Show Business: Those Marvelous Muppets

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

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Mel Brooks, who is an impassioned Muppet fan, says that "the message they telegraph is The meek shall inherit the earth.' " Mostly this is true. Kermit is meek; he is thankful for each day during which the sky does not fall. Gonzo is meek, and Rowlf tinkles the ivories with a dogged smile. Fozzie Bear is a Teddy. Except for Animal, who wrestles alligators when he is let off his chain, the only alarming character in Muppet society is Miss Piggy, she of the iron fists in the lavender gloves. "She wants everyone to treat her like a lady, and if they don't, she'll cut them in half," says Muppeteer Frank Oz, 34. He should know, since it is his right arm that wriggles Miss Piggy through her black-belt coquetries.

When The Muppet Show began, Miss Piggy was a nobody, a mere member of the porker chorus. In less than three years, by a dazzling combination of talent, beauty and physical violence—when batting her eyelashes doesn't bring surrender, she lashes out with a karate chop—she has become a star. Her finest moments now may be when she plays the ingenue role in the show's arrestingly torpid "Pigs in Space" series, a send-up that is funny because it assumes, correctly, that the viewer is very bored by astronauts. Aboard the spaceship Swinetrek, she is every bit as lard-witted as Captain Link Hogthrob and the sinister Dr. Strangepork, and she is greedy for her rightful attention.

She is also greedy for Kermit, and once, under the pretext of doing a wedding skit, she managed to maneuver him in front of a fully loaded preacher (he escaped the pit of matrimony by the desperate stratagem of summoning Lew Zealand, who had been hanging around backstage waiting for his lucky break, to bring on those tacky and awful boomerang fish). Miss Piggy has a wandering eye, however, and if the week's guest star happens to be a good-looking man, she latches onto him. After dancing the stirring pas de deux from Swine Lake with Rudolph Nureyev, she stalked the poor fellow into a steam bath and drove him forth with his towel askew.

"She's lusty," says Oz. He feels that at heart she is true to Kermit. "She loves that little frog. She wants her frog and her career. She's torn, like everyone else." Oz is conceded to be, after Henson, the most gifted of the Muppet performers. He taught Miss Piggy all she knows, and he plays Fozzie Bear, Animal, Sam the pompous American Eagle and, on Sesame Street, Bert and Cookie Monster. Holding his naked right hand in the air, Oz demonstrates the basics of Muppet acting. "You can do proud": his hand sways and struts upward. "Sad": the hand, with its closed fingers forward, as a Muppet's mouth might be, droops at the wrist and the fingers float downward. "Confusion": the hand pauses, looks one way, looks another, pauses, seems to be glancing over its shoulder.

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