US parental watchdog groups have wrongly boycotted the Muppets’ new show. Because they have always had a mature edge – even touching on free love and drugs –
Even before the premiere of The Muppets in September, US parental watchdog groups were upset. Promos for the TV series update of the 40-year-old puppet franchise included jokes about the character Animal and his band always being happy – but now “legally” so. Other spots released by the show’s network, ABC, hyped Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy’s breakup and revealed how newly single Miss Piggy’s Tinder profile encouraged suitors to “put this pig in a blanket.” One even showed the actor Nathon Fillion doing ‘the walk of shame’ leaving Piggy’s trailer.
Without seeing a full episode, 'One Million Moms' announced a boycott of the series, calling it a “perverted” and “sexually charged” reimagining of a once “family-friendly” show. The group’s call to action insisted that the new Muppets was “not what Jim Henson imagined and created. The new show is aimed at a mature, modern audience and addresses subjects not suitable for family viewing.”
The Parents Television Council piled on as well. But rather than being a subversion of Henson’s original idea, The Muppets is doing exactly what the characters have always done – they practically invented the concept of a children’s program geared largely for adults, and without them the landscape of US TV would look completely different.
Like the 1970s series The Muppet Show, this new program follows Kermit, Piggy, and their friends’ behind-the-scenes antics as they try to stage an entertainment – in this case a late-night Talk show called 'Up Late With Miss Piggy'. And like The Muppet Show 40 years ago, The Muppets comments on contemporary culture – exactly the thing which made them a favourite of the Generation X parents now watching with their children. Most of the jokes from the Muppets have always been aimed solely at the parents in the room. That’s how they’ve always risen above the purely kid shows of the day.
A version of the Muppets debuted in 1975 as part of the first season of one of US TV’s most adult institutions, Saturday Night Live. The human comedians in the cast resisted the puppets, and Henson didn’t care for the writing, so the association lasted only one season. And so The Muppet Show was born – a sweeter, ready-for-primetime phenomenon that retained a bit of edge. (The Muppets as we know them have since returned to SNL for far more triumphant appearances.)
On The Muppet Show, things could get pretty sexy, like when Raquel Welch danced with a Muppet spider. There was even a darkly ironic rendition of a Shel Silverstein song called You’re Always Welcome at Our House that featured verses about a door-to-door salesman being hit on the head with a hammer and then locked in a closet, followed by another visitor to “our house” being poisoned with lemonade and stored in a freezer. In another famously disturbing Muppets bit, which Henson performed in the ‘70s on a few late-night talk shows with Kermit, the punchline is basically Kermit’s death. Not to mention that the troupe’s house band, Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, have always been hippie rock stars, with all the sex and drugs that implies.
The fact is, the Muppets were born of the counterculture movement of the ‘60s . Following The Muppet Show, the Muppets stuck to feature films and primetime programs, where they could play to adults. The Muppet Movie, released in 1979, featured a dark plotline involving evil restaurateur Doc Hopper trying to make a frog-legs feast from Kermit. In the 1981 movie The Great Muppet Caper, Charles Grodin tried to seduce Miss Piggy as part of a heist scheme (below).
Perhaps the Muppets have been able to appeal to both children and adults because they are puppets. They can adapt to any era, they don’t age, they can do anything, and they’re in a unique position to break the fourth wall, to remind you that what you’re watching isn’t real. It’s the perfect formula to smuggle in satire
It’s in their cultural influence, that the truly subversive nature of The Muppets is revealed. Fourteen years after their creation, their first true heir emerged: The Simpsons. Parents decried that series, too, when it first premiered in primetime in 1989. And it took many viewers a while to catch on that ‘cartoon’ does not equal kids, just as ‘puppet’ does not equal kids. The Simpsons continues to air, now surrounded by even more ‘adult’ cartoons such as Family Guy and Bob’s Burgers. The animated Disney movies that dominated pop culture throughout the ‘90s – Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King – borrowed heavily from the Muppets, sneaking adult-level jokes and themes among the moral lessons and catchy songs. Pixar has since followed suit. Even many live-action shows have borrowed elements of the Muppets’ approach:
On the new Muppets show, Kermit has broken up with Miss Piggy and is pursuing a new pig girlfriend.
If the Muppets have something to teach us, it’s that neither they, nor their Rainbow Connection message of hope, nor programs apparently geared for kids, need be juvenile.