Pop Culture

The Muppets Does Adult Humor Right

I’ve been really enjoying the revived Muppet Show. I was born the same year the original show left the airwaves, so I mostly know it only through old DVDs and YouTube video of my favorite celebrity appearances. It’s really cool to finally be able to participate in something like The Muppets in real time rather than as a cultural artifact.

The thing I love the most about the show, though, is the way it tackles the concept of adult humor in a family-friendly setting. I know this rustled some jimmies when it first came out, and I’ll admit it was weird to see Kermit refer to his life as a “bacon-wrapped Hell.” Weird but still funny, and not just to me but to my whole family on the couch.

I watch a lot of cartoons in my house because I have a six-year-old, and quite frankly she stole all the energy I used to own. I may hate the new Dora and Friends cartoon with a fire so hot that Hobbits keep trying to throw rings down my throat, but I don’t hate it enough to engage a first grader in an argument on artistic merits. That’s just not a hill I want to die on.

One of her favorite shows, though, is the latest Scooby Doo, Mystery Incorporated, and it’s here that I’m starting to see this weird trend in cartoons I don’t necessarily get or like. Mystery Incorporated is a pretty good show, don’t get me wrong, but I’m sort of at a loss who it’s actually for.

For instance, it has an entire episode dedicated to aping Andy Warhol. Scooby becomes a Nico stand-in, there are discussions about the pop art movement and the rise of alternative music, and there’s even a Banksy joke to top it all off. Or how about the time Sheriff Bronson Stone (yes, he’s voiced by Patrick Warburton; why would you even ask that question?) finds Pinhead’s puzzle box from Hellraiser and opens the door to a blinding light and a cultured voice intoning, “Oh, such sights…” before Bronson slams the door in presumably a cenobite’s face. 

This seems to be how jokes are written to appeal to adults who might be trapped on the couch with their offspring at TV time in a lot of shows, and to me it’s just really, really lazy comedy. “Remember this thing you used to know that will make no sense at all to your kid? Huh-huh.” That’s not actually a joke, That’s really just, I don’t know, pop culture shorthand.

Which is why I find The Muppets so refreshing. It doesn’t rely on references that are now well into their second decade for a cheap pop. It uses the culture we have right now to make their jokes and bring everyone watching forward instead of backward. It’s hilarious watching Fozzy talk about online dating while being a bear and then quickly assuring us that the sort of responses he gets are just fine, but not what he’s looking for. I suppose it’s a little risqué if your kid doesn’t know what homosexuality is, even though it's 2015, but I just told my daughter that “bear” is a term for a big, hairy guy and it was enough for her to get the vague gist of the joke if not the more subtle nuance.

I mean, it’s cool seeing that the Velvet Underground made such an impact that more than 40 years after the original lineup played their last show, they’re still considered cool enough to spend animation dollars on, but The Muppets are talking to acts that are on the charts now like Josh Groban and Imagine Dragons. I’m not exactly a big fan of the last one, but you can’t argue they’re a band with an impact on the world we’re currently living in.

The thing about Easter egg humor like that in Mystery Incorporated is that it rarely has to be very sharp. Nostalgia fuzzes everything and makes us forgiving. I’d rather see what The Muppets are doing, commenting on what’s going on around them and by proxy being held to a higher standard of comedy because of it. You can tell a lot of truth through a joke. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver certainly proved that. Jokes about Miss Piggy being the only female late-night host on TV right now can do the same thing and actually make us consider as we chuckle. The Muppets allows kids and adults a fun way to gape at the world together in a meaningful way. 

The Muppets airs on ABC on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. / 7 p.m. CT

Jef's collection of stories about vampires and drive-through churches, The Rook Circle, is out now. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner