There’s a throwaway moment in an episode of The Muppet Show that sums up the specialness of Jim Henson’s characters. Kermit the Frog is introducing that night’s show while Statler and Waldorf heckle him from their customary side balcony perch, warning him that they’re going to be keeping a numeric score of each sketch’s quality. “And on a scale of one to ten, here’s your score so far!” yells Statler, holding up a “2.” As the old men chortle, there’s a cut to Kermit, who stares into the camera sadly and creaks, “A two?”
Remember, Statler and Waldorf hate everything and mock everything, so there’s no newsflash happening. They’re doing what they always do, but with a prop. The whole business of rating that night’s show is an exercise in bad faith knife-twisting, just pure meanness. The show hasn’t even started yet! But Kermit, being a performer as well as the troupe’s leader and The Muppet Show’s master of ceremonies, can’t help taking it personally. Some part of him wonders what he could’ve done to get the score up.
This is the true genius of the Muppets: They aren’t just lovable talking creatures with personalities. They’re performers in a behind-the-scenes story that continues over the decades no matter what show or film they’re doing. They chase work and get cast in roles, some of which are perfect for them, others laughably wrong. And when they try their best and fail — or when they’re phoning it in that week because of personal issues, such as Kermit and Miss Piggy’s never-ending relationship drama, or Fozzie Bear’s unbearable (Wakka wakka!) feelings of inadequacy — we take it as personally as they do, because they’re not just fictional characters in a self-enclosed story. They’re dear friends who happen to be performers and whose success and happiness we remain invested in, whether a given project seems promising or ill-advised. Their lives are ruled by the anxieties and ambitions that all performers deal with, no matter how small or large the project they happen to be involved in at that moment.
The Muppet Show — a five-season ’70s syndicated comedy-variety series spun off from Henson’s work on Sesame Street, viewable in its entirety on Disney+ starting today — was ground zero for Henson’s metafictional playfulness, a conceptual step up from, and logical evolution of, everything he and key collaborators like Frank Oz had been doing with puppetry up to that point. Earlier live-action shows had used the framework of “here’s a troupe of lovable performers going about their lives while doing their job” — The Jack Benny Program, I Love Lucy, and The Dick Van Dyke Show were three of the best — but until The Muppet Show, nobody had done it with (deeply) felt creatures, and the artificiality let the show veer into fourth-wall-breaking sight gags and surrealism, the sort of thing Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes did so brilliantly in shorts like “Duck Amuck.” One of the best iterations of this joke can be seen in the first Muppet theatrical feature, 1979’s The Muppet Movie: the initial leg of Kermit and Fozzie’s road trip to Hollywood brings them to a church where Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem orchestra is practicing, and when Fozzie starts to tell the musicians everything that’s happened up to that point, Kermit tells him not to do that because “it’ll just bore the audience” and has them read the screenplay instead.
It’s a kick to see how thoroughly and consistently The Muppet Show executed its vision, particularly during the backstage bits (what sitcom writers would call the “A” story) that threaded through each episode, focusing on, say, Kermit’s anxiety over Miss Piggy’s crush on that week’s costar, or Scooter’s bids for greater responsibility, or Fozzie’s pathetic requests to do comedy routines that sound dreadful even in the abstract, or Gonzo’s attempts to hijack the spotlight with escalating and incompetently planned acts involving cannons, a trapeze, catapults, and the like.
It’s fascinating to look at the long arc of the Muppets’ stardom and realize that they’ve always existed on a continuum of self-awareness. Sometimes the shows and films foreground the notion of, “Here’s a bunch of performers honing their craft while trying to succeed in show business.” Other times the characters are allowed to sink into the fiction, acknowledging the fact that we’re watching “actors” play parts, but in the way that, say, The Marx Brothers or Bob Hope or Will Ferrell might’ve. The first and third Muppet films, The Muppet Movie and The Muppets Take Manhattan, were backstage stories, with the characters chasing showbiz dreams (of movie and Broadway stardom, respectively). But the second one, 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper, which was Henson’s first feature as a director, let the characters settle into roles (Kermit and Fozzie were reporters investigating a jewel robbery in London; Miss Piggy was the receptionist for the victim, fashion designer Lady Holliday) while keeping “You are watching a movie” jokes to a minimum. (They’re good jokes, though; the best is the running gag of Kermit and Fozzie as identical twins who can’t be told apart unless Fozzie is wearing his hat.)
After Henson’s death in 1990, the films became more committed to their fictions, culminating in A Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, which were fairly straightforward musical adaptations of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson that just happened to showcase large numbers of puppets. (It’s touching to see Kermit and Miss Piggy play supporting roles in A Muppet Christmas Carol as Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit, committing to the characters and not winking at the viewer.) But the newer reboots of the Muppets, most of which can also be seen on Disney+, have reverted to the Muppet Show model. The results are hit and miss, but there are many genuinely funny sketches and moments, and it’s a kick to see the conceptual and aesthetic variations on the original Henson formula. The troupe had to evolve to match changes in modern life, and for the most part they’ve managed it admirably. Many of the Internet-only shorts that the Henson company did a decade ago are stone-cold classics (no matter how depressed you are, Beaker’s “Ode to Joy” will perk you up). The short-lived The Muppets (2015-16) was a riff on unscripted TV and mockumentary sitcoms like The Office, with the camera often adopting a voyeuristic perspective, eavesdropping on conversations through half-closed doors.
The newest series, Muppets Now, feels like the early aughts Internet shorts enclosed by a framing device of screens-within-screens on a desktop, with Scooter struggling to upload that week’s batch of content while beset by interruptions and technical problems. Miss Piggy has a combination style and interview show wherein everything leads back to moi (Linda Cardellini has a recurring bit as her long-suffering best friend), and there’s a cooking show with Swedish Chef competing against celebrity guests (Danny Trejo makes mole) and failing due to distractedness and lack of preparation (the Chef seems really out of it these days; does he have a brännvin problem?). A subtle anxiety runs beneath every sketch and segment, as if the Henson company’s continuous attempts to reinvent the Muppets and keep them relevant has been transmuted into the personalities of its characters, who’ve been around forever and will always be beloved, but are worried about losing their hallowed spot in the pop culture firmament. They’re still big: It’s the screens that have gotten small. The show goes on.
(If you subscribe to a service through our links, Vulture may earn an affiliate commission.)