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 slowness. 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.