Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Lovers, the Dreamers, and Me: Reflections on The Muppets

2011 might have been called the year of the Muppets. With the new movie, The Muppets, hitting theaters back around Thanksgiving, newspapers, magazines, and the internet were all in the throes of Muppet mania. After years on the cultural back burner, Muppets were suddenly in the spotlight again, and they turned up everywhere. For some of us, of course, they had never really gone away. Generation X grew up with The Muppet Show and the original Muppet movies. They formed as important a part of our generational consciousness as Star Wars, the Reagan Era, and the advent of video games. The Muppets had lived on in the years after Jim Henson’s death in 1990 in new films, television specials, and DVD releases, but their glory days had seemed to be over, especially as new generations of children grew up unfamiliar with characters like Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and Fozzie Bear. In 2011 they came back, and people around the world enthusiastically welcomed their return.
I am, obviously, one of those people who was thrilled to see them come back. I grew up watching The Muppet Show, and some of my earliest introductions to popular culture came through those sketches. I’ll never forget seeing Alice Cooper for the first time, leaping around The Muppet Show stage in spandex while belting out “School’s Out.” I’m pretty sure I didn’t get all of the jokes, but I loved the Muppets just the same. Gonzo was always my favorite, mainly because I myself was so often targeted as a “weirdo” by other children at my school, and Gonzo wore his weirdness like a badge of honor. As I got older I found that I appreciated the Muppets even more; so much of their material sprang from rich veins of literary, musical, and comedic tradition. Densely allusive, perversely funny, and studded with brilliant one-liners, The Muppet Show and the movies that followed seemed tailor-made to appeal to my interests and tastes.
So I know why I love the Muppets, but why do other people love them? They certainly are strange characters, an eclectic assortment of frogs, pigs, bears, chickens, and unidentifiable things. They are not particularly heroic, they often seem utterly insane, and they are sometimes totally overwhelmed by the burdens of their imaginary lives. In an age that loves CGI, they are instances of a very old-fashioned magic, puppets brought to life by the hands and voices of mysterious, unseen performers. Partly we love them because human beings feel a deep attraction to that magic; our fascination with puppets goes back to very early civilizations. Partly they appeal to us because we see so many distinct personality types represented in their ranks; most people have a favorite Muppet, whether it be Kermit or Piggy, Fozzie or Gonzo, or even Animal or Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. Most importantly, perhaps, we love the Muppets because they are also, improbably and irresistibly, embodiments of joy.
Joy is a powerful emotion, a spiritual experience. We have sought it and treasured it for thousands of years. Religious texts urge us to find joy in the divine, but we find it many places, in experiences both large and small. William Wordsworth speaks of joy when he says, “My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky.” If you have seen a rainbow you might know exactly what he means. Joy is that leap of the heart, that springing of the soul, that pure delight that we often associate with children and the way in which they experience the world.
 The rainbow, which bursts forth suddenly, even miraculously, to bend its colors across the sky, is an appropriate symbol for joy. It’s no wonder, then, that one of the most enduring Muppet moments features a song about rainbows. At the beginning of The Muppet Movie, Kermit the Frog sings, “Why are there so many songs about rainbows?” The lyrics remind us of Dorothy’s yearning song in The Wizard of Oz, in which she longs to be “somewhere over the rainbow.” Both songs are really about our search for joy. Lovers, dreamers, singing frogs, and little girls from Kansas long to experience joy, as do we all. The source of joy might be different for everyone, but the heart’s leap remains the same.
The secret of the Muppets’ longevity is their ability to create that leap in the hearts of so many people. When my co-editor and I were working on Kermit Culture, our book about the Muppets, people we spoke to would get so excited while sharing their own love for the characters and films. Their eyes lit up and their hearts leaped as they talked about fond childhood memories and favorite moments. A child’s delight became theirs again, if only for a little while.
The Muppets bring people joy because they themselves are embodiments of it. They sing, they dance, they tell jokes, and they dream big dreams. They are not afraid to love each other or their own interests, even if they aren’t very good at whatever they try to do. Fozzie might be a terrible comedian, but he never stops trying. The Great Gonzo’s stunts inevitably end in disaster, but he’s always ready for another go. So often in life we let other people tell us where we ought to find our joy instead of laying claim to the place where we know it to be. We’re afraid of what the world will think if something different makes us happy. We’re even afraid to BE happy because a jaded, sophisticated world might laugh at childlike joy. The Muppets remind us that we shouldn’t care what other people think. It’s our rainbow connection to find for ourselves. At the end of The Muppet Movie they offer us some very important advice: “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending.” In other words, find your joy and don’t let go.
The Muppets have other lessons to teach us, as well. As a community, they represent and celebrate the power of creativity. Being creations themselves, they inherently demonstrate the creativity of the puppeteers who made them and perform them, but they also become creators as they sing, dance, and pursue their dreams. From the boisterous rock n’ roll of the Electric Mayhem to the bizarre performance art of The Great Gonzo, their acts are examples of creativity unleashed, and creativity is another expression of joy. The Muppets embody imagination, not only in their diverse forms but in their wild and unpredictable acts. You never who or what might appear on stage; it might be Marvin Suggs and His Amazing Muppa-phone, Bobby Benson’s Baby Band, or even Wayne and Wanda.
 The Muppet Show and the Muppet movies also repeatedly show the Muppets as being aware of the larger, connected world. They often take an environmental stance because Jim Henson cared very much about environmental issues, as many of his other films and television shows reveal. Being mostly animals, the Muppets are of course advocates for the natural world; even Sam the Eagle, a staunch conservative, has to get behind the Endangered Species Act when he realizes that it protects American bald eagles like himself. One memorable segment of The Muppet Show features a group of forest animals singing the Buffalo Springfield song, “For What It’s Worth,” as a group of hunters invades their forest home. Later, Kermit’s signature song, “Bein’ Green,” became an anthem for environmental concerns and Kermit himself became a mascot for recycling. In order to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every Muppet, the Muppets also have to respect the swamps, forests, caves, and trees from which they come.
Beyond environmental issues, the Muppets are social activists. Jim Henson was himself a great proponent of social justice; it was no coincidence that one of his favorite songs was Harry Belafonte’s “Turn the World Around,” which Belafonte performed at Henson’s memorial service. As Henson’s collective voice, the Muppets protest what they see as wrong in their world. Much of The Muppet Movie focuses on Kermit the Frog’s stand against Doc Hopper, who wants Kermit to promote a chain of frogs’ legs restaurants. Kermit refuses on ethical and environmentalist grounds, saying, “All I can see are millions of frogs on tiny crutches.” Kermit’s friends stand with him, even when the conflict becomes a showdown with a hired killer. They also stand together against greedy industrialists like Tex Richman in the newest movie, leading Fox Business Network to accuse the Muppets of being Communists. (Yes, they really did.) In a screed sure to warm the hearts of liberals everywhere, Fox commentator Eric Bolling blasted the 2011 Muppet movie as part of Hollywood’s liberal agenda to encourage an anti-corporate attitude in children. Apparently, children need to see more lovable, friendly corporate moguls in their entertainment. You know, just like we have in real life. Like everyone else who takes a stand against injustice, the Muppets obviously have their detractors, but they don’t let that stop them from doing what they feel is right. They want to make the world a better place for everyone, not just the Doc Hoppers and the Tex Richmans who already have so much.
          These are all reasons for people to find joy in the Muppets. They teach us the values of community, diversity, and creativity. They tell us to take a stand for the things we love. They remind us of the joy we felt as children, but they also urge us to hold on to that joy as adults. You never get too old to look for the rainbow connection. As Wordsworth says, “So was it when my life began;/ So is it now I am a man; So be it when I shall grow old; Or let me die!” Let us, the lovers and the dreamers, ever find joy, whether it be in rainbows, or revelations, or a strangely lovable band of frogs and pigs and bears. 
NB: This is a shorter, revised version of the original talk, intended for a more general audience.