Friday, March 23, 2012

The Three Times I Felt Horribly Sorry for a Muppet [From the Archives: 3-29-09]

[The below article was posted on the original Muppet Freak on March 29, 2009]

Pain is a staple of comedy. A lot of comedy (especially slapstick) is built around the pain of other people. But it doesn't always work out that way. Sometimes for whatever reason, what should be a comedic moment has the opposite effect and makes one feel sorry for the character on screen.

One reason this may happen is when someone is given way more than they can obviously handle. Bugs Bunny could humiliate and play tricks on Elmer Fudd non-stop but once the moment comes when Elmer actually breaks down and cries, it's time to let up. When you're watching someone continuing to get kicked when they're down, the jokes have gone too far.

Another reason might be in the execution. I could laugh endlessly at the Three Stooges bashing each other over the head with shovels. They could get away with that kind of stuff because they knew how to pull it off so it was funny. If you took away the "coconut" sound effects, the comic reactions, and added more realism where they'd bleed or cry out in anguish, it would be horrifying.

There's a lot of slapstick cartoony violence in Muppet humor. The Classic Muppets just wouldn't be themselves without characters being blown up or eaten. Back in 1958, the commercials for Wilkins Coffee almost always ended up with Wontkins being shot, stabbed, run over by a steamroller, thrown out of planes, etc.

They do this kind of stuff well - like the best slapstick comics, the Muppet performers are masters of the craft. But there were those rare moments when i was supposed to be laughing but felt like crying. When i just felt oddly horribly sorry for the character.


So, it's towards the beginning of the film, and it's off to a wonderfully slapsticky start. Jennifer Saunders is there (and of course one can never go wrong with Jennifer Saunders) and there's lots of great physical comedy going on. It's all starting to climax with a gag involving a leaking barrel of gunpowder which a flame is following. The Muppets are running around in hyper fast motion. Then the big boom happens. And what do we see? Black Dog being blown through the roof letting out this anguished scream of "OWWWW!" It didn't come across as comedic at all. That scream he let out wasn't in any way funny; it truly sounded like he was in massive pain. As a viewer, it pulled me out of the moment. Maybe this was director Brian Henson's intent - to pull the viewer away from laughing and into realizing the horror of the Benbow Inn in flames and the reality of Jim Hawkins, Gonzo, and Rizzo losing a home. But that's giving him an awful lot of credit and leeway. More likely, it was just a bad choice of shot and vocal delivery.


It took awhile for the character of Fozzie to really gel. Which was not a good sign, since he was originally supposed to be the second main character after Kermit. Jim Henson loved the idea of a bear comedian who told bad jokes, but when the idea went from off the page on to tape, it initially wasn't working. He seemed really quite pathetic. It took a while to finetune the character and develop his other traits to make him redeemable.

Eventually the character was fleshed out and the audience was able to find him a lovable sweet character that they could root for. A viewer could want him to succeed but also laugh when he goofed up.

But there was a moment in the show's fourth season that just seemed like it was just a bit too much. It was the episode guest starring Phyllis George where the episode is turned into an awards show. Fozzie hears that the next award to be presented is Best Comedy Performance By a Bear. As the show's resident comedian and one of the few bears featured on the show, he's all set to accept the award. He's right up there by Scooter who's reading the winner, "BILLY THE BEAR!" Fozzie grabs the card from Scooter and reads it over in disbelief. Billy enters. He's one of the more realistic bear puppets that debuted in the third season that would show up in forest animal group scenes and he's dressed in a gawdy suit chuckling and hamming it up for the cameras as he grabs his prize.

In the meantime, Fozzie is walking slowly off stage totally deflated. As is typical, we can't see his feet but it's easy to imagine them shuffling. His balloon is totally burst. But up comes Billy who bumps into him and makes a few jokes at his expense. One can just imagine Fozzie just wanting to get off this stage and be by himself but this other bear is badgering him. Then to show "no hard feelings" he offers Fozzie a cigar...well not exactly offers - he forcefully shoves it in his mouth as Fozzie's protesting "No thank you, I don't..." Of course it turns out to be an exploding cigar. Then as if all that wasn't enough, Billy finishes things off by smashing a pie in Fozzie's face.

I watched this and i really felt like crying for him. This was one of those examples of just continuing to kick someone when they're down that i mentioned earlier. Simply overkill. Fozzie is left there blown up, pied face, blindsided by what just happened after already being completely publicly shown up as the show fades to black into commercial. My heart just bled.

Now let me take a moment to say, not only was this unusual for me to not laugh at Muppet slapstick, but also for me to find a pie in the face gag really unfunny. I'm as big a fan there is of pie in the face humor. I've always found pie throwing funny to the point where i'll tune into a show i might not normally otherwise watch if i know a pie fight's going to be included. There's a reason the pie has become the very symbol of comedy - it hardly ever fails. It's a way a character can strike another without it being violent or painful. It's almost near impossible to keep a straight face when watching it happen. Nothing says "slapstick humor" more than a good pie splat. I've even engaged in a few pie fights myself with friends. So i really can't stress how hard it is to present me with a pie joke that makes me want to cry instead of smile.

In fact to digress just a moment further, there's only one other time i can even think of where i was really unnerved by a pie in the face joke...and it wasn't a cream pie but rather a pizza pie. There was an episode of Diff'rent Strokes where Willis' girlfriend is mad at him, and as she's leaving his place, there's a pizza delivery guy at the door. She takes the pizza and lets him have it in the face. Now because it's the magic of television, it's all done in comedic fun. There's the actor holding his pose for the laugh track to die down. But i'm sitting in front of my screen not laughing, but rather picking my jaw up off the floor since all i can think was that if that was real life, that (freshly delivered) pizza would have been hot and he would have most likely been badly burned. I just couldn't suspend disbelief enough to find it anything other than horrifying and couldn't believe that no one else in that studio audience felt the same way. Now of course since that was a pizza and not really a pie in the traditional sense, that means that somehow the Muppets of all people are the only comedy troupe that so far has ruined a pie gag for me. Dang, that just seems so wrong!


I always loved when Ernie would play jokes on Bert. It was because of this that Ernie was one of my favorite characters.

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street began with a really great ice skating sequence featuring the human cast in the roller rink with Ice Capades skaters in full bodied Muppet costumes. There had previously been quite a few Sesame segments showing these special roller skating Muppets. And if i'm not mistaken, these Ice Capades costumes were pretty much the first attempt at taking any of the hand puppet characters and representing them as costumed full-bodied versions. They were actually very well done even if they were never going to fool anyone into thinking they weren't people in suits. As a kid, i was more turned off that their mouths didn't move when they spoke more than the actual look of the costumes.

At any rate, it's a great opening. Lots of fun and even some sweetness as a little girl helps Big Bird to skate. Then we get to some wonderfully comic prankster Ernie fun. He's enlisted some friends to help him carry out his latest joke. As the Count declares "Here comes Bert", Bert chases Ernie and his friends around the rink. The gag is that Ernie's friends are pushing him around the rink as Ernie is supposedly sitting on top of the edge of a barrel. Ernie's actually safely fully inside the barrel with a pair of fake legs hanging over the barrel's edge. It's a funny idea and set-up.

But here's the thing. Bert is running (skating really) all over the place after Ernie yelling out "Ernie, you're going to get hurt! That's dangerous! You're going to get hurt! You're going to get HURT!"

Bert eventually ends up losing control of his skating and slides off screen as Ernie reveals his fake legs and lets out his Ernie laugh. If the scene ended there, it would have been great. But then the camera cuts to Bert crashed against the wall entangled in the Christmas wreath decorations. Ernie asks "Hey, Bert, are you okay?" to which Bert just groans.

Watching as a kid and even now as an adult, i just find that scene horrible. Bert keeps making a big deal about how Ernie is going to end up getting hurt. He was very worried about Ernie's safety. However he's the one who ends up crashing into a wall. Now given how Bert was repeating over and over about how Ernie would get HURT and then to see Bert end up not only in a crash landing but also unable and/or unwilling to respond when Ernie was asking if he was okay, the seemingly obvious conclusion was that Bert was indeed hurt himself and probably quite badly.

During this sequence, we also see a gag where the Muppets play Crack the Whip which ends up with Oscar (skating in his can with his feet sticking out the bottom) ending up flying out of the rink, down stairs and through a wall. But this sequence is directed in such a comedic way, that it's funny. You don't worry about Oscar being harmed in any way even though he was probably put through a worse ordeal than Bert (though protected by his trash can). But Bert's reaction to his crash was just a helpless groan not giving Ernie any reassurance that he was okay and "not hurt". Bert ended up coming across as not only in physical pain but also traumatized. Just wrong on so many levels. And all they had to do was cut the whole routine a shot short and it would have been one of many classic Ernie and Bert moments, not the stuff that nightmares were made of.

[I don't really have anything new to add except that it's fun to talk in red.  I should do that more often.  Actually reposting this article did remind me of something else and it will be the subject of my next new post.]

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