Whatever X, Day VIII

This entry is as true as when I wrote it, eight years ago.

OCTOBER 2, 2000: The New Muppets Suck

This makes me feel like something of a heel, but damn it, someone has to say it: All those “new” Muppets on Sesame Street really and truly suck. Being a stay-at-home parent, I’m exposed to the Muppets on a fairly regular basis, primarily through Athena’s Sesame Street toddler software. While the software includes Ernie and Big Bird, the focus of the software is on three newer Muppets: Elmo, Zoe and Baby Natasha. All of them need to turned into terry cloth dishrags as soon as possible.

Elmo, of course, is already at the top of the parental fatwa list anyway, thanks to the severe case of financial aggravation known as “Tickle Me Elmo”a few Christmases back. The red, squirmy dolls were disturbing enough to begin with — watch the thing giggle and writhe when you poke it and you can’t help but think that this is what methadone for pedophiles looks like — but paying triple and quadruple price for them was even worse. I can’t look at Elmo without thinking of him as a monument to parental guilt disguised as consumer mania.

However, that’s not the reason I think Elmo bites; Elmo can’t be held responsible for the stupidity of America’s parental units, alas. I think he sucks because he has no discernable personality. He looks like a Muppet and talks like Muppet, but the thing that made the the Muppets work — their cute little needy personalities — is entirely missing.

Think about the classic Seasame Street Muppets and you’ll know what I mean. Each of them had his or her own endearingly neurotic quirk. Cookie Monster: Addictive personality and moderate mental retardation. Big Bird: Esteem issues. Bert and Ernie: Co-dependence. Oscar the Grouch: Misanthropy. The Count: Deviant lifestyle. Snuffaluphagus: Hell, he didn’t actually exist. Kermit, well, Kermit was the worst, with his veneer of calm control occasionally exploding into random fits of amphibian rage (now you know why it’s not easy being green). And as for Grover: Good lord. He’s a psychiatrist’s yacht all on his own.

Elmo doesn’t have any of this. He’s merely obnoxious and red and has ping-pong eyes. But get this: He’s the most appealing of the new Muppets. The Zoe Muppet, for example, has a personality of the sort that makes you wish that she were real, so you could stuff her in a sack and drown her in a river and be done with her. Baby Natasha (whose existence answers the question of whether having the bottom half of your body as a receptacle for someone’s hand is an impediment to reproduction) isn’t bad, but I suspect that that’s only due to the fact she’s a baby. Were she ever to grow up, she’d be as bland as the rest of the new ones.

I know why the new Muppets suck so badly. Most obviously, of course, it’s the lack of Jim Henson, who is to the Muppet universe as Charles Schulz was to the Peanuts universe: The engine without which it cannot move. Sure, the Muppet universe goes on, but you can tell something’s missing; the spark that animated the earlier Muppets, primarily.

But it’s also something else. The first set of Muppets were created in the late 60s, when being freakish and weird held a romantic sort of charm, and there was the idea that maybe we should accept people even with their vaguely neurotic quirks. Today, of course, children’s quirks are merely something to be medicated out of them at the earliest possible opportunity. The new Muppets don’t have quirks, and without the quirks, they simply grate. This is bad news for our kids, since Muppets more or less reflect their target audience.

The solution is clear: Write to the Children’s Television Workshop and demand they make their Muppets more freakish. Do it for the kids. They deserve neurotic Muppets! Years from now, they’ll thank you for it.

45 thoughts on “Whatever X, Day VIII

  1. Hard to think of Elmo as new these days but annoying as all hell yes. Jim Henson was amazing I loved the early muppets and Storyteller. I also think kids TV gets worse and worse, I think all kids shows should have their budgets slashed back to just enough for some felt , paper, scissors and the odd button, then we’d see imagination again. Right, i’m off to button moon thanks for the nostalgia. :)

  2. “Sure, the Muppet universe goes on, but you can tell something’s missing; the spark that animated the earlier Muppets, primarily”

    Truer words were never spoken. I loved the old muppet show and I remember when they tried to create an updated version of it in the late 90s, and it was like someone had seen an episode of the old show and tried to do a poor copy of it. Apart from the fact that variety shows aren’t in vogue anymore, they totally missed the subtle charm the show had.

    Also, have you seen the updated Tickle Me Elmo? A toy store in a mall near me had a display model on the floor back when they first came out. The kids wouldn’t notice, but half the adults who saw what it did when “tickled” had expressions that were horrified, and all of the teenagers in the area were snickering incessantly. Meth for pedophiles is the best way I’ve heard it described.

  3. I always thought Snuffaluphagus had some kind of manic depression or pot addiction. Kind of like Ior. No one feels that down or mellow unless they have some kind of problem with their brain chemistry. Either that or he was a manifestation of Big Bird’s inner suicidal desires.

  4. Elmo is dead. So is Sesame Street, at least in terms of “old” muppets made the idea alive. They have bonded muppet (Marionette puppetry) with green screen digital imaging to create the post-child for ADD, Sid the Science Kid.

    Watch this gross misuse of computers and human hands. Watch it to know how innocous Elmo really was.

    For good ol’ fashion muppet style neurotics, watch the new HA! It is muppets like it should be.

  5. Exactly when did Elmo become the phenomenon he is today? I remember him being AROUND when I was a kid, but he didn’t really have that much of a role on Sesame Street. Next thing I know the Tickle Me Elmo craze was going on. Was it the damn toy that started it all off, or was he growing in popularity before that?

    Also being a stay-at-home parent, I’m exposed to more muppets than I’d like as well. What I’d like to know is, which moron’s idea was it to give Elmo his own daily segment on the show? Every time I hear that little red idiot’s third-person dialogue I just wanna stick my head in the oven.

  6. TFG they came out with the original Muppet Show DVD. We have all three seasons that have been released. My kids love them, we love them and my parents love them. That’s what I call family bonding!

  7. I’ve read that at some point about the time Elmo rose to power, CTW decided, deliberately, to 1) stop making Sesame Street a show for parents and their children to watch together — I guess it wasn’t happening enough to suit them — and 2) pitch it at a younger audience. This point will, I’m convinced, mark for future historians the beginning of the end of Western civilization.

  8. I grew up on the original Sesame Street, too, and remember the frustration of Big Bird trying to convince the adults that Snuffleupagus was real, only to have the big guy not show up or something whenever the grown-ups were finally going to get to see him. I think the show took a turn for the worse when the writers relented and finally made Snuffleupagus a full-fledged character visible to everybody.

    (Although from a science nerd standpoint, the “new era” – when my daughter was watching it – did include sending Slimy the worm on a space mission, and that was kind of cool.)

    Elmo still bites, though.

  9. John @ #8:

    You’re right! Much better idea, but I think I’ll take it a step further and stick the whole red ball of fur in the oven. Best not to take any chances, wouldn’t you agree?

  10. the end came when Disney purchased the muppets – and sesame street lost Kermit- I don’t know how much of a brain drain at CTW this caused – but they seem to have dumbed down the show and made it less entertaining (my 5 year old is bored w/ sesame street) – the only consolation = better than barney, caillou, teletubbies and some of the other brain numbing programming out there.

  11. At least Elmo gave rise to the “Torture Me Elmer” doll in the new Sam and Max games.

    That nearly makes it worthwhile.

  12. I’m not sure I can agree with you all. My understanding is that Sesame Street has changed its focus to deal with the fact that kids are getting schooling earlier. Its initial mission, to get kids ready for kindergarten, is now being handled by the various pre-school options. So amusing younger kids (as well as their parents, which I think the show still tries to do) is more necessary.

    JBooth @11, you may want to look into the history of Snuffleupagus’s unveiling. It wasn’t a matter of dumbing down the show so much as making sure that kids didn’t think that adults wouldn’t believe them if they had something important to say, such as telling them about abuse from a relative.

    In short, the show isn’t the same show it was 30 years ago, but it’s still focused on the needs of its core audience, which is not the adults watching the show.

  13. I remember telling Sam that there used to be a cool frog on Sesame Street but that Elmo had him fired and took his spot. Something about compromising pictures and planted evidence. Elmo is a schemer.

    Noggin had a TV show where they used up all the old muppets that didn’t get much play on SS anymore. But they just used the bodies, not the personalities.

    The Count’s problem is clearly OCD.

    I’m so glad we’re done with children’s television.

  14. Marc @16 – Yeah, I saw that, and to some degree, I get it. But please notice that nowhere in my post do I say the show was “dumbed down.” And having raised a daughter in the new Sesame Street era, I also understand that they’ve started aiming it at younger kids.

    Those things said, here’s another thought: Maybe part of my dislike of the newer characters is that, unlike the originals, they’ve incorporated what is essentially baby talk into the show. Kermit, Grover, Big Bird, etc. all may have been childlike in many ways, but when you saw them interacting with real kids, even the littlest ones, they were patiently speaking in complete sentences and communicating ideas and asking questions in a “grown-up” manner. Even freaked-out Grover and the perpetual little kid Big Bird never spoke like toddlers. Realizing that Elmo and Zoe ARE in fact, supposed to be little kids, having them do the “baby talk” thing still makes me squirm.

  15. I concur. Having grown up with muppets from the founding of Sesame Street until mid-80′s (yeah I watched them into adulthood) I can honestly say that the current version lacks the real comedy element of the originals. Of course it was very cool to watch Kermit in a children’s format in the afternoon then in a more grown up format in the Muppet Show in the evening.

    I think they’ve taken most of the smart humour out the whole thing and replaced it will manic silliness. When my youngest son’s watch it, they still say that Ernie and Grover are their favourites and most of the skits with those two are just remasters of the ones I watched originally in 1973.

    CTW – get back in the groove!

  16. I write kid’s animation for the usual places. Kid enriching stuff is avoided like the plague by those of us on the ball and not desperate for work. It is a world peopled by so-called educational consultants and paid neurotics whose sole purpose seems to be to suck out the funny — for fear it will offend. My style is basically “Looney Tunes” (when I’m at my best) and I’ve been told to take out perfectly good Bugs/Daffy style jokes because they were “mean”. New Muppets primary sin? Criminally unfunny.

  17. I think it’s HORRIBLE that Warner Brothers took their Looney Tunes and Merry Melody cartoons off the air, only making them accessible on DVD (and expensively at that).

    Now there’s an entire generation of schoolkids who sort of know who Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are, but not *really*. Instead they get reruns of Tiny Toons (which are okay, but not the same).

    You can buy some of the original cartoons on iTunes now, but again, I think WB is cutting off its nose to spite its face.

    Blinkin’ idiots.

  18. If you want your kids to know the True Muppets of years past, I highly recommend the book “There’s a Monster at he End of this Book,” starring (to quote) “Loveable, Furry Old Grover.” My kids love, love, love the book–especially when I really play up Grover’s hysteria–and know my two-year-old specifically asks to see Grover (I pull up old videos of him from YouTube). Fight the Elmo hegemony!

  19. That’s a very spot-on post, which I’d summarize as: Elmo doesn’t have a dark side.

    Even happy-go-lucky Ernie has a dark side, which I would call his passive-aggressive continual bounds testing of his relationship with Bert (insert Ernie laugh here).

    So here’s the question: what could Elmo’s dark side be?

    My first thought is megalomania, but I bet people here can come up with some good ideas.

    - yeff

  20. What should be done with Elmo: Remove the “L” from his name, paint him black, make him moody and whiny, prone to cut his arms and listen to depressing rock music… voila! Emo the emo Muppet.
    ;-)

  21. When I worked in a children’s hospital a few years back when the “new” tickle me elmo came out, we all called him “Grand Mal Seizure Elmo.”

    Elmo is also just stupid and can’t problem solve or figure anything out for himself. The old muppets, even if they were ineffectual, at least had some level of brains, independence and problem solving skills. Elmo is just the bad, self-centered side of preschool personality without all the wonderful sparks of discovery that little kids have that make parenting all worth-while. He is like my kid on his most whiney, irritating day, but everyday.

  22. Amusingly, the same guy who created Elmo (Kevin Clash) also created another character named Benny the Bunny.

    Benny, who I believe has only been in several episodes (and 1 DVD special, which is how I know of him) is about as curmudgeonly as you can get this side of Oscar the Grouch. I don’t know if he brings anything new to the table (lack of self-esteem, no motivation, grouchy), but he’s a whole lot more fun to watch than Elmo. Too bad he somehow lost out.

  23. @11: Good point, because the shows were ALL better when they were written on two levels. (Like the old WB cartoons everyone pines for in the above comments.)

    By today’s standards:

    1. Big Bird AND snuffleuppagus were horribly neglected. (We often heard of their parents…)
    2. Grover had ADHD (Near, far? Now they would tell him to pick one and stay with it.)
    3. Bert and Ernie were closeted because they lived in a Red state.
    4. Oscar the Grouch was likely living in a garbage can because he was off his meds.
    5. The Cookie Monster had an eating disorder. (Note the frequent binging and unhealthy focus.)
    6. The Count had OCD.
    7. Kermit suffered from manic depression.
    8. Miss Piggy was a stalker.

    The list could go on. And boy do I miss unmedicated, un-PC Muppets.

  24. Actually, there was a stint in The Tipping Point about this. When Sesame Street first came out, adults thought it was brilliant. You know, because it was BRILLIANT.

    Then more recent studies showed that kids learned things better when you repeated the same things over and over, a la Blue’s Clues, and they tried to change Sesame Street to match it.

    The problem being, of course, that while it may be easier for kids to learn things that way, it doesn’t challenge them much. I still remember a good half-dozen of the songs from Sesame Street when I was growing up. They stuck in my head. I can’t brush my freakin’ teeth without seeing that cartoon of the fish at the bottom of the pond almost out of water. And Scalzi’s right – one of the things that made the Muppets so appealing was that they were a personification of things kids should try to avoid. They’d constantly give in to their baser instincts (codependency, for example), learn that it wasn’t a good idea, and try to do better.

    Perfectionism is boring. The new Muppets are boring because they’re perfect. Not because they’re shining examples of anything, but because they have no big flaws. Boring. No wonder kids are watching shows that are too adult for them. Sesame Street used to (apparently) be too adult for me, but I still loved it. And I still learned.

  25. Here’s the artist’s web copy of The Monster At The End Of This Book.

    I’m with you on this one; we stick with other shows but do like Yo Gabba Gabba because I’m an aging aspiring hipster. And, by the way, Mr. Rogers was taken off the air here. I can’t even record it at 3 in the morning any more. Argh.

    I’ve found it was disturbingly easy to think of Elmo (in that entire fifteen minute block he got at the end of each show) as trapped in a windowless basement somewhere, and all of this stuff was his sad imagination…

  26. Actually, I have a theory on this one. If you ever get the chance, read the wonderful book Sesame Street Unpaved. It talks about how the show started, and what they were thinking, plus lots of song lyrics, too. Originally, the different characters were based on different developmental stages of childhood…Big Bird being the equivalent of a 4 year old, etc…

    My theory is that Elmo was developed in response to the growing trend/recognition of childhood ADD/ADHD.

    I love SuperGrover.

  27. @ #24 & #33

    I used to love to read that to my kids. If you can do the Grover voice, it is one of the most fun books to read out loud ever. I might have to show that to my now 10 & 12 year olds to see if they remember it at all.

  28. And I thought my disdain for the new Muppets was just because I’m older. But you’re right (man I hate to admit that). The “old” Muppets were so different that there was one everybody could relate to. Or one for every phase of growing up. I remember my Cookie Monster phase; and my Grover phase. But I’m a Kermit girl at heart. Now it seems that the “new” Muppets are meant to be all things to all people. Differences are good. Isn’t that what Sesame Street was trying to teach us?

  29. …my favorite voice actor, marc biagi (www.marcbiagi.com), does elmo as a megalomaniac marine general freaking out over habeas corpus, i.e., Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men…”you want answers?…you want the truth?…” in that dead on squeaky little persona. Let’s see, ADHD toddler = bullet headed tyrant…works for me…

  30. When the creator dies, and the company is suddenly run by a board of directors, creativity never recovers.
    Sadly, one of the canonical examples is DisneyCo itself. Walt may have been, um, unpleasant to work for, but he had vision. Visions, even better; he kept on inventing.
    But the minute he was dead, his visionary EPCOT went on ice faster than he himself apocryphally did.

    So it’s no surprise at all that the giant, risk-phobic corp is incapable of the creativity or whimsy of one sweet genius.

  31. “I think I’ll take it a step further and stick the whole red ball of fur in the oven.”

    Here, have Elmo on fire. Quite the disturbing video.

    Me, I have decided the child(ren) will not get to watch the new Sesame Street, nor Teletubbies, nor anything that will cause me brain damage.* Honestly, they’ve made Cookie Monster admit that “cookies are a SOMETIMES food.” Gaaaah! What are they DOING?

    *This is not hard, actually, since our television watching is confined to DVDs. So all I have to do is refuse to play anything I don’t want to.

  32. Sesame Street died the day grown-ups who watched it as children looked back and applied made-up diagnosis of normal human behavior to the personalities of the made-up characters. If Sesame Street had a positive affect on children, something it was supposed to do, then more adults would see the irony and error of trying to do it.

  33. Yep, I’d much rather watch the Sesame Street Muppets from the early days than Elmo and Zoe. I have to admit, though, that the episode where there’s a grease fire in Hooper’s Store and Elmo is terrified to go back in really moved me. Seeing that hyperactive bundle of red fur shaking in fear was just Wrong.

    (And the episode of Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me where Kevin Clash was their Not My Job guest? Hilarious.)

    I’ve often thought that Elmo would have made a fabulous host for Robot Wars. “La la la la, la la la la, Robot Wars; Elmo loves Matilda, Dead Metal too! Thaaaat’s Robot Wars!” “Oh, look! Matilda and Sgt. Bash are destroying that robot together! They are cooperating!”

  34. A couple years back I checked out one of the post-Disney Muppets movies, their version of The Wizard of Oz. It actually started well with an intentionally funny joke with Kermit referencing Girls Gone Wild. Yeah, not really Muppets material, but at least funny. Downhill from there, to the level of Kelly Osbourne and Quentin Tarantino cameos.

    It would be interesting to see what Pixar would do with the Muppets though.

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