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.