Transitions from object to persona: Layers of Reality in The Muppets

Dear Friends,
Two days ago, I watched the muppet movie, eating croissant and nutella. Today I started watching the great muppet caper, for the first time in years, unlike the muppet movie, and there was something very different about it. It got me thinking...


The muppet movie is a story of how the muppets got together. As such, all the muppets play themselves. It is framed as a film made by the muppets in cannon with their television show; the only homage to reality is the substitution of ITV's Sir Lew Grade with the similarly named Lew Lord, played by Orson Welles. The only clue as to how accurate the story is to the canonical story of how the muppets got going is the appearance of Sweetums at the end of the film, as per the story they had just shown. Of course, this is a contradiction, because Sweetums had been part of the muppet show for years at this point. TMM has the backstage elements as the framing story - the private screening of the recently-completed biopic.

On the subject of the tv show, The muppet show is a variety show. It is also a comedy about a company putting on a show, but that doesn't detract from the other genuine elements of the show; watching some sketches it is confusing which jokes are meant to be deliberate and which are meant to be accidental. It's a great confusion; musical numbers that crash and burn hilariously are obvious 2nd level jokes, but fozzy's act isn't that he's a bad comedian; his act is that he's a comedian, the joke is that he's bad.

The great muppet caper starts with a different framing technique; here's gonzo, fozzy and kermit with a street dance, during which they announce they will be playing different characters. So this is a story where the characters we know play other characters, admittedly similar to themselves. But this is a muppet production, and for the first time we don't see backstage (although we do see them breaking 'off the script' and talking about 'the movie'). The muppets have always been performers, and we see them both on and off stage, but without the off-stage sections they've now become actors themselves. they've gone a step deeper.

In more way than one, the trilogy of Gonzo, Kermit, and Fozzy that opens the film is reminiscent of the Marx brothers.

Take Groucho; Groucho Marx is an actor, but beneath Groucho is a real actor called Julius Henry Marx. Groucho is a character, who plays parts in films and shows, himself an invention. And this transition from object (puppet) to persona (actor) opened the gate way for the classic Muppet christmas carol, imho their best film. By that time, Kermit was a personality, not an manipulated puppet, credited in films as you'd expect a meat-puppet* to be. There's a similar depth in Garth Marenghi's Dark Place, where each real actor plays a personality who plays a tacky part; The personalities also get off-script moments.

It's a shame that the muppet remake train slowed down with Muppet Treasure Island and fucking crashed and died with Muppet's Wizard of Oz. I'm toying with 'Muppet Pride and Prejudice', matching characters up; The only mistake the otherwise excellent 'Muppet wicker man' made was not having any human guests, so it'd be important to keep that aspect of the muppets: the fish-out-of-water protagonist should have been human, surely.

The transition is helped by the retirement of many of the original muppeteers, which other actors couldn't achieve. But my main point was simply this point in muppet history, They entered a new depth of reality. Sure, the muppets have always been about screwing about with different layers of reality, breaking 4th walls and so on; for an easy example, take the use of the screenplay in TMM, initially as a throwaway joke, then as a nonsensical plot device in it's own right. But, by stepping in front of the camera and not showing us the backstage elements usually integral to their show, they seem to have ultimately got to the point where their muppeteers weren't even connected to them in the credits. Doing that would break the 4th wall in a way the muppets never could - I don't think there is any point where they even joke about being puppets or less than alive.

*I like to hold actors in low regard, but just joshing. you guys are great.

In The Great Muppet Caper, there was this:

Charles Grodin plays a deadbeat brother, stealing jewels from his successful sister. He just happens to fall in love with Miss Piggy. I can't help but wonder if this is kind of a play on his shickse-appeal Neil Simon comedy 'The Heartbreak Kid' - We all know 'pork', being 'traif' is slang for gentile women. Peter Falk's cameo is a clear riff on Columbo, so why not Grodin?
sadly this is split over two videos, so you'll have to click through to finish it off:

In general, I found TGMC suffers from too much budget, not enough jokes, but is totally worth the watch.

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