Hey, Journalists: The Muppets Are Not Real

The press needs to stop treating the Muppets like they're real people.

When the newly rebooted Muppet movie came out it was darling to see members of the press interview the Muppets themselves, to talk to these felt puppets as if they were real people. Because in some way they are real people to us; the Muppets have been an integral part of the American cultural fabric since the 1970s, and the characters created by Jim Henson and his team have rightfully ascended into the shared iconography of not just our nation but of much of the Western world. And who could begrudge any journalist - no matter how serious! - who wanted to talk to Kermit or Miss Piggy? After a long absence, after a period of dismissal to direct to video, the Muppets were back as a force, inspiring young and adult to joy.

Then they did it again with the home video release. And they did it again with the sequel. And today they did it again, at the Television Critics Association press tour, where the puppets were on hand to promote their new ABC TV show. While that was happening it was announced that Kermit and Miss Piggy had broken up and were free to see other people/animals/puppets.

That’s where I drew the line. The whole bit where journalists interview the Muppets as if they were real had ceased being charming some time ago, but this was beyond the pale. Kermit and Miss Piggy breaking up wasn’t a story on the new show, mind you. This isn’t like when the press reports on the death of Superman or Green Lantern (Earth 2) coming out of the closet. It isn’t a story about the narrative of these characters, it’s a story about the meta-narrative - Miss Piggy and Kermit have broken up behind the scenes of their new show, on which they are playing characters based on themselves.

With the death of Jim Henson the act of meeting the Muppets had already taken on the air of sitting on mall Santa’s lap - yeah, it ain’t the real thing but look how cute this picture is. I feel about the Muppets post-Henson the way I feel about Looney Tunes post-Mel Blanc: “Oh, you’re still doing this?” Recently the Grateful Dead did a big retirement show weekend, but we all know the band ended the day Jerry Garcia died.

This is where someone jumps in to tell me that the Muppeteers and the voice actors and the writers doing this stuff today are incredibly talented and hard-working and deserve respect on their own as performers and comics. That’s probably true, but the insistence on trotting out the puppets as sentient beings speaks to a corporate need to erase these people, to establish that it isn’t the guy with his hand up Kermit’s ass who matters, it’s Kermit himself who matters. By continuing the big charade of interviewing fictional characters the press participates in an erasure of hard working performers and craftspeople, acting like the puppets sprang to life from the corporate bosom without any humanity getting between them and the cash flow.

Growing up I remember seeing the face of Jim Henson often, knowing his presence. The erection of this curtain between performer and audience feels very Disney to me, very in line with the idea that Mickey and the rest of the crew can walk around as individual beings, untethered to any creator except the spectral Walt Disney himself. Walt, of course, represents the corporation, the idea of corporate entity as a person, and so that “person” is the only creator needed for Mickey and Goofy and Anna and Elsa and everyone in between. I’m not even particularly anti-Disney (no more so than any thinking person should be), but this kind of corporatization of credit rings false to me when it comes to the Muppets*.

More than that, interviewing the Muppets - and writing about Kermit and Miss Piggy’s phony break up! - draws attention to the uncomfortable fact that many of us covering entertainment live in a constantly compromised state, one that is only getting more compromised all the time. By interviewing the puppets and by treating the break up as actual news, journalists are acting as pure corporate promoters. It's pure complicity. 

Like I said, many of us already live in compromised ethical positions. In the olden days the guy who wrote the news wasn’t the guy who did the interviews who wasn’t the guy who reviewed the movies, but there’s no budget for three guys anymore, so one guy does it all. It’s not a great way to live, worrying whether your negative review is going to get in the way of scoring that interview you need to pay the bills this month, and it only adds to the softness of most celebrity journalism. Sitting down to interview a filmmaker about their new movie is an inherently compromised act as you’re working with a movie studio/TV network who is only giving you access because that means publicity for them, and they're only going to grant you access this time if they like what you wrote about their product last time. It’s up to each journalist to find the line between wholesale promotion and objective coverage**.

At least when you’re talking to an actor or a filmmaker there’s the pretense that maybe, just maybe, this isn’t purely promotional. Perhaps you can actually get at something, maybe about the craft of acting or about the directorial choices or about the themes and meaning of the work. But when you’re talking to a puppet all you’re going to get are soundbites and jokes that promote the show instead of illuminating it - Kermit isn’t going to give the TCA group any insight into being a puppet. Or being an actor.

Here’s a thought experiment: what if Tom Hiddleston insisted on doing all his Marvel interviews in the character of Loki? You couldn’t ask Hiddleston about his choices as an actor or his challenges as a performer or his relationship with the filmmaker, you could only ask Loki about his big jerky older brother and about his mean dad and about the time he tried to conquer the Earth. It would be funny - and it was fun when Hiddleston took the stage at Comic-Con in character - but any journalist who did this interview would be rightfully looked at as a fluff merchant (at best). It’s late night chat show bullshit. This is what the fucking local weatherman used to do on the news, show up and interview the guy in a Batman suit cutting the ribbon at the opening of the new bank. Yet journalist after journalist - including some who take hard stances on things like asking actors for autographs or personal photos - line up to serve softballs to felt puppets for the sake of selling corporate entertainment, full stop.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with liking or supporting corporate entertainment. It’s when you remove the thin veneer that separates journalists from marketers that things get weird. What’s worse is that the journalists are being exploited - the studio/TV network should at least have the decency to pay them for their time spent marketing a puppet show.

Of course this isn’t exactly new - you can find old footage of plenty of reporters interviewing both ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. The fundamental difference there is that Bergen was a performer working on his own; no giant corporation owned Charlie McCarthy. And Bergen was always there, taking part in the interview. The charm was seeing the guy working - but you always saw the guy working.

Maybe next time Disney or ABC offers up a Muppet for interview members of the press will politely decline. Maybe next time they’ll ask instead for the puppeteer behind the scenes, or for the people who write the words that come out of the puppets’ mouths. Maybe next time they’ll try to keep up that thin veil that separates entertainment reporters from publicists and find a way to inform the audience rather than unquestioningly sell a product to them.

* Interestingly this same sort of corporatization of credit has happened to another Disney purchase, Marvel. Stan Lee is the Walt/Henson here, with the old dude being trotted out for every Marvel character, even if he had no hand in creating them or writing their best stories. He makes it easier for the corporation to maintain their supremacy - this one guy created it all, and they own this one guy.

** Which isn’t to say promoting a movie or TV show you like is inherently compromised. Indeed, putting the spotlight on quality art is the best thing a critic can do.

Header image from Enterteenment News which is about the level of publication that should be interviewing Muppets.