Walking the Line of Modernizing and Ruining: Muppets Tonight (TV Showcase #14)

“The Muppet Show” has now had two TV revivals (not counting “Muppet Babies”… please let me leave that one out), the latter of which is still airing at the time of this writing. The first one came about fifteen years after the end of “The Muppet Show”, and it certainly reflected the more modern culture… but was it a great addition to the Muppet universe, or did it almost ruin it (like Muppets Most Wanted… yeah, totally went there)? Let’s take a look at “Muppets Tonight”.

“Muppets Tonight” premiered in 1996 and ran for 22 half-hour episodes over two seasons, ending in 1998. The show was in a similar variety format to “The Muppet Show”, with a guest star every episode, though the episodes were more sketch and comedy heavy, with less emphasis on musical numbers. Another change is that while Kermit still produced the show, a new Muppet named Clifford hosted. Like before, the storyline involves the Muppets launching the show themselves, and always being concerned with staying on the air. But this show was definitely different from “The Muppet Show”, and whether in a good or bad way is kind of up in the air. So let’s discuss.

One thing that “Muppets Tonight” did differently from “The Muppet Show” is that that their selection of guest stars wasn’t impressively wide, and while they did have a few older guests (like Billy Crystal and Tony Bennett), most of them were modern-day stars, and there were no obscure acts at all from what I can remember. Now, this doesn’t make the show bad necessarily, it’s just an observation. But that’s not all that was different about “Muppets Tonight”.

The sketches were more often than not genuinely funny, but there were alot of dirty jokes made during the show’s short time on the air. Granted, they were only verbal (there’s not much more you can do with puppets making dirty jokes), but I felt that it kind of lost sight of what “The Muppet Show” had been all about. Not completely; the target audience was still met well with the guest stars and flow of the show, and the cutdown on full-length songs was probably better for the more modern culture of the 90s. But they did mostly abandon the “little to no adult jokes” thing they had going on fifteen years before.

Lastly, I think a big reason the show was cut was because the new characters overtook the older ones. When Rizzo the Rat was added, it was just him, and it was easy to integrate him into the Muppet family. But when “Muppets Tonight” hit, suddenly there’s a whole new cast of Muppets contrasting with the old ones, and they’re running sketches, they’re behind the scenes, and one of them is hosting the show and bumping Kermit out of the spotlight. While a few new characters wouldn’t have hurt (indeed, Carl and Bobo the Bear were great additions to the cast), to have as many as they had was too much to keep up with, so the audience stopped caring about most of the new guys. This caused a clash of characters, and the more the old and the new interacted, the more the audience grew somewhat of a disdain for the new characters.

This isn’t to say that “Muppets Tonight” was all bad. As mentioned before, their sketches were very funny and original (albeit raunchy at times), and the guest stars were on point, no matter what era they happened to be from. But really, what I’ve talked about here all lines up to over-modernization, which is how alot of reboots get cancelled, and why so many remake movies of 60s shows are absolutely terrible. Modernization is a wonderful thing that allows an old idea to become fresh again, but it’s also very difficult to gauge how much is too much, and I feel that “Muppets Tonight” crossed that line. It wasn’t a total ruination, but it was just more than what was needed. What do you think?

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