What Color Are Their Hands Now?

The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

illustration by Tom Ralston

Desire is a strange animal. About ten years before his death in 2021, Charles Grodin wrote a fever-dream ‘tell-all’ for Vulture about his brief tryst with Miss Piggy at the onset of shooting The Great Muppet Caper. In scintillatingly deadpan prose, he describes a night soaked in scotch in the London flat of the “powerfully attractive” Miss Piggy, an actual person per the story—not just a Muppet. “She was short…definitely chunkyvery piglike…she was attractive, damn it!” Throughout the enchanted evening, Grodin paints a Miss Piggy that plays like a heady blend of Gloria Swanson and Anne Bancroft, with shades of Rhea Perlman mixed in. He is legitimately smitten—not just a testament to his ability to commit to the screwball spirit of a bit, but to the odd, undeniable allure of Miss Piggy. 

For those of you who didn’t wear out the VHS tape, The Great Muppet Caper plays like a Stefon segment on SNL—that is, this film HAS EVERYTHING: jewel heists, third-wheel Gonzo, mistaken identity, water ballet, interspecies twins, interspecies love triangles, Peter Falk. In sum, total chaos. 

The film is ultimately a metatextual love poem to the magic of moviemaking (“Hey, a movie!”), and its raw, beating heart rests in a tenuous love triangle between Kermit the Frog, a hapless investigative reporter chasing the story of Lady Holiday’s stolen jewels; Miss Piggy, Lady Holiday’s hopelessly ambitious assistant; and Charles Grodin as Nicky, Lady Holiday’s thieving, “irresponsible parasite” brother. While not strictly a rom-com per se, The Great Muppet Caper traffics wildly in romance and comedy as it rides desire like Beauregard drives his taxi: with little regard for the rules of the road, likely to crash and burn at any second. 

Bad boy Grodin is an absolute dreamboat, and while his obsession with Miss Piggy counterbalances hijinks, provides a human foil, and propels plot forward, the film likewise finds its footing in many tropes and beats lifted directly from 1930s romantic comedies like Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1935, even the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business. Grodin’s unparalleled sensibility serves as the glue and gravity to the entire Muppet film; we need to believe that he is desperately in love and madly attracted to a puppet of foam and flocking. As he nails it, he spills truth about desire: it makes no sense whatsoever. It overtakes you. It intoxicates you. And it is entirely immune to explanation. “The first time it happens / You know.”

To illustrate the dizzying sensation of obsession, the film stages elaborate song-and-dance numbers, lifting directly from the Busby Berkeley playbook. “The First Time It Happens” is a show-stopping set piece staged in the Dubonnet Club. “Actually—it’s not so much a restaurant, more of a supper club,” according to John Cleese’s Neville, a doddering, dusty aristocrat cohabitating with Dorcas at No. 17 Highbrow Street. On the club’s opulent dance floor, Miss Piggy comes between Kermit and Nicky for the first time, as she taps on a table in glass slippers, flanked by a chorus of male dancers in top hats and tails. As the strings, brass, and saxes swell and the number climaxes, Miss Piggy swirls kaleidoscopically, spinning in multiples as Kermit gazes from the sidelines and Nicky moves into her receiving line of dancing gentlemen. Nicky inquires about Lady Holiday’s new assistant and purrs, “She’s sensational,” while Lady Holiday demurs, “45 words a minute—about average.”

At this point in the film, Kermit believes Piggy is Lady Holiday after a chance encounter with her in Lady Holiday’s office; Piggy plays on the case of mistaken identity and fails to correct him. While Kermit prepares for his big date with “Lady Holiday,” he sings “Steppin’ Out with a Star,” another 1930s-style number obsessed with class, romance, and the broad buzz one feels when they might exceed their circumstance in a fling with high society. 1930s rom-coms frequently trafficked in this class-obsessed choreography, also revealing the broader work of rom-coms. That is, they wring desire through social anxieties, giving it form as it plays out in a particular social context.

René Girard famously wrote about desire that stems from lack. This mimetic desire initially plays out as pursuing a model or even devotion to an idealized form, but in Girard’s formulation, it leads to resentment, even violence. Nicky is motivated by this type of desire. He repeatedly directs his band of model thieves to steal from his sister, Lady Holiday. In the inciting event at the start of the movie, they brazenly steal her jewels in broad daylight. At the Dubonnet club, they kill the lights and snatch Lady Holiday’s dazzling diamonds right off her neck. Finally, the film culminates with their attempted robbery of her fabulous Baseball Diamond from an otherwise impregnable fortress, the Mallory Gallery.

Even Nicky’s desire for Miss Piggy is tempered by lack. His move to frame her for the theft of Lady Holiday’s necklace is prefaced by a particularly ugly backstage scene in which he tries to cajole her into his arms. It’s gross, uncomfortable, and it emphasizes a trope sometimes found in 1930s rom-coms, especially Busby Berkeley films. Here, men are exploitative and often use their station to force female workers into acquiescence. Miss Piggy does her best to sidestep and stay focused on her work, but Nicky ultimately threatens her.

Kermit the Frog is played as the polar opposite of this villainy. He, too, operates from a position of desire, but instead of a desire motivated by lack, he represents desire motivated by plenitude. K. Roberts Skerrett aptly counterposes Girard’s model of lack with other accounts of desire modeled on abundance. That is, instead of desire based on territoriality and envy, theorists that pursue desire as plenitude emphasize praise, enchantment, beauty, and fortuities.

This sensibility of enchantment most directly plays out in the bicycle scene set to “Couldn’t We Ride,” a blissful number that blooms in the aftermath of a fourth-wall-busting fight between Kermit and Miss Piggy. While he confronts her in character about her duplicity and lies as “the fake Lady Holiday,” she reacts vehemently and accuses him of jealousy against Nicky; he gets personal, drops character, and disparages her acting as “hamming it up.”

Miss Piggy: I am playing 800 different emotions!

Kermit: Well, try to play one of them right!

They blow up, but offer heartfelt apologies, first out of character and then back in character. The bicycle scene unfolds from this apology. As film, the scene is a remarkable and uncanny feat. Kermit and Piggy muse about the day, the pleasure of just riding together, seemingly untethered, and completely on their own. The plot of the caper is left behind, class neuroses abandoned, authentic selves revealed, as the characters bask in the fortuitous glow of simply bicycling together with no particular destination. The rest of the Muppets all pedal in and glide along, as if on their own. 

This scene shows us key characteristics of desire as plenitude. It is not altogether uncomfortable and doesn’t foreclose fighting and strife; it develops out of forgiveness and authenticity. Finally, it values the beauty of simply being together—a fortuitous confluence of ephemeral and contingent circumstances. What makes Henson’s whimsical set pieces even more remarkable is that they required an impressive amount of ingenuity to stage and believably achieve. Jim Henson’s son, Brian, was in charge of operating the bicycling Muppets as large marionettes. The puppeteers had to move along with a large, overhead crane, then capitalize on the Muppets’ momentum as the crane stopped and the bicycles circled each other, mid-ride. This feat of whimsy was achieved by meticulous mapping, enormous rigging, and careful planning, with cranes hulking over the road, just out of the lenses’ view.

This belief in the magic of optical technology and the ability to harness it to achieve dream-like imagery is another thread between Jim Henson’s production and the likes of Busby Berkeley. This thread comes most fully into focus during the water ballet, “Miss Piggy’s Fantasy.” According to the Jim Henson Company archivist, Jim wrote in a company memo, “It’s safe to say that no one has ever done a sequence like this in any other film. At least not with a pig.” While the scene plays remarkably like the work of Esther Williams, or the “By a Waterfall” sequence in Footlight Parade, it’s true, no one had really done it with a pig—or a puppet, for that matter. Frank Oz had to learn to skindive and operate Miss Piggy from underwater with a weight belt, an air tank, and blue camouflage to match the pool and hide from the camera. According to Brian Jay Jones’s biography of Jim Henson, Frank Oz even incurred an ear infection from so much time underwater, but Oz said, “It was difficult at times, but so what? I was with Jim. That was the joy of it.”

Desire is a strange animal, and the water ballet joyously drips with visual and tactile sensuousness. A sweeping crane shot reveals a glimmering pool; as the lush score swirls, a piano cascades as swimmers dive in and their lavender and pink chiffon capes flutter in the air around them. Miss Piggy’s bathing suit, designed by Calista Hendrickson, mirrors the shimmering silver of sparkling water with pleated ruffles white and silver. Her arm-length gloves are shiny and soft, a lavender satin. A lot of effort goes into looking this good. According to Jim Henson’s Red Book, the production crew worked tirelessly so that “the right combination of glue, packing bubbles and flocking came together to ensure Miss Piggy would retain her grace and poise under water.” In fact, nearly 40 different heads and seven different bodies would be used to bring her fantasy to fruition.

What a fantasy! What a flamboyant and delightful farce! A female chorus mirrors and amplifies Miss Piggy’s grace and poise in the intro, followed by a star turn from Nicky, who lavishes her with praise in a verse overflowing with sentiment. Grodin’s commitment to the bit comes through louder than ever, even if his voice is dubbed. It’s absurd, really: palpable intensity explodes from Grodin as this full-grown man rapturously lip syncs to serenade Miss Piggy, her bedecked foam visage agog with wonder. Desire is a hysterical animal, as is reflected in the bridge: “When does the rapture begin and grow? / Where does devotion and passion go?” Kermit answers this with a back-and-forth with Nicky, their picture-in-picture profiles flanking Miss Piggy as she rides a geyser skyward, bejeweled by a crown of sparklers. At its apex, Miss Piggy dives off, into the pool; here, she is actually a child actor in a specially designed costume. This lush, uncanny fantasy comes crashing down as Miss Piggy lands in the fountain beside the runway of Lady Holiday’s fashion show.

Nicky comes to give Piggy her coat and slips in Lady Holiday’s diamond-less necklace, cruelly framing his would-be paramour. Mimetic desire, with its foundation of lacking, wins the day, as Miss Piggy is hauled off to jail. From this point forward, Kermit and his haphazard gang of misfits double down on their quest to catch the actual thieves.

Skerrett notes the ways in which desire as plenitude actually contains and continues the antagonistic logic of mimetic desire. That is, in the rivalry between factions and ideas, the myth of plenitude eats its own amphibious tail. Kermit, who will prevail as “right,” will anathematize Nicky’s embodiment of “wrong” as the Muppets become agents of the police. In some ways, The Great Muppet Caper has followed this track since its opening scenes. Early on, when threatened with being fired by their publisher, Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo pledge to use the mechanism of the press to “catch those thieves red-handed.” 

While the Muppet gang’s haplessness is initially played ironically against Sam the Eagle (“You are all weirdos”), Fozzie ultimately rallies the gang by appealing to their inclination to stick together and risk death to catch the crooks. “Shame on you,” he says as patriotic music swells in the background. “I thought we were in this thing together. I’m just as scared as you are, but this has to be done. We don’t want the bad guys to win. We gotta do this for…justice, for freedom, for honesty.” As Muppets haltingly opt back in, Sam the Eagle peeks out and says, “At times like this, I am proud to be an American.”

It’s worth asking, what are they actually doing it for? Lady Holiday isn’t a great boss; she does everything she can to foment resentment among her models, the same models that join Nicky in plots against her. She also flaunts some spectacularly egregious diamonds. Early-‘80s rhetoric around the ethics and desirability of diamonds may have been a little different from in the more recent Blood Diamond or Uncut Gems, but even from a 1981 POV, it isn’t hard to understand that protecting the property rights of the uber-rich elite isn’t exactly in line with the ragtag, “take-what-you-got-and-fly-with-it” Muppet spirit. Here, they act as the anti-Ocean’s Eleven.

However, the entire film is saturated with class-based desire based on lack. That is, by the mere chance of being accepted into high society, the Muppets will go to any length to act against their own interests to protect the rights of the elite. While this sounds heavy-handed, it is another trope lifted from 1930s rom-coms: an obsession with class, but an obsession tempered by the desire to become one of the elite. The mere possibility fans the flame and inhibits the development of desire based in plenitude.

Thus, a vigilante gang hits the streets to eliminate its adversary. The two factions are pitted against each other in quick cuts between rival preparations. While Nicky plays at being a bumbling louse, he is a cool, calm, and collected outlaw. His gang of top models flaunt seamless preparation and sophisticated tools, while the Muppets stumble over a laundry list of gags: whoopee cushion (“I think it’s in the bus”), rubber raft (“It’s got holes in it”), bag of chickens (“BOCK!”), fake vomit (“It’s on order!”), frisbee (“Oh, uh, lost”). This blundering puts the audience squarely in the would-be losers’ corner.

Rivalry doesn’t require mutual destruction. In fact, to make the most of our fleeting time together, Skerrett emphasizes the need to absorb a degree of our rival’s faith: 

Perhaps this is because most of the objects with which we desire to live are mutable and mortal; to desire, even in the midst of plenitude, means that one always risks, not an incurable lack but, indeed, inevitable loss.

Jim Henson and his madcap crew were especially good at transcending our “mutable and mortal” lot, whether with gag glasses, sidesplitting laughs, or show-stopping set pieces with oddly alluring pieces of felt. Notably, Henson would work for less than a decade after The Great Muppet Caper came out. In light of inevitable loss, pursuing dreams is absurdly beautiful. Exercising the power of imagination is a hopeful salve, and there is an undeniable allure even in anarchic slapstick and silly gags. I wore out my family’s dubbed VHS tape of The Great Muppet Caper and watched this movie about a million times as a kid, privately hooked on the bizarre romance of it all, and laughing out loud with my little brother at its hilarious and incessant comedy. Judging the sum of its parts, it shouldn’t work, but that’s the small miracle of this ridiculous spectacle. Preparing for this essay, I watched it again with my five-year-old. His eyes brightened and his mouth flashed an easy smile when Gonzo throws himself into traffic in front of a taxi, and every time a Muppet plummets from the sky. These gravity gags are a mini-motif of struggle—the point at which we might most relate to the Muppets’ desperation. Desire is a strange animal. Romance and laughs buoy us along the way as we pick ourselves up, dare to dream, and seek possibility.