Rethinking the Art of Puppetry: The Muppet Show (TV Showcase #12)

If you’ve ever watched a movie about the middle ages, you may have seen a scene with a puppet show, making little kids and their parents giggle. And indeed, the idea of puppets as characters has been used in various shows throughout the ages, such as “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea“, “The Twilight Zone“, and “The Avengers“, among others, and that’s not even counting the shows that used puppets as main characters. But I think it’s safe to say that the art of puppetry doesn’t garner the respect that it used to, and is often looked at as laughable, or at least childish. So how are puppeteers supposed to make their puppets look less like those in The Sound of Music and more like an art? That question was answered with the arrival of “The Muppet Show”.

“The Muppet Show” started in 1976 and ran for 120 half-hour episodes over five seasons, ending in 1981. Afterwards the show returned with a number of movies, spinoffs, and specials, along with two TV revivals (one of which is still airing at the time of this writing). The show was about the Muppets, who are puppets that run a variety show each week, with usually disastrous results. The show used comedy, music, dancing, and recurring sketches to keep the show lively, all the time hoping that they wouldn’t get kicked off the air. The troupe was managed by Kermit the Frog. So, alright, we’ve got another puppet show on TV that somehow thinks that this is the puppet show that will be successful, unlike its predecessors. But it did. Why did it become such a big success? We’re talking puppets. Well, there are a few reasons.

“The Muppet Show” made it clear from the very beginning that its intention was to be a puppet show for adults, but without raunchy and dirty content. Even in its pilot, the very first line was “this is the end of sex and violence on television”. And for the most part, the show remained true to that. The guest stars and style of humour on the show reflected that old-timey, high-brow comedy that was just largely embellished by the Muppet characters. By keeping adults as the target audience, the show became liked by a wide audience, as it was also safe and inviting for children to watch.

Along with the “for adults” theme came a variety of wonderful guest stars. Excepting its first two pilot episodes, every single episode of “The Muppet Show” featured at least one guest star, who always brought what they were best at to the show, while at the same time doing something that showed them acting in an unusual style for them. And the amazing thing about the star lineup was how extremely different they were; the audience never knew even what kind of a star would be on from week-to-week. There were hugely famous people like Elton John, and really obscure acts, like Senor Wencas. Similarly, there were stars from ages past, like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and stars from the present day, like Debbie Harry. And those are just a few of the huge names that appeared on the show. If I began to list more off now, I’d go on all night. And ain’t nobody got time for that. Anyway, stars like these wouldn’t have engaged the audience or even been possible to have appear on the show if the target audience had been children. As it was, the dynamic was perfect.

Lastly, the Muppets have lived on to the present day, and their popularity has never really stopped or even decreased much. That’s because of the fact that the main cast was all puppets and voices. Whether Jim Henson and Frank Oz (main showrunners) knew it or not, they were setting up a show that would become a tradition. Not only could anyone with a close enough voice play a Muppet character, but guest stars who had seen the show growing up or who had at least heard of its popularity wanted and continue to want to be involved. I think that a show could last for a very long time if it has an interchangeable main cast (“Doctor Who” and “Lassie” are prime examples of this), in which either a new actor can take on the same character as someone before him, or a side character becomes the main character without creating a spinoff. In the case of the Muppets, other voice actors and puppeteers have taken the place of the original showrunners, and the show lives on.

So, “The Muppet Show” didn’t really do puppetry in a different way (although some of their stunts and full-body movements were quite impressive), but it did rethink its target audience and how to keep that audience engaged. And because of this clever thinking, the Muppets are still a part of American popular culture. What do you think?


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