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May 21, 2003

In Defense of Muppet Babies

Filed under: Commentary — Tags: — Danny Horn @ 12:11 pm

In Defense of Muppet Babies
as unlikely as that may seem

http://www.toughpigs.com/images/journalmbabies01.jpgIn a shifting and uncertain world, there are a few simple truths that Muppet fans can hang on to: The Muppet Movie is perfect, your friends will never remember the names of the two old guys in the balcony, and nobody likes the Muppet Babies.

At least, that’s what I’ve always believed. So imagine my surprise when the subject of Muppet Babies came up on the Tough Pigs message board recently, and a few people — intelligent, grown-up people, who change their own clothes and use recognizable punctuation — posted completely reasonable explanations of why they think the Muppet Babies deserve some love.

Personally, I always admire folks who stick up for the underdog — even when the dog in question is wearing diapers — so I’m posting their thoughts here, in the hope that it leads to a greater understanding of this maligned group of animated toddlers.

(By the way, if you happen to disagree with the following opinions and want to pick a fight, feel free to send me your reply. I’d be happy to post some anti-Baby responses, cause, y’know, I’m always happy to see the Muppet Babies get smacked around a little bit.)


Tom Holste:

When I was a kid, I adored the Muppet Babies, simply because of the Muppet connection. I loved their show-stopping musical number in MTM. I watched the cartoon every week, and at one time owned nearly every issue of the comic book. When I got older, I could appreciate the show’s quality animation and innovative use of live-action film footage, photos, and paintings. I thought using the Babies’ imagination was a clever springboard for stories.

http://www.toughpigs.com/images/journalmbabies02.jpgThey took a different route with some of the characterizations — for example, Gonzo’s love for Piggy, which we never saw after season 1 of The Muppet Show; it was kind of like an alternate take, a “what might have been” if the TMS writers had continued to explore that. I thought it was interesting to make Scooter a techno-whiz; after he stopped being such a brat in the early days of TMS, there wasn’t a whole lot to his character, so this (and the sibling rivalry) made interesting additions to his characterization as well.

Most of the songs were enjoyable, and overall the series just seemed to have a sense of fun that must have been imbued from Jim somehow, regardless of how much of his input was there on a week-to-week basis.

From a business perspective, the series was a good move for Jim as well. He wanted to explore increasingly darker fantasy projects that were more and more expensive to make, yet didn’t do very well at a time when the country was more interested in Care Bears, Smurfs and Ewoks. The 80’s were exactly the right time for the Muppet Babies, and they brought in a lot of money for the company at a time when not much else was bringing the Henson Co success. The show did phenomenal ratings, sold lots of merchandise, and won a bunch of Emmys, so it must have been doing something right. The show was on the air for eight years, and I think it finally went off the air not due to a plunge in ratings, but because they no longer had Jim’s input. The final season was in production in 1991, just a year after Jim’s death.

Nonetheless, after about four years I stopped watching the show. I don’t think the writing necessarily got any worse; I just outgrew the show’s target audience. Of course, as a Muppet fan, it takes me longer to do that than most other people. But I stopped watching Sesame Street every day when I was about nine years old. And after Muppet Babies was on for four years, I just kind of felt the show didn’t relate to me any more.

I haven’t seen the show in years and don’t really want to. Many of the things I loved as a kid suffered when I watched them recently — Banana Splits and other Hanna-Barbera product, Transformers, Droids cartoons, etcetera. These were my favorite shows, and they didn’t hold up when I watched them with an adult’s sensibility of what, artistically, makes for a good TV show. Even seeing TMS for the first time in years on the Time-Life tapes, I’m saying, wow, I never realized how many slow spots there are in a given episode. (The only stuff that’s survived intact in my estimation are the old Warner Brothers and MGM cartoons. But I don’t even watch those every day; I’ve just seen ’em too many times.)

My point is, I still have warm, fuzzy feelings about the Muppet Babies right now, and I fear that can only be destroyed if I ever watch them again.

When I first entered Muppet online fandom, I was surprised to see the heavy level of hatred directed towards the Babies. I don’t think it had as much to do with problems with the execution of the show as Muppet fans’ reaction to getting teased mercilessly for liking so-called “baby stuff.” While I feel for anyone this may have happened to, I don’t hold it against the show itself.

What gets me in particular is that someone must have been supportive of the Babies at the time for it to be that successful, including Muppet fans. Now the talk is “I always hated the Babies,” and “the Babies are what killed the Muppets.” Well, to me that’s like Star Wars fans’ hatred of the Ewoks, even though everyone I knew in the 80’s was a Star Wars fan and an Ewok fan.

I don’t think the show would have been such a problem if it had run for fewer years, and if there had been another phemonally successful Henson project after it to put a new impression of the Muppets in people’s minds. If The Jim Henson Hour had been a hit, for instance. But as it is, that’s all non-fan types seem to remember anymore, and I think that’s one of the biggest problems hurting the Muppets right now.

So, to sum up: Babies good in concept, thought it is a shame (and has genuinely hurt the Muppets) that it’s all people remember these days.

Quinn Rollins:

I thoroughly enjoyed the Muppet Babies for the first four years or so it was on the air, and then I sort of phased out of it. Or something.

Some of the things I liked most about it:

— At a time when Jim Henson and Frank Oz didn’t want to do anything with the Muppets, it kept them in the public eye in some form. The Muppet Show wasn’t on in my town in reruns anymore, there weren’t going to be any more Muppet movies, and the show gave the Muppet characters a consistent place on Saturday mornings. Sure, the characterization was different, but it kept nine of the most prominent Muppets (and Skeeter) in children’s living rooms — and those children ended up being some of the most ardent Muppet fans of the 1990’s. I don’t know if we would have seen the three 1990’s Muppet movies without the Muppet Babies keeping the home fires burning. Really.

— Tom mentioned “imagination,” and how Muppet Babies encouraged kids to use it, and I agree. To have a children’s cartoon without consistent threat or violence was unheard of, but Muppet Babies managed to do it. I also loved the “mixed media” things they would do — the ones that stick out the most (besides the Indiana Jones and Star Wars clips) are the Flash Gordon serials and the Great Train Robbery clips — where they would animate the characters against the old-school live-action films. Revolutionary for Saturday morning TV, and I still think it’s a great way to show children “using their imagination.”

— I think Gonzo’s uberpopularity these days is a direct result of his prominence in the cartoon — blasphemous as this is, I think it was “Baby Gonzo” that made me fall in love with Gonzo, and look at his character more carefully in The Muppet Movie and other projects. I do think that Baby Piggy is a bit too shrill, Baby Fozzie is a bit too dim, and Baby Scooter a bit too wimpy, but some of the others make up for the shortcomings in these three.

— The songs! Sometimes they were a bit too much, but they were generally more hit than miss. Using 1950’s style songs is another crazy move, but somehow it worked — and watching Muppet Babies now, it’s not as “dated” as the Muppet Show’s references to disco and the 1970’s. And I do own and listen to the Muppet Babies “Rocket to the Stars” CD.

— Robin as a tadpole.

— I liked that (as in Peanuts) they never showed the adults’ faces. They later broke that rule when they brought in Statler and Waldorf, and then they started showing other adults — and it took something away from the show.

Ryan Roe:

It’s true that Muppet Babies kept the Muppets visible. All of my peers who are still under the impression that the Muppets = Muppet Babies and nothing more would probably never have heard the word “Muppet” if not for the cartoon.

But if that’s the case, I just wish the project that kept them in the public eye was something a little closer in tone and characterization to The Muppet Show.

I guess Little Muppet Monsters was an attempt to do something like that, but we all know how successful that was.

Quinn Rollins:

Yeah, and that’s a lasting problem that I don’t think I addressed… Now if you ask the uneducated masses about the Muppets, they assume first and foremost that it’s a children’s property — or even younger, a toddlers’ property. That’s a problem in reigniting the Muppet flame amongst adults, even among the Muppet fans like us. There were those of us freaking out about the “adult content” of Very Merry Christmas, when it doesn’t seem much more extreme than what they were doing with The Muppet Show.

I dunno. I do think the Muppets should be something I can watch with my family and not be embarrassed because of the raunchitude, but I also would like to watch them and not be embarrassed because they’ve been so declawed and homogenized that they’re no longer entertaining.

I like that Janice talks about nudity and sings “the whole joint’s gone to hell,” that Rowlf drinks beer and Kermit and Piggy drink the finest wine of Idaho — all things that are decidedly adult (especially where I’m from), and things that a lot of people would edit out of the Muppets if they had their way.

I do appreciate and enjoy the Muppet Babies for what they were — but I think there should be a definite line drawn between the Babies and the Muppets.

But it doesn’t get much cuter than Baby Bunsen and Baby Beaker. Very nice. Bunsen’s bunny slippers? Awwwwww.

I think that’s all I have to say. For now.

compiled by Danny Horn

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