MUPPETS: Pop Culture Takeover

Trailing the journey of our beloved fuzzy friends, we wondered, “Is it just us, or are like puppets everywhere?”

Words: Kristin Tolbert
Images by: Jason Merritt/FilmMagic, Comedy Central and Universal Pictures/ZPress

Do we all have a secret furry fetish? Is the child inside of us desperately hanging onto life via our fun friends made of felt? Is that why there are muppets all over adult programming these days? It seems that when the Fraggles left the rock, they decidedly took on pop culture. Not confined to just Sesame Street, muppets have always appeared outside of their designated slots on popular TV shows geared to mature audiences (like The Arsenio Hall Show during the ‘90s). Muppets of today are more humanistic than ever and they are infiltrating genres from Hip-Hop to the independent film industry. These days one can find tons of puppet shorts by fans and serious puppet master up-and-comers on YouTube including our fave, which revolves around Trinidadian puppet Santana and her motley crue of cohorts and is produced by Lexo TV.

But what is a muppet anyway? The 1970 documentary made by Jim Henson and cohorts entitled Muppets on Puppets clarifies the subject. There are many different types of puppets, like hand puppets and string puppets, or marionettes. Muppets, however, are simply the family of puppets created by the Henson Company for the classic television programming and films we all grew up watching.

And today they are hard to miss. Cookie Monster, Telly and Elmo appeared as judges on the cooking competition television show, Top Chef. Miss Piggy has a slew of published books including a cookbook, books offering relationship advice and of course a memoir. Most recently at the 2011 Grammy Awards, Cee Lo—fittingly dressed as a psychedelic turkey en hommage to Elton John’s 1977 Muppet Show performance of “Crocodile Rock”— was joined by Gwenyth Paltrow, a bug-eyed drummer, brain keyboardist and back-up singers (a la Diana Ross and the Supremes) to perform his hit single “Forget You.” And who made up this furry band? Nope, not the Electric Mayhem fronted by Dr. Teeth and Janice, but a set of fairly new characters from the Henson Alternative uncensored off-Broadway improv puppet production, Stuffed and Unstrung

A creation of Brian Henson, which premiered in New York in April 2010, Stuffed and Unstrung, is the maturation of Puppet Up! – Uncensored, a traveling comedy set that began in 2006 at the HBO Comedy Festival in Aspen, Colorado. In fact Henson Alternative is a powerful satellite of The Jim Henson Company dedicated to producing comedic adult puppet programming. This past April they released an online series called S.U.D.S (Simian Undercover Detective Squad), which follows the clumsy investigations of a rough-around-the edges orangutan and his newbie Simian partner.

Other exciting Muppet citings of late include a Sesame Street sketch of an energetic girl made of brown felt who proudly rocked her hair in various styles (plats, afro puffs, “clippies” and “bows) at that, in celebration of Black beauty and its inherent diversity. Inspired by his adopted daughter, head writer Joey Mazzarino created the segment after becoming conscious of the need for positive representation of people of color in popular media, especially for young girls. From dolls and toys to television shows, the celebrated norm is long, thin and fair. (And one must give the Henson legacy major props for always having a heterogeneous cast of characters including aliens, vampires, monsters, bears, worms, frogs, elephants, big birds and whatever Oscar the Grouch is.

Hip-Hop has also been affected by puppet mania. Remember Blackstreet’s 1996 chart topper “No Diggity”? The video featured a piano-playing puppet very similar to the one who starred in the Penny Hardaway Nike commercials way back when. Or what about the video for Outkast’s 1999 single, “Da Art of Storytelling Part 1,” where Andre 3000 and Big Boi used puppets to personify of themselves. There was also Eminem’s “Ass Like That” that sported a cast of potty-mouthed puppets from Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers including Haddasa Guberman, Spoonie Love and OCD Ken, puppet video vixens, villains and civilians. Even the infamous smoking hand-puppet dog Triumph (dare we mention the 2002 VMAs?) made a cameo. And last but not least, we’re still trying to figure out Where’s the Money, George?, after watching Pharrell and a yellow puppet named Flat Eric (Yes, from those Levi’s commercials) in that short film by Mr. Oizo.

Crank Yankers’ “Tootsie Rolls” starring Tracy Morgan

So what’s next for the muppets and puppets alike? Shooting began this past January in Los Angeles for a new muppet film aptly titled, The Muppets, starring our favorites Kermit the Frog, Gonzo the Great and actors Amy Adams and Jason Segal. Currently in development with Lionsgate Films is The Happytime Murders, a muppet film noir set in Los Angeles, where humans and puppets co-exist but a group of beloved puppets are killed off one by one. While Kermit won’t be making an appearance in this one, this film promises to be dark and dangerous, and it is sure to be R-rated. Expect it to be in theaters sometime in 2012.

Images by Jason Merritt/FilmMagic, Comedy Central and Universal Pictures/ZPress.

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