Thursday, July 14, 2011

Strings attached

I know I've blogged about—or at least posted video of—the Muppets before. But their media presence—and phrases like that may be considered "part of the problem"—looks set to explode to perhaps unprecedented levels. And this is a surprisingly thoughtful essay on what's become of them since their acquisition by Disney. The writer makes a salient point here.

Now, Jim Henson was always a willing participant in the marketplace, and as Malcolm Gladwell points out in The Tipping Point, Grover began as an IBM spokesman. Which is certainly true, and Rowlf the Dog did films for corporate meetings. He sold typewriters door-to-door in Henson’s early “meeting films,” a peculiar subgenre of the commercial designed for business-to-business sales pitches. It’s all there on YouTube. Gladwell argues that "Sesame Street" was an extension of these commercials, but he’s got it the wrong way around. It’s the commercials that embody the ethos of "Sesame Street." I laughed—forcefully, involuntarily and out loud—at one reel in which a character was shot at point blank because he said he didn’t use the product. Later, I couldn’t even remember the product’s name. These works are not just making a buck for the buck’s sake. There’s a willfulness in them, a refusal to ever place the market’s demands above one’s own values. We see it again in The Muppet Movie when Kermit refuses to do a commercial for Doc Hopper’s frog legs. Like Kermit, Henson was unwilling to compromise his vision, and as best as I can tell, he made the buck to pay for making more Muppet shows.

In a 1979 interview with Morley Safer for "60 Minutes," Henson describes his job this way: “Kermit finds himself trying to hold together all these crazy people, and there’s something not unlike what I do.” Why would anyone choose a job like this? With a hypothesis clearly in mind, Safer asks him, hardball-style, how much the “Muppet Empire” is worth, “scores of millions, millions?” Henson, visibly uncomfortable, defers to Kermit, seated beside him, who riffs nervously on the cost of green fleece and ping pong balls. Under Safer’s stare, Henson eventually admits his business is worth millions, “probably.” As Henson awaits the next question, his eyes appear dewy, perhaps hurt or angered, at the insinuation that money is his real game. This is, after all, a man who stayed up all night painting numbers for "Sesame Street"’s Number Songs.

It might seem like hyperbole or some kind of lard in our cynical era. Netflix categorizes "Fraggle Rock" as both “feel-good” and “family-friendly,” and descriptions like these can make the work seem unserious. But it’s no small feat to balance art and commerce. So few of us actually attempt that “Rainbow Connection” and fewer still succeed. It's not naive to admit that what we like about the Muppets is this willful spirit—that art is something to do for its own sake.

Participating in the marketplace is not necessarily selling out. That does not mean, however, that there's no such thing as selling out, or that it's not a danger. It's a matter of whether the dog wags the tail or vice versa.

There's a video readily available online of all the Muppet Show characters doing a lip dub of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." It's cute and all, but I can't shake the suspicion that it was dreamed up by a young marketing exec using the equation "classic characters + classic rock = massive web hits."

Some form of this doubt is going to follow just about every new project featuring these characters. Part of it is that the appearance and the broad character tics keep recurring, but the details of characterization and performance are lost. Or maybe the lightning just doesn't want to go into the bottle now.


susan said...

That's a great article and I couldn't agree with you more. The Muppets with Jim Henson, Frank Oz and all the other wild characters were an amazing and hilarious crowd. It was all about mutual enjoyment and spontaneous insanity and that simply can't be preserved forever. The good news is we have our memories and some original episodes to watch.

Ben said...

I was very impressed with the article as well.

Henson, Oz, Goelz et al did inspirational work. Which I hope means it will continue to inspire.