The Muppets: Sex and Violence

Disney

In one of my favorite sketches from The Muppet Show, Kermit flails out and announces the next number: “Many of you people have been writing in to ask the question, ‘Can the frog tap dance?’ And, of course, the answer to that is: hit it!” What follows is not an example of that mind-boggling Muppet ingenuity from Jim Henson et al., such as when puppets ride bikes or row boats or rollerskate. Instead, the camera stays solidly on Kermit’s upper half as he bounces around in his usual way. Except this time, there’s the sound of tap shoes. The “Happy Feet” he’s singing about are, of course, nowhere to be seen. It’s a three-minute number devoted to a wink.

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While my friends grew up on more recent, Brian Henson-directed classics (Muppet Treasure Island, The Muppet Christmas Carol), my siblings and I depended on worn-out VHS tapes containing recorded episodes of The Muppet Show, and even earlier, more obscure entries like the TV special Hey, Cinderella! While I love the impeccably built worlds of the later Muppet entries, there’s something specifically comforting about the cardboard sets and low-budget mania of the Muppet beginnings. This was an era when story was less important than laughs; when The Muppet Show’s attempted title was The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence; and when Muppet sketches had one of two endings, as Jim Henson described: “Either one creature ate the other, or both of them blew up!” They’re absurd and low-fi enough to skirt on the edge of terrifying—a chaos whose only control is a withering look from a green frog. 

I wake up every morning to my inbox flooded with digests and newsletters, each filled to the brim with accounts of the inconceivable and illogical. My attention is constantly divided as I try to grapple with each new crisis. It’s hard to move forward when it feels like merely avoiding apathy is success. The world is chaotic; nothing makes sense.

Several years ago, I was walking home from class, feeling weighed down by my various concerns. Growing up I was taught that God had a plan—for me and for everything. This was an idea that was supposed to be comforting, but more often than not I found it suffocating. If everything was part of a grand plan, did that mean that any suffering I was experiencing was also meant to be—a cosmic punishment? And if so, what was wrong with me? It was in the midst of these thoughts that, in the course of my walk home, I passed under a line of trees. I looked up at their branches, black and bare from winter, tangled up in seemingly random directions against the hazy twilight sky. In that moment, I asked myself: what if there is no grand design? What if it is all chaos? It was a blasphemous idea, and with all I had been taught, the idea should have filled me with existential fear. But the moment that question occurred to me—what if it is all just chaos?—I felt a blissful release.

Chaos is a double-edge sword, and uncertainty a duality. On one hand, the anarchy of current affairs makes entropy antagonistic. But on the other hand, chaos is possibility—both the possibility that something better will come and the possibility that events do not have as much consequence as they seem to. Contemporary chaos may be draining, but there’s a different vein of chaos that I dearly miss: uncontrollable laughter, inappropriate glee, and late night talks that descend into a surreal madness where everything is funny. The chaos of possibility. Silliness. Nonsense. And it’s this love of chaos that early performances of The Muppets capture like lightning in a bottle. Jim Henson’s individuality and ingenuity combined with low-budget, quick-deadline circumstances to create a chemical reaction of gleeful violence, manic stupidity, and existential weirdness that is a balm to any tired, cynical soul. In a world where chaos is constantly grating at our collective sanity, the Muppets provide an antidote via nonsense of their own, using indomitable positivity to prove that there’s an optimistic flip-side to disorder.

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Jim Henson with the earliest muppets

This is no new idea. In the reigning chaos caused by World War I, a group of artists in Europe found themselves disgusted by the modern world and its moral hypocrisy. The answer to this, they decided, was not a new order, but an absence of order: “How can one expect to put order into the chaos that constitutes that infinite and shapeless variation: man?” After all, sense and meaning is a luxury meant for the bourgeoisie, not for us plebeians down here on the ground. And so these artists cried “Dada!” and launched an assault on logic through their creativity: 

But supposing life to be a poor farce, without aim or initial parturition, and because we think it our duty to extricate ourselves as fresh and clean as washed chrysanthemums, we have proclaimed as the sole basis for agreement: art.

Dada was a relatively short-lived movement, gradually usurped by surrealism and other staples of modernism. But its mark on history is the stuff of legend. These young thinkers unleashed a playful anarchy into the stuffy world of high art, imbuing that anarchy with a sort of radical humanity and an acceptance that no one actually knows what is best. “We are human and true for the sake of amusement, impulsive, vibrant to crucify boredom!” So they put urinals in art museums and laughed at the gasps of the elite.

This same spirit of deliberate immaturity and anarchic glee is palpable in the early work of Jim Henson and his Muppets. Unsurprising, perhaps, as Jim Henson started in television at a mere 18 years old. He spent the evenings sitting in front of the bathroom mirror with his tape recorder, practicing funny voices and puppet movement. And he spent his days making Sam and Friends—a recurring four-minute TV spot for a local television network—with his unique puppet creations dubbed “The Muppets.” These freshman sketches are in many ways what you’d expect from such early performances—unrefined, low-budget, and limited in scope. But you might not expect their violence.

Sam and Friends eventually received national attention when Henson and his Muppets did a series of commercials for Wilkins Coffee. The commercials feature two Muppets, one named Wilkins, and the other Wontkins. Wilkins will drink Wilkins Coffee and Wontkins—you guessed it—won’t. These 10-second spots are simple, slapstick, and…murderous. In one spot, Wontkins sits in an electric chair. Wilkins says, “Any last requests, like for a cup of Wilkins coffee?” When Wontkins responds with a resounding “No!” Wilkins cheerily says “How shocking!” and flips the switch. These spots are gleefully psychopathic; mischief is their only goal. Wontkins is stepped on, shot, executed, beaten, stabbed, run over, eaten, and dropped out of an airplane. It’s surprisingly dark humor from such innocent looking characters, evoking that deep sort of giggle reserved for laughing when you feel like maybe you shouldn’t.  

From the national Wilkins commercials and the growing success of Sam and Friends, Henson got invited onto talk shows to do bits, all of which have that same scrappy, black-humored energy. The most popular sketch was “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face,” where an early version of Kermit (in drag!) lip-syncs Rosemary Clooney’s rendition of the song, while a fellow Sam and Friends Muppet, Yorick, proceeds to eat his own face and attempts to eat Kermit as well. While maintaining a “show must go on” stubbornness, Kermit continues to mouth the words to Clooney’s sultry voice, all while trying to slap away the carnivorous advances of a leering skull. Yorick eventually drags him offstage.

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In the past, I’ve had mixed results in sharing these sketches with my friends. Some, like me, laugh in horrified delight, while others are more just horrified. I understand drawing the line at (Muppet) cannibalism and murder, but I also have to admit that the current zeitgeist has me flocking to these sketches more often than ever. My nonviolent ideals are constantly challenged by my subversive wishes for the perpetrators of violence to experience violence and those callously dismissing suffering to get a taste of that suffering. It’s cathartic to see the bright-eyed violence of these sketches. They’re permission for a release of the pent-up explosives I hold in my chest these days; like screaming into a pillow, but more tactile and satisfying. The “low-brow” anarchy of explosions and cannibalism, like a urinal in an art museum, dares you to laugh, saying “Don’t be a spoilsport, or Wilkins is coming for you, too.” 

It’s no coincidence that the rise in popularity that led to The Muppet Show happened between 1955 and 1974—the same time many classic farces found eager audiences. They’re a product of their era, when the news was dominated by Nixon’s impeachment hearings, horrific images from the Vietnam war, the women’s and gay liberation movements, and accounts of violence against Black Americans as they fought for civil rights. During this period, Jim Henson was also dealing with tragedy in his personal life: his brother Paul was killed in a car accident in 1956. But Jim would “channel his sorrow into silliness, his anxiety into art,” always maintaining the “ridiculous optimism” that he became known for, Brian Jay Jones writes in Jim Henson: The Biography. If life gives you chaos, why not throw chaos back at it?

During this time, Kermit assumed his role as the de facto leader and synecdoche of The Muppets, via Sesame Street and other projects. I can’t help but think of Mickey Mouse, the character that helmed the rise of another 20th century creative power house. Mickey, while initially mischievous (think “Steamboat Willie”), eventually transformed into a much more benign personality. He’s a picture of innocence and goodness and positivity. In direct contrast, Kermit grew more anxious and exasperated. Mickey hit his cheery popularity at the same time the American can-do attitude became more prevalent, an attitude supported by Walt Disney and born out of wartime propaganda. But Kermit developed in a vastly different time. With the the long-overdue changes brought about by current events, the white, heteronormative, Christian American way was threatened, and trust in these systems was deteriorating. With paranoia as the mood-du-jour, Kermit’s worried, arm-flailing persona is the perfect surrogate for an audience dealing with an uncertain world.

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Nowhere is this better encapsulated than in the bizarre special Hey, Cinderella!. Part of the extremely short-lived series of television specials Tales from Muppetland, Hey, Cinderella! is a glorious cacophony of cardboard sets and stupidity. It’s a footnote in Muppet history, most notable for establishing Kermit as a frog rather than a vague monster. Made between “The Tales of Tinkerdee” and the many pilots Jim Henson and the Muppet crew (now including Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl, and Jerry Nelson) were trying to get off the ground, its afterthought status only enhances its delicious nonsense. With Kermit as the observer and audience surrogate, the classic story of Cinderella unfolds as a series of coincidences and accidents, all dependent on the characters’ lack of mental acuity and the general disastrous milieu. “Those tangerines don’t look so bad—maybe a little small, though,” says Kermit to Prince Arthur, who’s attempting to garden. “Those are pumpkins,” Arthur woefully responds. Even the story’s introductory song has an air of self-reflexive laughter and apathy. The chorus sings, “Once upon a time/Once upon a time/Very long ago/Could it be last Thursday?” This kingdom has the vibe of half-finished homework and Monday morning presentations.

Belinda Montgomery as Cinderella in The Muppets "Hey, Cinderella!" (1969)

Henson’s Cinderella isn’t so much a saintly woman entrenched in passive domestic suffering than she is a girl who doesn’t know any better. She cheerily follows her stepmother’s command to go tramp in the mud and track it into the house just so she can clean it once more. Her only complaint: “Boy! Wicked stepmothers can be a real pain.” Even the Fairy Godmother is a hot mess, appearing to Cinderella not in response to her tears, but as a mistake when a spell goes wrong—which, coincidentally, also serves as an escape from her own disastrous magic show. Prince Arthur is similarly clueless: a wide-eyed, ambiguously aged man who is too naive to truly court Cinderella. When they attend the masked ball, they don’t recognize each other—you know, because of the masks.

Leading this dim-witted kingdom is King Goshposh, an orange muppet of all monobrow and nose, who constantly smokes a cigar. An example of Jim Henson’s typical irreverence for authority figures, King Goshposh is greedy and blundering. Speaking in a grumbly tone, he marches about issuing decrees and demands while his assistant, Featherstone, attends to his needs and strokes his ego.

Watching all of this is Kermit, who sits in the well in Prince Arthur’s garden and offers up dry commentary on the goings-on. “Yeesh,” he says when Arthur and Cinderella look at each other doe-eyed. “Don’t do anything stupid,” he tells Arthur when asked for advice—only for Arthur to do something stupid. To that, Kermit once again says “Yeesh,” before falling back into the well.

While depictions of inept orange leadership and a distinct lack of plans can feel uncomfortable to watch in 2020, Kermit’s neurotic observation of the antics around him renders any too-familiar elements of this satirical fairy tale benign. Filmed in 1968 and aired in 1970, Jim Henson and associates seemed to look at a chaotic nation, say “what the hell!” and then continue on anyway. It’s the same for Kermit, who watches with a detached interest. He has a chance to join the narrative when he agrees to be Cinderella’s coachman, but here his neuroses send the story into another layer of absurdity. Kermit signs onto the job with the condition that his friend Splurge, a terrifying purple monster with an affinity for radishes, gets to be the footman. Of course, Splurge scares the horses, so Cinderella rides to the ball in “a beautiful Splurge-drawn carriage.”

The ball itself goes down an increasingly absurd and existential road. Cinderella and Arthur, unable to recognize each other at the ball (you know, because of the masks), spend the evening obliviously dancing with each other. Intercut with the various characters dancing are shots of a nightmarish band of human performers wearing Muppet heads. They play a variety of instruments in increasingly ridiculous ways, their music clashing with the soundtrack. Splurge dons a mask and attends the ball, weirding out all of the other guests. Tiny vignettes show Muppets making terrible pun-filled jokes, which the not-too-smart characters fail to understand and respond to by looking at the camera in wonderment. The Muppet-head musicians swiftly lose any pretense of actually playing the instruments, instead pushing the slide off the trombone or pantomiming at the piano. The ever-heightening weirdness serves as a sort of ridiculous, resigned acknowledgement. Yes, the sets appear to be made of craft paper and party-store supplies. Yes, the inept characters have made conflict out of nothing. No, there’s not really a point to any of this. It’s all an invitation to look at the nonsense of the situation and just let go and laugh. What else can you do when Prince Arthur steps on the left-behind glass slipper and breaks it?

Once Arthur, Cinderella, and the remaining glass slipper are all reunited and ready to live happily-ever-after, Kermit has one last line for the audience: “I could have solved this all months ago, but who listens to a frog?” Of course, it’s no matter. Things happened as they happened, and that led to a happy ending.

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Jim Henson on the set of 'The Muppet Movie' (1979) | Walt Disney Pictures

This good-natured weariness is indicative of a radical acceptance of the world and our limited knowledge of it, an acceptance I find in much of Jim Henson’s work. Henson grew up in a strict Christian Scientist household, but later drifted away from organized religion, though he remained an intensely spiritual person. His guiding belief was optimism, and that optimism led him to believe in a higher purpose and life after death, the specifics of which didn’t seem to concern him. Thinking of how Henson’s mother’s cause of death was never confirmed, daughter Lisa Henson said, “I think it’s fascinating that Jim and the whole family were content to live with that mystery.” The mystery left open possibilities of other realms and purposes unseen; it made the optimism possible.

Henson’s staunch optimism needed no logic to ground it, only faith, however unspecified that faith was. As taught in Daoism, the powers of logic and reason are limited in an illogical world. Concepts typically seen as negative, such as uncertainty, can be transformed into something sweet when accepted for what they are. Rational understanding does not bring about peace, but acceptance and simplicity does. As explained in Benjamin Hoff’s classic introduction to Daoism The Tao of Pooh, “When you discard arrogance, complexity, and a few other things that get in the way, sooner or later you will discover that simple, childlike, and mysterious secret…Life is Fun.” 

With its Dao interpretations, it should come as no surprise that Jim Henson adored the work of A.A. Milne. Drawing on the anti-Victorian nonsense of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, Milne wrote with the same childlike acceptance and optimism that is present in Henson’s work. In The Tao of Pooh, Hoff illustrates the “things are as they are” principle through Winnie-the-Pooh’s song “Cottleston Pie,” a song Henson loved and performed with Rowlf:

Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.
Ask me a riddle and I reply:
“Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.”

 Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
A fish can’t whistle and neither can I.
Ask me a riddle and I reply:
“Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.”

 Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
Why does a chicken, I don’t know why.
Ask me a riddle and I reply:
“Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.”

 Kermit, watching the antics of Hey Cinderella!, said “Yeesh,” but he might as well have said “Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.”

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After a number of failed pilots, including one Jim attempted to title The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence against everyone’s advice, The Muppet Show finally found its home in a London-based studio. But things were far from ideal. Since the show was being produced for syndication (rather than a network) the budget was tight, and the Muppet team were outsiders both across the pond and in Hollywood. Consequently, that zany, scrappy attitude of the Muppets’ earlier performances bleeds over into the show. These sketches are comedy at their simplest—a pun, a zany “what if?!” scenario, or just good old-fashioned nonsense. The theory of benign violation posits that humor occurs when: “(1) a situation is a violation, (2) the situation is benign, and (3) both perceptions occur simultaneously.” Acting as a perfect archetype for this theory, The Muppet Show reminds us that violations can truly be benign. 

One of my favorite subsets of sketches is a classic song or poem countered with a “but.” For example, in one sketch, Rowlf and Lew Zealand sing the song “Tea for Two”…but backwards! Or, in another, guest star Gilda Radner performs some Gilbert & Sullivan songs…but her co-star is a giant carrot. Or, Fozzie recites Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”…but gets interrupted by Gonzo and his tango number. Or, some of our favorite Muppets sing “Danny Boy”…but not only are they the non-English-speaking ones, they get too emotional to finish the song. Other sketches rely on vaudevillian wordplay. The most iconic of these is the classic “The comedian’s a bear!” where Fozzie tries to get Kermit to participate in his joke but their miscommunications unravel the bit. In another, Muppet sports host Louis Kazagger interviews a trainer at the national “wig race.” When the trainer says his wig is greasy, Kazagger asks “Don’t you use a shampoo?” The trainer responds, “No, sir! I do not use sham poo for my wigs, I only use real poo! Nothing but the best poo for my wigs.” Should these sketches ever get too close to offense, or go too far while poking fun, they wink and smile: No harm done! They’re just puppets! 

Other sketches venture farther into Dada anti-art. A fantastically surreal sketch appeared in the episode hosted by “The Godfather of Shock Rock,” Alice Cooper. In it, a group of never-ending stalactites deals with both a toothache and the voices it hears, a word-salad premise if there ever was one. Another Dada-esque sketch is the classic “Mahna Mahna.” It’s pure, absolute nonsense—not unlike Dada “sound poetry.” After the performance, hecklers Statler and Waldorf have the following conversation: “The question is: what is a Mahna Mahna?” Statler asks. Waldorf responds: “The question is: who cares?” And that really is the question. The audience doesn’t seem to care at all—they’re enjoying it anyway.

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Kermit the Frog hosts The Muppet Show | Disney

Ever our relatable guide, Kermit is there, bearing it all. Offstage, at his desk, he wearily deals with the absurd crises that pop up. In a crumbling old theater, trying to pull off a variety show each week with a bunch of “frogs and bears and chickens and things” appears to be a Sisyphean task. But no disaster is too great. The show goes on. There’s a tenacious optimism to it all. Fozzie keeps performing his jokes no matter how few land. Gonzo performs various acts of daring even when they end in an explosion more often than not. And Kermit keeps putting on a show despite the chaos that ensues every week, and every time he introduces the show he has an enthusiastic, arm-flailing “Yay!” to kick it off.

Sympathetically, the pressure seems to get to Kermit from time to time, once prompting him to sing “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” In the classic song, Kermit laments that his color is mundane, and that he blends into the background so easily. In essence, he feels small and inconsequential in such a large, chaotic world. But in the last verse, Kermit decides on acceptance. 

When green is all there is to be,
It could make you wonder why.
But why wonder? Why wonder?
I’m green, and it’ll do fine.
It’s beautiful.
And I think it’s what I wanna be.

I think in lesser hands, an emotional beat like this would end with the other Muppets assuring Kermit of their love and his own exceptionality. But instead, Henson’s beloved, emblematic puppet merely has a quiet moment of self-acceptance, and a meditative acceptance of the chaos around him. As Jim Henson wrote, “I have the full complement of weaknesses, fears, problems, ego and sensuality. But I think this is why we’re here—to work our way through all this and, hopefully, come out a bit wiser and better for having gone through it all.” In other words, Cottleston Pie. 

Looking back at the years of the Muppets leading to The Muppet Show, it is clear that acceptance in the face of chaos is what grounds these puppets in goodness despite the nonsense, explosions, cannibalism. Nothing can be done about the zaniness. The existential letting-go does not create apathy, but instead refocuses on the things that matter: friends and laughter. The Muppets are an invitation to look at our weird, messed up world, and laugh instead of cry—with a touch of cathartic nonsense and violence. Their acceptance of chaos means an acceptance of everyone, from seven-foot-tall carrots to psychopathic coffee spokesman to neurotic frogs. In the possibility that a violation can, in fact, be benign, we find resilience, perfectly illustrated in a group of puppeteers who spent hours with their hands in the air, their backs sore from long hours of filming. And maybe, at the very least, with the often malignant chaos found all around right now, we can take a bit of naughty pleasure in one Muppet eating another.