This article was written on 09 Oct 2015, and is filled under Film & TV.

The Fragility of Celebrity: “The Muppets” (ABC, 2015-)

The Muppets, ABC’s recent attempt to bring Jim Henson’s beloved puppets back to prime time, has been greeted by a surprising amount of critical hostility. Atlantic Magazine asks whether “audiences really want to see Fozzie and Gonzo walking into work clutching coffee like any other regular jobbers.”[1] The New York Post takes the show to task for a “half-hour of tough-to-watch anthropomorphized drama dominated by the puppets’ troubled love lives, choked with ‘jokes’ for adults that all turned on bathing Henson’s sweet and innocent creations in the tropes of our cynical age.”[2] And the Religious News Service even accuses ABC of killing “Jim Henson’s vision of making the world a kinder place.”[3] It could almost seem as if our own cynicism had never really bothered us till now: only with ABC’s Muppet-travesty at once reminding us of what the Muppets once promised to us and besmirching their memory in our own smirch do we for the first time really feel what we have lost.

Nostalgia is certainly at play in these critiques. The Muppets of the first Muppet Show were at once more complex, more adult and edgy, and yet also more genuinely sincere than what became of them with their various re-packagings and resurrections. The original Muppets exuded a kind of innocence, but it was not the shallow, venal innocence of Disney, selling childhood to children through the nostalgic desire of adults, but the innocence of the those who, having to give no account of themselves, not needing to justify their existence (as if existence itself incurred debt) before a court of judgment, enjoy the freedom to keep on being as they are.

Perhaps an intimation of this other kind of innocence is also at the root of the outrage provoked by the Muppet’s latest televisionary reincarnation. Even the Muppets now have to become otherwise than they are; they can’t just keep on being Muppets but must become like us, which is to say: neurotic adults, constantly haunted by a voice telling us that we could or should be doing something else, becoming otherwise, different; that we are not enough or are too much, that even our feeling of self-satisfaction, of contentment and happiness, is narcotic self-deception. Soon enough Animal will sign up for anger management courses; Sam Eagle will read Adorno–very cultural, after all–to understand his own authoritarian personality; Fozzie Bear will self-psychoanalyze his obsessive joke-making; Kermit will become the poster frog for co-dependence. Perhaps only Miss Piggy will remain untouched by self-reflection.

Yet if ABC’s new show has provoked such a strong reaction, it is because the sixty-odd years since their first appearance on a local DC TV network have seen the Muppets emerge as the greatest and most celebrated of Hollywood celebrities. They alone are able to remain at once iconic and (sort-of) alive. If celebrity always has something of divinity about it, the Muppets involve a remarkable, paradoxical theological synthesis. Transcending historical time, they can still always return to it: not as mere avatars with new bodies but as nothing else than themselves. They are not so unlike the pagan gods of antiquity, only with this difference: whereas Greek gods’ mythological and poetic representations always beckoned toward a reality beyond them, the Muppets actually exist in a full, and fully adequate, immanence.

The enduring celebrity of the Muppets has a simple and prosaic explanation: they are alive without living, and thus cannot perish; they are mere things, animated—endowed with motion and voice— by human beings from behind the scenes. Yet this doesn’t make them deficient or peripheral members of the Olympus of celebrity. Rather: it is precisely as mere animated things, identified neither with the decaying physical body of a living human being nor with the vicissitudes of the representative medium (as with cartoons) that the Muppets can exemplify the essence of celebrity. If Hollywood celebrity has always been the promise of a divine presence that is at once absolutely immanent, present for us without reserve, and absolutely distant, separated from us by a medium that imposes an infinite, unbridgeable gap between our life and theirs, then the Muppets alone achieve absolute celebrity. Hence the shock, the historical melancholy elicited by this latest incarnation of the Muppets. With ABC’s cynically sophisticated, workaday Muppets, celebrity itself, in its innermost absolute essence rather than its mere transient manifestations, has not only been brought back down to earth, has not only been forced to “get with” the times, but it has been taken to task, put before a court of judgment; compelled to make a reckoning of itself, as if celebrity, in its unchanging iconic essence, were somehow primordially guilty of the very fact of its existence. ABC’s The Muppets is no less traumatic an event than the demonization of the Pagan gods…

This comparison is no mere theoretical whimsy. The Muppets after all present a range of possible forms of life that appear at once in an iconic distilled purity and yet with a perfectly realized individuality. No mere self-conscious imitation and modern revival of mythic archetypes, such as we find George Lucas’s Star Wars, the Muppet-mythology is at once strikingly classical and thoroughly, radically modern–born not from labored and reactionary pedantry but from what we might call, quaintly, naïve genius. For just as the Pagan gods at once find their place within and govern over the system of cosmic creation, the Muppets have, with no less consequence, been made responsible for a system of self-representation that they find themselves thrown into and from which they are no more capable of escaping than Statler and Waldorf heckling from the seats they return to night after night. Only thus can the Muppets achieve absolute celebrity: if the essence of celebrity is to represent the divine essence as perfectly present, it is because this presence no longer has anything to do with the thing itself, with ontology, with the order of reality and creation. Celebrity is presence as representation; every celebrity has passed through the pin-hole of the camera obscura of the Kantian critique, reflected on a darkened wall this side of paradise but the other side of creation.

Yet while the Muppets draw on Romantic irony, they also go beyond it—the irony of the absolute, self-reflecting theater is just a means by which to bring into view an entirely new, and singularly American mythological content. As diverse as they are in their ways of being, Muppets share a certain basic trait, exemplified by the way Fozzie Bear’s laughter elicits a genuine laughter of its own even as it arrives just ahead of his failed jokes. In one way or another they are all failed salesmen, trying to sell what no one wants and yet succeeding in remarkable fashion through their failure. Thus Miss Piggy sells her sexuality; Sam the Eagle his morality and culture; Kermit his sanity and leadership. Laughter is the signifier of this success-born-of-failure. It is not just a question of the comic transubstantiation of the loser into a winner, of a transcendental vulnerability hearkening back to Christianity, but of a way of existing and being with others that is immeasurably poignant since at every moment it strives for something that it can never achieve, and, achieving perfect success in perfect failure, never begins to feel the need to change, to do otherwise, to be different than it is.

This is again a form of perfect innocence, but not the innocence of creation— not an innocence that is prior to judgment, but an innocence that comes after judgment. If there is something still beautiful in America it is this promise–the promise that brings Kafka’s hero across the Atlantic — of a life, an afterlife, after the last judgment. The tragic-comic salesman hero of America’s epic, facing a world of things that, like stale jokes, have been judged of no value, manages somehow, miraculously, to rescue them.

If the surface of celebrity is the unimpeachable radiance of the iconic image, the depth of celebrity is this comic transubstantiation, this salvage-operation. What is saved, ultimately, is mere appearance itself–an appearance that does not have any proper function; that does not realize or manifest the essence and is not even beautiful. The depth of celebrity saves the surface, without changing it in the slightest or even giving it a value it did not have before. If the Muppets are the essence of celebrity, the absolute celebrity, it is because, in a singular way, they combine both the surface and the depth. And thus it becomes even clearer why ABC’s The Muppets are such an outrage: it is as if the Muppets were not only made to pay for what they are, losing the first innocence of their being, but have to pay for the very fact that they are Muppets–being held accountable for claiming an innocence and freedom beyond the last judgment.

Celebrity has now become parasitic on its own self-produced depths: these depths, generated from the surfaces, must now be paid for with a reality that remains nothing else than the waste-produce of the celebrity-machine; the clichés sloughed off, like the skins of a snake, by celebrity reinventing itself for ever and ever in its iconic eternity. Hence the documentary, reality-show format of ABC’s The Muppets. The Muppets must be deep as we are deep; true depth, the depth that born of appearance saves appearance, must give way to the appearance of depth; a realism, a naturalism that, imitating only clichés, is fraudulent in its claims. Of course the reality show has long been eating away at the glamour of celebrity; replacing the iconic celebrities of the past with a grotesque menagerie of demi-celebrities with their banal decadence and plastic surgery and their bodies and their stupidity on full display. But it is only with The Muppets that celebrity itself has become impugned.

The documentary/reality show conceit is necessary precisely insofar as the Muppets, who once crowded onto stage with a fuzzy egalitarianism, have now dutifully assumed their place in the machinery of production. Miss Piggy, whose claim to stardom was once no less fantastic than Sam Eagle’s claim to moral authority, is now the bona fide star of her own late-night talk show; all the other Muppets have been forced into the background, behind the scene. There is a sobering consequence to this: the talk show, with its packaged and scripted “mediation” of celebrity, has always had an authoritarian drive, however much it may be mollified either by edgy, libertarian or libertine humor or a beneficent, well-meaning moralizing. And it could even be said to run counter to the disintegrating tendencies of the reality-show: on the talk-show couch, celebrity is reborn, phoenix-like, from its ashes.

The soft depths of the Muppets stage, with its burlesque and zany humor, has now given way to the stark and nasty opposition of the prosaic anarchy of everyday life and the Charisma-less star power of a celebrity who has posited herself into existence. The other Muppets must now get real; must sacrifice their reborn innocence, their second life, their freedom, to so-called real life. Only Miss Piggy remains her gloriously piggish self. If she alone is immune from having to pay the due, it is because her celebrity alone is a pure confabulation; a pure boast, pure debt. She is a star because she says is. Winners are those who, like Trump, never stop telling us they are winners.

[1] David Simms. “The Felt Drudgery of the Muppets.” The Atlantic Magazine, Sept. 22, 2015.

[2] Julie Gunlock. “ABC’s sordid prostitution of the once-sweet Muppets.” The New York Post, Sept. 23, 2015.

[3] Brandon Ambrosino. “How ABC’s ‘The Muppets’ killed Jim Henson’s vision of making the world a kinder place.” Religious News Service, Oct. 1, 2015.

Comments are closed.