July 12, 2009

Yes, But Is It Cultural?

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , — Joe Hennes @ 10:00 pm


Back in May, MacFarland Publishing released Kermit Culture: Critical Perspectives of Jim Henson’s Muppets, an academic anthology using the Muppets as the stock in their smartypants soup. Some of the essays relate directly to the Muppets (for example, “Gonzo, (the Great) Cultural Critic”, which analyzes and compares the methods of Gonzo and Sam the Eagle), while some use the Muppets as a gateway into a larger issue (for example, “The Uniquely Strong but Feminine Miss Piggy”, which studies Piggy as a non-stereotypical woman). In any case, this is the kind of book that seems to be written specifically for us: the Muppet fanatics who have nothing better to do than overanalyze the films and episodes we’ve seen dozens upon dozens of times.

I must admit, when I first heard about this book, I (selfishly) wondered why we at ToughPigs weren’t contacted to contribute. I mean, we write about Muppets every day. Wouldn’t we have a unique perspective, not to mention an overabundance of research materials, to crank out an essay or two? But two pages into reading the first article gave me my answer: I am not nearly smart enough to write an academic essay. These 16 writers do have the chops, which do a great job at covering both the Muppets as well as the issue at hand.

One blatantly absent part of most of the writers’ research was one for which they can’t be blamed. Aside from the readily-available films, they mainly focused on episodes from the first three seasons of The Muppet Show, which are not-so-coincidentally the only ones out on DVD. A few episodes from the Time-Life releases are cited, but two-thirds of the series is all but ignored (thankfully, the Muppet Wiki serves as a reliable source for most of the essays). There’s nothing we can do but blame Disney for not hurrying up and getting these DVDs out, but this might serve as a glaring omission when re-reading the book after we’re all more familiar with seasons 4 and 5.

Because this is an academic anthology, I expected it to be rather heavy (content-wise, not weight-wise – try saying it like Marty McFly), and it didn’t disappoint in that regard. The fact that this review is coming out over a month after its release might give you some idea of how long it took me to get through it. Some articles dragged on to a painful degree, with an overabundance of five-dollar words and unnecessary elaboration. The worst culprit of this was Hugh Davis, who wrote “The Muppets and Shakespeare.” Now, you’d think that an essay comparing The Muppets and Shakespeare would be fascinating, but instead it reads like a list copied from the Muppet Wiki of Shakespeare references in Muppet productions stretched out to 10 pages. Go ahead and click on the link above to the Wiki’s Shakespeare article. And now you’ve read everything Hugh Davis had to say.

On the other hand, some of the articles are rather compelling. “The Muppet Show Re-Forms the Fringe” by Anissa M. Graham (who also served as one of the editors) illustrates the different ways guest stars would interact with the Muppets. Some were in on the chaos, some were victims of the chaos, and some invited the Muppets into their own chaos. It’s an interesting way to categorize the episodes, and Graham did a fine job at keeping it interesting. Likewise, Ginger Stelle’s “Starring Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit: Muppets as Actors” discusses the idea that the Muppets are actors unto themselves, as opposed to puppets who can become anyone the puppeteer chooses. Both of these subjects are exactly the kind of thing I (and presumably, my fellow fanatics) would obsess over after a few too many viewings of the Alice Cooper episode.

Eagle-eyed ToughPigs readers might recognize one of the authors as being our own Andrew Leal. Andrew has guest-written for ToughPigs, and he serves as an administrator on the Muppet Wiki. Of course, since I know Andrew personally, I was deeply afraid that it might not be good, and because we’ve got a reputation for being jerks, I’d have to be honest and say so. Thankfully, Andrew’s article, “Muppets and Money” (which serves as the caboose to the anthology train), is one of the highlights of the book. He took a subject that could very well have been another list of facts about the Muppets’ history with economics and turned it into a quasi-narrative about how Jim funded his career, as well as money’s role in the fictional universe of The Muppets. Nice work, Andrew, and we’re happy to have you on our team!

At the $35 asking price for “Kermit Culture”, I’m hesitant to recommend it, because I’d say only about 50% is worth the price of admission. For the uber-fan like myself, it’s a must-read. For the casual fan, it’s your call. For the casual fan who happens to be a college professor who might use the book as a textbook, you should have ordered yours yesterday. The bottom line is: Nothing pleases me more than the fact that an academic anthology all about the Muppets exists.
Click here to visit McFarland Publishing’s website where you can order Kermit Culture.

Click here to discuss this article to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance” on the ToughPigs forum!

joe.toughpigs@gmail.com



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