Early on in the first episode of The Muppets, Scooter the gofer is chatting with a prawn Muppet. "Hey, Pepé," Scooter asks. "How was your cousin's wedding?" "Eh, her dress was ick," the prawn responds in an indeterminate accent. "But you know there aren't that many options when you're pregnant with like 4000 babies."
That bawdy interaction neatly encapsulates the ethos of ABC's current envisioning of The Muppets. Many commenters have already pointed out that the show is more adult in tone than creator Jim Henson's much loved The Muppet Show from the 70s. Henson's version was a variety show; the updated version is a workplace mockumentary focused on Miss Piggy's late-night talk show, for which Kermit is the executive producer. Piggy and Kermit have recently broken up, providing romantic tension, gags, and references to sex.
Those last ones are plentiful: Kermit winkingly refers to meeting his new pig girlfriend Denise at a cross-promotional synergy meeting where they "ended up cross-promoting." Animal, now the house band drummer, laments how he can longer go on tour: "Too many women," he says, shaking his head. "Too many towns." In the second episode, Miss Piggy is dating singer Josh Groban, and the Swedish chef jokes about her "groping" him (get it?). There are other adult themes as well. Sax-playing Muppet Zoot reveals he attends AA meetings in the first episode; there's a marijuana-legalization gag in the second. Comedian Fozzie the Bear is dating a human, setting the stage for a Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? riff with her parents where they make insensitive comments about him peeing in the woods and eating salmon.
The cockroach joke manages to hit multiple taboos at once: sex, stereotypes of promiscuous Spanish-named immigrants, and gross-out humor. It suggests that the show isn't just about adult themes—it's about deriving humor from the wrongness of using adult themes with cuddly Muppets. As such, The Muppets is less the heir of Henson's puppet workshop, and more in the tradition of the infamous 1989 Peter Jackson film Meet the Feebles.
The Muppets wants to be adult, but in a gentle, fun way that doesn't involve putting you off your food and making you despair of humanity.
Jackson is of course known these days for his work on the mainstream, critically lauded Lord of the Rings films, and the less praised but more family-friendly Hobbit trilogy. Early in his career, though, he was notorious for splatter horror films of a surpassing disgustingness.
Even by Jackson's standards, Meet the Feebles is a nightmarishly disturbing film. Parodying The Muppet Show, a group of sentient stuffed animal puppets is putting on a variety show, and the film records both the acts and the associated backstage hijinks—said hijinks involving as much sex, blood, bodily fluids, and general nastiness as Jackson can spurt out.
It's difficult to describe just how upsetting and horrifying Meet the Feebles is. I can watch torture porn without flinching. I was disappointed that the gore in Hostel had been oversold. But Meet the Feebles was stomach-churning when I saw it in theaters 25 years ago, and rewatching it, I found myself once again groaning in disgust and loathing loud enough to startle my poor, confused greyhound, who kept wandering in to try to figure out what was the matter. Somehow, I had forgotten about the giant Muppet fly reporter with hairy, plush mouth parts flexing and hissing. Constantly on the lookout for gossip, the fly hides in toilets; one scene shows it in the bowl, liquid feces dripping from its face as it slobbers and chuckles. In another sequence, the fly buzzes beneath diseased bunny Harry's bedclothes. "That rash on your groin looks pretty bad," it declares gleefully. "Don't taste too good neither." David Cronenberg only wishes Jeff Goldblum could have been that repulsive.
Why isn't Jeff Goldblum that repulsive, though? Why is it so particularly upsetting to watch small furry puppets vomit gouts of green bile, or to watch a stuffed elephant-like creature engage in "nasal sex"? Why is it worse to see cute animals shot to pieces by a machine gun than to see the same thing happen via special effects to human beings?
Part of the discomfort is probably just the extremity made possible when you're dealing with puppets. The Feebles can be turned, twisted, and mangled in ways that human bodies can't—as demonstrated by the Muppet contortionist who accidentally gets his head stuck in his rectum.
But the real reason Meet the Feebles is so effectively horrifying is because it is so wrong. Stuffed animals are supposed to be cute and appealing. The Muppets, in particular, are humerous and adorable; most people (including me) have affection for them. Meet the Feebles isn't just gross; it's an exercise in defilement. Meet the Feebles gets its particular charge from the fact that it's conflating things that just shouldn't be conflated.
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Meet the Feebles wants to be the most hideous film ever, and it is. It wants to make you afraid to look at puppets, or at children, or at people, ever again, and it succeeds there too. The Muppets, for its part, has more mainstream goals. It wants to be adult, but in a gentle, fun way that doesn't involve putting you off your food and making you despair of humanity. It's looking to be This Is Spinal Tap or Parks and Recreation: horny, knowing, but ultimately feel-good humor, for those who loved The Muppet Show, but want something just a little more grown-up.
This is a noble enough goal, but as Meet the Feebles shows, the dirty Muppet road leads not to feel-good humor, but to gigantic flies emerging from a filth-stained toilet bowl. This atmosphere is hinted at in The Muppets, from the mental image of plush cockroach babies boiling out of some mother puppet, to the way the show constantly leads you to contemplate the mechanics of pig/frog sex.
A primetime show that was as gut-churning as Meet the Feebles would be great—or at least memorable. The Muppets isn't up to the task, though. "If you never thought about these puppets fucking, then you're boring," it seems to say, yet it's afraid to follow through on its own disturbing hints. You get neither the inspired all-ages whimsy of Vincent Price cavorting with monster puppets, nor the awful-god-I-can't-unsee-it scene of a kitty cat performing oral sex on a giant plush walrus as his adorable fins flex. The Muppets is ugly, but not ugly enough. At least for the moment, it seems to be attracting a large audience. But if you really want sordid muppets, you should check out Meet the Feebles, or as much of it as you can stomach.
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The Muppets airs on Tuesdays at 8 PM on ABC.
_Correction: An earlier version of the article misstated the species of one of the Muppets. The Muppet _Pepé_ is a prawn, not a cockroach. Additionally, the Muppet Scooter is a gofer, not a gopher._