Monday, July 24, 2006

This Is What We Call The Muppet Show

So Season One of The Muppet Show is under our belts now. As a child I always longed to be a special guest star on The Muppet Show. I guess that's never going to happen, which strikes me as a terrible tragedy.

One of the distinctive qualities of The Muppet Show is the degree to which it embraces mediocrity. There are no great successes amongst the characters -- they're a classic collection of lovable losers. From Fozzie's hoary old standup routines to Miss Piggy's unrequited love for Kermit, there's an ongoing theme of failure. This is not a show about bold, attractive heroes going out and solving problems, accomplishing heroic deeds or getting what they want out of life. It's not even a show about troubled anti-heroes standing up against the system and refusing to accept the status quo. It's not even about tragic failures wasting their potential in foolish pursuits and ending their lives in misery.

Gonzo doesn't really have a lot of potential to waste.

Nothing that dramatic ever happens on The Muppet Show. That's not what it's about. The Muppet Show is not about accomplishing anything; it's about the things we do when we're not accomplishing things.

The act that made me really think about this came on the episode with Phyllis Diller. Ms Diller performs with the Muppet band on the saxophone. I'm not sure if she can play the saxophone with any skill, but she sure didn't in this act. It gave the impression of a star just sort of WANTING to play saxophone on TV, maybe practicing for a bit, and then getting to, because, heck, she's Phyllis Diller and it's The Muppet Show and nobody is expecting anything very much anyway.

This isn't American Idol, here. Not even Fozzie gets booed off the stage. Very often. And even when he does, Kermit won't fire him. Fire Fozzie? It wouldn't be The Muppet Show without Fozzie. Just like it wouldn't be The Muppet Show if Fozzie were actually hilarious. The Muppet Show is about losers.

The Muppet Show really celebrates the community of the show and how it sticks together, even though none of the members are any good at their professions. We don't love Kermit because he's the best stage manager in the world; we love him because for all his hollering "Will you get out of here?" at folks, he doesn't judge anyone, he doesn't get rid of anyone, and he doesn't seem to care if anyone is successful or not. He just looks after everybody. He might lose his temper and tell Fozzie his jokes are terrible, but if the Bear is really down, Kermit's the one who reassures him that he has a place and that he isn't alone.

Western culture, especially over the last fifty years or so, has embraced and deified the idea of success. Those who succeed, succeed at fulfilling their fantasies, succeed at making money or getting laid or defeating their enemies, are those we want to hear about. Standard screenwriting wisdom says that screenplays are about characters who have a problem and seek to solve it. Such thinking encourages a shallow view of human experience, one in which only the setting and achieving of goals matters. Not the building of relationships, or communities. Not the simpler, humbler lessons of acceptance and tolerance. Far more exciting to defy, to stand tall, to seek, to strive, and not to yield.

But The Muppet Show offers those simple and humble lessons. You don't have to prove yourself worthy here; you're automatically worthy. There's never any tension about folks not being good enough; EVERYONE is good enough. The Muppet Show is safe, welcoming, encouraging. A place where anyone can play the saxophone if they want. Young me wanted to be on The Muppet Show, to sit and talk with Kermit, or trade old jokes with Fozzie, just to be a part of the good-natured lunacy of that community.

Talked long ago about the difference between identification and sympathy. The Muppets are a great example of characters we sympathize with rather than identify with. Nobody wants to be Kermit, or Miss Piggy, or any of them. But everyone wants to be the special guest star on The Muppet Show.

Or is that just me?