Monday, April 16, 2012

The Muppet Barometer of Muppety-ness


When Muppet Freaks see a new production, when evaluating it later and discussing it with other fans, one of the primary attributes used to measure it is how "Muppety" it was.

But what exactly does that mean?

Typically, the term becomes a catch-all phrase to describe how well the production fit the overall ideal of what The Muppets have typically stood for throughout their career; fun, silly, witty, reckless abandon.  A feeling of overall inclusiveness with an underlying theme of wildly diverse beings ultimately getting along even if there's lots of conflict among the way.  Just the right mixture of heart and humor without ever falling into sappiness or mind-numbing saccharine schmaltz.  The ability to be sophisticated and even risque without crossing the line into vulgarity or crassness.  Multilayered and subversive humor with an element of crankiness that doesn't devolve into overall cynicism.  Typically musical (with the music not being overtly cheesy or dull).  ("Muppety" may very well be a more modern and populist synonym for "Muppetational" - the word used in its theme to describe "The Muppet Show")

Now all of this is very conceptual and subjective - isn't there also a way to measure "Muppetyness" with some more specific degree of measurement?  And if so, how could one measure "Muppetyness" anyway?

Well, why not with Muppets?

Typically when we see something with The Muppets in it, be it a movie, a television show, a 30 second spot, a book, record, or item of merchandise there are the "Big Guns" we expect to see...Kermit, Gonzo, Piggy, Fozzie (with the latter two not even always being a given throughout the late 80's-90's).  But of course The Muppet group consists of several supporting players, hundreds of minor characters, and thousands of physical puppets that could populate a background.

Among that large group, there are certain minor Muppets that always tend to make a project seem extra Muppety when they're present...they don't even have to have a speaking line, but just by showing up they make us feel a sense of warmth; like just by their very inclusion, it's like the creative team is sending the message "Hey, this particular installment is really special because we actually brought out ___ to appear in it!"  When these characters are among the group, they seem to validate that this piece of work is worth paying attention to...this isn't just another typical frog-and-pig appearance du jour but rather a lovingly prepared full course meal of Muppety Goodness.  Maybe in the long run when all is said and done, perhaps the production may not have actually been among the all time best when evaluating it in retrospect but when you're actually experiencing it and seeing these characters, it feels like the most sensational, Muppetational thing you've watched lately!

Now here's the interesting thing...i'd pretty much picked these characters in the back of my mind as being ambassadors of "Muppetyness" way back during the later seasons of The Muppet Show and for the last 30 years, have considered them perfect symbols of how Muppety a project seems - well before i would have known a whole lot of specific information on each character's genesis...but looking over the list, a great deal of these characters predate The Muppet Show, either having been created for one of its pilots or even dating farther back.  The most recent debut for any of the following Muppets would have been Muppet Show Season Two.  Which in a way makes sense because if while "eight-year-old d.w." is watching a Season Five episode of The Muppet Show, in order for a character to be able to pop up on the screen and lend a unique sense of familiarity, they'd have to be somewhat established to begin with ... but it still kind of surprises me when i actually look back now and note how so many of these characters were indeed "classic" in that many of their creations took place pre-Muppet Show.

So, without further ado, i now present THE MUPPET BAROMETER OF MUPPETY-NESS!  The Eleven Muppets That Always Make Something Seem Extra "Muppety" Whenever They So Much As Just Show Up!


Of course since Muppet Monsters on their own make something seem "Muppety" overall, it's only fitting that half of this list does include Monsters!  Wanna make something say "Muppet"?  Just add Monster!  But which specific Monsters really lend an air of Authentic Muppetsticity to a project?  Here's the list:

- Beautiful Day Monster

Perhaps it's because he's one of the rare Muppets that made appearances on both Sesame Street and The Muppet Show (having already existed as a "trunk puppet" before Sesame's debut), when Beautiful Day Monster shows up, he makes things seem particularly "Classic" - in Sesame's first season, he was the one to be scared of - the one most likely to be dangerous or cause trouble.  He not only appeared in - but had lines in Sesame Street, The Muppet Show and The Jim Henson Hour!  When the trailers for "The Muppets" surfaced, he was spotted in a shot...and then another...and then ANOTHER (and even with costume changes)!  He was gonna get some awesome screentime in the new movie and that really got my Muppet Freak self ultra-excited to see this film!


- Luncheon Counter Monster

The only Muppet on this list to debut past The Muppet Show's first season (Episode six of Season Two to be exact), Luncheon Counter Monster's more adventurous and complex (while still maintaining a classic Muppet look) design and his penchant for just eating anything he came across indiscriminately immediately made him an essential Muppet Monster.  But as the years went on, the great thing about Luncheon was that he could randomly pop up anywhere and everywhere!!  The Cosby Show - The Muppet Meeting Films - Statler & Waldorf: From the Balcony - he even had his own solo Muppet Hallmark Card!!  Whether alone or part of a herd, LCM is the Symbol of Cool Muppet Monstery!


- Boppity (Blue Frackle)
- Gloat (Green Frackle)

In 1970, a whole group of new Muppet Monsters were created for the Ed Sullivan special The Great Santa Claus Switch - with many of these "graduating" to become The Muppet Show Monsters.  In GSCS, they were known as The Frackles.  By the time they moved on to TMS, most just became thought of as "Muppet Show Monsters" but two in particular still tended to retain the name "Frackle" on set being referred to as "The Blue Frackle" and "The Green Frackle" and often tending to get a tad more screentime than the other Monsters.  As more Monsters were built for TMS over the following seasons, their airtime got slighly more diluted...but it was still a special treat when they came on - and anytime they showed up in a production afterward!  Nothing quite said "Muppet Monster" like Boppity (the Blue Frackle) and Gloat (the Green Frackle)!  Boppity even had solo lines in the opening number of Muppet Christmas Carol!


- Droop

...And speaking of Frackles, we also have Droop.  But he's special in his own right!  For one, he was one of the few Muppet Monsters to get both a name, regular performer and clearly established personality.  He was heavily featured as a main character during the first Muppet Show pilot, The Muppets Valentine Show.  He also had one of the first speaking lines in Muppet Christmas Carol.  Droop was just as easily used as part of a pack of Muppet Monsters, as part of a chorus, or in promotional shots appearing in Statler & Waldorf's balcony.  For a while, there was a fear that Droop might end up dropped due to the Muppets Tonight director, Nigel, bearing such a strong resemblance to him (but with a polar opposite personality; i always thought if the show had continued that they should have established them as twin brothers) but Droop's featured appearance in "The Muppets" proves he's back, baby!

NON-MONSTERS ("Nonsters?"):

Of course, you don't have to be a Monster to be Muppety - just ask these favorites: 

- Baskerville

The oldest Muppet on this list, debuting in 1963 where he was built along with Rowlf for Purina Dog Chow commercials, Baskerville may not have become as huge a star as Ol' Brown Ears, but he still always seemed the most Muppety out of all the various Muppet Dogs.  Perhaps it's because he's so old-school that whenever he's onscreen, he fetches our full attention!

- Crazy Harry

Crazy Harry always lights up the screen...literally!  Though truth be told, he doesn't even need to set off an explosion - the puppet has such brilliant expressions built into him and John Lovelady/Jerry Nelson gave him such a unique posture and physicality that i always jump up and down with joy when he's on screen - even if he's just dinging a triangle or just leering at everything around him in a crowd scene.  Probably my favorite shot in "The Muppets" trailers was the one of the theme song arches...not only because of them being the theme song arches, but also because of the manic energy that Crazy Harry was singing and dancing with...showing that Harry would do just nicely in Matt Vogel's hands!  Of course, being that the whole inspiration behind Crazy Harry was Muppet Builder and prankster extraordinaire Don Sahlin, is it any wonder that Crazy Harry never fails to make everything the most Muppety possible when he's around?

- Mildred

Perhaps it's because she just looks so regally elegant or because she has that odd ubiquity where she can randomly appear in the pages of Muppet Magazine, her own panel in The Muppet Show Board Game, appearances in both Muppet Show pilots (she was the main female character in Valentine Show), The Muppet Show, Jim Henson Hour, and Muppets Tonight! (where she was not only one of the older school Muppets featured in the theme song but also very prominent in the theme's first three shots) - when they bring out Mildred Huxtetter you KNOW you're in for a very Muppety treat!  So much so that we'll be going a little more indepth with Mildred soon...

- George

...But in the meantime, there's her "favorite" dancing partner, George the Janitor.  Both characters debuted in Muppets Valentine Show with pretty major parts - though they weren't really "paired up" until The Muppet Show's At the Dance segments where they danced together in all but two of the first season's segments.  George looked like he could just as easily hang out with Statler & Waldorf if he wasn't cleaning up after pigs and explosions.  When Beauregard became the new Muppet Theatre Janitor in season three, that just helped make any George sightings all the more exciting and precious...especially when we got to see him back sweeping things up in his uniform on Muppets Tonight!  And he gets the very first singing line in Muppet Christmas Carol.


- Zoot

Okay, i know what you're thinking - as a member of The Electric Mayhem, Zoot's a pretty major character.  And yet, he's also oddly enigmatic.  He usually just plays the sax, doesn't talk much and is often less than awake most of the time.  But it's those moments he either pops up by himself to do a solo outside of the EM band or when he just randomly appears doing something other than play his sax that always seems really special, interesting, quirky...and MUPPETY!  Whether he's dropping in Anne Murray's dressing room or appearing as a member of the gospel choir in Pearl Bailey's opening number (or a jousting scene member in the same episode's closing) to his surprise cameo in Muppet*Vision 3D, when Zoot talks...WE LISTEN!  (And we still smile from ear to ear even if he doesn't talk)


- Marvin Suggs 

Probably one of the funniest Muppets in the entire Muppaverse!  If he's in a scene, you know your sides will be aching later from laughter.  But even if he's just in the background - along for the vacation in Muppet Family Christmas or putting on his own dancing show in the movie theatre seats(!!) at the end of The Muppet Movie, Marvin Suggs is the epitome of the Muppet Who If They Bring Him Out And Put Him On Screen, You Know They're Going That Extra Muppety Mile!  And there he was in the OK Go video and even getting a solo line in "The Muppets" grand finale (interacting with Chris Cooper no less!)

....In fact since that OK Go video has Marvin, Zoot, Crazy Harry, and Beautiful Day Monster in it, i'll boldly predict that due to that level of Muppety Awesomeness, it will win the Webby!  (And if it doesn't, we can blame the lack of Mildred.)

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