A few years ago, the Disney Channel announced they were rebooting “Muppet Babies,” and to add insult to injury, they were going to transform the charmingly flat, two-dimensional Muppets into CGI. Ugh, I initially thought when I heard the news, is nothing sacred? I was a bit of a super fan of the original “Muppet Babies,” which ran in the ‘80s on Saturday mornings, one of the few times cartoons were actually on T.V. at the time. (*shakes cane at the heavens* “You kids have it too good these days!”)
In fact, you could say I was there at Ground Zero of the “Muppet Babies” phenomenon. My Mom, bless her heart, took me to “The Muppets Take Manhattan” on opening weekend (something for which I’ll forever be grateful), and, as true Muppet-philes know, there is a short sequence in the film that served as the inspiration for the cartoon show, when Miss Piggy fantasizes that she wished she met Kermit when they were babies. Incidentally, that little scene, which was directed by Frank Oz in his solo directorial debut, is a magical delight, and I still marvel at how they got the puppets, er, Muppets to move without any strings or hands showing. I also love how the nursery looks almost identical to the cartoon version, with the giant circular window with ornate patterns the centerpiece of the room.
Not only did I religiously watch the show (both episodes back to back, after they canceled “The Garbage Pail Kids” cartoon, which I think ran for a total of 3 weeks, I’m not even exaggerating), but I had a subscription to Muppet Magazine, which had a regular department dedicated to the Muppet Babies. I also owned the Muppet Babies lunchbox, which was featured in “The Muppets” reboot movie with Jason Segel. (It was in the background of Walter’s bedroom.) That lunchbox made me the envy of my elementary school cafeteria, or at least I liked to think so. There were more than a few people who asked to examine the pictures on the box of the Muppet Babies lampooning miscellaneous movies. They would flip the box over to see parodies of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Star Wars,” and others.
Being such a nerd, uh, fan of this show, and also being the father of two little girls, I felt obligated to at least watch the pilot of the reboot, and I was pleasantly surprised. The show seemed to capture the spirit of the original. The characters, voices, and humor all were familiar, except Nanny who seemed younger, though, true to her original incarnation, you still couldn’t see her face (I’m assuming so the audience could identify with whoever their nurturing caregiver was while growing up). The nursery even had the ornate window! What’s more, I enjoyed the original character Summer Penguin, which, I’m not too proud to admit, took me months to figure out the joke that she was a penguin named “Summer.” On top of that, I learned to appreciate the CGI metamorphosis of the characters, something I once viewed as sacrilege. It lent the characters a tactile quality; I swear I could reach into the T.V. and touch Fozzie’s fur. It was almost too real.
At first reluctant (they didn’t know the “Muppet Babies” from “He-Man”), my daughters eventually became fans of the show as well, until every episode was appointment viewing. But, as with many things, the kids got older, I got busier (hey, I’ve got a book to promote!), and watching the show became less and less important, even nonessential.
Then a few months ago, I read the description of an upcoming episode, “The Muppet Babies Show,” where the Muppet Babies put on their version of the original “Muppet Show” from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. I thought this was a great idea for an episode and was surprised they hadn’t done it before. I gathered my girls together to watch this latest show, and we seemed to all agree that the quality was a par above the average episode. It’s about the last day before summer break when the Muppet Babies are going to go their separate ways and leave the nursery. So, to commemorate the time they spent together, they decide to put on one final show, which ends up being their version of the original “Muppet Show.” There are callbacks to classic skits like “Pigs in Space” and “Veterinarian’s Hospital.” There was even a hilarious bit where Bunsen Honeydew, as usual, messes up one of his inventions, and the Muppets’ voices are swapped several times over until you can’t tell who is who anymore.
Throughout it all, Kermit is worried about having to leave his friends once their show ends, and he keeps trying to sabotage the proceedings so the sketches never end and he can play with his friends forever. Of course, this sort of logic is sketchy at best (the Muppets have to end the show and leave the nursery sometime), but then again, the show is called “Muppet Babies,” not “Muppet Geniuses.”
I noticed how different this episode was compared to the others. It was slightly more melancholy and reflective. Also, it was longer. Most “Muppet Babies” episodes are two short stories that have nothing to do with each other, but this was one long story taking up the entire half hour. I realized that this must be the season finale of the show.
As the episode continued, Kermit panicked even more, since he doesn’t like change, something I can relate to a bit too well. In fact, he doesn’t calm down until the other characters comfort him by singing a heartwarming new song about accepting change while clips of past episodes played. That’s when it hit me: “Oh, this isn’t the season finale. It’s the series finale.” In a way, Kermit dreading the end of his show is a clever meta-commentary about the creators of “Muppet Babies” not wanting their show to end.
At the very end of the episode, Nanny gets all the babies ready to leave their beloved nursery once and for all. There is no dialogue, only soft, almost mournful music playing in the background (a carryover of the song they just sang). Then each main Muppet races to the front door of the nursey, turns around, and waves “Goodbye” to the “camera.” Summer waves her paintbrush. (Art was her talent.) Animal waves his stuffed bunny rabbit. Gonzo waves his crash helmet. Fozzie waves his rubber chicken. Piggy simply blows a kiss. Next, Kermit reaches the door, turns around, breaks the fourth wall, and directly addresses us, the viewers, at home: “See you later friends,” he says, “and thanks for all the laughs.” Then he leaves the nursery, forever. Finally, the “camera” pans up to that famous window, the sunlight streaming through it one last time.
I literally almost cried. This wasn’t fair. I already had to say goodbye to the Muppet Babies 30 years ago. Now I was being forced to do it all over again. And if I was upset, can you imagine how the writers, artists, directors, and other people who worked on the show felt? They were losing their jobs!
Call me overly nostalgic or maudlin, but the world is a worse place with less Muppet content. Sure, they’re corny, and the humor is more than a little hackneyed, but they’re innocent and don’t demand anything from us except not to take ourselves too seriously, to laugh at the world during the good times (and especially during the bad), and, most of all, to always use the power of your imagination. It’s right there in the theme song: “When the world looks kinda weird/and you wish that you weren’t there/Just close your eyes and make believe/and you can be anywhere.”
To grossly paraphrase Michael Douglas’ character from the terrific and terrifically underrated “Wonder Boys,” which is probably my favorite movie about writing (or trying to write), the world needs all the dewy innocence it can get, especially these days when it seems we’re minutes away from World War III.
Innocence, by its very definition, doesn’t last. Even though she’s only 9, I can sense this change in my oldest daughter already. We first visited the indoor waterpark/resort Great Wolf Lodge in the Poconos just before the pandemic hit (like literally 1 week beforehand; we just made it!). One of the attractions of the place is a game called MagiQuest, which is basically an electronic scavenger hunt where you wave a magic wand at various locations in the hotel to beat certain obstacles and get rewarded with points and “gold.” I remember how thrilled she was, excitedly waving her plastic wand through the hotel’s corridors. Her eyes would light up whenever she discovered something new.
When we returned to Great Wolf last month, I asked if she wanted to play the game again, and she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Nah.” What did she want to do? Borrow my wife’s cellphone to text her friends so she could boast about her vacation. I’m not trying to dump on my daughter (or the typical behavior of any tween), but my point is this: Parents, cherish the time you have with your young ones, because It Goes Fast. I know I was hugging my youngest daughter a little tighter than normal on my vacation, to the point where she was getting annoyed with me. And in case you’re wondering, no, she didn’t want to play MagiQuest either, but only because she usually follows whatever my oldest wants to do, since she looks up to her.
Hopefully, there’ll be another reboot of “Muppet Babies” one day, but I have a feeling this time, I won’t be watching it with my children, but with my grandchildren.
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P.P.S.: Next week’s blog: The “Twilight Zone” of Nostalgia