Rant-Man’s Notebook: Muppets R.I.P.

Muppets R.I.P.

The Muppets are dead. I saw them die.

I do not say this lightly. I’ve been a hardcore Muppet fan since at least 1971. I was too old for Sesame Street, so I didn’t discover Big Bird, Bert and Ernie and Oscar until quite some time after finding Kermit and his pals on the Ed Sullivan show. “Mahna Mahna” was amazing. Years afterward, I loved Skred and the others on Saturday Night Live’s first season. The Muppets were a revelation to me and I loved them from the minute I first laid eyes on them.

When the Muppet Show premiered, I found a kindred spirit in the form of Gonzo. The Great Gonzo was my hero. I memorized his songs, wore a Gonzo t-shirt, eventually littered my desk and dashboard with Gonzo toys, buttons, Pez dispensers and other such dustcatchers. The Gonz was my main man.

In 1979, I took off early from work so I could be at the first screening on opening day of the Muppet Movie. Jim Henson was one of my heroes. His death was one of the great tragedies of my life up to that time (this was before any of my friends or family had ever died; the only other death that hit me as hard was when Harry Chapin was killed). The worst part, even more than the incredible stupidity and pointlessness of Henson’s passing, was the very real possibility that his death would mean the death of the Muppets. Who could possibly replace him? Maybe they could find another Kermit (they did; Steve Whitmire did a passable job at it in “A Muppet Christmas Carol”), but what about Statler (or was it Waldorf?), Rowlf (they didn’t even try; I haven’t seen him since), the Swedish Chef? Who would provide the vision, the moral center, the soul of the Muppets?

The answer, of course, was “nobody.”

The Muppets seemed to be okay for a while; the Christmas Carol was okay, “Muppets From Space” was pretty good, and I even liked the new Muppets Tonight show that flopped. I worried that the on again-off again sale to Disney would ruin them, but they weathered it. I worried that the sale to the german company would be a disaster, but again they survived.

Then came that awful Christmas special. Okay, so maybe that was a fluke. Everybody can have a flop. No biggie.

Or it could be a bad omen of things to come.

Things like “The Muppet Wizard of Oz.”

There are no words. I only managed to watch a half-hour of this affront before God. If I were given to hyperbole, I might refer to it as an abomination, a monstrosity, possibly even heresy. Fortunately, I’m not given to hyperbole, as billions of readers can attest. Sure, the Muppets always slipped subtle stuff in that only adults would catch, jokes that went over the little kids’ heads. There was nothing subtle about this thing. It was as subtle as a plane crash. The thing was barely ten minutes in before they cracked a joke about “Girls Gone Wild.” The Muppets, on a “Wonderful World of Disney” TV show, are cracking wise about Girls Gone Wild? Are we in Bizarro World? I’m sure that american 6-year-olds know all about videos of drunken coeds flashing their nay-nays. Very subtle.

A little bit later, Gonzo appears as the Tin Man, and doesn’t sound like himself at all; has Dave Goelz given up the part the way Frank Oz has passed on all his roles to vastly inferior talents? In this allegedly updated version, “tin” is an acronym for “Total Information Network” and Gonzo is connected to the internet through his nose. Pepe the Prawn, playing Toto (don’t ask), grabs two knobs on Gonzo’s chest and asks what they do. “Nothing; those are my nipples.” Now, I don’t know about you, but that is exactly the kind of humor I look for in children’s entertainment.

A strange lion Muppet who vaguely resembled Fozzie (and sounded more like Miss Piggy) showed up, and then I hit the fast forward (thank God for Tivo) and went to the end to see if it could possibly improve. It didn’t. Instead, Jeffrey Tambor showed up playing the Wizard as a game show host. Twenty seconds later I was deleting the thing.

I was supposed to copy the show to a tape and send it to a friend. Instead I sent him a note and told him that I was doing him a favor by not sending it.

It wasn’t just a bad show. It was the death throes of a cultural landmark. The Muppets are over. They can never be good again. They could have survived a bad movie, but the sheer soullessness of this thing revealed the truth. Without Jim Henson, there are no Muppets. The shallow, crude, vulgar, emotionally bankrupt and hollow puppets that flailed around in front of the camera bore only the most superficial resemblance to the Muppets.

It’s all over now. Fare thee well, Muppets. We’ll miss you.

Old Ladies in Red Hats

Have you heard of the Red Hat Society? I’ve been aware of them for a long time, and it finally became clear to me why I don’t like them. Or more accurately, why I don’t like their organization. The Red Hat Society is a towering monument to Missing The Point.

What am I talking about? Well, see, back in 1967 or so, this lady named Jenny Joseph wrote a poem called “Warning” in which she explained that when she became an old woman, she was going to wear purple “and a red hat that doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me,” and generally behave badly in a lot of different ways, thumb her nose at polite society and celebrate her independence and joi d’vivre. It’s really a wonderful poem, which copyright laws (and Ms. Joseph’s diligent enforcement of them) prevent me from reproducing here. Others, less easily cowed, have posted it in varying forms all over the place under a bunch of different titles, including “When I Am an Old Woman,” “Purple,” “I Shall Wear Purple,” and the actual title, “Warning.” Go google it if you must; I can’t do everything for you.

So anyway, I happened to be out at a theremin concert (oh, go look it up) with some friends, whom I shall here refer to by the names “John” and “Mary” because that is what everybody else calls them, even though those are obviously pseudonyms; I suspect that “John” and “Mary” are actually unrepentant soviet spies waiting for the eventual collapse of capitalism and resumption of the Cold War so they can get back to their life’s work. But I digress. After the concert, we were wandering the streets of Sierra Madre (site of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but again I digress), and we passed a shop with a front window full of tea acoutrements, along with an assortment of red hats adorned with purple.

“Mary” made mention of having seen gaggles of old women in red hats and purple dresses at various events and destinations, and I then remembered having read about them. The Red Hat Society is a bunch of women over 50 (if you’re under 50 you have to wear a pink hat, since you’re not ready for red, but we’ll get to that), who follow the famous poem’s instructions as far as wardrobe and not one step further. A quick look at their official website reveals the flaw in their whole setup…..

A quote from Sue Ellen Cooper, the “Queen Mother” (gag ack barf, as Bill the Cat would say):
“The Red Hat Society began as a result of a few women deciding to greet middle age with verve, humor and elan. We believe silliness is the comedy relief of life, and since we are all in it together, we might as well join red-gloved hands and go for the gusto together. Underneath the frivolity, we share a bond of affection, forged by common life experiences and a genuine enthusiasm for wherever life takes us next.”

Isn’t that nice?

The problem is, that’s all it is. Nice. Go read the poem. It’s not nice. There’s nothing in there about being silly, nothing about verve, humor or elan, not a word about joining hands (red-gloved or otherwise), and not even the slightest hint of comedy relief. “Warning” is one lady’s version of the howling protest poems of the day, a tribute to individuality and defiance of societal expectations. There is nothing defiant or individual about dressing in purple with a red hat if you’re in a mob of identically-clad compadres. These ladies, who I am quite sure are delightful people in all the ways that matter, have completely missed the point. They have raised point-missing to the level of an Olympic event. They are the Grand Masters of Point-Missing. They have taken a poem that challenged them to defy the rules, and turned it into a codified society of conformity. They have rules! Women under 50 are forbidden to wear the red hats, they have to wear pink until they reach the magic number. If that isn’t a screaming rebuke to Ms. Joseph, I don’t know what is.

If they want to celebrate the life that Ms. Joseph spoke of, they wouldn’t be wearing purple dresses and red hats. They would be wearing whatever the hell they felt like putting on, whether that be a leopard-print jumpsuit, English riding pants, a pink feather boa or a Boy Scout uniform, if that’s what floats their boat.

And what do they DO while wearing their official Red Hat Lady uniforms and marching in lockstep? They drink tea. In TV terms, they took Lorelei Gilmore’s philosophy of life and neutered it, making it safe for Emily. It’s a paint-by-number copy of a Picasso. They are pretending to be bold individualists while behaving like fad-following sheep. Go read the poem. There’s no mention of tea. Here’s what it says to do:

I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

A true follower of Ms. Joseph’s philosophy would be appalled at the notion of joining the Red Hat Society. She would be too busy doing what she wanted to do, in her own way, with her own style, and I’ll bet good money she’d be wearing anything but purple, and her hat is quite likely to be a sequined lime green baseball cap, or maybe a raspberry beret or a fluorescent yellow fez. Or maybe bunny ears. Anything but red, because red has been ruined by posers.

Listen up, ladies. If you want to go out with a group of ladies and drink tea, that’s great. Enjoy. If you want to be distinctive about it and all wear purple with red hats, go for it, rock on. Just please don’t delude yourself that you are in any way shape, or form living up to the life of self-expression that Ms. Joseph wrote about. You’re not. Not even close. Sorry.