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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: The Muppet Show

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented. John didn’t think that this installment was comic book related, but he must have missed the news that Boom! is doing a Muppet Show comic book in a couple of months!

Storytelling Engines: The Muppet Show

(or “Failure Is Funny”)

I don’t think it’d be controversial to say that Jim Henson was something of a genius when it came to comedy (then again, judging by some of my previous posts, I also don’t think it’d be controversial to say that I’m not good at guessing what’s going to be controversial and what isn’t.) He certainly spent time thinking about settings and character dynamics that would help him come up with skits for a half-hour variety show; he’s famously quoted for his axiom on how to end a comedy sketch (“blow something up, have one character eat another, or start tossing animals in the air”), but he also spent a lot of time working on ways to begin one. ‘The Muppet Show’, his best-known series, is filled with recurring gags and repeated characters that somehow never get old, and it all comes from one of the simplest rules of comedy. Failure is funny.

Well, let’s clarify that a bit. Other people’s failure is funny, so long as you don’t focus too sharply on the consequences of that failure. ‘Requiem for a Dream’, for example, is never going to be regarded as a comedy classic. But looking at the Muppets, you see a group of people united by a) their passion for entertainment and their dream of making people happy through art, and b) their lack of talent at their chosen field. The gap between their desires and their actual abilities provides fertile ground for chaos, confusion, and comic misunderstandings as events slowly (and sometimes quickly) spin out of their control.

It starts with Kermit, who’s the emcee and showrunner, but who has problems controlling his temper and asserting his authority. Not only can he not keep his cool when problems hit, but when he does fly into a rage, it’s endearingly cute instead of intimidating. Then we have Fozzie, who’s almost the perfect emblem of the show; he’s a comedian who’s so unfunny it’s funny. Miss Piggy is a diva who doesn’t conform to the traditional feminine standards of beauty, but who acts like she does. Gonzo is an avant-garde performance artist trapped in a run-down vaudeville theater, Bunsen Honeydew’s inventions don’t work, Sam the Eagle continually fails at injecting moral uplift into the show, Wayne and Wanda can’t ever finish a single song, Statler and Waldorf are continually disappointed in their hopes of seeing quality entertainment–really, the only characters who seem fulfilled are Doctor Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, and you still get the feeling they’d rather be doing arena rock for a bunch of counter-culture types.

This “comic disaster” mentality permeates every aspect of the show, helping to create not just sketches but entire episodes that are structured around a slowly building crisis–Carol Burnett, for example, comes on the show to do her “classic” comedy bit, the “lonely asparagus” sketch. But due to a scheduling conflict (Gonzo’s running a dance marathon in the theater that week), all her efforts to get some stage time are continually frustrated until at the end, she only manages to get off one joke before time runs out and the show’s over. Quite clearly, they only had one joke they could come up with in the “lonely asparagus” sketch (it’s too terrible to repeat, even by my pun-happy standards), but by turning the story into the failure of the sketch, they made that one terrible joke into an entire hilarious episode.

This structure also allows Henson to come up with recurring characters and sketches that nonetheless manage to be funny every time, despite only slight variations; somehow, seeing incompetence never manages to become too formulaic, no matter how many times we see it repeated. The basic gag for the Swedish Chef is the same every time, but it’s always funny to see an incomprehensible guy fail spectacularly at a simple task. In fact, the Swedish Chef is probably the perfect distillation of the entire concept of the Muppet Show (and ‘The Jim Henson Hour’, and ‘Muppets Tonight’, and all of the various movies and specials and, well, everything else Muppety.) Watch the Swedish Chef, and you’ll understand Jim Henson’s genius in less than two minutes. He wants to teach people how to cook, but he can neither cook nor teach. That’s just always going to be a good start to a comedy bit.

26 Comments

Great piece! I just watched a handful of episodes for the first time since I was a wee lad, and it’s still hilarious. Jim Henson was absolutely a genius.

Only time I ever saw ‘The Muppet Show’ was when it was on Nick Jr. (with Face!) I loved that show. And I still love the Muppets; ‘A Muppets Christmas Carol’ and ‘Muppet Treasure Island’ are some of my favorite movies).

Excellent work, John. The bit at the end about Swedish Chef summing up the Muppet Show is perfect. It would never have occurred to me, but I guarantee I will bring it up in conversation at some point in my life.

Rolf should also be mentioned as a Muppet who isn’t a failure. On the flip side, he’s not particularly ambitious either. He’s basically a lounge piano player who’s happy to be a lounge piano player.

Ha! Now I can tell my friends I really do appreciate Muppets on a deeper level than they do.

I’ve had a wonderful time sharing The Muppets with my daughter. I remember “The Muppets Tonight” being a great update of the cast & premise, even if it didn’t last as long as the original.

Also, can you believe that Muppets isn’t in the standard dictionary? I actually had to add it.

The DVD releases are tremendous for seeing how the show developed… but I always felt the movies lacked something, because by taking them out of the “endearingly failing at trying to be successful in show business” and either making them successful or just taking them out of the show business context entirely, the Muppets (… not in my dictionary, either, it seems…) lose something.I think it’s that the characters, thanks to the original series, are just so directly tied to the idea of being entertainers that you can’t change that fundamental fact.

I mean, Muppets Christmas Carol is great, but that’s more because it boasts the best Scrooge ever than anything else.

Another great thing about the DVDs is seeing all the 70s stars who haven’t been heard from since. Sure, you occasionally get Steve Martin (absolutely GENIUS episode, revolving around tryout night – in other words, showcasing acts so bad they can’t even be booked by Kermit, who’ll apparently book ANYONE) or Christopher Reeve, but you also get comedians who haven’t been heard from since.

Good column. When I saw “Muppet Show” in the title, I was like “It’s a variety show..what engine?”

And yet you summed things up well.

Thok…good call on Rowlf. Of course, Rowlf rocks…and has two You Tube vids up!

My wife and I have been working through the series DVDs in order…and for her its more or less the first time. She was a little too young to remember watching them when they first came out. Together, we’re both continually amazed at the types of things that the show could get away with in that day and age, that probably couldn’t fly now.

The Mad Bomber character for example…..which is another example of a Muppet who isn’t a failure.

Crazy Harry strikes me as another exception – he’s quite good at what he does (i.e., blowing stuff up), and clearly loves his job.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

January 14, 2009 at 6:00 pm

A personal fave of mine – Animal, Beaker and The Chef sing Danny Boy: http://au.youtube.com/watch?v=OCbuRA_D3KU

but you also get comedians who haven’t been heard from since.

Some of which are dreadful, but others are in some of the funniest episodes – either just because the Muppets themselves are carrying the weight, or just because they’re so bad their hilarious.

To show how powerful the concept that Jim Henson came up with really is, i was laughing through the WHOLE FREAKIN’ REVIEW!! This is a concept with execution that never gets old. i love the Swedish Chef very much [but not in a weird way…not that there is anything wrong with a grown man loving a swedish puppet] and the rest of these wonderful creations.

One of my favorite Muppet Show bits, and one which perfectly sums up this storytelling engine, is the Rhyming Song. Not only do the song’s lyrics completely fail to rhyme, but there isn’t even cohesion between lines (my favorite example being “The stars were twinkling in the sky / There’s no hot water in my hotel”). And in the end, of course, none of the singers know how to end the song so they run around waving their arms until they get off the stage.

Buddy Rich vs. Animal in a drum-off.

Christopher Reeve – “Super-Rat, you’re in charge.”

Zero Mostel singing “what do the Simple Folk do?” from Camelot

Candace Bergen, then, later, EDGAR Bergen!!

And, of course, the Muppet version of “For What It’s Worth” (Stop, children, what’s that sound). I remember a DJ complaining years later, when somebody – i forget who – covered it in the 90’s with a looping sample of Mick Jagger starting every bar, that he was tired of people calling in requesting “that song the Muppets did” – an entire generation had no idea who Buffalo Springfield even were.

Man, that rambled – but the Muppets RULE!

I’ve been watching this on DVD–all over again–and cracking up on a regular basis.
Great show!

One thing I read in an article while the show was still on the air, was along the lines of -if a joke is too bad to do once, it’s worth doing several times. I don’t remember the exact wording-but it was along those lines–and the Muppet Show lived up to that.

So lets’ all sing the Rhyming Song…

Even though Muppets Tonight wasn’t as successful, I still loved the episode when the Lobsters try to hijack the show (Pierce Brosnan was the Guest Star)…

Particularly because of the “Istanbul” moments…

Oh, and Johhny singing “Pierce Brosnan, he’s the man..” to the theme of Goldfinger…

For those who call Crazy Harry successful, I have but one question…isn’t he supposed to be their electrician? :)

And yes, “Muppets Tonight” was awesome. I loved the one with Cindy Crawford (“If you’re a supermodel, what are your super powers?”), which was also the one with the Frog-keteers, an obvious play on the Mouseketeers. One of them had short-term memory disorder, and for the rest of the episode, every few minutes or so he’d jump in from off-screen and shout his name again. Never failed to crack me up.

I really hope they do the other Muppet series on DVD at some point when the original is collected.

“I really hope they do the other Muppet series on DVD at some point when the original is collected.”

Rumor has it that Brian Henson is pushing for “Muppets Tonight” DVDs when the original is finished, so we can hope. (I’d rather see them do the Jim Henson Hour first, though that would have the problem of overlapping with the Storyteller collections.)

I’d offer one corollary to the general rule: The satisfaction of the Muppet performers with their performances seems to be inversely correlated with the entertainment value their work has for others. Lew Zealand is in this category; he always seems to be enjoying himself with his boomerang fish act, and it never really backfires on him, but no one else appreciates it all that much. (Marvin Suggs could also fit in this category, as could Crazy Harry if you consider him a performer.) This is also the formula that made Fozzie and Gonzo work better after the first season; in the first season they were kind of pathetic, but Gonzo in particular acquired a joie de vivre and never-say-die attitude that made him fun to watch even when his acts fell apart.

A favorite memory is Roger Moore wanting to sing Talk to the Animals as a nice pleasant song constantly beset by enemy monster spies:)

I’ve been loving the Muppet DVDs, too. Although I have to say that when you start running tallies on a trivia caption track in the first set you ought to be damned well committed to putting the trivia track on the rest of the volumes, even if it’s just at he level of making an intern watch the episodes with google at hand.

And speaking of interns, Scooter isn’t much of a failure, is he? Unless, by being a (mostly) quietly competent guy who gets most of what gets done done he’s “failing” at being the owner’s idiot nephew…

I chucked through your article but just got done choking with laughter over everyone’s comments and remembering how much I loved this show. The message I took away from this show is that it wasn’t nearly as important to do something PERFECT as it was to do something that was FUN. Kids fail a lot on their way to discovering how to do things in this world and that can have such a huge impact on them. This show continually gives that wonderful message. Now if only we adults could get it through our thick skulls.

Ooh, I loved the Roger Moore episode, Scavenger! That song was one of the iconic pop culture moments of my childhood. (Oh, and it fits the theme well; here’s Roger, trying to do a sweet, non-violent number, and it goes hilariously out of control with explosions and spies.)

As to Scooter, my thought was that he always wanted to be in show business, but the best he could do was to use his pull with his uncle to get a no-respect job in a run-down theater helping a bunch of crazy people. Sure, he does it well, but you kind of imagine him always hoping it’ll lead to something bigger, and, well…it never does. :)

But he doesn’t get discouraged. That’s the wonderful thing about the Muppets, really. They never despair, even when things don’t go their way. “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending..”

They almost repeated the Moore plotline a few times – Gene Kelly comes to mind, as he comes to the show thinking he’s a guest, and actually tries to talk his way out of doing Singin in the Rain, but winds up doing it in the end.

Of course, there’s also the Star Wars episode, with guest stars Luke Skywalker and Mark Hamill. Yes, AND. It almost makes sense in the end. :)

FunkyGreenJerusalem

January 15, 2009 at 5:25 pm

It’s not really muppets, but if you search for woody allen and muppets in you tube, someone’s taken the cafe seen from Muppets in Manhattan, made it black and white, and given it the dialogue of the party scene from Manhattan.
Normally, that sort of thing only has limited value, but this time it fits bizarrely well.
Miss Piggy is a perfect Diane Keaton.

A personal fave from muppets tonight is Kermit (well three Kermits) singing ‘same as it ever was’.
The humour comes from there being more than one Kermit on screen – which shouldn’t be funny, as intellectually you know he’s a puppet and there would be multiple copies of him – but he is such a fully formed character that it really throws you off guard.

Wonderful piece, Brian! Very insightful observations of the characters and how the Muppets comedy works. It should also be mentioned that it took, along with the genius of Jim Henson, the talents of some unbelievably talented performers who had these characters within themselves, and had the opportunity to bring them to life.

Not to make an obvious plug here, but for people interested in re-living a lot of the great (and funny) Muppet moments, you might check out The MuppetCast, the only podcast on the web dedicated to the work of Jim Henson and the Muppets.

Too terrible to repeat? I think you’re forgetting one of the central rules of THE MUPPET SHOW: A joke that’s not good enough to tell once may be bad enough to tell three or four times.

[…] Brian Cronin posted an opinion article from “John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines” on GoodComics.com talking about what made the Muppets continually fresh and funny. Good analysis of Muppet characters and humor. […]

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