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


Houston! said...

Wow. We loved the Muppet Show so much when we were kids. My sister and I never missed the intro! Even if we were still soaking wet under our jammies with long, wet, tangled hair. We ran downstairs to make it in time. I bet my kids would also love it. Thanks for the recommendation!

Ann Imig said...

I couldn't agree more. We check out the DVDs from our library and crack up.