It’s time to get things started
THE MUPPET MOVIE (James Frawley, USA, 1979, 0)
I’ve seen detergents that leave a better film than this.
Ha ha ha ha …
My grade is actually an 8, but when THE MUPPET MOVIE “broke,” taking us back to the screening room within the film’s framing device, and we got that “detergent” reaction from Statler and Waldorf … I knew I had to use it.
Now time for some Real Keeping regarding some of the shameful gaps in my pop-culture knowledge. I have seen none of the Muppet movies, not even the first three, which were made while Jim Henson was still alive and the dominant creative force and which I thought a few weeks ago were the only ones to play in theaters. I have never seen an episode of “The Muppet Show” from beginning to end, though I often watched the opening as a boy because I loved the theme song. Last week, I’d’ve had no difficulty identifying those two guys in the lead art as Statler and Waldorf, and I knew the general personae of Kermit, Miss Piggy and Fozzie. But basically that’s about as much knowledge of the Muppets as you can absorb from pop-culture osmosis. I guess the reason I resisted the Muppets in the late-70s, when I first arrived in this country, was that it looked like kids material. Apart from cartoons I already gotten into as a younger boy, stuff like Warner Brothers and Hanna-Barbera, I was just old enough (yob: 1966) to be actively disinterested in anything new that seemed “child-like.” I also associated the Muppets with “Sesame Street,” an insipidly positive, edumacational show which I actively hated (though sometimes watched in gawking-at mode).
Boy, was I stupid.
And I don’t say that simply because I had a terrific time with THE MUPPET MOVIE earlier today, but also because I am convinced I would have enjoyed it 11 or 12 as well, in exactly the way I adored (and still adore) Looney Tunes. THE MUPPET MOVIE is an irreverent, self-aware, smart-aleck film that rewards your attention and knowledge without going over others’ heads or resorting to in-joke pop-culture pastiche. In fact, based on this film and assuming the other Jim Henson films and the TV show are in this vein, I am convinced the Muppets were a key influence on Generation X’s entire sense of humor, thus shaping everything comic that’s come since. Certainly the influence on mine is plain and I never even saw the damn movies and TV shows at the time — THAT’s how powerful the Muppets’ influence was.
For example, when Trey Parker and Matt Stone created the “We Need a Montage” sequence in 2004’s TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE, yes, they’re parodying details of recent movies, but the entire sequence is like an uncredited remake of “Can You Picture That” in THE MUPPET MOVIE. And a remake not simply in the sense of being an action-skipping montage set to music, but also in the sense of being a deliberately self-aware and simultaneously self-mocking one, and one that is really ridiculous if taken at all literally or even comic-seriously. Muppets influence can be seen elsewhere in their work — bringing a more-adult tone to a genre (puppets/cartoons) considered “for kids”; and the use of outsized grotesqueries in the characters. I’d be shocked if the SOUTH PARK creators hadn’t seen and loved the Muppets as boys. Indeed, here is the sequence that includes”Can You Picture That.”
I am mostly going to be citing this sequence involving Electric Mayhem at the church, which was when I decided this movie had me. I know that explaining humor tends to turn it into deep-fried frog legs, but the sensibility in THE MUPPET MOVIE, even though the film is more than 30 years old, also has such features I associate with contemporary and/or Generation X humor as dry blink-and-you-miss-it sarcasm, a mixture of understatement and ironic overstatement, a deadpan literalness, and more post-modern touches than a Derrida conference. The movie combined absurd Gracie Allen literalness (“tadpoles don’t have feet,” Kermit says later) and moments of absurdly uncharacteristic overarticulateness worthy of the Coen Brothers — like when Dr. Teeth here reads the script and declaims “this is certainly a narrative of very heavy proportions” and such invented non-words as “provosculate.” Later, when the Muppets leave the band behind on their way to Hollywood, Dr. Teeth offers the parting greeting “maybe if you get rich and famous, we can show up later unannounced and exploit your wealth.” I mean … to actually do that would be so rude, crude and socially unacceptable that SAYING becomes twice as funny, and a million times more memorable than the conventional heart-warming send-off you’d get in “nobler” kids material. People who start coffee shops want them to be fine and laid back and mellow and profitable. But you don’t say that materialistic last phrase, even if it’s true. *Especially* if it’s true, which is why it’s funny here.
The post-modern emphasis on textuality is also especially thick in this scene, even for a film with “movie” in its title and whose entire architecture is the film-within-a-film (at the start, all the Muppets are at a film studio to screen “The Muppet Movie” and they supposedly see the film we’re watching. There’s a break in the middle and more at the end, but that’s more or less covers it). But in this scene, the script even enters the frame, as a substitute for a plot recap. “You’ll bore the audience,” Kermit warns Fozzie with a quick point. And so the bear breaks the fourth wall and apologizes, and the pair hand over the script for the band’s perusal. None of this was exactly new — self-referentiality was a classic vaudeville premise and I was introduced to it through Looney Tunes. But it is why I was wrong to dismiss the Muppets as the kids equivalent of Cultural Vegetables. Nor is this decadent stretching — partly because it’s the set-up for a great punch line later that I wouldn’t dream of spoilaging; partly because the film follows it to the end in a coda that reprises what we’ve seen earlier, with some slight but key differences (“life is a movie” is literally said); and partly because it’s the key to what THE MUPPET MOVIE is about thematically (I believe it was Jeffrey Overstreet who said the Muppets were essentially stand-ins for the Henson Studio, and the film was about its quest to break into the movies, THE MUPPET MOVIE thus becoming the story of its own self-creation)
THE MUPPET MOVIE also doesn’t shy away from jokes you might miss or might partially go over some heads. After having painted their car so that someone looking for a frog and a bear in a green Studebaker would be confused by seeing only a frog and a bear in a *rainbow-colored* Studebaker, Fozzie gives the band a naively polite and enthusiastic, “I don’t know how to thank you.” To which Kermit adds “I don’t know why to thank you.” The near-anastrophe, the smallness of it and the way Kermit acts all beaten down by this horrible experience but uses dry humor as a defense mechanism — it all adds up to a big laugh for the low, low price of three-letter word. In a later scene, Mel Brooks (one of the few human performers to really score laughs or make an impression beyond the stunt casting; one of the film’s few weaknesses) plays a German mad scientist who has Kermit tied up for a brain-destroying machine, and he lets go with “you can struggle all you like, Frog. It’ll do you very little good.” There’s the obvious surface of the overripe fruitiness of the line and Brooks’ campy OTT delivery, but snuck in there are two words that, to me (at 45 and at 13) made the line twice as funny. “Very little” — not “it’ll do you NO good.” The absurdly fussy word choice smacks of self-regarding metaphysical pedantry and (dare I say) “Germanness” or “megalomania.” When they meet Grover, Fozzie and Kermit say they wanna go to Hollywood to become stars. And Grover responds by saying he wants to go to “Bombay, India” to do the same. Again, what makes the line funny is how much smarter it is than it needs to be to deliver the surface laugh, based on the “we picked up a weirdo” reaction from the bear and the frog. Of all the gin joints and backwater metropolises in the world, the script-writers did not NEED to pick the one city that DOES have a film industry comparable in size to Hollywood. But they did, and without turning Gonzo into an Amitabh Bachchan clone (as one might be tempted to do today). What I am doing with all this (Doc Hopper delicacy issues aside) is laying out just how much the Muppets used “two-levels” humor — the essence of contemporary hipster sarcasm/irony, really — but did so in the context of a supposed child’s entertainment and without the down side of turning everything into an inside-joke. The “outside” is funny too.
Now … go home, go home.