There’s no good reason that The Muppet Show isn’t on Disney+. The commonly cited cause is the cost of licensing the songs that make up a good percentage of the show’s segments, which sunk previous attempts to release the complete series on DVD. But that’s still not a good reason. If you were an entertainment giant whose recently launched, high-profile streaming service could use some additional library titles to appeal to subscribers confined to their homes, wouldn’t a nostalgia-tinged variety show staffed by a cast of beloved, fuzzy faces seem like a sound investment, regardless of the ASCAP fees?
Fortunately, WarnerMedia sure seems to think so. The AT&T-backed conglomerate’s deal with Sesame Workshop has made Sesame Street a walled garden in which HBO (and soon, HBO Max) subscribers have first access to new episodes. That money also enables the Workshop to sustain its mission to inform and amuse, during an era when public funding for the arts and education are under an ever-increasing threat. HBO Max doesn’t have The Muppet Show either, but it will launch with a reasonable facsimile: The talk-show parody The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo.
For its target audience, Not-Too-Late is extra time to spend with the Sesame Street monsters and menagerie—15 more minutes, to be exact. It’s Elmo (Ryan Dillon), hosting a star-studded chatfest that takes place between dinner clean-up and pajama time, with Cookie Monster (David Rudman) as announcer/sidekick/comic devourer of desserts and props and Mama Bear (Jennifer Barnhart) leading the house band. On the surface, it’s the most entertainment-forward project to ever emerge from Sesame Workshop—Sesame Street’s long-running tradition of celebrity cameos made into a show of its own.
But pay close enough attention to the structure and the contents, and the service element emerges: With mobile devices and other screens playing an increasing role in daily life, here’s a show that fights against tech’s negative impact on sleep by helping kids get ready for bed. The Jonas Brothers extol the importance of nighttime oral hygiene in one episode; John Mulaney helps expel excess energy with a tricycle race in another. The musical-guest slot—so often the capper on the types of shows Not-Too-Late bases its game of dress-up on—give Kacey Musgraves and Lil Nas X a chance to spin Sesame standards into new lullabies and pre-lights-out sing-alongs. Millions of adults make the Tonight, Late, or Daily Show part of their bedtime routine. Why should the kids miss out on the fun?
It’s a clever, charming concept, executed with the Workshop’s customary care and craft. And for those of us closer in age to the guest stars, The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo takes some of the sting out of the way Disney has misused or flat-out ignored Kermit The Frog, Miss Piggy, and friends. Cutaways to a hectic control room run by Ernie (Peter Linz), Bert (Eric Jacobson), and Prairie Dawn (Stephanie D’Abruzzo) recall the backstage chaos at The Muppet Theater, all the while plugging Not-Too-Late into the behind-the-scenes comedy continuum that connects The Muppet Show, The Larry Sanders Show, and 30 Rock. (Put a clipboard in Prairie’s hand and she snaps right into Liz Lemon mode.) Silly-smart jokes abound, from the flock of tourist sheep who keep barging into the Mulaney/Lil Nas X episode, to interview questions like “How high can you count?” In the premiere, Jimmy Fallon sets up a particularly inspired gag that answers one of Not-Too-Late’s most pressing questions: How do you write cue cards for a host who’s still learning to read?
While some of Disney’s attempts to update its Muppets for contemporary audiences have strained for edge and relevancy, Not-Too-Late shapes the talk-show format around its characters’ established personalities. (Given Elmo’s typically ingratiating behavior and polarizing popularity, it makes perfect sense for Fallon to be his first guest.) This results in a natural extension of the TV parodies that dot the Sesame Street back catalog, with familiar staging that presents new opportunities for Muppet ingenuity: The customary talk-show furniture allows a full-body Cookie Monster puppet to take a seat next to the guests, where Mulaney can tell him, with the sincerity of someone who’s done pre-interview patter on plenty of other, non-hollowed-out TV couches, “You’re looking well!”
This exceptional addition to the Sesame Street canon also offers a loving homage to the show’s history. Easter eggs are scattered like the crumbs of Cookie’s latest snack: A skyline backdrop that places a cutout of Hooper’s Store among other New York City landmarks, Elmo using The Amazing Mumford’s catchphrase in a monologue magic trick, an audience that contains retired characters like Roosevelt Franklin and Don Music. Some of the subjects of those tributes will stream alongside The Not-Too-Late Show (as will the next five seasons of Sesame Street and a previous spin-off, The Furchester Hotel), another mark in HBO Max’s favor. (Disney+ has all but one of the Muppets’ best movies, but practically none of their TV output.) Until Disney ponies up to play the Muppet Show music—or until classic Fraggle Rock finds a subscription service to settle on—it will be abundantly clear which streamer appreciates the Muppets on the deepest level.