoot, Rowlf, Animal and other bandsmen have laid down the Muppet Show Song ("It's time to put on makeup/ It's time to dress up right") for the big every-body-on-stage opening, Kermit gives viewers the high-blood-pressure hello, and Gonzo tries to blow a fanfare on his trumpet. It never works. Butterflies come out of the trumpet. Water comes out or the thing explodes. Each week Gonzo gives it a good try; each week a new disaster. Gonzo looks dazed but not surprised, a tiny Chaplin.

Some sort of dizzy production number generally follows. One week Eskimo folk songs were promised, and sure enough, there were Miss Piggy and the show's other pigs perched on an ice floe, dressed in mukluks and parkas, surrounded by igloos, walruses and snow. The song they sang was Lullaby of Broadway in a nice, bouncy and entirely straight version. The viewer kept waiting for the joke, thinking, "Let's see, now, Eskimos, Broadway ..." The joke was that there was no joke. It was a surreal moment, and it was very funny. If you wanted to take it that way, it was a devastating comment on what we call entertainment: turn on the tube and watch Eskimos sing Lullaby of Broadway.

In the meantime, two old geezers named Statler and Waldorf are making scornful remarks from their box seats, and terrible things are happening backstage. Kermit works frogfully, but events conspire against him. It is payday, and in the cashbox Kermit finds only "three moths and a washer, more than we usually have." His voice is quavery, his jaw tremulous; he expected to find the moths, but the washer is a welcome plus. Kermit expects the worst, and he accepts it. As he sings now and then, "It's not easy being green." After working with such characters, Lily Tomlin, another human friend, said that the difference between playing a scene with a Muppet and with a human actor is that "when you break the scene you don't both go for coffee. It's sort of sad."

There is a wondrous Muppet workshop at HA! headquarters in Manhattan, where clever trolls build anything from a talking avocado to a dancing camel, or, more routinely, replacement figures for Fozzie Bear and Kermit (a crisis, still not entirely resolved, developed recently when the manufacturer of the green cloth of which Kermit is made went out of business). But the most critical element of what the viewer sees is not cloth or polyurethane. It is character: each of the most successful Muppets has grown, slowly and organically, from exaggerated fragments of its operator's character. Kermit is not Jim Henson, but he is a fascinating piece of Henson. He is the smartest of the Muppets, and he runs things as firmly as it is possible to run an explosion in a mattress factory. Like Henson, he is the absolute boss in all matters artistic and financial. Kermit is, in addition, a lovable, absolutely decent fellow. Henson's employees agree, with complete unanimity, that Henson is that sort of boss. He had no plan to make The Muppet Show M.C. a self-portrait, but when he used another puppet, Nigel the Bandleader, in the role in an early version of the show, the character did not jell; and Kermit, who had been in and out of Henson's skits for 20 years or so, got the job.

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