Having been turned down by every television studio in America, Jim Henson’s Muppet Show was eventually bankrolled in the UK by legendary cigar-chomping mogul Lord Lew Grade. From its debut in 1976, The Muppet Show was a huge, global success; an instant hit with both children and adults. Three years later, with the Muppets at the zenith of their popularity, Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy and company made their big screen debut with The Muppet Movie (‘More Entertaining Than Humanly Possible’) which was one of the biggest blockbusters of the year. Since then a further seven big-screen adventures have been released, including the recent Muppets Most Wanted, as well their forthcoming TV series – not to mention some classic Muppet albums.
The great appeal of The Muppets is its deft blend of childish wonder, a primary-coloured rainbow of felt and ping-pong balls, underscored with a sly, anti-establishment edge and a sureness with adult references that would later influence Pixar’s writers and animators. Henson never patronised any of the age-ranges that loved The Muppets: there was always something for everyone, but for devotees there was especially esoteric treasure buried everywhere. The pre-meta fourth wall breaking; Gonzo’s obsession with chickens; the very names “Bunsen Honeydew” and “Dr Julius Strangepork”? Utter, utter genius.
Behind it all was Henson’s sincere and benevolent world-view. Despite the hip, East Coast sharpness that courses through the Muppet oeuvre, theirs is a cynicism-free zone. The Muppets are the world’s ‘almost’ people: the tryers who never quite make it, but take solace in the fact that they tried and failed as a team. ‘We’ve got a special thing goin’ / We got us.’ As Most Wanted star Ricky Gervais put it, “The crux of The Muppets is that it’s a bunch of hapless friends trying to make it in a cut-throat business. You’re rooting for them because they’re the underdogs. It’s inspirational in a really sweet, fairy-tale, childlike way.”
And so without further ado, it’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the light, it’s time to get things started…
1. THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979) – MOVIN’ RIGHT ALONG
“Didn’t you see our first movie?” reminded Kermit in 2011’s The Muppets, “We drive.”
Having rescued third-rate stand up comedian Fozzie Bear from the unimpressed, bottle-throwing denizens of the El Sleezo Café, Kermit hitches a ride in his new ursine pal’s rusty 1951 Studebaker, en route to Hollywood and fame and fortune. How, you ask, did a bear learn to drive? “I took a correspondence course.” All the while they are pursued by the nefarious Doc Hopper, who wants to use Kermit to promote his range of deep-fried frog’s legs.
The songs in The Muppet Movie remain the best of all their films, written as they are by Bugsy Malone composer Paul Williams (with Kenny Ascher). Kermit’s magical banjo-whimsy The Rainbow Connection was nominated for an Oscar, but don’t forget the Electric Mayhem freak-out Can You Picture That, Miss Piggy’s Streisand-ballad, Never Before, Never Again, and Rowlf the Dog and Kermit aping Crosby and Sinatra with I Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along – ‘It’s not often you see a guy that green have the blues so bad.’
Top of the list is the driving anthem Movin’ Right Along, the Kermit and Fozzie duet performed as they make their way across America, footloose and fancy-free. “Bear left!” “Right Frog?” Firstly, this is one of Paul Williams’ finest toe-tappers, with a typically Muppetty mixture of Can-Do optimism and comedy schtick (“Hey LA, where’ve you gone / Send someone to fetch us, we’re in Saskatchewan”). Now add gags so fabulously bad that Kermit can only bow his little green head in shame: exhibit A, the fork in the road. Pushing it into first place is Fozzie’s line, one of the greatest ever delivered in modern cinema, as he surveys the vast swathes of open American land around him: “Ahh, a bear in his natural habitat. A Studebaker.”
2. THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979) STEVE MARTIN’S CAMEO
The Muppet show struggled at first to attract top-line celebrities into their clutches (step forward Ruth Buzzi and Jim Nabors), but once acts like Peter Ustinov and Rudolf Nureyev had risen to the occasion, it became the ultimate badge of honour to appear and be humiliated on The Muppet Show.
The movies are all peppered with celebrity cameos and The Muppet Movie is heaving with them. Old-school legends like Bob Hope, Milton Berle and Edgar Bergen appeared next to huge 1970s stars like James Coburn, Elliott Gould and Telly Savalas. No less a movie titan than Orson Welles appeared at the end, playing the Oz-like movie producer Lew Lord: “Prepare the standard ‘Rich and Famous’ contract for Kermit the Frog and company.”
The Muppets also lined up contemporary comedians whose regular acts would have been too risqué for TV at the time. Richard Pryor was on hand to sell Gonzo some Lamorisee-referencing balloons, while Mel Brooks’ mad German doctor attempting makeshift brain surgery on Miss Piggy and her amphibian lover. Stealing the show, though was Steve Martin (who was a major, stadium-filling comedy superstar at the time) playing the ‘Insolent Waiter’ who attends Kermit and Miss Piggy’s first restaurant date. Dressed like a Bavarian flugelhorn player, he makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the star-crossed inter-species lovers. “Sparkling Muscatel,” he drawls scornfully, “One of the finest wines of Idaho…Don’t you want to smell the bottle cap?” Despite spitting a taster mouthful onto the floor in disgust, he assures Kermit that it is an “Excellent choice.” Kermit concurs, “Should be for 95 cents.”
3. THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER (1981) HAPPINESS HOTEL
By all accounts, Jim Henson’s experience with Muppet Movie director James Frawley was not a happy one, so he took the reins personally for the sequel, which was released mere months after the final episode of The Muppet Show was aired. The Great Muppet Caper saw Kermit and Fozzie as identical twin brothers working as reporters: “You two guys don’t look anything alike!” “That’s because Fozzie isn’t wearing his hat.”
They travel (in cargo) to London to investigate a diamond robbery and take lodgings in the most reasonably priced accommodation that they can find. When they arrive at The Happiness Hotel – I say arrive; more accurately, they are hurled onto the pavement from a moving bus along with all their belongings – they discover that their new address is a pestilence-ridden, barely functioning hellhole, akin to a Manson Family compound. “How are you guys fixing to pay? A, Credit card, b, cash or c, sneak out in the middle of the night?”
By chance, every flea-pit there is taken up by alumni from the Muppet Show. The band members of Electric Mayhem are only resting here between gigs – “We’ve been here, what, five years?” Still, with a group of players in tow, it isn’t long before the occupants are knee-deep in a full-blown musical extravaganza to welcome their new housemates. The ‘Happiness Hotel’ number typifies everything The Muppets do well. Dizzyingly choreographed mayhem, catchy tune and brilliant lyrics – “Oh there are bugs and there are lice / Sure we have our little problems but you’ll never beat the price.” Moreover, it is impossible to imagine the scene existing in anything but a Muppet movie.
4. THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER (1981) JOHN CLEESE
The queue of great actors lining up to collect their certificate of Muppet participation wasn’t getting any shorter by 1981. The Great Muppet Caper’s pleasures are further swelled by the myriad appearances of (largely British) stars of stage and screen. Look, there’s Robert Morley on a bench, and there’s Trevor Howard. Even Sesame Street’s Oscar The Grouch turns up to make “a very brief cameo” alongside Peter Ustinov.
Peter Falk damn near walks away with the movie as a tramp who confidently, at length and wholly inaccurately guesses why Kermit is feeling so low – “What happened was you and your brother-in-law, Bernie, you cashed in your stocks certificates and your insurance policy and you went out and bought a dry-cleaning establishment…” – before trying to sell him a stolen watch.
Best of all is John Cleese whose ‘typically British’ supper with his wife (Joan Sanderson – Mrs Richards from Fawlty Towers) is interrupted by Miss Piggy who unbeknownst to them is borrowing their “Ritzy English house.” Dressed in full dinner attire, the table laid as though royalty were in attendance, and against the backdrop of piped classical music, Cleese and Sanderson engage in strained chit-chat about the “awfully disappointing weather.” At one point, Cleese mentions that a pig is climbing up the outside of the house, before asserting that if life ever became too boring he’d go out and buy some quails eggs or calf-foot jelly.
When Miss Piggy is forced to take Kermit on a brief tour of her stolen property, Cleese, the rightful owner follows them around the house, finally confronting them in the bathroom closet. Such is the stifling nature of his British reserve that rather than attack them or call the police, he recommends them a decent restaurant instead. “Well, there’s the Dubonnet Club; actually that’s not so much a restaurant as a supper club…”
5. THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (1992) TINY TIM
The comparative failure of The Muppets Take Manhattan in 1984 led to a drought of Muppet movies which lasted 8 years. In that time, Henson seemed more interested in darker fare like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, though younger audiences had Muppet Babies and Fraggle Rock on TV to placate them. Then in 1990, Jim Henson died at the cruelly young age of 53 from a rare bacterial infection. That, in all its tragic likelihood, was that as far as The Muppets were concerned.
However, two years later, Jim’s son Brian announced the first Muppet movie since Manhattan: a new take on Charles Dickens immortal A Christmas Carol. This was unusual since for the first time, the Muppets would be playing characters rather than themselves. Kermit and Miss Piggy played the Cratchits, while Kermit’s nephew Robin played Tiny Tim. Gonzo played Charles Dickens and narrated the film alongside Ritzo The Rat, while Fozzie played the gregarious owner of the Fozzywig and Ma Ltd. rubber chicken factory.
The very positive critical response praised the fact that the story was played surprisingly straight and adhered more closely to Dickens’ text than most live-action adaptations – rubber chickens notwithstanding. By 1992, The Muppets had been icons for 16 years and a whole generation had grown old alongside them. As amusing as Christmas Carol was, these were old friends by now and the thought that little Robin could have died; that Kermit The Frog had just visited his son’s grave, left viewers of a certain vintage red-eyed and soggy-collared.
The simple shot of Tiny Tim’s little crutch leaning by the fireplace was almost too much to bear. And so, when at the climax, after Michael Caine’s Scrooge has learned the error of his ways and pledged to make amends, Gonzo turned to the audience and says, “…and Tiny Tim, who did NOT die…!” everyone in the cinema cheered as though we’d all just been handed a completely clean biopsy result.
6. THE MUPPETS (2011) MAN OR MUPPET
Christmas Carol was followed in 1996 by the sweet if unmemorable Muppet Treasure Island, but after that came the wilderness years. By 1999’s Muppets From Space, they were reduced to co-starring with Rob Schneider and Andie MacDowell. Suddenly, The Muppets were straight-to-DVD performers, shifting copies of The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz in their dozens. Not for the first time, but seemingly the last, it seemed that the barrel of goodwill towards Jim Henson’s furry family had been finally scraped dry.
Nobody reckoned with Jason Segal, life-long Muppet devotee and a genuine movie star on the back of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Knocked Up and I Love You, Man. Bravely he (and his co-writer Nicholas Stoller) used the Muppets’ old-hat status as the crux of the plot. In 2011, The Muppets were living apart in relative obscurity. Gonzo was the CEO of a plumbing company and Fozzie had joined copyright-dodging tribute group, The Moopets: house band at a sleazy Reno motel. Only Miss Piggy’s career has gone stratospheric in the interim. She is now the editor of Vogue Paris – the Plus-Size section – with Emily Blunt as her secretary. Kermit must get the old gang back together to put on a show to save the old Muppet Theatre from being destroyed by the evil oil-baron Tex Richman.
When The Muppets was released, it was like welcoming a best friend back into your arms after twenty years apart. For the first time since Christmas Carol, they had a sharp, witty script; pedigree contemporary stars – Amy Adams, Zach Galifianakis, Sarah Silverman, and Foo Fighters’ legend Dave Grohl playing Moopets drummer ‘Animool’ – and big laughs. The chicken version of Cee Lo Green’s ‘Forget You’ (clean version) is pure Muppet hilarity, and the moment where Jason Segal cracks the car window to let in some air after the car arrives on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean becomes funnier the more you think about it.
The most sublime moment is Jason Segal’s duet with his brother, Walter, who is himself a Muppet (no explanation given or, at this stage, required). Man or Muppet shows off The Muppets’ secret weapon: composer and 50% of Flight of The Conchords, Bret McKenzie. His songs for The Muppets are its heart and soul: Life’s a Happy Song could well be the Muppet National Anthem. In the soaring, key-changing power ballad, Man or Muppet, Walter searches his soul to discover which of those terms best describes him – “Am I a Muppet or am I a man? / If I’m a man that makes me a Muppet of a man!” – and even imagines his human avatar, The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons.
The song won McKenzie an Oscar, a statistic which puts the Muppets in a club so rarefied that Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Leonardo DiCaprio have so far failed to qualify for membership.
Waldorf: Is that it?
Statler: Yes. It’s over. How’d you like it?
Waldorf: I don’t know. I slept through the whole thing.
Stattler: Well, you didn’t miss much…