Film and TV

Celebrate Your Existential Anxiety with the Return of The Muppet Show

Liberace and The Muppets
Liberace and The Muppets Screenshot

Last week, Disney+ added The Muppet Show to its streaming roster and TV, music and Muppets fans everywhere rejoiced with good reason. For one, the entire series is now available for binge-watching in one single place. Secondly, the show includes every musical number from the original airings.

Obtaining music rights for variety shows like this are often a Kafkaesque proposition, usually too cumbersome to even attempt. So, it’s a coup of sorts, and a delight, too, to watch Debbie Harry singing “One Way or Another” backed by a Blondie-Muppet band or hear Broadway’s incomparable Bernadette Peters belt songs in skits recorded almost 50 years ago.

The series made more news when viewers tuned in to learn Disney added disclaimers ahead of some culturally insensitive episodes from a culturally insensitive time. Although The Muppets’ creators were progressive for the era, the time period was still burdened by stereotypes, which the disclaimer says “were wrong then and are wrong now.” Disney left the content in the episodes and the disclaimer suggests there are teachable reasons for doing so.

Another teachable lesson accompanying The Muppet Show’s return is this: people die. No matter how talented, famous or rich, eventually they’ll perish, pass away, give up the ghost. That’s a big takeaway from the series’ return, especially for anyone re-watching these installments from nearly a half-century ago. Just as Big Bird once grappled with Mr. Hooper going to that great grocery store in the sky, BB’s kinfolk on The Muppet Show have resurfaced to remind us all – especially we middle-aged folks - how the nasty, brutish and too-short exercise of being alive must end. The light entertainment of “Pigs in Space” and the bumbling Swedish Chef can now be seen as a weirdly philosophical puppet show where notions on dying and death are brought to life by the strings and wires of existential anxiety.

Scrolling through each of the five seasons, it’s hard to not fixate on this notion. More than half the guest stars from 120 episodes are no longer with us. Johnny Cash, Helen Reddy, Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne — they were all 20th century music pioneers and they’re all gone. Include the non-musical guests and the great Jim Henson and the list is replete with phenomenal talents from a different era, an era when they were all alive and making important contributions to global arts.

click to enlarge Sir Elton and Missy Piggy, both very much alive - SCREENSHOT
Sir Elton and Missy Piggy, both very much alive
Watching these talented dead folks creates an odd circumstance for viewers of a certain age. For instance, there’s an episode featuring Gilda Radner, one of the brightest comedic talents of her generation. She’s so funny and endearingly goofy that her episode will surely generate laughs from new Muppet Show viewers. I know this because a skit pairing Radner with an 8-foot-tall Muppet carrot had my 28 year-old daughter giggling with delight.

Then she asked what else she could watch Radner in and whether she’s done anything lately. I told her that Radner died of cancer at the too-young age of 43 nearly 30 years ago. Then we watched an episode with Jonathan Winters, who I described as Robin Williams’ mentor. Before I could enjoy his trademark zaniness I had to get past thinking how both he and Williams are now dead. And, of course, that led to the inevitable conclusion that I too will someday join them in their deceased-ness because that’s how some brains work.

I don’t personally remain in this morass too long anymore, not the way I once did. Lately, it’s more like “Oh, yeah,” rather than “Oh, God.” Watching episodes of The Muppet Show with my adult daughter was just another chance for me to assure her that I’ve moved past denial and onto acceptance, which admittedly is much easier when you still consider yourself young-ish and relatively healthy. Still, it’s the sort of discussion we who saw The Muppet Show’s original airings should be having with ourselves and our loved ones, particularly in times when just sharing the air with our fellow humans could prove lethal.

click to enlarge Harry Belafonte celebrates his 94th birthday March 1 - SCREENSHOT
Harry Belafonte celebrates his 94th birthday March 1

This is not at all to say the ghosts on the TV screen made watching the show less enjoyable. To the contrary, actually. Watching my daughter laugh at the skits and hearing her sing the show’s iconic theme song (still a toe-tapper!), I thought how art is timeless even if we who create or appreciate it aren’t. Watching the guest performers who remain very much alive – Elton John, Paul Williams, Loretta Lynn and Harry Belafonte, who will turn 94 at the end of the week with an all-star virtual gala – is a good reminder to treasure them and others like them in the here and now.

There’s even some satisfaction in acknowledging that the Muppets, who are just cloth and plastic googly eyes, will never die, ironic as that may seem. They’ll keep capturing the interest of new viewers like my daughter, who found Kermit’s tiny frog nephew Robin especially adorable and typed “How many Muppets are there?” into her search engine (answer: more than 3,300), her curiosity piqued by their ongoing charm.

The title of this contemplation is something like "Celebrate Your Death Anxiety with The Muppets" and that's not solely intended as clickbait or snark, it's an actual suggestion. The thing about obsessing over one's demise is it doesn't have to always create a downward spiral into a philosophical abyss. It should stiffen one’s resolve to appreciate the time one has left.

One day, hopefully soon, that’ll mean traveling to far off, interesting places or maybe just seeing a concert together again or simply attending gatherings and sharing hugs with family and friends. Until then, we can binge on Kermit, Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear to be grateful for who we do still have in this world, a world of people still interested in learning how to treat one another better and one which connects generations through enduring art.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.