I imagine I would have learned to spell and read and count just fine without the Muppets, just as I would have whiled away hours watching something else on television without Jim Henson there to provide it for me, but, as it turns out, my life was enormously impacted by the man who gave life to a sock-like frog.
I learned to count with the Count, and to spell with Oscar, Big Bird and Cookie Monster.
I learned about getting along with others (and about gay people) with Bert and Ernie.
The first prime-time show I remember watching with my family was The Muppet Show, which also introduced me to my first celebrities.
I used to be afraid of Skekses from The Dark Crystal stealing me from my bed during naptime.
My first exposure to David Bowie, who would become a favorite later in life, was as The Goblin King in Labyrinth.
I shudder to imagine a childhood devoid of Yoda and the monsters of Jabba’s palace.
I haven’t seen the Convincing John episode of Fraggle Rock since it originally aired, but I’ll be damned if that song doesn’t still get stuck in my head.
And I know I’m not the only one who has such experiences with the Muppets and the work of Henson; I think it’s pretty safe to say anyone who was a child of the seventies can probably rattle off a pretty similar list.
Returning to The Muppet Show for the first time since I was a little kid via the DVD collection of the first season, and watching Sesame Street with my nieces and littlest sisters now that I’m an adult, I find myself even more entranced by Henson and company’s puppetry-er, Muppetry-but in a different way.
As a child, I never really thought about the fact that they were puppets with performers’ hands, strings and sticks animating them, but now I find myself in awe of the skill that went into creating the puppets, their settings and, in some cases, their worlds, and then making them seem so damn life-like in their perfromance.
The advent and ubiquity of computer-generated imagery has only served to underscore the vitality of Muppetry. Just compare the Frank Oz-performed Yoda of The Empire Strikes Back to the CGI version in Revenge of the Sith, or the menagerie of Muppet monsters in Dark Crystal to the half-CGI creations of MirrorMask; 3-D puppets have a sense of reality and presence that today’s computers have yet to be able to approximate.
The Jim Henson Legacy and the Brooklyn Academy of Music will give grown-up Henson fans (and/or their own kids) a new opportunity to reconsider and appreciate the genius of Henson and his many collaborators and creations with touring program Muppets, Music & Magic: Jim Henson’s Legacy, which begins a two-Saturday run at the Wexner Center this weekend.
It kicks off this Saturday, March 17, with Muppet Musical Moments, which rounds up a collection of musical numbers from The Muppet Show, like “Danny Boy” as sung by speech-impeded Muppets the Swedish Chef, Animal, and Beaker, as well as performances by the show’s galaxy of guest stars, like Harry Belafonte, Linda Ronstadt and Elton John (whose colorful, reflective jumpsuit makes him more gaudily fabulous than any of the members of Dr. Teeth’s Electric Mayhem house band).
That’s followed by A Better World: Living in Harmony which features Fraggle Rock a TV drama about a delicately balanced ecosystem of three vastly different communities of Muppets-Fraggles, Doozers, Gorgs-that share a world with at least one human being (and his dog Sprocket). It will also feature The Song of the Cloud Forest, a computer animated short directed by Henson about a golden toad evading capture by humans.
Then it’s 1979’s The Muppet Movie, which tells, in Kermit’s words, “sort of approximately” how the various fabric and felt animals that make up the cast of the vaudeville-style Muppet Show first got together.
Plucking a banjo and signing about the “rainbow connection” in his home swamp (Man, there’s another Muppet song that will embed itself in your skull for decades), Kermit meets passing talent agent Dom DeLuise, who shows him an ad in Variety for an open audition for frogs.
Along the road to stardom he hooks up with unfunny stand-up comedian Fozzie Bear (“They’re holding an audition for frogs, and if they need frogs they must need bears too,” Kermit reasons), runs into weirdo plumber Gonzo and his chicken girlfriend, is latched onto by county fair beauty contest winner Miss Piggy and otherwise crosses paths with the rest of the Muppets.
Cameos include Carol Kane, Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, Orson Welles, James Coburn, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Elliott Gould, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Big Bird, Steve Martin and Telly Savalas and probably a half-dozen others I didn’t recognize.
Henson and company take the opportunity of a big-screen story to put the Muppets in different situations that seem pretty dramatic compared to the shot-from-the-puppet-waists-up of their TV show, like showing Kermit riding a bike, dancing on a stage and stalking down a ghost town’s street for a showdown in cowboy boots with jangling spurs.
Then it’s Muppet History 101, little-seen TV appearances, commercials, appearances on The Jimmy Dean and Dick Cavett shows and the pilot episode of the Muppet Show (which was included on the season one DVD).
Finally, there’s Commercials and Experiments, which shows Muppetry being devoted to selling grocery store Chinese food, ironing aids and Henson’s imagination and skills applied to a few Muppet-free endeavors.
The program continues the following Saturday with a fantasy focus, including the two early ‘80s feature film classics, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, but more on those next week.
Disclosure: Donewaiting.com site owner Robert Duffy is also an employee of the Wexner Center