Superheroes and opera could peacefully coexist in Muppet Babies

Superheroes and opera could peacefully coexist in Muppet Babies

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. Now through July: TV we loved as kids.

Muppet Babies, “Sing A Song Of Superheroes” (season seven, episode 10; originally aired 9/29/1990)

Erik Adams: The power of imagination is central to Muppet Babies, but it was in short supply in the Saturday-morning landscape of the ’80s. Mattel’s successful attempt to reverse-engineer its own Star Wars-type franchise—by developing the Masters Of The Universe toy line first, then licensing its characters for use in a He-Man cartoon—rippled across development slates, with other merchandisable concepts like The Transformers, Challenge Of The GoBots, and My Little Pony making their way to the broadcast networks and first-run syndication, leaving little room for original ideas. The fall of 1984 alone brought animated series based on video games (Dragon’s Lair, Pole Position), greeting-card mascots (The Get Along Gang), and the year’s 39th-highest grossing theatrical release, The Muppets Take Manhattan.

Muppet Babies is both of this trend and above it, appropriate for the mix of business savvy and artistry exhibited by its creator. Jim Henson liked to keep a close eye on his signature characters, and he regarded the show’s eventual home with skepticism. “Initially, I didn’t like the idea,” Henson said of CBS’ proposal to build a series around Muppets Take Manhattan’s scene-stealing, pint-sized versions of Kermit The Frog and company. “I’d stayed away from Saturday morning. Then we thought it would be nice to do something better and make a contribution.”

Superheroes singing comic takes on Wagner and Bizet is the very definition of “something better” from Henson, a silly premise with the promise of chaotic laughs that educate and entertain. In “Sing A Song Of Superheroes,” a note about a water main failure sets the Muppets’ minds racing toward a fantasy in which they’re caped and masked vigilantes, their hunt for whoever stole the nursery’s water narrated through melodies from The Barber Of Seville, William Tell, Rigoletto, and other operatic works. It’s a nonsensical connection that requires a trustworthy voice like Barbara Billingsley to truly sell it—as Billingsley’s Nanny tells her charges when they turn down an invitation to watch her Greatest Moments In The History Of Opera videotape, “opera heroes were the great superheroes of their day.” (To paraphrase a familiar Muppet Babies refrain: “Okay, Nanny.”)   

Henson didn’t have a hand in Muppet Babies’ day-to-day operations (and “Sing A Song Of Superheroes” debuted a few months after his death) but the episode’s concept was one he and head writer Hank Saroyan had kicked around since the beginning of the series. It’s a “spoonful of sugar” proposition for the target audience: Get kids interested in a supposedly stuffy, decidedly adult art form with characters they already like (who are playacting as other characters they already like). Speaking as a former 5-year-old alternately obsessed with The Muppets, Super Friends, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the plan might’ve worked too well: Like those who can’t hear “Ride Of The Valkyries” without thinking “Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!” I’ll always associate Carmen’s Habanera with pirates, their flashlights, and avoiding wrecks. They don’t like wrecks!

“Sing A Song Of Superheroes” isn’t the only Muppet Babies episode that goes heavy on the allusions, pop-culture or otherwise. My runner-up pick for this Roundtable was another season-seven installment, “Muppet Babies: The Next Generation,” which gets tremendous mileage from a riff on The Jetsons’ roll-call theme song. And every episode of the series integrates some form of live-action video, be it stock footage or snippets from Hollywood blockbusters. The “Sing A Song Of Superheroes” script gets one of its biggest laughs from this device when Gonzo riffs on one superhero’s too-costly appearance fee: “Batman? Are you nuts? Warner Bros. wanted 2 million bucks for a three-second film clip.” (Fozzie Bear, right on cue: “Boy, I wonder what they pay Bugs Bunny.”) Jokes like this dominated the wave of “something better” morning programming heralded by Muppet Babies, as writers raised on syndicated sitcom repeats, repackaged Looney Tunes shorts, and local-affiliate kiddie shows brought forth the likes of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Animaniacs, and Rocko’s Modern Life. Those three examples took a more knowing, wise-ass approach to their reconstituted TV memories; Muppet Babies is gentler, but no less sophisticated. Twenty-four years later, “Sing A Song Of Superheroes” still hits me right where I live, and exchanges like Piggy’s and Gonzo’s “I know just how you feel” argument have a timeless quality to them—while staying true to the voice of Henson’s creations.

But in an age of reference humor, when pop-culture parody often stops at “Hey, remember this?”, I have to wonder: Did Muppet Babies work against itself with episodes like “Sing A Song Of Superheroes” and “Muppet Babies: The Next Generation”? Is imagination still imagination if it’s wearing the utility belt of another popular character? I have my own answers to these questions, but I’m interested in what y’all think—especially since it’s my understanding that we all spent some of our childhood years in the Muppet Babies nursery.

Ryan McGee: By the time this episode of Muppet Babies aired, I was nearly 15 years old, theoretically past the age at which it would be cool to watch such a program. But I absolutely, positively grew up with this show, which made it the No. 1 program to come to mind when this iteration of the Roundtable emerged. As someone who spent far more time in Imaginationland than the real world, I immediately bonded with the idea of my favorite characters from The Muppet Show engaging with pop culture through the power of play. As someone who’s now almost 40 years old, I miss all that time spent in Imaginationland more with each passing year. It’s not that I can’t ever access that place again. It’s just that the opportunity to do so slips a little with each passing year. 

As such, The House At Pooh Corner came to mind while watching this episode, specifically its final moments in which Christopher Robin all but apologizes to Winnie for growing up and not remaining the exact specimen he is at that moment. Christopher announces that he isn’t going to do “nothing” anymore, signaling a change from carefree youth to something akin to adulthood. He intuitively understands what this means, even if he’s not fully equipped to confront the full impact of that transformation.

“Pooh,” said Christopher Robin earnestly, “if I—if I’m not quite—” he stopped and tried again—“Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won’t you?” “Understand what?”
“Oh, nothing.” He laughed and jumped to his feet. “Come on!”
“Where?” said Pooh.
“Anywhere,” said Christopher Robin.

That passage absolutely wrecks me every time I read it, because it addresses the inevitability of responsibility while simultaneously recognizing we always have a toehold in a world where everything is possible. Watching “Sing A Song Of Superheroes” now isn’t about watching a clever “spoonful of sugar” approach to introducing children to opera, but rather understanding the show’s secret narrative weapon. Muppet Babies now plays to me like long-form improv, where the answer to almost every ridiculous suggestion by one of the toddlers is “yes, and?” Rather than step on anyone’s idea, the group generally goes along with the suggestion and incorporates it into a collective reality. That makes cuts to The Phantom Of The Opera or The Three Stooges meaningful: The Muppets literally see the same thing through the power of collective imagination and by all agreeing upon the same parallel reality.

Just look at Scooter’s acceptance of Skeeter’s suggestion that their Wonder Twins turn into a pair of red shoes. Scooter doesn’t want to turn into a red shoe, but he accepts the scenario, however reluctantly. The answer for these Muppets inside the nursery is the same for Christopher Robin inside the Hundred Acre Wood. The Muppets could literally go anywhere inside that nursery, and I love the unlimited possibility of that small space to this day. 

Now that I’ve outed myself as the old man at this table, I’m curious what impact this show had on your lives, Molly and Caroline. Is there comfort to be found here, or just outdated pop-culture references filtered through the prism of timeless music?

Molly Eichel: There certainly is comfort to be found, Ryan. Muppet Babies is a massive part of my early pop-cultural memory. While the “spoonful of sugar” is the prevailing concept of this episode, I wonder how much it factored into the Muppets’ specific brand of humor. Not just in the pop-culture references (which the Muppets were able to do in a timeless way) but in the self referential sense, as well. Did I understand that licensing fees were the real reason Gonzo was not allowed to call himself Batman when this episode aired? Certainly not; although it’s ironic that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the gang turns into was also a CBS show. But I think shows like Muppet Babies prepared me for surrealistic humor that takes me out of the diegetic world of whatever I’m watching. It’s something I still have an affinity for, not just from the Muppets properties but through other examples. Mel Brooks movies immediately come to mind, which I was introduced to not that long after the Muppet Babies era of my life. Bugs Bunny was also particularly adept at this, and as Erik mentioned, beat the Muppet Babies to the opera punch in the classic “What’s Opera, Doc?”

So to answer Erik’s question: I don’t think Muppet Babies hurt itself by giving its viewers an easy shorthand because it’s entirely the mission of the episode: How can we, as children, process something complex? The obvious complexity is opera, but there’s also the idea of the water main break that I did not remember before re-watching this episode—but it certainly dominates the story. The Muppet Babies don’t understand why there is no water, they just know that there is no water and they filter that understanding through the collective reality that Ryan mentions above. Those pop-culture references in and of themselves are a collective reality, a cheat sheet for the audience. The episode isn’t just dealing with some high-minded subject like opera, but with the basic and everyday as well. The ability to combine those two, and do it with subtlety, is what makes Muppet Babies special.

Caroline Framke: Muppet Babies wasn’t an integral part of my childhood—not to be That Person, but I was 2 years old when this episode aired—and yet I was always excited to stumble upon a rerun. There was something comforting about that nursery overflowing with helium-voiced Muppets, maybe because my favorite pastime was rounding up all the kids in my neighborhood and creating elaborate scenarios to playact for the day. We were cowboys, spies, cops, robbers, mermaids, pioneers, small-business owners, and, yes, superheroes. Like Ryan, I mourned the loss of my intricate imaginary worlds as I got older, and am still sad now that I’m not open-minded or patient enough to spend an afternoon as a pirate captain, even if that just meant standing on a stool barking orders with a bucket on my head.

The Muppet Babies weren’t the only kids on television who played like I did, but watching the show now as an adult, I realized that the combination of cartoon and live-action clips is an integral part of that play. The pirate ship is just a chair in the nursery, but in their collective fantasy, it’s a mighty schooner navigating tumultuous seas. Skeeter might just be rolling herself off the side of a couch in reality, but we also get to see that in her head, she’s tumbling joyfully down Niagara Falls. The combination of live and cartoon clips also adds to the surrealist nature of the show, which in turn mirrors the surrealist nature of an imaginative kid’s playtime.

To answer your question, Erik, I don’t have a problem with Muppet Babies taking on existing pop culture icons, especially in “A Song Of Superheroes.” It would have been one thing if the entire episode hinged on Gonzo playing “Batboy,” but that’s really just an excuse for him to run around saving the day in his own goofy fashion. Kermit and company as the Ninja Turtles is just a fun piece of punctuation for the superheroes theme rather than a driving piece of parody; Skeeter and Scooter as the Wonder Twins is another device to show their codependence (quite literally, in the case of Scooter being Skeeter’s rope). It helps that the songs free-flow between operas, and are clever without being too clever for kids to be singing it; my favorite is Gonzo’s version of William Tell, which hinges on how he’s adjusted this awesome car so he can drive it “like the big kids on the block.” (I’d actually be curious to know if the Hey Arnold! team watched this episode when it did its own opera spin.) It’s also hard not to love the final curtain call, with Gonzo’s Batboy, Piggy’s Valkyrie, the Wonder Twins, and the Muppet Ninja Turtles lining up to belt their triumph at chasing the Phantom and recovering the water at their own front door. It’s the perfect example of how kids incorporate what’s around them to create astonishing worlds, even if it’s as simple as some guy telling them the water’s back on.  

Also, on a sidenote: Was that bunny always there?!

ME: COSIGN THE BUNNY.

RM: I’m guessing it’s Donnie Darko. But don’t quote me.

EA: People, people, people: You speak as if you’re entirely unfamiliar with Bean Bunny, the Steve Whitmire-performed star of The Tale Of Bunny Picnic and eventual supporting player in the MuppeTelevision segments of the short-lived The Jim Henson Hour. Sheesh.

You’ve all hit upon different parts of the answers I alluded to up top, thoughts that dawned upon me while I lay awake the other night, thinking about Muppets (like I do). The most heartening part of “Sing A Song Of Superheroes”—and the most authentically childlike aspect of the episode—is the way the characters aren’t bound by the “rules” of the characters they play. They mix genres and settings with reckless abandon, and allow genre-fiction universes to bleed together the way my brother and I used to when we’d let our Batman action figures hitch a ride on the Millennium Falcon. (Though it’s odd nobody went for a Spider-Man fantasy, considering that the show was produced by an arm of Marvel Entertainment.) Muppet Babies is fan fiction brought to life, with purer intent and a refreshing disregard for canon. 

But I’m most struck by your observations about the lack of “play” in adult life, something this group of people hasn’t completely abandoned because, near as I can tell, we all enjoyed this “Sing A Song Of Superheroes” rewind. Ryan’s mention of long-form improv reminds me of my own experience with that form of adult play, which is more or less a staged version of what happened on Muppet Babies week-to-week. It’s curious that more TV shows don’t explore these themes, considering that the act of making television involves playing professional make believe. It’s common enough in kids TV—Adventure Time, for one example, updates Muppet Babies’ fantasy-as-way-of-dealing-with-reality methods for an adolescent audience. Perhaps there’s a worry that this line of thinking is somehow infantilizing, which is a line I’ve seen tossed plenty of times at live-action Muppet Babies’ corollary Community. That show’s final (?) season featured the marvelous “G.I. Jeff,” which finds one character regressing into a Saturday-morning fantasy as a way of coping with the aging process. The moral of that story—and the message of the A.A. Milne excerpt above—is that fantasy can’t be permanent. But what’s so wrong with sprinkling a little fantasy into adult life? 

Ryan, you’re a big fan of Scrubs, another live-action comedy with a fantastical streak—why do you think this kind of thing isn’t more common in prime time? Is it money? It must be money, because adult things. 

RM: I am a big fan of Scrubs, as detailed in a Roundtable long ago and far away. Part of why that show’s fantastical streak works so well is that it’s all too easy to recognize how the doctors, nurses, and other denizens of Sacred Heart need to retreat from the morbid reality that surrounds them. Fantasy is a necessary coping mechanism to stave off the overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere of that hospital. More than one article written at the time of the show’s run noted that the show’s more surreal touches actually made it one of the most realistic medical shows ever produced on television.

What your comparison drives home, Erik, is that fantasy isn’t antithetical to reality, but rather part and parcel of it. Much of the joy in watching this episode of Muppet Babies (and, if I must confess, the other half-dozen or so that I rediscovered online while passing through this particular looking glass) comes from the same place I imagine you rediscovered during your staged performances. Temporary habitation of this fantasy space doesn’t negate reality, but rather reframes it. Understanding that we can’t stay in that space forever need not be as traumatic for us as for Christopher Robin, which is why “G.I. Jeff” is one of my favorite episodes of this past season of Community. That episode depicts why Jeff ends up in that cartoon world, but brings him back in a way that feels tied to his character’s growth rather than the need to wrap up an episode of television. Community didn’t always toe that line for me, but “G.I. Jeff” demonstrates how often it could.

As far as why more shows don’t explore notions of play, I’d suggest that dark, morose shows get equated with “quality” far more than those that celebrate possibility. Play connotes a retreat from reality rather than a respite, a way to avoid responsibility rather than a way to contextualize it. It’s easier to accept Gonzo as Batboy than a John Dorian parody of a “The More You Know” PSA. But maybe that’s easier to accept because we envy Dorian’s ability to access a mental space most of us deem out of reach. The distance between the two really isn’t all that different, however. Both Gonzo and J.D. draw strength from play, which suggests that need never goes away so much as the social stigma applied to adults that engage in such activity is increased. I love Leslie and Ben on Parks And Recreation, but still think April and Andy might have things more figured out. Both are strong couples, but I find myself consistently marveling at how Andy’s childlike wonder is April’s favorite thing about him.

What about you, Molly? What aspects of Muppet Babies would current shows be smart to co-opt?

ME: One of my favorite things about this episode, and the Muppets in general, can also be found within one of my other favorite shows, The Simpsons. The list of cultural entities I found via Simpsons jokes before experiencing the original could fill volumes. It happens less often now, but I remember watching Citizen Kane for the first time and cracking up at the end because it made “Rosebud” that much funnier. So, Ryan, to answer your question, I wish that more shows would make the audience work for the joke a bit. Be smarter, these shows tell us, and this will be funnier. Pop culture references can be so grating because they are so very, very obvious; the good ones dig a little deeper into the not-so-popular-right-now culture. Muppet Babies’ use of opera made the form more accessible and less scary, without me even knowing it.

Another aspect I love about the Muppets that transferred over to Muppet Babies was large-and-in-charge Miss Piggy. In “Sing A Song Of Superheroes,” she’s first seen as a damsel in distress, but then takes matters into her own hands. There’s always a dearth of strong ladies represented in culture, but I have fond memories of cartoons using women as proactive doers (probably because they can’t be used as sex objects yet). Miss Piggy might be high-maintenance, but that doesn’t mean she’s not going to kick some ass. Same could be said for Skeeter, who makes it a point of singing about her tomboyish ways, representing the other side of the female spectrum. Sure, there are still more male characters on the show than female, but there are excellent representations for little girls to watch. There are certainly contemporary examples—Adventure Time comes to mind. Caroline, who are some of your fave lady ’toons?

Caroline Framke: You can’t just toss off a challenge to list my favorite lady ’toons like it’s no big thing, Molly! I could have thought about that for years. Still, I think I would inevitably reach the conclusion I have now, which is that all my favorite animated ladies follow Miss Piggy’s sterling example. I could watch a brassy girl bark orders and demand that people recognize her superiority all day, eyes held open Clockwork Orange-style to take in a constant loop of Miss Piggy, Angelica Pickles, Helga Pataki, and Buttercup. As a kid, they were aspirational figures for me. I watched in awe as they crashed through rooms, took on challenges without blinking, and stomped on anyone who got in their way. They had their vulnerabilities, but at the end of the day, they never let their fears get in the way of setting some bozo straight. Their aggression was a weird trait to idolize, but the fact remains that these ladies got shit done.

I’m glad you brought up Miss Piggy specifically, though, because even though I always loved her, I was still surprised at how invested I was in her story coming around in “Sing A Song Of Superheroes.” It was so frustrating to watch her get constantly sidelined, but even more than that, I felt a rush of déjà vu. Throughout the Muppets’ many adventures in movies, television, variety specials, and special guest appearances, there is a consistent feeling that the Muppets are barely tolerating Miss Piggy. She’s always been the outlier in that cast. Miss Piggy prides herself in her appearance, and feels everything from passion to fury so intensely that she vibrates with energy. She’s not a raggedy moppet like the rest of them. I just finished Julie Klausner’s memoir, I Don’t Care About Your Band, which includes a standout chapter about Miss Piggy as a singular kind of role model for girls, a “comedienne extraordinaire who’d alternate eyelash bats with karate chops.” Klausner goes on to say that while she always found Miss Piggy fabulous, she was heartbroken as an adult to realize how Miss Piggy’s femininity and unabashed crush on Kermit was only ever met with bemusement. So maybe it was coming off that chapter, but when Gonzo locks Miss Piggy in his Bat(boy)-mobile, I was furious—which only made her triumphant charge in the final act that much sweeter. Let the other Muppets tumble aimlessly about the nursery. Miss Piggy was always going to be the one who got that shit done.

And that’s what’s so sweet about “Sing A Song Of Superheroes.” Whether it’s Miss Piggy defying her friends to save the day, Gonzo embracing the absurdity of his superhero alias, or the twins shapeshifting into a helicopter so Skeeter can barrel down the Niagara Falls, this episode embodies the best of Muppet Babies. It never misses the opportunity to make a dream come true.


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