The Muppets — specifically, the comedy-variety troupe featuring Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo the Great, et. al. — are in their sixth decade of existence, but they have never been more perfectly deployed than in their first project together, the Seventies syndicated hit The Muppet Show. A faux variety series, each episode was a mix of two kinds of segments. The first were vaudeville-style sketches from the show-within-a-show, where the Muppets sang, danced, told corny jokes, and appeared in shows-within-the-show-within-the-show like Pigs in Space and Veterinarian’s Hospital. The second took place backstage at the dilapidated Muppet Theater, where Kermit was forever struggling to manage the egos and anxieties of his co-stars, who in turn were often busy sucking up to that week’s very special guest (everyone from Ethel Merman to Elton John stopped by during the series’ five-year run).
Though traditional variety shows were already on the way out when The Muppet Show premiered in 1976, the format was a perfect showcase for these characters. The sketches displayed their versatility — some ridiculous spoofs, others utterly sincere performances. The backstage action, meanwhile, established the core Muppets as distinct, endearing personalities who, fur or forked tongues aside, wouldn’t seem that out of place on a workplace sitcom with an otherwise human cast.
Most of the strongest Muppet-affiliated projects over the years borrow liberally from some or all of the original show’s DNA. The Muppet Movie and Muppets Take Manhattan are varied origin stories for the troupe(*), while the 2011 film had the gang reuniting at the old theater to put on a show one more time. The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and Muppets Most Wanted, meanwhile, inserted the characters into familiar genres or stories to demonstrate that Kermit could pass for Bob Cratchit or a fugitive from justice as easily as he could the harried manager of a comedy team.
(*) My friend Adam Bonin, an election lawyer who moonlights as a pop-culture commentator, had the best unifying field theory for all the Muppet films (and it applies to The Muppet Show, too): Only The Muppet Movie is “real,” and everything else is something the characters made under the “standard rich and famous contract” that Lew Lord signs them to at the end of that first film.
But keeping all of the franchise’s stylistic and tonal elements in balance is hard. In 2005, The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz tried to replicate the Muppet Christmas Carol magic, but came across as snarky toward both the Muppets and the source material. ABC’s deservedly short-lived 2015 mockumentary series The Muppets was pretty much all backstage interaction, but with the characters all weirdly bitter and adult. The post-Jim Henson version of Kermit, played by Steve Whitmire, could occasionally seem too Pollyanna-ish(*), but this new iteration swung way too far in the other direction.
(*) One of my favorite Muppet Show subplots had Fozzie demanding a raise. Kermit stalls and stalls and stalls, and finally placates Fozzie by agreeing to pay him 10 times his (nonexistent) salary — with Fozzie only realizing after the fact that ten times nothing is still nothing. Whitmire’s Kermit was never that cagey.
The Muppets have barely appeared since the ABC show was canceled, but they finally resurface this week with Muppets Now, a new Disney+ series that promises a back-to-basics approach: just comedy sketches featuring the Muppets, nothing else. Should work, right?
Well, yes and no.
Where The Muppet Show was spoofing Ed Sullivan, or Sonny and Cher, the largely improvised Muppets Now is riffing on YouTube and, to an extent, reality TV. Most of the segments recur from one episode to the next: a lifestyle-influencer show with Miss Piggy, Uncle Deadly(*), Taye Diggs, and Linda Cardellini (the actors appearing as themselves); an unpredictable game show hosted by Pepe the King Prawn; a MythBusters-style science show (the first one even has an Adam Savage cameo) hosted by Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker; a cooking competition pitting Swedish Chef against his real-life peers; and a celebrity interview show called “Mup Close & Personal.”
(*) The flamboyant, Vincent Price-esque Uncle Deadly was an extremely minor character on The Muppet Show, but has grown in stature ever since the 2011 movie. Today, he’s the most prominent of several implicitly queer characters who make Muppets Now a more LGBTQ-friendly series than it may have been in the past. (The first episode also has a male Muppet crushing on guest star RuPaul.)
The segments can be hit-or-miss. The sheer destructive power on display as Bunsen and Beaker, say, drop objects from a scissor lift to test the laws of gravity, is infectious. And Pepe’s game show, where he’s constantly changing the format to the chagrin of sidekick Scooter, comes closest to recapturing the chaotic spirit of The Muppet Show. But doing every sketch as improv comedy is a mixed bag. The Muppet performers themselves — including new Kermit actor Matt Vogel, whose voice will take some adjusting to (regardless of his take on Kermit’s personality, Whitmire still sounded a lot like Henson) — are all good at riffing without breaking character. The guests, less so. The second episode has a very funny cook-off between Swedish Chef and the actor Danny Trejo (who also owns a taqueria), but star chefs like Roy Choi seem less comfortable bantering with the segment’s host (and one of the show’s new creations), a turkey named Beverly Plume (played by Julianne Buescher). Aubrey Plaza gets some big laughs as she suffers through Miss Piggy’s “Mup Close” interviewing style, while Taye Diggs is mostly used as a prop in his segments with Piggy.
Overall, though, the sketches are pretty good. The larger problem is that there are usually just two Muppets in any sketch, and almost always in the same combination. In addition, Muppets Now barely has any backstage component to speak of. In between the sketches, we see a harried Scooter frantically trying to upload each segment onto a Disney server, while other Muppets harangue him by video chat. And that’s it. Where the interaction among the Muppets — both in large groups and in unexpected pairings — has always been the heart of the idea, Muppets Now offers it very rarely.
It would be easy to assume that creative challenges presented by the pandemic are the reason the Muppets seem so isolated from one another, but that’s not the case. The sketches were all filmed last year, which is also when the producers conceived the idea to link the show’s recurring bits via Scooter’s desktop. The actual video-chat segments themselves were filmed in the performers’ homes during the quarantine, but everything else about the series was made at a time when it would have been safe and easy to put lots of Muppets in the same room. Still, that happens basically only once, during Kermit’s frequently interrupted “Mup Close” chat with RuPaul.
Since Disney+ launched last fall, many (including my own children) have wondered why the service doesn’t include The Muppet Show. Whether there’s a business reason or not, Muppets Now definitely looks better if there’s no easy access to the original, superior antics of this group. While it’s a substantial improvement on the characters’ last TV series, it ultimately misses the point of playing the music and lighting the lights.
Muppets Now premieres July 31st on Disney+. I’ve seen four of the six episodes.