I suppose you could call it “seeing red”. Earlier this month, Larry David, professional curmudgeon and creator-star of Curb Your Enthusiasm, made headlines when he stomped over to Elmo in a fit of apparent rage on the set of The Today Show and wrapped his hands around the crimson Muppet’s face. The skit prompted shock and admonishment (albeit slightly tongue-in-cheeked) from viewers, and an apology from David. But let’s be real. At one time or another, who among us hasn’t been driven to rancour by Jim Henson’s felt-skinned monstrosities?
To be clear: my issue is not with Sesame Street, which has endured as a beloved and entirely benign staple of children’s educational entertainment. No, my qualm is with the Muppets themselves – and the unbearable ways they’ve been crowbarred into contemporary culture. The recent-ish film reboots – 2011’s The Muppets and 2014’s Muppets Most Wanted, followed by 2021’s straight-to-streaming Muppet Haunted Mansion – were hardly offensive. Even the superfluous TV revivals (last year’s The Muppets Mayhem, for instance) are nothing to get worked up about. But what about everything else?
The Muppets are all over social media like a celebrity sex tape. Within the past month, Elmo has gone viral for simply “checking in” with followers, while Big Bird became an online talking point thanks to a gimmick in which the oversized puppet became suddenly, inexplicably tiny. Several members of the Muppet Show gang have their own official twitter accounts, all posting dismal engagement-bait in a corporatised faux-Muppet register. Offline, the Muppets are no less insufferable, and have taken to shilling themselves at big televised events. Need a few minutes of inane banter to liven up your awards show, or late-night chat series? Just rent a Muppet. Last year, Kermit and Miss Piggy could be seen clowning insipidly during King Charles’s Coronation Concert – a stunt that all but confirmed that their cultural juice has dried up.
Then again, the Muppets have always been funnier in idea than execution. Every couple of months, a tweet goes viral asking people to pitch ideas for the next Muppet movie – usually an adaptation of some choice piece of classic literature, featuring a charismatic human character actor and two dozen puppets. (This was, after all, the formula that yielded the franchise’s all-time high point, the Michael Caine-starring Dickens riff Muppet Christmas Carol). And sure enough, it’s very, very easy to come up with an idea for an appealing film project: Muppet Les Misérables, starring Adam Driver as Javert? I’d watch that. The Muppet Great Gatsby, in which Kermit feuds with Timothée Chalamet over a Miss Piggy Daisy Buchanan? Sign me up. A Muppet Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, starring, let’s say, Kieran Culkin? There are no bad ideas.
And yet, while the Great Muppet Thought Experiment provides a seemingly bottomless font of intriguing and amusing-sounding premises, none of them ever come to fruition. These hypothetical Muppet movies are always infinitely more interesting than anything that actually gets made. There is a chasm between what people think the Muppets are (charming, droll and mischievous), and the reality – a group of stale caricatures whose jokes were run into the ground years ago.
People may try to sell you on the traditionalism of the Muppets. They are, to be fair, one of the last popular vestiges of a now marginalised artform: onscreen puppetry. There is nostalgia and history in the fibres of their clothy carcasses. On some level, it would be a shame for that to disappear – but they can’t go on as they are. Muppets are not designed to be social media influencers. Their vaudevillian sensibilities have no place in the era of memes. And if things keep going the way they are, it won’t be long before everyone sides with Larry David.