Humankind and Muppetkind in perfect harmonyTWITTER/HISTORYMUPPET

German poet Rainer Maria Rilke stands before a puppet theatre as the show begins in Duino Elegies, marvelling, ‘what we separate can come together by our very presence’. To Rilke there is wonder in the puppet, in which he discerns two seemingly disparate forces – childish delight and divine grace – working together in perfect unity. It’s natural that Rilke would come to the puppet theatre for a union of clashing impulses; the puppet is both an object and a performance, embracing the artistic modes of both being and doing.

Despite being a puppet enthusiast, I don’t think Rilke would have enjoyed Jim Henson’s Muppets, perhaps the most successful puppets since film’s dominance. In his poem, Rilke prefers puppets to people, as they stand apart from immoral human society. The Muppets, however, do not stand apart from what is human: in the universe of the Muppets, humans and puppets interact all the time, with no shock on the part of human performers. The only difference between humankind and Muppetkind is that Muppets are decidedly sillier.

Yet it’s this silliness that has always attracted me to The Muppet Show. It presents a vision of our world, but one massively expanded – full of pigs, frogs, and weirdos, who try again no matter how many times they fail. The Muppets are both us and not us; they offer us a way of thinking about the world through new eyes.

“Sketches function on the assumption that art is there to be undermined”

The essential premise of the show is that we are watching a woefully unsuccessful vaudeville troupe that somehow manages to attract past and present stars to share its stage – Blondie’s Debbie Harry, ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, and iconic horror actor Vincent Price to name a few. As a pitch, it is easy to make the show sound sterile, a mere star vehicle, but in reality the show bubbles with unruly chaos: its sketches function on the assumption that art is there to be undermined, and that undermining art will expand it.

Even from the show’s first guest appearance, starring the dancer Juliet Prowse, The Muppet Show understood its power: placing Prowse in an expressionist set, the sketch plays straight as a solo dance for about half a minute before she is surrounded by a cadre of bright green gazelle puppets, far too gaudy for a conventional performance. These gazelles, we know, must be propelled by strings because they are so slight and so weightless in their movement (and – of course – they are on a puppet show), but they are so genuinely brilliant as backup dancers for Prowse that the viewer cannot help but ignore the mechanics of their movements. These movements, so blatantly engineered yet so closely mimicking Prowse, enhance our experience of the sheer human endeavour that is dance.

The concept of dance, an artistic mode of the human body, is exploded by the support of non-human (and non-organic) bodies. Furthermore, as Prowse bookends the sketch with another short solo dance (thus returning dance to the human body), we see Prowse, too, ignoring physical limits by vanishing into thin air. When the camera cuts to the show’s only reliable perspective (that of Statler and Waldorf), Waldorf exclaims, ‘She just vanished! How did she do that?’ By way of answer, Statler vanishes himself. The implication is clear: Prowse has embraced the infinite variability of the puppet. In the sketch, dance is not destroyed by the addition of puppets – an element of ‘low' culture – it is elevated.

Renowned, esteemed, worldwide star and some human called Nureyev ...BALLETOPERALE/TWITTER

While The Muppet Show incorporated many ‘high’ culture guest stars, it never worshipped this high culture. The status-obsessed Sam the Eagle is only ever the butt of the joke. In Rudolf Nureyev’s episode, Sam demands that the show takes the theme of ‘culture and classicality’ as Nureyev is his favourite ‘opera star’. When informed that Nureyev is a ballet dancer, he responds ‘culture is culture’.

Later in the episode, Sam forces the Muppet band Electric Mayhem to perform ‘Minuets in G major’. As the sketch continues, the band’s drummer Animal (a character of pure impulse) is increasingly aggravated at being forced to perform a piece which bores him. Before long, he is drumming wildly; the other band members cheer this on as a ‘breakout’ as they begin to improvise along with him, to the dismay of Sam the Eagle. The episode suggests that rather than being swayed by demands for ‘high’ culture, a performer should go as their passion takes them.


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Picasso and Paper at the RA

Unlike Rilke, Henson does not use the puppet to offer an account of human nature, but like Rilke, Henson sees in the unassuming figure of the puppet a chance to unite incompatible principles: recognising their status as objects of art, he uses the puppet's created-ness to reconcile ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, which (as The Muppet Show demonstrates) have been needlessly segregated. Henson’s account of art suggests that any kind of culture can be made and viewed by anyone, even a puppet. All you need is passion.