Did The Muppets Improve?

The fall of 2015 saw the triumphant return of The Muppet Show, simply called The Muppets, to television. After a Jason Segel Muppet Movie in 2011 (The Muppets), and a Ricky Gervais With Muppets Movie in 2014 (Muppets Most Wanted), the time had come for a weekly dose of everybody’s favorite hand-puppetry. The triumph, however, lasted only for about a week or so.

It just wasn’t very funny. The first episode of The Muppets 2015 style reassembled the band, took all the iconic characters out of the theatre and into Miss Piggy’s very own late night talkshow. Kermit the Frog was made producer, Fozzie Bear the standup/warmup comedian and the rest, well, their roles didn’t really matter; they were Muppets. Everything seemed to have been constructed logically, and indeed, it was nice to have America’s favorite plush family back, but the jokes just weren’t there. Over the course of the first half of the season – 10 episodes – the ratings went down quickly. No one dared to say it. No one was able to find the courage in their hearts to pop the question. No one but John Oliver, who just flat out said it: ‘How is this still on?

Even the funniest of Muppets, in my opinion, Pepe the King Prawn, lost his touch. The prawn had cramped up. It was like the whole cast was under a lot of pressure, and one by one they folded. It made me wonder if Pepe was still Pepe. I was almost certain he’d been replaced by another voice actor, but that wasn’t the case. Bill Barretta’s still voicing him from under the hood, ever since his first appearance on Muppets Tonight. So why didn’t it work? Creators Bob Kushell (3rd Rock from the Sun) and Bill Prady (The Big Bang Theory) obviously knew what they were doing, given their sitcom experiences, right? Something just wasn’t right, and ABC stepped in. The Muppets would be back in 2016, but it needed a serious retooling. Kushell was out, Kristin Newman (Chuck, Galavant, That 70’s Show) was in.

My expectations weren’t that high, for episode 11, ‘Swine Song’, but I kind of assumed we’d see the Muppets exit the late night talkshow formula and move back into a banged up theatre, or get on the road. I should’ve known better, though. Hollywood is absolutely terrified of change. Even if things don’t work, they’d rather cancel a show altogether. Tweaking the format a little, that’s usually not an option; too scary. So when they do, because it’s the Muppets – and you do not cancel the Muppets – it’s going to be some half heartedly, watered down improvement that’s hardly noticeable.

That about sums it up. The Muppets are still working on ‘Up Late with Miss Piggy’. Pepe and Rizzo the Rat are still perfunctorily wisecracking behind the scenes. Kermit is still running around. Miss Piggy is still in charge as her egocentric self. Bobo’s still mumbling. The (human) guest stars are still overacting. Jokes are still absent. The only shiver of retooling is a couple of new segments on Piggy’s show, like Pepe driving an Uber cab. It’s a nice idea, but nice isn’t nearly enough.

The story of the episode revolves around the network sending somebody over to retool the show (hello, fourth wall), but he’s not doing anything, except walk around all hipster-like. Everybody’s scared of him nonetheless, and because of all this commotion, Kermit fails to give his girlfriend Denise his undivided attention. When he sings an old corny song with Piggy, Denise feels it’s time to take a break. In other words, The Muppets is going to focus on segments the real talkshows are doing much better, and some romance – either between Kermit and Denise or him and Piggy. If I may quote John Oliver: ‘How is this still on?’

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