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'The Muppets' Grow Up and Get Dark

Kermit and the gang deal with sex, divorce and Snapchat in ABC's faux-documentary series

The set of 'The Muppets." "For the first time, we're in actual reality with the characters," says the show's creator. Credit: Bob D'Amico/ABC

It's a balmy August morning in the offices of Up Late With Miss Piggy. The usual squad of flunkies, including Gonzo, Pepe the King Prawn, and Scooter, surrounds Kermit the Frog, the showrunner. Fozzie Bear is off somewhere possibly violating the offices' "no snapchat at work" policy. Piggy is the talent so she doesn't arrive until much later in the day. There's a discussion of new guests and Yolanda, a kindly rat, has a suggestion.

"Hey lets call Josh Groban next. He's single, he has a great voice and he gives me the feels."

Pepe the King Prawn nods energetically and speaks in a vaguely Spanish accent. "Oh he gives me the feels too."

The rest of the room titters. Pepe doesn't back down. "What? He's a handsome man and gender is fluid." But Pepe stumbles over the last line. "I blew it. I apologize."

Kermit, per usual, is understanding: "That's ok."

Pepe can't resist.

"I blew him."

Kermit's face puckers.

Under the table, about a half-dozen humans with their hands up the Muppets' asses break into giggles. Someone shouts, "Ok, let's go again."

I hope you're in your safe place. You know all those childhood memories of Piggy talking to Peter Sellers on their variety show, Muppets taking Manhattan, and Kermit DJing your bat mitzvah? Lies. They were all just picking up a paycheck. It was not real.

Take a minute.

But this time it counts. The Muppets are back on ABC for a faux documentary sitcom (titled The Muppets, premiering on September 22nd) and things are getting dark. Kermit is running a talk show with his ex and has hired all his never-do-well friends. Backstage is being filmed by the documentarian that shot The Office in a mockumentry style. The content has more in common with Larry Sanders than Sesame Street.

"The movies and the original Muppet show, those were jobs the Muppets took," says Bill Prady, the show creator who is a 30-year Muppet vet and also runs something called The Big Bang Theory. "For the first time we’re in actual reality with the characters."

Reality is angsty. Kermit and Piggy have split. There's another pig in the picture. Piggy falls for Groban who tries to get her to class up her show with esoteric guests like historian Reza Aslan. Gonzo doesn't know his father. Fozzie is a hack writer whose girlfriend's parents won't accept their inter-species relationship and wonder aloud if he does, in fact, shit in the woods. Piggy is petrified that everyone will find out about her humble origins. It's not quite Ibsen but it's definitely not Elmo and Mr. Noodle.

Of course, there's a limit to the reality. I ask to talk with Steve Whitmire, Kermit's hand man since the 1990 death of creator Jim Henson and I'm told by a publicist "We're trying to keep the magic here. But you can e-mail Kermit questions."

The set for The Muppets looks much like any set for a workplace comedy with the exception of an inanimate Kermit hanging on a hook and one other thing: Everything from Piggy's chill couch, the one with the Marlene Dietrich book on the side table, to the conference room is six feet off the ground on stilts so the puppeteers can get under the table and do their thing. Every scene is generated by men and women manipulating the Muppets from under the table while watching the action in real-time on tiny monitors. Getting the "bad" documentary footage of intimate moments — think Pam and Jim sharing tender scenes ­– creates it's own problems.

"Every scene may read as something familiar,” says Bill Barretta a 30-year Muppets vet who patterned Pepe after his kindly, domineering Spanish aunt. "But the logistics and how it is accomplished makes every scene a new experience."

"I always used to imagine that there was a bar across the street from The Muppet Show. Fozzie would come up to Kermit and say, 'You know, it wasn't our worst show.'"

Developments in camera technology allow the Muppets to venture out into the world in a way that was previously impossible. Fozzie is stuck in traffic on the 134 and Kermit and Piggy have a melancholy moment outside of L.A.'s Wiltern theatre with cars and tourists streaming by. "There's no green screen," says Bob Kushell, The Muppets showrunner. "There's no computer stuff. What you're seeing, it's all there."

The question is whether The Muppets themselves will work as characters in these modern times. I asked Prady if he would have to tweak Piggy to reflect our current relatively progressive era. Prady didn't buy the premise and later told me that Miss Piggy has always been ahead of her time.

"One of the characteristics of Ms. Piggy is her desire for popularity in currency,” says Prady. "If you look at the history of the character she has always tried to position herself in terms of fashion and who her friends are. She has tried very hard to stay current. It drives her."

If the idea of a comic mockumentry seems a little five years ago, it's because Prady's idea is older than that. He pitched the show's exact premise eight years ago and Walt Disney, who had recently purchased the Muppets franchise, passed on the concept. Earlier this year Barretta mentioned that there was a whole new management crew at ABC and they should pitch it again. This time, ABC bit and ordered the show without a pilot. The network rushed it into production, either a sign of their confidence or the dearth of new ideas at the Mouse Factory.

It seems a certainty that viewers will tune it initially for both the novelty and nostalgia factor. But will they stick around? Prady tells me the key to the show's success. "I always used to imagine that there was a bar across the street from The Muppet Show," he says. "And after they did the show they would go across the street, and Fozzie would come up to Kermit and say, 'You know, it wasn't our worst show.' And they would be real. The show works if it fulfills that wish."

Later in the day, Kermit is shooting a scene with Lea Thompson, a longtime fantasy woman of the frog who he can now pursue since Piggy is history. He steps on the elevator and does the patented Kermit double-take toward Thompson and starts to make bashful conversation. Just then, Gonzo puts his hand through the door and ruins the moment with a story of his mother lost in Machu Picchu on an alpaca.

"Kermit always reminds me of Jim Henson because Jim surrounded himself with very eccentric people," says Prady. "Kermit's fatal flaw is a fierce loyalty to his friends. It always makes his job harder."
The doors close with Kermit looking deflated but not defeated.

Some things never change.