Ever since their first color TV special in 1969, the felt and cloth comedy troupe known as The Muppets have kept their wacky, endearing, musical brand of entertainment going strong. Now updated for the streaming era, the world’s most iconic puppets are back in “Muppets Now,” with new episodes premiering weekly on Disney+.
Casting off gimmicky formats of recent years, the beloved characters are mostly back to form with send-ups of popular TV game shows, laughs with celebrity guests, science-experiment explosions, and a goofy cooking segment with the Swedish Chef.
Answering how a streaming series differs from past endeavors, veteran Muppet performer Dave Goelz maintains even at age 74 he’s still having fun playing Gonzo. “Streaming shows are very comfortable, kind of like going to a water park,” said Goelz, ad-libbing as his character in a recent interview. “It’s bubbly and cool and good in the summertime.”
While media outlets play along with the created reality of The Muppets, it took the work of many people over decades to bring them to life. Standing apart from all others is the unassuming and wildly inventive late Jim Henson (1936-1990). Biographer Brian Jay Jones speaks of how the creative mind behind “The Muppet Show,” “Sesame Street,” and “Fraggle Rock” affected culture in ways still felt today.
“The essence of the Muppets is Jim’s essence,” said Jones in a phone interview. “His message was: ‘Life is fun. Work is fun.’ Now, Jim had the advantage in that his work involved playing with the Muppets every day!”
Henson, who merged the words marionette and puppet to create “muppet,” hand-crafted big-eyed personalities that continue to delight audiences worldwide. “He had this genuine desire to do good through his creative work, and people still respond to that,” said Jones. “It’s why the work still stands decades later.”
Among family entertainment critics, the jury is still out about the new show. ABC’s 2015 reboot “The Muppets” piled on mature humor in a mockumentary format that many longtime fans shunned. It was canceled after only 16 episodes.
“The clips of ‘Muppets Now’ look promising,” said Michael Foust, an entertainment writer for Crosswalk, in a phone interview. “Still, based on what happened with the last Muppets series in 2015, parents might want to screen one or two episodes before letting children watch it.”
Fifty Years of Humor And Heart
This summer marks 30 years since Jim Henson’s death at age 53. His continued influence is seen not only in the core Muppet characters purchased in 2004 by Disney but in nearly every streaming service that has a piece of Henson’s legacy.
Apple TV Plus has released all four seasons of “Fraggle Rock,” with new Fraggle shorts and a half-hour series in the works. In late May, HBO Max rolled out with more than 100 unreleased episodes of “Sesame Street” from the 1970s and ’80s.
Jones recounts a tale from his book of when Henson was at his height. The visionary and puppeteer would produce “The Muppet Show” for months in England, then rush back to the United States to shoot scenes of Bert and Ernie on “Sesame Street” with director Jon Stone.
“Jim and Frank Oz would be on-set performing the puppets,” said Jones. “And Bert’s nose would come off in a Kleenex or something. Jon would ask into his director’s bullhorn: ‘What are we learning?’ Everyone would yell: ‘Nothing!’ They were willing to be silly for the sake of being silly, and somehow the lesson came through in that.”
In a recent New Yorker story about the edutainment show, Harvard history professor Jill Lepore criticized how, in recent years, the show “tends to follow ed-school fads.” In an essay from 2016 tome “The Sesame Effect,” a researcher opined on why Cookie Monster changed his tune to “A Cookie Is A Sometime Food” in 2004. “Cookie Monster was selected to learn self-control and model self-regulation strategies to build executive function skills,” the researcher wrote. It’s hard to imagine Henson seeing the furry blue monster in such terms.
In “The Muppet Show,” a ratings hit during its five-year run, humor and heart were always at the forefront. “It had a level of innocence,” says Foust, a father of four sons. “Even while it had slight innuendo every now and then, their comedy was unique, creative, and hilarious.”
Controversy Amid Chasing Cultural Trends
Raising his kids amid shelter-in-place orders, Foust has become all too familiar with current kid-targeted titles like “The Angry Birds Movie” and “Teen Titans Go.” “Far too many writers, directors, and producers in Hollywood think that you have to insert mature content into a children’s program to attract adults,” he said. “But Jim Henson’s Muppets showed how to make kid-friendly content that is attractive to parents. More recently, Pixar films have followed that model for the most part.”
Five years ago, he spoke out regarding issues with the ABC Muppets reboot. “It’s an example of where Hollywood steered off the path,” said Foust. “Some episodes had moments of innocence, where you could watch a 10-minute stretch and there’s nothing bad in it. But it sprinkled in so much adult content: profane language, sexual innuendo, even references to marijuana.”
The lifelong Muppet fan wasn’t alone in his views. During its run, tensions grew with Muppet performer Steve Whitmire, who had voiced Kermit the Frog for 27 years, gave notes to producers that some content was “well out of the bounds of the character,” he said later. Following the reboot series, Disney released Whitmire and another actor took on Kermit (a recent NYT article summed up that show as “troubled by staff changes,” glossing over the details).
Biographer Jones offers a diplomatic take on the 2015 series, while also eager to move on. “The Muppet characters and their energy got lost in the ABC show’s premise,” he said. “I’m optimistic that ‘Muppets Now’ is going to get a handle on them that the past series didn’t quite get. They are leaning into what Frank Oz always called the ‘affectionate anarchy’ of the characters more than worrying about the situation.”
Yet Foust also noted a recent “Sesame Street” preview featured actor Billy Porter showing up wearing a tuxedo dress. On “Muppets Now,” the star of cross-dressing competition “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is noted among the new show’s half-dozen celebrity guest stars. “I certainly don’t expect Disney to only have conservatives on their shows … the question is, what worldview are they promoting?”
“This is not just a ‘Muppets Now’ problem, it’s all of Hollywood,” he added. “Families have to ask with every show: is this promoting values that are contrary to our own?”
Fans Await New (and Classic) Muppets
This new troupe of performers has been together for over a decade now. “While Jim used to be the ‘Iron Man’ of the Muppets, now you’ve got Dave Goelz — who has been doing Gonzo since like 1975,” said Jones. “The performers kind of intuitively know each other’s rhythms, which is actually really important to the Muppets.”
As nearly every review of the new series has noted, hundreds of hours of past Muppet TV programs remain unreleased — including TV specials dating back to 1969, “Muppets Tonight,” which ran for 22 episodes in the 1990s, and all 120 episodes of their biggest hit series.
“Why is Disney+ not streaming ‘The Muppet Show’?” asks Jones. “This is an issue the Muppet community online continually speculates about. Some assume the cost of clearances and music rights are the issue. But that shouldn’t be more than a rounding error for the Disney corporation today.”
In the dog days of summer, a revival of Jim Henson’s colorful creations full of optimism and laugh-out-loud gags just might offer families a welcome respite. “In this era of cynicism, there’s not really an ounce of malice in the Muppets,” said Jones. “They might fight, bicker, and argue. But at the end of the day, they’re going to come back together.”
Episodes of “Muppets Now” premiere Fridays on Disney+, beginning July 31.