Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Muppets both lives and dies by its mockumentary format

Illustration for article titled The Muppets both lives and dies by its mockumentary format

When the first trailer for Jason Segel’s The Muppets dropped back in 2011, my dad—a longtime fan of the franchise—took major issue with it. It wasn’t because of Segel or the absence of Frank Oz or a new protagonist named Walter or the fact that the property was getting a reset in the first place. No, he had a problem with Fozzie Bear’s use of the term “fart shoes.”

“Fozzie would never say ‘fart,’” he explained. “He would say ‘toot’ or ‘whoopee’ or some other word for it, but not ‘fart.’”

It seemed like a pretty minor complaint, but when I told some friends who are also Muppet fanatics, most of them had the exact same problem. Looking back, this shouldn’t have been a shock. While no one likes to see the pop-culture icons of their childhood messed with, Muppet fans have been especially protective of their memories, skeptical of any new series, TV special, or film produced by the Jim Henson Company since its visionary founder died back in 1990 (A Muppet Christmas Carol notwithstanding).

That’s because Henson’s most famous creations stayed so good for so long. Keep in mind that my dad is in his early 50s and my friends are mostly in their early 30s, and yet they all got to see the Muppets operating at the top of their game at some point in their lives. Few people get pissed when Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse pops up in something shitty, but every time something like Muppets From Space or The Muppets’ Wizard Of Oz gets dumped on the world, it stings just a little sharper than the last time.

Oddly enough, many of these lesser post-Henson Muppets installments suffer because they try too hard to capture the spirit of their creator, relying on gentle parodies of pop culture and a celebrity-centric orbit without recognizing that these are traits best left to the still-unique Muppet Showa series that could really only work when Henson was alive. Part of the 2011 film’s success (if you do indeed think it was a success) hinged on Segel forging his own path while still paying lip service to fans with callbacks, appearances from minor characters, and the like.

I say all this to drive home that, in theory, the atypical concept of ABC’s The Muppets—a behind-the-scenes, “adult” look at the whole gang producing a late-night talk show starring Miss Piggy—is something to be embraced. Even if the fly-on-the-wall (with semi-frequent confessionals) mockumentary format didn’t/doesn’t work 100 percent of the time for network shows like The Office, Parks And Recreation, and Modern Family, it’s still an instantly recognizable framing device, and, more importantly, something the Muppets have never tangled with before, at least not in a long-form narrative. Unsurprisingly, it’s the trappings of the genre that end up being the series’ greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness.


On a base level, it’s captivating to see the Muppets interact with the real world in such an unprecedented way. Like any mockumentary, the camera follows them through every unglamorous activity, from an unproductive writers-room meeting with Pepe the Prawn and Rizzo the Rat to Fozzie driving to meet his human girlfriend, Becky (Riki Lindhome), at her parents’ house for dinner. Watching everyone’s favorite unbearable comedian navigate Los Angeles with the top down doesn’t deliver the same dreamlike magic as watching Kermit ride a bicycle, but that mundanity is exactly the point. Iconic felt bear or not, this is his everyday routine; creators Bill Prady and Bob Kushell aren’t trying to enchant their audience—they’re trying to bring the Muppets down to their level.

This newfound sense of realism also makes for a definitive, heartbreaking moment at the episode’s core. When “Pig Girls Don’t Cry” starts, Kermit’s already left Miss Piggy for the more level-headed (but still porcine) head of marketing at the talk show, Denise. Sometime later, there’s a flashback to the demise of Kermit and Piggy’s relationship, which occurred outside a screening of Pitch Perfect 2, thus explaining the latter’s aversion to having Elizabeth Banks on her show. The breakup itself isn’t anything surprising—Kermit has, quite fairly, grown tired of dealing with the constant bouts of vanity, jealousy, and anger from his famous partner—but then something unexpected happens. After he delivers the bad news, the handheld camera hangs on Piggy, shaking ever so slightly. Her breathing gets labored, her snout scrunches up, the camera continues to wobble. It looks like she’s going to cry—not the dramatic sob she’s done plenty of times in the past to get what she wants, but a stoic, painful, honest-to-goodness cry. Suddenly, we’re viewing Miss Piggy in a sympathetic light, thanks to the use of a convention we’ve seen in so many mockumentary breakup scenes before. Her character expands into something much more complex and—I’ll just come out and say it—human.


But humans tend to be a whole lot uglier than Muppets in their actions, and that also results in some moments that are hard to swallow when enacted by characters who we’ve come to love for their warmth. The Muppets isn’t the first time Kermit’s made a fat joke about Miss Piggy, but he rattles them off too frequently for comfort here, and seeing Scooter—a likable humanoid who, at his absolute worst, is a brown-nosing smartass—get into a physical altercation with Banks during a backlot tour just feels cold and strange.

There’s also the issue of pacing. By nature, The Office, Parks And Rec, and the rest of the network mockumentary pack tend to draw their humor from tension and awkward silences, two things that simply aren’t in the Muppets’ wheelhouse, at least not in the past. Even the crappiest Muppet specials (probably Wizard Of Oz or that thing with Lady Gaga) have never been guilty of being slow. And while The Muppets doesn’t exactly feel longer than its 22-minute runtime, the humor does come off as stilted and, once again, out of place when it depends less on whiz-bang absurdity in favor of quiet stretches (Fozzie’s dinner with Becky’s family) and downplayed punchlines (Pepe and Rizzo’s Dancing With The Czars sketch gets discarded when it should be met with excitement).


Then again, these are all touchstones of the mockumentary format, and it’s somewhat reductive to criticize The Muppets for employing them. It’s just hard to shake the suspicion of everything being slightly off, even if the intention to show the gloomier side of the characters, warts and all (pardon the frog pun), is no doubt inventive. I may as well be criticizing Fozzie’s fart shoes. But is the criticism of fart shoes a bad thing? Should we embrace a new angle just because it’s new? Is this all just a matter of getting used to the tension, measured pace, and lack of resolution, or will the incongruity between the Muppets’ past and present be too much to stomach? Only time (or at least a few more episodes) will tell.

Stray observations

  • In a tease of the Henson golden years, you can hear the “It’s time to meet the Muppets” section of the Muppet Show theme in the opening title.
  • Everyone has a job that fits them well on Up Late With Miss Piggy: Piggy’s the host, Kermit’s the producer/showrunner, Fozzie’s the warm-up comedian, Dr. Teeth And The Electric Mayhem are the house band, Sweetums is the janitor/cue-card holder, Statler and Waldorf are audience hecklers, and it looks like Sam the Eagle reports to the FCC.
  • Speaking of janitor, no Beauregard? Or, if we’re going really far back, Pops? When considering Segel’s 2011 film, there’s a good chance the former could be stuck in a closet somewhere in the studio.
  • It’s always great to see Janice getting some more lines, but out of all the characters not manned by their old-school performers (Dave Goelz is the last first-generation Muppeteer), she’s the only one to sound nothing like her original voice (or, in her case, her second voice, Richard Hunt). No disrespect to David Rudman, who still does a mean Cookie Monster.
  • Outside of what we already saw in the trailers, there isn’t a whole lot of Gonzo in this episode.
  • I touched on Kermit’s heightened aggression above (although there have been moments of it in past films), but hearing him mock Animal with “Animal have better idea?” truly made my heart hurt. Such constant stress-induced snapping from the little green guy is going to take some getting used to.
  • I admittedly wanted Animal to destroy Imagine Dragons’ equipment much more than he did.
  • And why doesn’t Animal tour anymore? According to him, “Too many women, too many towns.”
  • Fozzie’s love life hasn’t fared much better either: “When your online profile says ‘bear searching for love,’ you get a lot of wrong responses. Not wrong. Just… wrong for me.”