Ever since Jim Henson debuted those sock puppets with personality via tv commercials, the world has adored puppet based media. Those who grew up watching The Muppets for entertainment or Sesame Street for educational purposes remember those shows fondly. But you know what they (read: me. right now) say about fond memories. With nostalgia comes the opportunity to profit. Big time. With the advent of generations remembering Henson works such as the 1974 incarnation of the Muppets Show or films such as the delightfully weird Labyrinth (1986), companies are now seeing the dollar signs by way of parody, references, and portraying the puppets in “adult” situations that would draw crowds. Well, I say now but in reality the practice of puppets in unusual or adult situations dates back to only a decade or so after the original release of some of these works. Today we dive into a brief history of these decorated dummies and what exactly makes a strong subversion to begin with, and how the resurgence is tangentially related to the era we live in today.
Henson began work with what would become the Muppets (and the infamous amphibian) in creating various advertisements for companies such as Wilkin’s Coffee in the ‘50s. From there, Henson’s vision morphed to the familiar form we know today, as personalities such as Kermit the Frog or Rowlf the Dog inhabited talk shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show. It is important to note that Henson initially had a more adult audience in mind from the Muppets’ very inception. From there on the Muppets existed as a comedy vessel for Henson, appearing in their own series of shorts in a TV series called Sam and Friends. Eventually the characters became recognizable enough to carry their own weight with the arrival of the slapstick inspired The Muppet’s Show in 1976, and their state as pop culture icons was solidified.
But before the Muppet’s show debuted, Henson was approached by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett in order to produce a children’s educational program. They envisioned a puppet based show that would be easily identifiable and sought Henson’s newfound fame to do so. That project would take shape as Sesame Street (1969), released a full seven years prior to The Muppet’s Show. Sesame Street was aimed at an ironically young demographic than the Muppets were originally meant to appeal to, that being preK-children as it aired in after school hours. Rather than seeking just entertainment, the characters taught manners and food etiquette (cookie monster) basic counting (the Count) or how to process emotions and maintain friendships (Elmo). It was a success, and Elmo himself carved a gargantuan silhouette that would rival Kermit himself. Both of these series were instrumental in shaping the public’s opinion and nostalgia of puppet based shows. Though by the mid 80s, some grew tired of the saccharine and “safe” norms of Elmo’s world or boomerang fish. Enter Peter Jackson and the Feebles.
I last took a look at Meet the Feebles back in October when I discussed Peter Jackson’s early “Splatter Trilogy” . Mix smut and a healthy dose of nihilism, and you get Jackson’s take on the world of Jim Henson. Meet the Feebles is rotten to the core, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Puppets performing anal, doing hard drugs, and suffering through Russian Roulette. But at least the movie does all this without dropping a single f-bomb through its runtime.
If you’ve been subjected to the likes of other adult parodies of kiddy programs such as the misleading cuteness of South Park or Sausage Party, then watching Meet the Feebles today might not do much for you. But released in 1989, a cynical adult re-imagining of Muppets and Sesame Street was simply unheard of, puppets oozing with bodily fluids and committing genocide. It was truly the first of its kind, disgusting and hateful in all the right (and very, very wrong) ways. Leave it to Jackson to create a genre-defining film so early in his career.
If you’d like to know more about this fever dream of a film, take a look at my retrospective of it after finishing this piece.
Past Jackson’s Meet the Feebles, puppet media hit what can be described as a comfortable lull. Sesame Street was still going strong and the Muppets, while their show ended in 1981, still had a diverse portfolio of feature length films that were still being made and enjoyed in the era. Henson’s works were still massively profitable, though at the turn of the century such was viewed as “just Sesame Street” or “just the Muppets”. Longtime viewers and the children of said viewers knew of the properties fondly, but they themselves did not completely capture the public’s eye like they once did. The market became ripe again with “subversive” puppet media, and thus a little musical debuted known as Avenue Q.
Avenue Q was a musical comedy that first debuted off-broadway in 2003, by The Vineyard Theater and The New Group. The very same year, the production reached such a ferver of popularity that it was found at the John Golden Theater on Broadway, where it remained for six more years. Avenue Q can be best described as a direct parody of Sesame Street, featuring a puppet and human ensemble that interact on stage. The musical has been praised for its approaches to adult themes such as racism or classism, and proved to not only to be an entertaining story, though also a great parody of puppet based media. Unlike Meet the Feebles which reached into the obscene for humor, Avenue Q was more grounded. The suspension of disbelief (as they are puppets) was still there, but among all the sex jokes and casual racism there lied a musical with a lot of heart.
Plus it spawned this absolutely ancient meme
It’s easy to take an ode to older children’s media, provide an “adult” spin on it, and release it to the nostalgic. Often the results of this in today’s market can prove to be a mixed bag. Take 2019’s The Happytime Murders for example. Released years after the wave of puppet media in an attempt to “shake up” the formula, Happytime Murders starred Melissa McCarthy and the voicework of Maya Rudolph and Bill Baretta in an action flick that was meant to be an ode to 70’s cop dramas and the Muppets. A bizarre combo to be sure. Though where the Feebles had gross out (and fresh) ideas and Avenue Q was based in an unfortunate though identifiable reality, Happytime Murders had none of that. Instead it opted to be “hey look, this puppet just came for a full minute! And now they’re shooting guns!”. There’s no commentary, no unique spin on the novelty of a puppet film in 2019. This could have been a film with any other gimmick and be just as generic.
The puppet subcategory, as proved by the examples above, is difficult to navigate. Either you’re too late to the party, you actually prove your worth by being relatable, or you’re a straight muppet clone. Companies have tried and failed to cash out on the genre, without realizing what made them beloved in the first place. That’s where in 2011, the Muppets of all things saw a full film revival. The self titled film took the heart of the original series, the corny jokes, the frog, and all the good stuff of the original run and adapted it to modern tastes. See, it didn’t take a thousand crude puppet sketches to establish relevance, it just took a sense of being earnest. This is where a lot of studios miss their mark. And hey, The Muppets 2011 has an academy award (for best song). That’s gotta be worth something.
There is an upcoming project that adapts a Dungeons & Dragons campaign into a full scale series, this time involving puppets of their own. Called Stuff of Legends, this campaign also holds inspiration from Henson’s works while putting their own unique spin on the game itself. The, uhh, well endowed puppet in front also goes to show they will approach the series with a more tongue in cheek tone as well. For the sake of the series, I do hope it is more like a Muppets (2011) ode rather than a Happytime Murders one. But it also goes to show works such as Henson’s will always have a place in people’s hearts, and that’s a damn fine legacy to have.
If you liked this article, check out my other piece Give Tokyo Mirage Sessions a Chance!…please? Also Luke is a great guy, check out our other joint article on ranking all 62 Goosebump Covers. It’s a great time.