It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights. And it was time for The Muppet Show at 7:30. It was the time of footie pajamas and Tang, a time of warmth and safety. Sprawled on the carpet, surrounded by Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys and Legos, I’d be ready for it. The curtain would rise and there was Kermit introducing another episode. Today, I can look back and appreciate that John Cleese and Alice Cooper guest starred, but back then all I cared about was whether or not Gonzo would shoot himself out of a cannon or that the chicken escapes the Swedish Chef’s culinary designs.
The Muppets rode the wave of 70s variety shows that included The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and The Carol Burnett Show. It’s a formula that works well for introducing a host of characters including the good-natured Fozzy Bear with his cheesy humor, Animal and his frenetic energy and Miss Piggy who has a heck of a karate chop and undying devotion to Kermit (although I do find her too bossy). Kermit would go on to become one Jim Henson’s most recognizable creations. The lovable green frog opened the subsequent Muppet Movie with a stirring rendition of The Rainbow Connection. If that song doesn’t get you the least little bit choked up, well, there’s nothing I can do for you.
My personal favorite muppet is not a headliner. He didn’t appear in every episode, but I loved every skit where he did appear. The good Dr. Bunsen Honeydew was the source of my early childhood aspiration to be a scientist. The skit would invariably end with his meek, hapless assistant subject to an explosion or some chemical reaction gone awry. The only complaint Beaker could manage was an unintelligible, high pitched plea. He was the perfect subject for various dangerous experiments. If this is science, I’m in! Perhaps this is the root cause of my affinity for super villains. A good friend got me a Dr. Bunsen Honeydew action figure for a birthday present one year. He’s up on a high shelf in my office looking down approvingly as I write. If an unreferenced statement in a Wikipedia article and internet polls are to be believed (and aren’t they?) then I’m not alone in my adoration. According to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew’s Wikipedia entry, an internet poll sponsored by the BBC and the British Advancement of Science Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker came in #1 for most favored cinematic scientists beating out Mr. Spock by a wide margin.
Explosions, Animal pounding on a drum and Gonzo’s daredevil acts always held my interest. That’s what it took to get the attention of my six-year-old self. Nonetheless, a skit on the show would get occasionally get through that childish filter and make a profound impression. I can still vividly recall two in particular, even now, over thirty years. No YouTube required.
The scene opens with a host of woodland animals in the forest and an opossum singing For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield. There’s a man with a gun over there… And enter the hunters shooting wildly as the animals duck for cover, out of sight. Stop, children, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s goin’ round… At the end, the hunters come back across the stage bragging about the motorcycle and cement truck they shot. I knew this was about more than a protest against hunting, but I couldn’t put my finger on the real message. I asked my parents and they explained, as best they could to a six-year-old, that making too many roads and builds was bad for the animals. I was made vaguely aware of environmentalism in the late 70s and the seed of conservation was planted. I didn’t join Green Peace and harass whaling ships, but I did grow up with an appreciation for wild places. Today, I contribute to the Nature Conservancy, an organization dedicate to preserving sensitive land from development, and I belong to the National Audubon Society. Several vacations have been spent in our wonderful national parks. I don’t credit this single experience as the root of my love of nature. There were others. Nonetheless, the message was clear. Such is the gentle wisdom of Jim Henson and The Muppet Show.
In another segment, an old heavily bearded muppet in a bubbling science lab is mixing chemicals and drinking samples as he sings Time in Bottle by Jim Croce. With each swig of his formula he gets younger and younger until something goes wrong with the last dose and, in a puff of smoke, he’s his old self again. The concept of old age was nothing new to me. My grandparents on my father’s side lived with us while I was growing up. They were well into their seventies at the time of this particular episode. It is the first time that it crossed my mind that old people might not want to be old. At six, you can’t wait to grow up with all the benefits that age brings – freedom, driving, staying up as late as you want. I hadn’t considered that an adult could desire youth. It cast my grandparents and their friends in a new light. When we would go visiting my great aunt in a nursing home, it became apparent to me why so many of the residents greeted me and lavished so much attention. They desired their youth and I was a reminder of it.
This November, The Muppets is released and I look forward to it. I just hope they’ll let me in the theater with my adult-sized footie pajamas.