The Muppets Have Always Been For Grown-Ups

So stop fretting that the humor is suddenly too adult.

My earliest recollection of The Muppets is that they were too grownup for me.

I should probably back that up a bit. I was born in 1981, which means that by the time I arrived on the scene (let alone became cognizant of anything), Jim Henson’s creations were already omnipresent in popular culture. Like, I suspect, a lot of my same-aged peers, I didn’t come to the “core” Muppets directly, but from the tangents: I knew Kermit first from Sesame Street, though I don’t remember exactly when or how I understood that otherwise the “Sesame Muppets” and the “Regular Muppets” were of a slightly different genus, nor that they were “cousins” of Henson-created (or Henson-adjacent) puppet-creatures like Yoda or the denizens of Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal (the latter of which I watched to near-memorization.)

To be honest, I probably saw Muppet Babies before I ever saw the Muppet movies, at least as far as I can remember, and it was later still before I saw a full episode of the original The Muppet Show – which aired its finale only one month after I was born. So I can’t tell you what it was like to watch the Muppets evolve from the beginning, or offer a firsthand overview of how that evolution has played out. What I can tell you is that, from the beginning, I recognized that among all the other Muppet ephemera, there was something… “different” about Kermit and the gang.

The Muppet feature films (here meaning the original three: The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan) didn’t feel like any other “kid’s movies” I ever watched: They were slower, more deliberate, sometimes even melancholy. The first film is a gently-paced, self-reflective road movie. Caper is about love-triangles and heists. Manhattan is a quintessential ‘80s “big city” character-piece, practically a pared-down, felt-covered Woody Allen joint. Sure, there were hijinks and gags, but since the Muppets’ best joke has always been simply being present (ie, this is obviously a puppet frog, but everyone is acting like that’s normal), they didn’t need to rely on that.

Instead, The Muppets did things like sit around and talk – about their feelings, about their hopes and dreams, about their jobs. They went out to eat, went to work, dealt with things like police and money and buying used cars. They were as capable of high-energy outbursts as any Looney Tune, but most of them had depths beyond that: Kermit was often tired and frazzled, worn out. Fozzie was anxious, constantly out of his depth. Miss Piggy was boisterous, but also prone to sadness and jealousy. Even Gonzo, whose very name implied that he was on hand to be weird for the sake of weird, would take time to mourn his insecurities. At the age of six or seven I didn’t understand half of it, but I felt it.

And the references! The Muppets are well known for their puns and sight-gags, but they’d also banter about relationships or work anxieties or even politics. When I did finally see bits of The Muppet Show (I don’t remember it being meaningfully syndicated in my area until at least the early ‘90s), they were often based around guest spots from human celebrities I either didn’t recognize or I knew only tangentially from “grownup TV.” And while I was used to characters on my shows singing famous songs, The Muppets weren’t offering me new covers of “Old McDonald” – they were playing songs I recognized from my father’s old records.

All of which coalesced, soon, to a general realization: I loved The Muppets, but I also knew that (like my father’s old records) they weren’t made for me.

Not the child me, at least. What I could tell was that, even without a full understanding of all the nuances and certainly not of the characters’ history, the real Muppets were a part of the grownup world. Sure, they were also cuddly-looking puppet creatures whose antics delighted me, but they were a part of that adult universe I was precociously aware of but knew was off-limits to me: the world of nighttime TV, the news, bad words I wasn’t supposed to say, parties my parents would go to when I stayed with Grammy, the things teachers did when they weren’t at school and the parts of Gremlins and Jaws that my mom would fly into the room to fast-forward through. They were, in a way, emissaries to my youth from adulthood; bringing a promise that, even when it was time to set down Optimus Prime and He-Man, Kermit and the gang would be there waiting for me… and that I hadn’t seen even half of what they could do.

That The Muppets came to straddle the worlds of children and adults wasn’t by design, but it wasn’t an accident either. Henson and his foundational crew were the quintessential ‘70s hippies-in-ascendance, hard workers and devoted technical craftsmen who plied their trade in favor of advancing the genteel, laid-back philosophy by which they otherwise lived – few have ever worked so hard to look like they (and their creations) were barely working at all. And while they weren’t the first troupe of Flower Children to wake up one day in a world where the art they’d first conjured as subversive now played better to the Romper Room (think Peter, Paul & Mary) almost no one managed the shift better or more carefully.

From the start, the crew we think of as The Muppets were aiming for an adult audience. Not necessarily a vulgar or R-rated one, but an audience that would be tuned to their specific post-Woodstock wavelength and Boomer reference-pool. Though the act infamously bombed as part of early Saturday Night Live, an undaunted Henson conceived a sketch show of his own that, though avoiding SNL’s harder late-night edges, would be just as sophisticated and worldly as its hoped-for viewers: from the setting (a decaying vaudeville-style theatre staffed by a weary, ramshackle crew) to the acts (then-current popular music, surreal Muppet art-pieces, old-fashioned slapstick and occasionally straight-up dramatism), very little about the original Muppet Show felt close to childish – except, of course, for the Muppets themselves.

Especially in the first season, these Muppets were different from the ones I met as Muppet Babies or that ‘90s kids mainly knew from specifically youth-oriented features like Muppet Treasure Island. They had anxieties, baggage and hang-ups that (in the beginning) took a certain level of life experience to recognize: what Sesame Street viewer is supposed to grasp about Gonzo the pretentious performance artist, or the obviously drug-addled Electric Mayhem? What is a six-year-old’s reference point for Miss Piggy, a has-been/never-was wannabe diva throwing herself at her uninterested boss for more stage time? Even the fourth-wall breaks (in the first episode, Kermit sips milk through a straw and, a beat or two after the act has lowered the level of liquid in the glass, casually quips “Think about it.”), episode themes (the unaired pilot was titled “Sex & Violence” and involved Muppet-personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins) and guests (Alice Cooper turned up at the height of his legit controversial period, doing jokes about claiming Muppet souls for Satan) were pitched for prime time.

And yet, kids were watching anyway, since funny puppets being funny tends to work regardless of whether you’re picking up the references. Apocryphally, Fozzie wasn’t originally meant to be a “main” Muppet, but strictly a moving target for Statler and Waldorf’s heckling – the assumption being that adult audiences who already “got” the backstage-showbiz satire would identify more with an audience rejecting a hacky comic than the hack himself – but was reconceived as more sympathetic when it got back that kids (and likely some adults) despised Statler and Waldorf’s bullying of what was, after all, a teddy bear.

The Muppet Show never exactly became kid’s stuff as it went on, but the characters definitely became more relatable to kids as they deepened. By the time they got to the original movies, The Muppets were “family entertainment” in the old-fashioned sense: they worked on different levels for audiences of all ages. Which helps explain why, though I enjoyed them (except for Muppets From Space, which just isn’t good – sorry), the ‘90s Muppet features do feel like they’re missing some of that original fire. It’s not just the absence of Jim Henson, it’s a palpable sense that their already soft edge had been further sanded-off. However imperfect, the two recent revival movies got closer than anyone had in a long time; though they also left a sense that going back to the original format wasn’t the proper way forward for characters who’d always evolved.

Which brings us to ABC’S new The Muppets, and (you’ve no doubt already guessed) to my somewhat bemused reaction to the horror that’s thus far greeted the idea of adult humor coming from these characters. Granted, a lot of it is coming from marketing: the network spent the summer advertising the most “edgy” of the series’ angles, chiefly the plot detail that Kermit and Piggy have broken up (again? It’s not 100% clear which layer of Muppet-reality we’re in here) and that the frog has taken up with a vivacious younger pig. I’m not going to say anyone is “wrong” for not wanting to see The Muppets engaged in such things, but the idea that there’s some kind of betrayal of the core principles at play here? The history doesn’t really bear that out.

It’s possible that ABC actually went overboard in emphasizing adultness instead of a more general return to form. The most grownup thing about the new series, so far, is moving The Muppets out of kiddie-adventure playacting and into the mold (and time-slot) of your basic workplace sitcom: the new scenario finds Kermit and friends back in the backstage-hijinks mode of The Muppet Show, but now the stage is a network late-night show (“Up Late With Miss Piggy”) with Kermit as her long-suffering producer, Fozzie as announcer/warm-up act, Electric Mayhem as the house band and the rest of the gang staffing the writer’s room, technical crew, etc. It’s a canny old-is-new dynamic, even if the central gag of show host as clueless, thin-skinned dope utterly lost without a support team feels like something of an anachronism in the era of Stephen Colbert (on the other hand, though, Jimmy Fallon…)

To be honest, apart from the workplace banality point-of-reference, I’d have difficulty calling The Muppets “adult” in any meaningful sense – it’s certainly no more adult than any other network sitcom, and if The Goldbergs or Fresh Off the Boat are the new bar for edgy, mature humor then I’m not even sure what the point is anymore. Not all of the edgier Muppet gags land, sure. A veiled dick joke from Zoot was a groaner, and for all the build-up thus far not much has come of Kermit’s new girlfriend Denise (it seems clear, for now, that she’s mainly a plot-point in an ongoing Kermit/Piggy arc rather than a character in her own right). But others are killer: Bobo the Bear realizing that The Electric Mayhem are the solution to his daughter’s Girl Scout Cookie woes (“They’re always happy and hungry!” “Yeah. Legally, now!”) is a hysterical bit, and (if we’re being honest) entirely in keeping with what’s always been the base-gag for those characters.

If anything, I’d say the new show could use a little more in the way of (actual) grown-up sensibility, particularly where it comes to comfort with playing things seriously once in a while. The half-hour sitcom format so far keeps them focused on jokes, which is fine, but what made The Muppets transcendent on the original show that this one is angling so hard to get back to was how seamlessly they could segue between the wackiness of a Pigs In Space skit to something like Paul Williams doing an utterly sincere rendition of “Sad Song” or Juliet Prowse dancing a surreal ballet art-piece; to say nothing of the straightforward drama that could come from The Muppets themselves: “It’s Not Easy Being Green” and “The Rainbow Connection” are both powerful, quietly devastating songs regardless of whether a puppet is doing the singing.

So far, moments like that are few and far between on The Muppets, and that’s a problem – though the climax of the debut episode makes a strong attempt at it that, to me at least, feels like they know what needs to be there and have plans for it: the episode’s main story involved Piggy inexplicably refusing the booking of a celebrity guest, with the rest of the cast (Kermit included) trying to work around her under the assumption that she was just being difficult for stupid/petty reasons because, well, it’s Miss Piggy… but it turns out they’re wrong. In the closing moments, Kermit learns that the issue was actually Piggy associating the guest with “the worst day of her life”: their break-up, an association which Kermit had insensitively forgotten.

It’s a gentle gut-punch (and a sly acknowledgment that “hypersensitive plus-size female celeb is just crazy” isn’t going to fly as a singular characterization for Piggy in 2015), but also the sort of moment that any self-respecting Office/30 Rock/Parks & Rec aspirant needs to build a backlog of if it wants to ultimately mean more than a weekly hit of Muppetstalgia for Gen-X fans and, I think, the sort of thing Jim Henson would’ve been glad to see. Plus, the idea of Kermit the Frog, for nearly forty years one of pop-culture’s great heavy-sighing “last sane man” archetypes, coming to a “maybe I’m not the victim I see myself as” realization (shades of Liz Lemon!) is a fascinating place to take the character – if they indeed want to.

After all, it’s entirely possible that emotional depth really isn’t the intent this time, that “The Office meets Larry Sanders, but with Muppets”) is what The Muppets need to be at this point in their transition into the 21st Century. At this juncture, from this vantage point, it’s hard to say for sure.

I mean, like I said: The Muppets were always a little too grown-up for me.