Tuesday, August 18, 2020


 The Muppets have been around forever and, sadly, that's part of the problem with DISNEY+'s new series MUPPETS NOW. Jim and Jane Henson created the original Muppets back in the 50s and they appeared on the TV show SAM AND FRIENDS from 1955 to 1961.  Kermit the Frog made his debut on that program along with 13 other puppets.  Kermit's really the only one still around today but we should note that the 14 characters including only one female character (Henrietta).  The Muppets followed the cancellation of their TV shows the way many new celebrities do: Appearing on talk shows.  In 1969, they started appearing on SESAME STREET.


In all these years on SESAME STREET, the Muppets did multiply.  But note the figures.  At least 96 individual characters were created.  Only 28 of those were women -- and most were one-shots or side pieces -- girlfriends, a mother who shows up very rarely, go down the list.

In 1975, they moved over to SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE for one season.  The sixteen episodes featured six brand new Muppet characters and, for a change, females weren't vastly outnumbers -- though they were outnumbers.  Two of the six characters were female.  1974 saw ABC air THE MUPPETS VALENTINE SHOW featured twleve named and individual characters -- only three were female.  As had been the pattern up to this point, none of the women mattered.  They were side pieces.  Female character brought on to reassure audiences that all the men show revolved around were not homosexuals (see last week's piece).  Honestly, that's the only reason, get real.  Doubt us?  In 1975, ABC aired another special: THE MUPPETS: SEX AND VIOLENCE.  A little over 39 characters with names were featured -- we're leaving out 'emotions' -- and only three were women.   Janice, the guitarist in the band, made her first appearance on this special.

Female Pig also appeared in the episode.  She would later morph into Miss Piggy (1976) but for now she was just another unnamed female Muppet with nothing to do.  In 1976, THE MUPPET SHOW debuted in England on ITV and in the US in syndication.  Miss Piggy was the breakout character.  A female character (voiced by Frank Oz) was finally given something to do and, no surprise, audiences loved her.  There are 35 main, supporting and minor characters on the show.  How many are female?  Two.  Miss Piggy was the only main female character, Camilla the Chicken was listed as "supporting" and Janice existed in a state of flux (and was performed by two different men).

The show ran for 128 episodes.  They had 133 hosts (the troupe Mummenschanz and the duo of Shields and Yarnell were among the hosts).  133 people hosted.  How many were women.  Fifty-nine.

THE MUPPET SHOW failed to feature female characters beyond Miss Piggy as leads and they had women for only 44.6% of their hosts.  And the women had to be big names -- we're talking legends like Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, Leslie Uggams, Lola Falana, Madeline Khan, Rita Moreno, Lena Horne,  etc. 

The Muppets branched out into film with the first being 1979's THE MUPPET MOVIE.   25 characters showed up.  Three were females.  Miss Piggy was the only female prominently featured.  Camilla the Chicken was briefly part of the film as was Janice.  The film was a huge success and, though a film franchise was launched, the TV series ended.  They don't show up as series regulars again until 1985 on the ill-fated LITTLE MUPPET MONSTERS (a Saturday morning program that lasted only 3 episodes and mix live-action with animation).  1989 saw another failure: THE JIM HENSON HOUR -- airing on NBC in the US, it lasted only eleven episodes.  Miss Piggy was featured prominently on only one episode.  The less said, the better.

They returned in 1997 when MUPPETS TONIGHT runs for two seasons (and 22 episodes).   Twenty-six established characters show up for this season -- only two are women: Miss Piggy and the minor character of Polly Lobster (who showed up in the film MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND).  31 new characters are created for the show -- only three are female.

Think it couldn't get worse?  You must have missed 2015's THE MUPPETS which ABC aired for one season.  An attempt to rip off Christopher Guest's mockumentary genre (as MODERN FAMILY, PARKS AND RECREATION, THE OFFICE and so many others already had), it did offer a significant new female character -- for six episodes.  Well, not really a character.  More of a dream.  Her name was Denise and she existed to be a threat -- nightmare -- for Miss Piggy as Kermit fell for Denise.  

It was an awful addition and it was an awful show. 

They're now back in a live action series.  MUPPETS NOW airs on DISNEY+ so you'd think there would be some sort of realization that they needed more female characters.  You would be wrong.

Miss Piggy, Camilla the Chicken and Janice return for the series.  There are even six new female characters (all performed by a woman for a change): Yolanda the Rat, Beverly Plume, Margaret, Rosie the Sheep, Priscilla the Chicken and Brie the Cheese.  Of the six, only Beverly Plume appears in multiple episodes thus far. 

Nine female Muppets.  22 male Muppets are also featured.  

Is DISNEY not committed to diversity?  Has their popular line of princesses left them unaware that little girls (and boys) like to see female characters?  

In 2020, why are we forced to tackle this topic?  

At what point are corporations going to start responding with portrayals that -- if only symbolically -- reflect the culture we live in today?

The six episodes are erratic.  Three have aired so far, DISNEY+ is releasing one episode a week. And erratic?   That's true within each episode itself, by the way.  The strongest segment is always LIFESTY(LE) WITH MISS PIGGY and that's because Miss Piggy is a well defined character.   PEPE'S UNBELIEVABLE GAME SHOW is a hit-or-miss.  Sometimes it's funny and sometimes you're just counting the minutes until it's over.  It's a shame the series features no real music production numbers or film and TV send-ups.  

The Muppets have a lot of life in them.  But the show needs to be better.  It needs to be funnier and it needs to be stronger.  The characters need to be fleshed out -- if you weren't part of the 1976 series, chances are you're really just a sketch and not an actual character.  The audience deserves that, the beloved characters do as well.

But most of all, the show needs to be adding female characters.  This is a show geared for children -- that's why it airs on DISNEY+ -- and it's a shame that there are so few female characters on the show and even more of a shame that the few on the show are badly used. 


Film and TV send-ups forced them to use female characters (Miss Piggy in PIGS IN SPACE, BAYS OF PIGWATCH and PIGS IN SPACE: DEEP DISH NINE; Darci in THE REAL WORLD MUPPETS; and Miss Piggy and Janice in VETERINARIAN HOSPITAL, for example).  They also provided easy laughs even the humor was less than sharp because audiences caught the reference points.  

Instead, the skits are presented as internet moments (YOUTUBE uploads), ZOOM calls or test segments DISNEY wants approved first by the old men in the balcony -- not not Gene and Roger, Statler and Waldorf. The regular skit that always works is LIFESTY(LE) WITH MISS PIGGY.  MUP CLOSE AND PERSONAL is funny (but the funniest is with Aubrey Plaza and has a lot to do with the fact that Miss Piggy does that interview).  The skits that flounder the worst are Pepe's game show and MUPPET LABS FIELD TEST. 

What works best?  

Letting Muppets be Muppets.  2015's THE MUPPETS drained the characters of what made them special by trying to turn them into the Dumpheys on MODERN FAMILY.  We didn't need a mockumentary format and all that did was take away the magic and the excitement these characters have always had built-in.  This go round, the taping of this internet show plays more like the original series putting together their variety show at the Muppet Theater.  And they get to be zany.  Gonzo, for example, is back to life after limping through THE MUPPETS.  It would be great to see them do big productions moments that pulls dozens of Muppets in but instead, in a reflection of the coronavirus times we live in, Muppets are doled out sparingly and socially distanced. 

In terms of format and execution, the series feels like it had to be made today, could only exist today.  More than any other series in the last 12 months, MUPPETS NOW reflects the world we're living in and more than any other series in the last 12 months, MUPPETS NOW seems trapped in a time capsule buried decades ago.


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