February 3, 2005

48 Minutes with Mother Goose Stories

Filed under: My Week — Tags: , — Danny Horn @ 5:56 pm

Oh, HIT Entertainment, what are we gonna do with you? How you baffle and perplex. You have the rights to release all the material that the Henson Company still owns — not the Muppet Show stuff, or the Sesame stuff, but all the stuff that’s left over. You put out a couple Fraggle DVD’s, which is nice. But then what do you go and do? Two DVD’s of Mother Goose Stories, plus another two coming in June.

So it’s hard to say exactly what the strategy is here. 93 percent of Fraggle Rock, no; four volumes of Mother Goose Stories, yes. It’s hard to fathom.

Now, I wrote a news blurb about the Mother Goose DVD’s a month ago, asking why this unloved show is coming out, while most of the good material sits on a shelf, and I got a very cross e-mail from somebody who didn’t sign his name. He said, and I quote: “But it is a loved show, millions of people love the show.” (To which I reply, name three.) “It is cute and full of magic and charm. It won many awards (including an Emmy). Remember, when they produce an item, they need to look at what everyone would like and buy; not just the small population of hard-core Muppet fans like you (and me). That’s why some of the ‘good’ library isn’t out.”

myweekmothergoose03So, y’know, fair enough on the Emmy, I guess. But is Mother Goose Stories really something that “everyone would like and buy”? I mean, feel free to dismiss the small population of hard-core Muppet fans — everyone else does — but at least there are people in the world that you can point to and say, those people would buy Fraggle Rock DVD’s. I didn’t see the focus group data, but I’d be surprised if any noticeable percentage of “everyone” has a bad case of the wants for Mother Goose Stories.

The e-mail wound up like this: “I don’t understand your hostility towards this show, and the DVD’s, but I respect your right to have it. I just think you (as an adult) are giving this show (geared for kids) an unfair punch in the face.”

Which is a good point, because I haven’t actually watched the show in maybe ten years, when it was on the Disney Channel. So, in the interests of giving the show a fair punch in the face, I bought a DVD and watched it. This is my story.

Humpty Dumpty

Now, to start with, the cover, about which what the hell. Aren’t there supposed to be puppets in this puppet show? This looks like something from the discount video bin, one of those knockoffs that come out whenever there’s a new Disney movie — the Neverland Studios version of Pocahontas, or King of the Lions. Mother Goose Stories must be a stealth puppet show, operating undercover.

Anyway, there are in fact puppets, and here they come. Three little goslings chase each other around a pond: “Ha ha, you can’t catch me!” they cry, as goslings do. They run into their mother — Mother Goose, get it? — who wants to tell them the story of Humpty Dumpty.

The goslings aren’t having it. They already know about Humpty Dumpty, and they recite the nursery rhyme. They’re about to run off and play more games, but Mother Goose is determined: “I bet you don’t know who Humpty Dumpty really was, or how he came to be on that wall!”

Which is true, she’s got us there. I don’t know a thing about it. Me and the goslings, we settle in to hear the story.

So it turns out Humpty Dumpty is an egg, which actually I guess I did know. He’s big for an egg, though, so his mother calls him the Prince of Eggs. The other eggs in the nest get jealous, cause who wouldn’t be, and they push Humpty Dumpty out of the nest. Disgusted, Humpty teams up with a chick named Coochie Calloo, and they leave the farm.

Humpty and Coochie — and those names will have to suffice as the comedy, for now — they end up just outside a castle, where a prince and princess are all bent out of shape because they can’t get married. They’re ten, by the way. These stories all have human kids in them, which is fine, although it makes this particular scenario a little awkward to watch.

The prince and princess are in love, but the king has promised the princess’ hand in marriage to anyone who can stump him with a riddle. I guess the equivalent these days would be winning the princess by opening a specially marked bag of M&M’s, or as a reward challenge on Survivor. I don’t know why princesses put up with this kind of thing. Anyway, the prince doesn’t know any riddles, so that puts the kibosh on the wedding plans.

Humpty has been eavesdropping — and when he hears about the contest, he yells, “Coochie! Coochie, did you hear that?” Which I’m sorry, but it’s kind of funny.

The story’s only eight minutes long, so I’ll wrap things up. Humpty Dumpty has decided that he wants to marry the princess, which makes just as much sense as anything, so he gets up on a wall to ask the king a riddle. It doesn’t work out that well. Humpty gestures a little too eagerly and loses his balance, plummeting to the ground with a gruesome splat. The boy decides to take those lemons and make lemonade, so he asks a riddle about Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall, which stumps the king. Now the prince and princess can get married, as soon as they finish fifth grade. Oh, and Humpty isn’t really dead — when the egg breaks, a little chicken emerges, but he’s actually an undead chicken, so he roams the countryside, killing everything in his path, except it’s a boring kid’s show, so he doesn’t.

Mother Hubbard

It’s the start of another episode and the goslings are at it again, playing some kind of wacked-out gosling game. “I’ve hidden something somewhere!” one of the goslings chirps, which is about as lazy a piece of writing as you can find. “Oh, I SEE!” chirps Mother Goose. “Well, don’t forget where you put it!” The gosling chirps: “Oh no, I won’t! I’m not forgetful!” And so the long day wears on, in the relentlessly chirpy world of Mother Goose. It’s like they’re engaged in a long-term battle to the death to outhappy each other.

This must be what that guy meant when he said the show was “full of charm,” and it’s true; if this is charm, then there certainly is a lot of it.

This episode is the story of Mother Hubbard, her daughter Heather, and her husband Sherlock. You immediately have some sympathy for Heather, even though she can’t act worth a lick and keeps looking off camera at the teleprompter. But you feel a pang, because she’s saddled with these impossibly stupid parents.

The facts are as follows: Old Mother Hubbard goes to the cupboard to get her poor dog a bone. But when she gets there, the cupboard is bare, and so we launch into an investigation, as conducted by her husband, who thinks he’s a detective.

It goes like this.

Father: “Can you describe the bone?”

Mother: “What bone?”

Father: “The bone we’re looking for.”

Mother: “Who’s looking for? You mean, you lost a bone?”

Father: “No, dear — you lost the bone!”

Mother: “Now, when did I do that? Ha ha ha!”

So that’s what I’m talking about. This is an eight-minute puppet version of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, except I’m supposed to think the brain-damaged people are charming, instead of sad.

I’ll give you one more example. Dad decides to open the cupboard and look for clues. He throws the doors open, and shouts “A-HA!” Mother gets excited: “What is it? What have you found?” Dad cries: “I’ve found… the CUPBOARD!”

That’s a joke, by the way, that’s what Mother Goose Stories thinks we’ll find funny. Apparently, the children in the audience are supposed to be brain-damaged as well. So Heather goes down to the market and finds out that Mother Hubbard never got a bone from the butcher in the first place. “Oh, Muth-ahhhhhh,” she yelps. “We’ve been searching for a BONE that isn’t THERE!” Except the way she says it, it makes you want to die.

The whole episode just makes me hurt. I want to jump up and down on this story, and poke it in the eye, and give it a swirly. The hilarious surprise ending: Remember how the gosling hid something somewhere? Well, he forgot where he put it. The end.

Boy Blue

Yeah, I’m still watching this, even though we’re only sixteen minutes in and I’ve already summoned up quite enough evidence to justify that punch in the face. But I’m a professional and I’m in this for the long haul. There’s four more stories to go.

So: Mother Goose, goslings. The goslings don’t have names, by the way, I just noticed that. There’s just a brown one and two yellow ones. It’s Mother Goose’s birthday, and the goslings sing “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you.” She coos, “Oh, thank you! That was beautiful. I’ve never seen it done like THAT before,” despite the fact that there’s not really any other way to do it. “You’ve made me happy… as happy as Little Boy Blue’s mother!” Which is just casual conversation for geese, apparently. And then, surprise, she tells us all about it.

The story is about Little Boy Blue and his poor, widowed mother, which is basically just another ugly kid and another ugly puppet sitting around in a drab set. The kid goes out and gets a job with the squire, who’s the ugliest puppet yet. The people who designed these puppets have some kind of thing about big noses; every puppet is like thirty percent nose.

So this is as good a time as any to talk about the puppets, which are really not very attractive. Even the cute puppets like Coochie Calloo and the goslings are more weird-looking than cute. The puppets for this show were made in London by the Creature Shop, which doesn’t usually make puppets, rather than the Muppet Workshop in New York, which does. But it’s 1988, so the Muppet Workshop is busy working on Sesame Street and The Jim Henson Hour — you know, the funny shows that have good puppets in them. Mother Goose was kind of the workfare program for the Henson people in London, keeping them busy while all the cool people were in the States making The Jim Henson Hour.

I know, I’m sorry, but it’s true and there’s nothing I can do about it. If you look at the cast and crew on this, it’s not exactly an all-star list. The only puppeteer here who did major characters on any other show is Karen Prell, who’s spectacular as Red Fraggle, but here she doesn’t have much to do except fakey British accents. Mak Wilson was the voice of Earl Sinclair on Dinosaurs, Mike Quinn did some background stuff on various Muppet movies. The writer is David Angus, who I never heard of. The only other “name” in the credits is Brian Henson. This was Brian’s first job as a director, which may go some way towards explaining why this particular show is out on DVD right now.

And now I’ve complained through the whole story, so I don’t even know what happened. Seems like things turned out well, though, according to the goslings: “Now I can see why Little Boy Blue’s mother was so happy!” they say. And Mother Goose says, “And that’s just the way I feel today! Happy, happy, happy.” Well, as long as somebody’s happy. Next!

It’s Raining, It’s Pouring

So, let’s say you’re a kid. You’re just going about your usual kid activities, and at some point, you say, “It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring! He went to bed, and he bumped his head, and he couldn’t get up in the morning!” You’re a kid, you don’t know any better. It could happen.

Then some nearby adult sits you down and says, “Do you know the story behind that nursery rhyme?” And before you can say no thanks, he’s off. “Well, it’s about a king who worked very hard, and he didn’t have any time for his young son, the prince. But then one stormy night, he was working late, and he fell over and bumped his head. When he woke up, all he wanted to do was play with his son, and they went out into the snow and climbed a tree. They all had a really fun time.”

I mean, can you imagine? You’d be desperate to get away. If it were me, I’d probably go to my old standy, faking narcolepsy.

That’s my big problem with this show; it’s based on a false premise. The high-concept pitch of the show is, wouldn’t kids like to know the stories behind their favorite nursery rhymes? And the obvious answer is no, I’m sure it never occurred to them. Why would it?

When I was a kid, I had better things to do, like draw in my coloring books, or run around in circles, or stuff my face with Flinstones vitamins. I had no time to sit around and worry about Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater, it just wasn’t on my radar. The stories behind nursery rhymes didn’t really enter my mind from one moment to the next, and I can’t imagine that the youth of today are any more interested in it than I would have been.

Duke of York

And it just goes on and on. Really, at this point I’m only watching this because I’m stubborn, and because I’m hoping that my sacrifice will save the rest of you from ever wanting to watch this. I feel like I’m on a mission now; I have to slay the beast so that other Muppet fans can be spared.

Anyway, Duke of York is that “when he’s up, he’s up, and when he’s down, he’s down” rhyme, which I for one hardly even remember. The Duke is marching around with his two followers, looking for a war. “Now, let me see,” he says. “Where’s that war?” His exhausted followers tell him that there isn’t a war: “We tried to tell you!” And then this happens.

Duke: “Oh. That explains why I can’t find one, then. I’ve got ten thousand men behind me, and no war!”

Follower: “Ten thousand? Two! And one of them’s a girl.”

But the Duke stays convinced through the whole story that these two people are ten thousand men. That’s right, it’s yet another character operating at fifty percent brain capacity, which is exactly what we didn’t need. The three of them go home, where they find that the Duke’s castle has been stolen by his brother Skelton, who’s in command of a child and a dog. And so it goes on.

And I have to wonder, am I really supposed to care? It doesn’t matter to me which of these whiny characters gets this castle. This is the problem with anthology series — when you’re watching a show, you get invested in the characters. This eight-minute story format makes it really hard to care — I’ve only been looking at these people for two minutes, and besides, they’re aggravating and stupid.

I can imagine how this concept could have worked — maybe a Mr Peabody type thing, with a couple regular characters walking through the stories, interacting with people and having experiences. Jay Ward did this years ago, using the same size cast and even less money. But the stories were clever, and hilarious, and you could enjoy watching Mr Peabody and Sherman having another adventure together.

Now, not everybody can be Jay Ward and his cast of actors — in fact, practically nobody can — so I wouldn’t expect this to be as brilliant as Mr Peabody. But what I expect them to do is what Ward did, which is to use the resources he had to make something interesting. Mother Goose Stories is spending money on new puppets and new sets every eight minutes; they just don’t have the imagination to use them well.

Tommy Tucker

Little Tommy Tucker sang for his supper. What did he sing for? White bread and butter! How could he cut it without any knife? How could he marry without any wife?

Okay, point of order: I’ve never heard this nursery rhyme in my life. I know Humpty Dumpty, and I know Mother Hubbard, but I only vaguely remember Duke of York, and Tommy Tucker is completely new to me. Is it fair of them to spring new nursery rhymes on me?

Let’s face it, I’m not even watching the show anymore, I’m just fighting with that guy who wrote me the e-mail. I don’t usually let stuff like that get to me, but the one argument that I really can’t stand is this one: “I think you (as an adult) are giving this show (geared for kids) an unfair punch in the face.”

I’ve had people write to me with the same argument about Animal Jam and Tomie DePaola, and I can’t understand it. Do people really think that kids have no taste? It sounds to me like they’re saying that kids will enjoy anything, no matter how boring or ill-conceived, because kids just like looking at puppets on the TV screen.

And I know for a fact that that’s wrong. I may be an adult, but I can tell the difference between a good kids’ show and a bad kids’ show, and so can the kids. The fact that a show is “for kids” is just a category, like being a “sitcom” or a “medical drama.” There are good ones and bad ones, and I think kids deserve good ones. You never have to apologize like that for Sesame Street, The Muppet Show or Fraggle Rock, because those are good shows; their merits are obvious, and both adults and kids appreciate them.

Now, as every fan does these days, I have this voice in my head that makes me self-conscious: the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, who’s just ridiculous and self-important. So it makes me hesitant to go on my little website and announce, “Worst… DVD… Ever!” I don’t want to be that guy, I really don’t. But what can you do when something actually is the worst DVD ever?

Actually, there are Henson shows that I think are worse than this. The Ghost of Faffner Hall is pretty damn bad. Secret Life of Toys didn’t have a lot going for it. Big Bag was dreadful beyond human reckoning.

But there’s one thing that makes Mother Goose Stories the worst, at least right now: Those other shows aren’t out on DVD, and Mother Goose Stories is. That’s why I’m not just being the Comic Book Guy, sitting around and nitpicking for no reason. I would lay off, if Henson would just sit tight on their worst, blandest material — or at least have the decency to put out more of their best material before they start in on the barrel-scraping.

Cause there’s a reason behind this. Somebody at Henson seems to think that there’s some life left in Mother Goose Stories, even though it sank like a stone on TV in 1989, and on video in 1994, and it’s gonna sink again now. Somebody said, yeah, I know what let’s do, let’s put Mother Goose Stories out on DVD. And I would bet cash money that that person’s name begins with a B.

Now, I know there are some people who read this site who know B personally. I don’t ask for things like this very often, but would one of you please do me a favor? Just go up behind him and give him a little slap on the back of his head, and tell him to pull himself together. You don’t have to do it right this second. Just whenever it’s convenient for you, and you can get a clear shot.

by Danny Horn



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