Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Muppet Show: Now That's Educational TV

It’s hard to state the educational benefits of Pigs in Space.

And, yet, it’s possible.

But we’ll save that performance for the final act.

First, let’s talk about the rest of "The Muppet Show". Dig deep into your memory of the late 1970’s when the show ran weekly at 7:30pm. Kermit the Frog led a troop of variety show performers including the great Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Rowlf the Dog, back in the day when taking a bath and getting into your jammies quickly actually meant something. If you were late, you’d miss the intro.

I was giddy when "The Muppet Show" DVD’s arrived at our house from Netflix recently. When it’s time to start the music, when it’s time to light the lights, I feel for a moment like the five year old I once was; the one who sat three inches from a Zenith and wondered how Gonzo would end the song.

But after the third sketch in which a female guest star had to fend off a monster with dubious intentions, I had to ask: Was the TV of my childhood good for my own kids?

It was a question first faced by Generation X about four years ago, when, as The New York Times reported, Sesame Street Old School was released with this warning, “These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.”

Unlike Sesame Street, "The Muppet Show" was not even made primarily for children. It ran on CBS stations in the evening a half hour before prime-time. And it was created by Jim Henson, in part they say, to break him out of the kids’ niche.

Once my youngest caught sight of Animal, however, she was smitten. Still, I wasn't so sure if I’d invite Kermit and his cast into our house again.

Then, somewhere in season one, Candice Bergen appeared as a guest. Piggy is referred to as “Ms. Piggy” and the leading pig and Bergen unite in a show of female solidarity that is both refreshing and ridiculous. It was then I realized the particulars of the era that break through the otherwise timeless comedy were the very reasons the show was good for us: this was educational TV.

The pro-social messages of Nick Junior and "Sesame Street"’s Letter of the Day have nothing on Elton John in a pink jumpsuit singing a duet with Miss Piggy.  Because, just as many of us learned later that Alec Guinness played Hamlet long before Obi-Wan Kenobi , our kids may begin to see their world and its culture in a larger context. Something came before; something will come after.

Steve Martin playing the banjo—you’ll see him, kids, when you watch the remake of Father of the Bride, but as he proves with Fozzie, he was once a wild and crazy guy.

Florence Henderson: her appearance begged me to explain to my kids the premise of the "Brady Bunch" and the meaning of Marsha Brady Hair, but she’s also a link to Broadway musicals of the 50’s. One day, we’ll watch her segment on the Ed Sullivan show with her cast mates from Oklahoma!, Barbara Cook and John Raitt.

And, Candice Bergen, I promise you, my little ones, you will one day hear a professor refer to Dan Quayle’s Murphy Brown speech and thank me for our Muppet Show experiences.

The Muppets themselves reveal characteristics of archetypes. Sam the Eagle, the “self-appointed censor” of the show, speaks with absolute confidence when he scoffs at the “so called conservationists” who want to protect a group of endangered species. The list, he discovers as a bald eagle, includes his own.

Finally, we come to Pigs in Space, which, like Veterinarian’s Hospital, is a  brilliant example of parody. The interesting thing will be to explain what they spoof. In a time long ago, we watched "Star Trek" and the nearly extinct genre known in daytime television as The Soap Opera.

My cousin, Ben Maraniss, a screen writing instructor at the New York Film Academy, told me about his use of  "The Muppet Show" with his students.

The character Scooter, a gofer whose uncle owns the Muppet’s theatre, “comes up as a reference point with the Film Making students because, sooner or later, they all realize that their most important job is trouble shooting for their productions themselves or finding a "Scooter-type" that can do that for them.”

And, those two grumpy guys, Statler and Waldorf, who mercilessly heckle?

“They come up more often in the writing classes because their function on the show is to shoot down every act that makes it to the stage. This is what table-reads feel like at their worst.”

Not long ago, my family watched an episode with the ballet dancer Nureyev. He put on his top hat, he put on the Ritz, and then I asked my husband, “I wonder when Nureyev defected?”

And in less than a minute we went from Muppet Mania to explaining the fall of communism.

The best moments, though, are the ones when we’re all simply silent, absorbed in the show that, in most ways, never grows old.

Next week: A look at Family Values and The American Dream

Saturday, June 18, 2011

There's a Card for That. Or, Maybe Not.....

The third reason we celebrate Father’s Day in our house, after the more noble ones related to giving my husband his day and showing our expressions of love, relates to reciprocity. I need Mother’s Day, therefore Father’s day must be observed.

Leave it to my husband to turn the tables.

“Is there anything special you’d like?” I asked a week or so before the big day.

“Ah...” he said, “I haven’t even thought about it.”

With one deft stroke he released himself from the tacit quid pro quo I’d established.

But I wasn’t giving up. The kids and I would do something nice for him and he was going to like it.

I needed inside information and I needed it fast. I snuck off to the online pages of Esquire to glean what I could from the self-defined magazine for men.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Summer Catalogs 2011: What's Wrong With This Picture?

I don’t know what my mail carrier thought when he delivered a Victoria’s Secret and a Fisher-Price summer toy catalog to me last week, but I can tell you my reaction: this is outrageous. And, that’s what I said flipping through the one from Fisher-Price.

Actually, the one from Victoria didn’t make it into my house. Something about it seemed ridiculously out of touch with what I was looking for in a swimming suit this year. But after looking through what I thought was the innocuous toy catalog, I had a similar thought: this is not for me. And, more to the point: I don’t want my girls to see this.

What would they think looking at the photos in the Shop-at-Home Summer 2011 catalog? The first nine pages are devoted to images of boys playing with Cars (mostly Disney PIXAR Cars 2) and the accessories designed for them. After the cars, we get to an entirely male cast of Rescue Heroes, and eventually a golf tee, basketball hoop, soccer net, and batting tee, shown in the photographs to be used exclusively by boys.

In case you think I’ve just got too much time on my hands and have a chip (the homemade chocolate cookie kind) on my shoulder that is filtering my view, head to pages 26 and 27. We find mirror images of the separate worlds of role-playing featuring the “Grow-With-Me Workshop” used by two boys opposite the “Grow-with-Me Kitchen” photographed with, you guessed it, two children who are not boys.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Class of 1996

Somewhere in the mix of kindergarten registration or graduation, second grade talent shows and award ceremonies, those of us who graduated from high school or college in the 1990’s are feeling the tug of our own academic past. It’s reunion season and we’re heading to a midpoint: if we were 18 or 21 when we graduated, it’s been nearly as many years since. A lifetime before—and a lifetime after.

I was thinking about that as I walked the campus of a school I didn’t even attend, but one that is now a part of my life: my husband’s alma mater, Princeton. I went to his fifth college reunion as his date. We pushed a small stroller through rain, mud and hay at his tenth. And at his fifteenth last week, he pulled our two girls in a red wagon as offspring of other members of the class of ’96 , stir crazy from long plane trips or car rides, made unannounced head dives into our kid magnet to join them.

Forget renting a convertible, if you want to make an impression at your fifteenth, bring a Radio Flyer.

Not that anyone was trying to make an impression. Most of us were just hoping to find some shade and refill our sippy cups. The kegs that would flow freely at night had not yet been tapped but there was water and Sprite and plenty of tables to string-your-own necklace (orange and black beads) or decorate your own foam visor.

My husband took us on a walk to find his freshman dorm, which was, we discovered, no longer there. But we found his old roommate and, best of all, his young daughter who reassured my six year old that being a Daisy next year would be just great.