Muppet Fans Who Grew Up

Saturday, August 30, 2008

 

This is a Muppet News Flash: No News Tonight


by Joe Hennes


It's being wildly reported that there's a new Muppet TV show in the works, being written by Jason Segel. A "source", who we'll call "Stu the Intern" for the time being, has stepped into the spotlight to say "Jason is a massive Muppets fan and is seen as the man to finally bring The Muppet Show back to TV." Exactly 2.5 seconds later, the news ticker was off, printing a ribbon of text predicting the future of a nude Jason Segel-penned television series starring a bunch of talking socks. (Although to be fair, the story was buried by another newsbit about 4 seconds later regarding Barack Obama leaving his wife for the Montauk Monster.)

Now, I'd love to see a new Muppet series as much as the next fanatic, but I'm thinking that this was just a slip-of-the-lip by our friend Stu. I mean, TV and movies have so much in common, it's easy to say one instead of the other. Just look at M*A*S*H; I heard that was supposed to be a radio drama before a debacle involving a typo'ed press release.

Though this is hardly the first time we've been teased about a new Muppet Show, especially in recent years. Just take a look at this list that I totally didn't make up at all:

-Back in the 80s, there was a show on ABC's schedule in which two Whatnot Muppets would don wigs and eyelashes in a vain attempt to get an apartment in an all-female apartment building. The idea was blatantly stolen by Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari, who are currently having one half of a terrific career.

-After the success of The Great Muppet Caper, a series was planned featuring Marla, Carla and Darla. The trio gave up their jewel-stealing days to work undercover for the FBI. The series was put on permanent hold after executives learned that there would be no puppets in the show. No wait, not puppets, I meant nudity. Nudity.

-Five words: The Clive Cahuenga Variety Hour.

-An issues-oriented talk show on CNBC starring The Muppets at Walt Disney World's Quentin Fitzwaller.

-Had Animal Jam continued its run, the last 15 minutes of every episode would have been dedicated to "Bozark's World," a segment in which everyone's favorite elephant and his pet iguana would spotlight a topic and talk it to death.

-A family sitcom called "Good Grief, Our Dad's a Bear!" starring Fozzie Bear and Téa Leoni. Unfortunately, the idea of a comedian lead with an attractive wife had already been done on "Everybody Loves Raymond," "According to Jim," "My Wife and Kids," "Still Standing," "The Flintstones," and countless others. And that's not to mention the pilot starring Sweetums and Jennifer Aniston as a husband and wife traveling salesman team.

-After their dismissal after the first season of The Muppet Show, NBC purchased the contracts for Mildred, George the Janitor, Hilda, the Guru, and Wayne and Wanda to star in a competing variety show. When it became obvious that the show would fail, NBC just threw them in the Saturday Night Live band.

-In order to fill in the plot holes within episodes of Fraggle Rock, "White Collar Doozers" covered the thrilling stories of Doozers in the contracts department, toiling away at their tiny desks, drinking their tiny coffee, and having tiny little ulcers.

So while we wait to see-it-before-we-believe-it regarding a new Muppet series, we'll just keep our fingers crossed and hope that the rumors are true. No, not that The Clive Cahuenga Variety Hour is coming to DVD; that a new Muppet Show is a real possibility, and I'll get to stop making up lists about obscure characters in fictionalized productions!
Click here to daydream about Muppets in your TV Guide on the ToughPigs forum!

joe.toughpigs@gmail.com

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Monday, August 25, 2008

 

ToughPigs on the MuppetCast #2


by Joe Hennes

Once again, Ryan and I (I'm Joe, nice to meetcha) have been interviewed on The MuppetCast, a weekly podcast hosted by Steve Swanson.

This week we all discussed the new Fraggle Rock DVDs and what we think about the release of the full-series set and the non-release of season 4.

Click here to listen to the podcast, and click here to go back in time and listen to our first interview with Steve, way back in February. And of course, go to MuppetCast.com every week for more podcasty goodness.

Click here to discuss this article on the ToughPigs forum (audio version not available in some areas)!
joe.toughpigs@gmail.com

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

 

ToughPigs Art: New Tux


by Joe Hennes

We at ToughPigs.com are happy to have Chris Smigliano, better known around our offices as "Smig", on our team. He's had a close relationship with ToughPigs, dating back to the MuppetZine days.

Smig has agreed to create some exclusive art for ToughPigs, which we'll be spotlighting here. And keep an eye or two on this space for a few more Smig-related surprises in the near future!

And without further ado (that's right, not one more ado to do), ToughPigs and Chris Smigliano present: New Tux.
Click here to discuss the tuxedo/dinosaur rivalry at the ToughPigs forum!

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

 

Studio DC: Almost... But Not Really


by Joe Hennes

Today's article was written by ToughPigs' own Leah Hooper. Special thanks to Leah for all her hard work!

Last night I sat down to watch a television special that recently aired on the Disney Channel. Entitled Studio DC: Almost Live!, the show purported to feature the Muppets, which is how I came to be watching the program to begin with.

First, some background: I'm a fan of the Muppets, but not a Fan. My boyfriend, Peter, is the Fan in our house. He knows which episode of The Muppet Show featured Clive Cahuenga; I can't tell the difference between Clifford and Jar Jar Binks. But I watched Sesame Street and The Muppet Show as a kid—the latter with my parents, who would laugh at mysterious jokes that eluded me and suggested that the comely, curious puppets on screen were more than just kids' stuff. So I've always had an affection for—if not an encyclopedic knowledge of—Hensonia and its inhabitants. Which brings us to Studio DC.

Joining us for the viewing were two other Muppet Fans who, like Peter, were anxious if unoptimistic about possibilities of Studio DC: Almost Live!. Watching these fans await the premiere of this new Muppet endeavor was a little like watching the law of entropy in action: no matter how excited you want to be or how well you want it to end, you know the chaotic tragedy is predestined. Outside Sesame Street, which continues ("Elmo's World" notwithstanding—just ask a baby) to live up to its legacy as outstanding programming, it seems that many recent Muppet offerings continue not just to disappoint but to be lost in a frenetic, Disney-crafted phantasmagoria of cross-marketed incoherence. It was in this tradition, and not in the beauty of "Turn the World Around" or the sanguine whimsy of Gilda Radner and the Seven-Foot-Tall Talking Carrot, that Studio DC continued.

The show begins with an announcer oozing Cool™ over a pre-fabricated bass beat that I can only assume was meant to indicate to the pre-teen audience that this is not your older cousin's (no, not that one; the one who just started at Arizona State—yeah, that one) Disney Channel. You know, the Disney Channel that actually showed Disney cartoons and had no commercials. But whatever.

Then the hosts come out, Cole and Dylan Sprouts, or something like that. They're starring in a show on the Disney Channel that I think is supposed to be, like, if Eloise had a sex change and instead of running around the Plaza bossed around her single mom and a black guy. As the hosts arrive on screen, I realize that I saw them in Big Daddy. I don't know who the other kid is, but I swear the one of the left is Adam Sandler. Only he got fat. Pepe and Rizzo show up and tell a joke that could have been written by a baby seal, post-clubbing.

Next, Billy Ray Cyrus sings part of a song. Where's the rest of the song? Maybe he's hiding it in his soul patch for later. Then Billy Ray's daughter, Rhoda Minnesota or something, sings her hit song called "G.N.U.," a ballad about a party-loving equine mammal. Her back-up band was the Electric Mayhem, but they seemed a little more like the Battery-Powered Tameness. At least Animal got a chance to cop a feel on Billy Ray's daughter. I wish Annie Leibovitz had gotten a photo of that.

I started to suspect that things were going downhill when I could actually understand something the Swedish Chef said. And the situation only got worse. Have you noticed that I've not mentioned the Muppets much? That's because Studio DC didn't either. Zac Efron got more play, and he wasn't even there.

A plot rubbed its sleepy eyes, looked around, tried to muster the strength to get up and start the day but ultimately decided to hit the snooze and stay in bed for the rest of the show. So much the better; I wouldn't want the product placement to get obstructed.

Then an Olympics-themed commercial aired for the Disney Games, featuring the Cheetah Girls. Are they the ones who sing "Don't You Wish Your Girlfriend Was Legal Like Me?" In any case, I'm glad to see the Disney Channel is building a cavalcade of players that I'm sure will rival "Your Show of Shows" in the glory days. With more lip-synching, of course.

Studio DC recommences, and I'm starting to feel like I need something to restore my faith in mankind and my optimism about the future. Say, a mushroom cloud? A speech from Dubya? A Seth Green movie?

Now Ashley Tisdale shows up and asks Kermit, "Where's Miss Piggy?" My thoughts exactly. Presently Titsdale shimmies around speaking white-lady-talking-to-gardener Spanish and THEN THERE IS AN AMAZING PIECE OF PUPPETEERING WHEN STEVE WHITMIRE MAKES KERMIT DO A KICK. Mucho gusto, indeed.

A few minutes later, Miss Piggy joins the Jonas Brothers for a song. The Jonas Brothers, as you may know, made a fortune last year in cloning and then spent it all in waxing services and Hot Topic merchandise. And I notice that Piggy, unlike the Jonases, isn't wearing a promise ring. The whore.

And then Adam Sandler and his co-host show up and I think the show ended. At least that's when credits came up and Statler and Waldorf started cracking jokes. This was the part that hurt the most, because it made the distance between Studio DC and The Muppet Show all the more glaring, since The Muppet Show is where Statler and Waldorf's choleric heckling began and ripened to full vaudevillian juiciness. Maybe it's because Peter and I have been watching so many episodes of The Muppet Show, which represent, to my inexpert audience mind, a television Camelot of Muppetdom, full of artistic and comical beauty so great that it imbued even a bulbous nine-foot blue monster with a kind of knightly comeliness. Whatever the reason, watching Studio DC: Almost Live felt like seeing Jackie Kennedy trawling the Port Authority area, with one tooth, offering to do the no-pants dance with you for a pack of Newports. You keep trying to reconcile this image with the older one, the better one, and they simply don't match up.

But like I said, I'm not a Muppet Fan, I'm a fan. That's why I don't jump at any chance to see the puppets doing, say, an appearance on The View or selling Ginsu knives on QVC. I want the Muppets, and they were nowhere to be seen in Studio DC: Almost Live. And, no, it doesn't deserve the exclamation point. Period.
Click here to discuss selling out on the ToughPigs forum!

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

 

The Word of the Day Is "This Is a Good TV Show"


by Ryan Roe

So, everyone's been watching the new season of Sesame Street, right? This is year 39(!), as well as the first season to be shot in high-definition, which means you can see all of those funny little hairs on Telly's head in crystal clarity.

So far we've seen an Indiana Jones parody that was better than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, an appearance by Neil Patrick Harris as a singing shoe fairy, and some nifty clay-animated Bert and Ernie shorts. Oh, and lots and lots of Murray Monster chasing a hyper sheep. Oh, and Jack Black and Heidi Klum and some ballerinas, and Cookie Monster trying to devour a sentient letter O. And that's only the first five episodes!

So set your TiVos and VCRs, or just call work and tell them you'll be late every morning for the next several weeks because you're watching
Sesame Street. They'll understand.


Click here to discuss the new season of Sesame Street on the Tough Pigs forum!


ToughPigsRyan@yahoo.com

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

 

Remembering Bernie


by Joe Hennes


Earlier this week, the world lost another important person close to the Muppets: Bernie Brillstein. Bernie managed Jim Henson throughout most of his career, and was pivotal in the creation of productions such as The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie, and Fraggle Rock. He also executive-produced shows like ALF and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and movies like Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers, and The Cable Guy. Not to mention the long list of big celebrities that he personally represented, like Rob Lowe, Jennifer Aniston, Wayne Brady, and just about every cast member of Saturday Night Live.


For more about Bernie’s life, check out his entry on the Muppet Wiki. For a whole lot more about Bernie’s life, I wholeheartedly recommend reading his autobiography, “Where Did I Go Right?”, which is a terrific read.


The life of Bernie Brillstein is really only half of his story. The other half comes with the all-important character of Bernie, as seen on The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, live appearances, web shows, and even non-Henson productions. His resume is almost as long as the frog’s!


Feeling uneducated regarding all things Muppet? That’s all right; be prepared to learn! In honor of the late, great Bernie Brillstein, here is a retrospective of his namesake, the aptly-named Bernie.


Before The Muppets were The Muppets, Kermit the Frog was discovered by Bernie the Agent. Bernie showed Kermit that he was able to spot a potential star after a half of a song and a couple wisecracks, that he loves to pronounce the word “Hollywood,” and that he has an intense fear of alligators. If it weren’t for him, Kermit would have never lost his bicycle! Oh, and he would have never met his friends and became famous or whatever.


Bernie represented singer Lola Falana for a short while, but he was let go after failing to get her out of her commitment to guest star on The Muppet Show, even though she only gave him 15 seconds notice and appeared to have a great time flirting with Gonzo.


Bernie also represented Boober Fraggle for a time, as seen in the Fraggle Rock wrap party tape. Boober came close to convincing Bernie to try and cast him as the leading man in the new Meryl Streep movie, but Bernie knows where his client’s talents lie. And he let Boober know of his exact thoughts by, uh, hanging up on him. So much for that ten percent.


In an episode of From the Balcony, Statler calls out to Bernie, who is just offscreen. I’ll be honest with you, I gave up on From the Balcony pretty quickly, so I can only imagine that the bit involved some sort of bad pun about being old and very little to do with actually rating movies.


While filming the classic film, “Singin’ in the Rain” (the one starring Grover and directed by Prairie Dawn.. what movie were YOU thinking of??), Grover bailed on his responsibilities as an actor to take lunch with Bernie, who I’m sure was on set in an advisory capacity. Prairie Dawn has held a blood vendetta against him ever since.


In the John Landis film, “Into the Night,” Jim Henson (the Muppet guy) is having an argument with Bernie over the phone. “Have I ever lied to you?” asks Henson, “Okay, but can we talk about it?” he pleads, mercifully. Suddenly, Henson is surrounded by tuxedoed goons and offers to call Bernie back later. Sources say that they did finish their conversation at a later date.


The latest proof of Bernie’s existence was in a 2007 episode of The Late Late Show, in which an infuriated Miss Piggy threatened to call him after learning that the show doesn’t air until 12:30am. As of printing date, Bernie has not been able to remove a “Late” from the Late Late Show.


It’s still too early to tell if Bernie the character has passed along with the non-fictional Bernie, but I’m sure we’ll hear from him again soon. Because even though the people we love and respect pass away, their legacies will live on forever. A simple concept, but one the Muppets have kept true.


Click here to help us remember Bernie Brillstein on the ToughPigs forum.

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Friday, August 8, 2008

 

Interview: Sesame Street's Matt Vogel


by Ryan Roe



On Wednesday, I reviewed You Can't Rock Sittin' Down, the new album by the Mighty Weaklings, a band that includes Sesame Street Muppet performer Matt Vogel (He's the one standing in front of the playground in that picture). Today, ToughPigs.com is pretty darn happy to present an interview, conducted via e-mail, with Mr. Vogel himself.

TOUGH PIGS: How did you come to be involved with Sesame Street? What was the first thing you did on the show?

MATT VOGEL: In 1994, I answered an ad in Backstage looking for a left-handed puppeteer. I’m not a left-handed puppeteer—but I am left-handed and I thought that was close enough. The job was to be the secondary performer of a full-body Coca-Cola Polar Bear puppet that Muppets had built for live appearances. I met with John Henson (the primary performer) and soon after started doing polar bear appearances.

My first Sesame Street gig was for a home video called Tell the Truth. I played some background characters with Stephanie D’Abruzzo. My first season on Sesame Street was in 1996. I did a lot of right-hand work, but also got to do some small characters including one of Kingston Livingston III’s Crew Four.

TP: Was it intimidating for you coming to work alongside Sesame veterans like Jerry Nelson and Fran Brill?

MV: Both Fran and Jerry are such great performers and they were very welcoming to me right from the beginning. They made me feel comfortable and at ease… but I was—and still am—in awe of them. So, I wouldn’t say that I was intimidated. Although I did see Fran wrestle a mountain lion. Not intimidating, but impressive.

TP: How and at what point was it decided that you would become the alternate Big Bird? Was the audition process open to any puppeteers beyond the Sesame cast?

MV: They were looking for someone to perform Big Bird at live appearances when Caroll Spinney was unavailable. So, Caroll held a workshop/audition with a few of the Sesame Street puppeteers. I’d never met Mr. Spinney before and when I was introduced to him as “Matt Vogel”, he shook my hand and said, “You know, your last name means ‘bird’ in German, this might be the job for you.” That was a bit intimidating. Caroll told us his history with Sesame Street and Jim Henson and then he had us each put on Big Bird and give it a shot. That was very intimidating—trying to sound like Big Bird right in front of the man who IS Big Bird. After that, I met with Caroll one-on-one a few times to work on Big Bird. Even now, Caroll continues to give me pointers and I consider him one of my mentors.

TP: Was Journey to Ernie your first gig as Big Bird?

MV: Well, my first real job as Big Bird was a live appearance in front of an auditorium full of Kmart managers. Seriously. Big Bird was revealed behind a giant revolving K (for Klassy).

My first Big Bird appearance on Sesame Street was not “Journey to Ernie”, but I think it was in a scene with a bunch of other characters and I said only a line or two.

TP: How are the Journey to Ernie segments produced?

MV: We shot those on a huge blue screen. I would only see a rough sketch of what the final animation would look like, I’d have to imagine the action that would be animated later. I found “Journey to Ernie” to be challenging because of how we had to shoot it, the physicality of the segment, and the fact that being inside Big Bird is disorienting—you only see what the camera’s shooting. There’s no peripheral vision, it’s like you’re working in a yellow bubble.

TP: Have you ever taken a crack at being Oscar the Grouch?

MV: Oh, sure…at home for my kids when I’m cranky. But I’ve never done it seriously.

TP: You were Big Bird for the Sesame Street segment with Laura Bush. What was that like? Did the Secret Service have to frisk the bird?

MV: The First Lady came to the Street prepared and she was very sweet. The Secret Service did not frisk Big Bird, but they did shake down Elmo.

TP: What's your favorite Sesame Street thing you've done? Do you have a favorite character you've performed on the show?

MV: I’ve had a lot of opportunities to perform some fun characters on Sesame Street. Some of my favorites are Howie Eatswell from the “Meal or No Meal” sketch, David Letterguy, Hansel (of Hansel & Gretel), and Herb the Dinosaur. But I also do a lot of right-hand work on the show and some of my favorite times are assisting puppeteers like David Rudman, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson and Frank Oz.

TP: What kind of hilarious or fascinating anecdotes can you tell us from behind the scenes at Sesame? Come on, you must have a million of 'em.

MV: I was doing a live appearance as Big Bird with Penny Marshall for a new Sesame Street kid’s clothing line. We were hosting a fashion show in front of a bunch of press and children. As Penny Marshall walked on stage, she lost her footing and grabbed Big Bird by the right wing—ripping it off the puppet! In front of everyone—Cameras, reporters, children!

There she was, standing there with the wing in her hands. She quickly realized what had happened and hid the wing behind her back. Neither of us knew what to do so I just said, “Don’t worry. It’ll grow back.” And we went on with the show.

TP: How much ad-libbing happens on Sesame Street? Or is it pretty much stick-to-the-script for maximum educational value?

MV: The puppeteers all respect the writers and the work that goes into the scripts on Sesame Street. When there is ad-libbing, it’s something that wouldn’t impact any educational point. Sometimes a puppeteer will change a word or switch the order of a sentence to make more sense to their character or the scene, but if someone really wants to change something major (which has happened) then there’s a discussion with the director, the writer—who’s always on hand—and the producers.

TP: According to Muppet Wiki, you voiced Scooter and Janice in the Muppet Race Mania video game. What was that like? If you're at liberty to say, is there a particular reason that was the only time you played those characters?

MV: I did voice Scooter and Janice for the Muppet Race Mania game. There were only a few lines and I think I was cast to do it because they hadn’t made any official recasting choices for those characters at the time. I had a good time doing it, but I never thought it was a recast, just a one-time job.

TP: So... your band. Why the name "the Mighty Weaklings"?

MV: The band was originally just me and my songwriting partner, Michael Ray Escamilla. We wrote and played goofy songs at parties and for anyone who’d listen. It was never really anything taken very seriously. The name The Mighty Weaklings was the winner we picked from a list of about fifty names we’d written down. But as the band has evolved and grown in numbers, the name really suits us.

The name is a dichotomy—and so are a lot of our songs. It’s kind of how we do everything. Like we wanted to do a kid’s album, but we didn’t want to sound like a kid’s album.

TP: You Can't Rock Sittin' Down is billed as a "rock album for kids." Did you approach the songs as rock songs first and kids' songs second?

MV: I’m a parent of four children, so I’ve heard lots of kid’s music. But after we’d done Jack’s Big Music Show and decided we wanted to do our own kid’s record, we wanted it to sound different from what was typically heard. The band already had a guitar-centric rock sound, so we knew the end result would be a rock album for kids.

We also wanted to make sure that parents could listen to it as much as their kids. The songs came about happened in a few different ways. Some were influenced by what I saw my kids were interested in (“Super Hero”, “Bug Town”) and some were my thoughts about what being a kid was like (“Grumpy Song”, “It’s Sunny When You Share”). Sometimes I knew what the song sounded like and other times Michael would noodle around with guitar riffs that would find the melody.

For “It’s Sunny When You Share”, I asked Joey Mazzarino to write it with me because he’s a really funny writer and I knew he could help make the song what it needed to be. On “Fallin’ Down”, our drummer, Bj Hemann, had the idea and the sound of the song and together we wrote the lyrics.

TP: Were you influenced at all by the kids' rock music that They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies have done? The Mighty Weaklings' material seems to fit in the same sub-genre.

MV: I’m a huge fan of Barenaked Ladies and They Might Be Giants. I’ve listened to them for years and my kids listen to them, too. We’ve been told we have a similar sound to both bands but we all come from a lot of different musical tastes including Van Halen, Ben Folds, Metallica, Billy Joel, Guns ‘n Roses, Journey, Neil Diamond – you name it—and they all influence our music in one way or another.

TP: Jerry Nelson makes a great cameo on the song "Mr. Grumpy." How did that come about? Did you have him in mind when you wrote those spoken interludes?

MV: Jerry’s a good friend of mine and I knew that I really wanted him to do something on the album. I thought the spoken word part on “Grumpy Song” would be awesome if Jerry did it, so I asked him and he agreed. We recorded it in his dressing room at Sesame Street during Season 39. We’re so honored to have him on our CD. It’s one of the highlights of the album for us.

TP: What kind of feedback have you gotten on the new album? It seems like parents would dig it just as much as kids.

MV: We’ve gotten great feedback for our album. People say their kids sing and dance along with all of the songs and laugh at the spoken word bits—which was one part of our goal—obviously, you want the kids to like the music. The other part of our goal was to have parents say that they like listening with their kids—which we’ve also heard.

We plug it as one of those CDs you could enjoy if you’ve got kids, know someone with kids, or ever were a kid yourself. It’s not available everywhere, so we’ve had to rely on word-of-mouth to help us and it seems to be working. We’re hopeful that by the end of the year, every kid in America will have a copy of You Can’t Rock Sittin’ Down. And The Mighty Weaklings will not rest until that happens! Unless, of course, there’s something really good on TV.

TP: There are several of those funny spoken word bits between tracks on the album. How did you decide to include that? Was it all scripted?

MV: We put the banter on the album to act as little intros into the next song but they’re also intended to give you an idea of the personality of the band members. Each of those bits are scripted, but it’s a pretty accurate picture of how each of us fits into the band dynamic. All five of us are trained actors, so doing the scripted parts were fun and kind of second nature to us.

TP: Finally, here's a very important question: Having worked intimately with all of them, what is your favorite letter of the alphabet?

MV: Wow. You know, I’d love to come right out and say I’m an “R” guy through-and-through…or a really big fan of “E”. But I can’t. To be honest, I think committing to a single letter in today’s rocky economy is foolish and can only spell trouble. So while I’d love to proclaim “L” my favorite above all letters…or tell you that I invest all of my free time in only “U”…I’d be lying. I just try to play the field with my letters and hope that at the end of the day the numbers don’t get too jealous.


Click here to comment on this article on the Tough Pigs forum!

The Mighty Weaklings album “You Can’t Rock Sittin’ Down” is available at CDBaby.com and iTunes. You can check out mightyweaklings.com for more.


ToughPigsRyan@yahoo.com

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

 

Keepin' It Weak


by Ryan Roe


Matt Vogel is a Sesame Street puppeteer best known to Muppet geeks as being the "understudy" for Big Bird. But he's also a rocker, and his band is called The Mighty Weaklings. The band (including Michael Ray Escamilla on rhythm guitar, Bob D’Haene on lead guitar, BJ Hemann on drums, Tim McCracken on keyboards, and Vogel on bass guitar and lead vocals) has a new album out now -- a "rock album for kids" called You Can't Rock Sittin' Down. Today I'm going to talk about the album... then come back here on Friday for an interview with Matt Vogel himself.

I don't have any offspring, so I don't really know what the current state of kids' music is like, but the iTunes store tells me that their best-selling children's album is Kidz Bop 14, which features children singing pop songs like "Teardrops on My Guitar," "Feels Like Tonight," and "Bleeding Love." That's pretty unfortunate... which is why it's a good thing there are artists like the Mighty Weaklings. I'm pretty sure I would have loved You Can't Rock Sittin' Down if I'd had it when I was seven years old.

Things kick off with "Keep It Weak," a song that introduces the band ("Some call us mighty/Others call us weak/We call us Mighty Weaklings"), encourages the listeners to play along with their air guitars, and presents the concept of "keeping it weak." I can't exactly explain what that means, but it seems to involve jamming out. Thus the Mighty Weaklings ensure that a generation of children will be totally confused as to the meaning of the word "weak," but who cares about kids anyway, right?

I'm always a sucker for audience participation, so when the band requests that I help them by shouting the word "WEAK!", I have no choice but to oblige. It causes some embarrassment on the bus, let me tell ya. I bet that old lady sitting next to me jumped three whole feet in the air...

Right away it's obvious that you're not listening to the Wiggles. Not that I have anything against the Wiggles -- I think Captain Feathersword is a true hero -- but the Mighty Weaklings are a rock band. They just happen to be a rock band that does songs about sharing, learning to ride a bike, and flying in a real rocket ship.

My favorite song on the album is "Grumpy Song." It's no secret that children, in addition to being very poor drivers, often get cranky. Rather than telling kids to cheer up and stop being grumpy, the Weaklings encourage them to let themselves be grumpy for a while if that's how they really feel... and maybe they'll feel better tomorrow. Expressing emotions is a theme that has been covered many times on Sesame Street, and there are several other instances on this album where the band imparts wisdom that will be familiar to Sesame fans.

Sesame Street is full of friendly monsters -- this CD has a happy, peppy song called "The Monster Under My Bed." Sesame Street pummels kids with the message that sharing can be fun -- the CD includes a track called "It's Sunny When You Share" (Get it? It's a pun on a popular singing duo kids have never heard of!), which was co-written by Matt Vogel's Sesame colleague Joey Mazzarino.
Oh, and that "Grumpy Song" I mentioned? It features Mr. Jerry Nelson doing some spoken interludes, and the the result is that it sounds like Grover's Fat Blue customer is on the album. "Usually I'm a pretty happy-go-lucky fellow," he says, "but when I get grumpy, it's a whole different enchilada!"

So basically, I'm going to go ahead and say that most people who like both Sesame Street and rock 'n' roll will like this album. There are two songs in a row that are more subdued, "Bug Town" and "Super Hero," which could potentially cause some young attention spans to drift. On the other hand, those songs are about insects and having super powers, and as far as I know, today's little tykes and toddlers and tiddlywinks still like those things.

I wouldn't hesitate to give You Can't Rock Sittin' Down to a kid, as long as the kid wasn't a big jerk. And I hope the Mighty Weaklings keep making new music... after all, somebody has to undo the damage done by Kidz Bop.

That CD I was just talking about can be purchased on CDBaby.com, or in digital form at the iTunes Store.
Click here to comment on this article on the Tough Pigs forum! And don't forget to come back on Friday for an interview with Mighty Weakling and Sesame Street performer Matt Vogel!




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Monday, August 4, 2008

 

Won't somebody think of the children?


by Anthony Strand



It’s no secret that kids no longer care about Muppets. To gather proof of that, I called my cousin Ryan, age ten. This is not a boy who hasn’t been exposed to the Muppets. He has seen The Muppet Show before, and he admits to having had a good time watching it. But he doesn’t think about them when they aren’t around. Our conversation went like this:

Me: Can you name three Muppets? Any three, off the top of your head.

Ryan: Okay. Kermit . . . um, Miss Piggy. Umm . . . . actually, I can only name two.

Now, my cousin Ryan doesn’t represent all American children, but he is pretty typical. Kids are aware that the Muppets exist, but it doesn’t matter to them. With DVDs of The Muppet Show readily available, there should be a new generation of Muppet fans springing up, but it isn’t happening. The Muppets are at best something weird that their parents or older siblings like, or at worst this one thing that looks kind of like Sesame Street, that baby show they used to watch. Whatever the reason, kids just don't have any interest in the Muppets.

So far, Disney’s response to this problem has been to stuff the Muppets in a drawer and forget about them, focusing all of their energy and money instead on Disney Channel properties like The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and High School Musical. Recently, though, someone got the bright idea to toss the Muppets in with those things, and we got last night’s half-hour TV special Studio DC: Almost Live.

I’m not going to dwell on the quality of the special – it was probably enjoyable enough for the target crowd, but I personally found it soul-crushingly awful. No, what I want to talk about today was the wise decision to use the special to actually introduce The Muppets to a tween-age crowd, using the Disney Channel stars as surrogates for the audience.

In the opening number, “Some Song About Being a Girl and Having Fun,” Hannah Montana star Miley Cyrus is repulsed to learn that Muppets exist. Her face shows complete horror when Pepe and Rizzo start talking at her. She’s baffled that her dad wants her to play with the Electric Mayhem, even after the oddly-accented little talking dolls tell her that they’ve played with “Garth Brooks, Elton John and Prince”. She seems to be thinking “Old people like the weirdest things.” In the end, though, she reluctantly does the song. By the end she’s in love with them. “The Electric Mayhem are great,” she screams. “Especially Animal!”

“Look, kids!” the special is saying. “These creatures might look weird and old and outdated, but they’re awfully wacky and fun!”

The second sketch involves Kermit, Piggy, and Gonzo guest-starring on The Suite Life. Fifteen-year-old twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse, as Zack and Cody, clearly have no idea who Kermit and Gonzo are as the sketch opens. In fact, they have to be introduced to both characters by their tormented father figure, Mr. Moseby. Once they are, though, typical Suite Life nonsense ensues, with Kermit rushing around to please his guests and Gonzo dismantling an air conditioner for some reason.

“You know you like The Suite Life,” Disney is telling the children. “These characters also engage in nonsensical hijinx. Wouldn’t you like to see more of that?”

As the third segment opens, we find High School Musical star Ashley Tisdale telling Kermit that she loves The Muppets and always had a crush on Fozzie Bear. She then enthusiastically does a song number with Kermit. What’s that, you ask, a child who’s familiar with The Muppets? Unfortunately, no. At 23, Tisdale might firmly be in the Muppet Babies generation, but she’s certainly old enough to remember when the Muppets were still popular.

“Ashley Tisdale grew up with these guys!” the Disney Channel is shouting. “And you love her! Why don’t you love them too?!”

Finally, fabricated pop sensations The Jonas Brothers (the oldest of whom is 20) sing a song with Miss Piggy. Surprisingly, they address her by name before she has to be introduced. By now, the young audience should be familiar enough with The Muppets (Piggy has appeared in the last two sketches before this one) that no introductions are required. There just be hope yet for the younger generation.

“See how quickly the Jonas Brothers became Miss Piggy fans?!” Mickey Mouse is pleading. “Won’t you do the same? Please, for me?!

We'll have to wait and see if it works.

Click here to be surprised that Muppets still exist on the Tough Pigs Forum.

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