Nostalgia, Meta-Narrative, and The Muppets

By Casey Wilson

“Would anybody watch or even care? Or did something break we can’t repair?” That’s a question Kermit the Frog asks – or, well, sings – early in The Muppets. It has been a long time since the Muppets last performed together, and he fears that, even if they got back together, things just wouldn’t be the same. All those dear friends from the heyday of the Muppet Show are “only pictures in [his] head” now.

Sound familiar? It should. After all, that’s practically the entire narrative of Jason Segel’s decision to bring the Muppets back to the big screen. Jim Henson has been gone for a long time; Frank Oz refused involvement with the film. That alone was enough to incite concern among the Muppet faithful, even outside of any nostalgic weight fans had placed on previous films. It’s a tricky thing, playing with people’s childhood memories. Expectations are sky-high and entirely emotional.

Of course, the Muppets themselves might be children’s characters, but as Rebekah noted in her review of the film from last week – and seriously, go read it, if you haven’t already. I’ll wait. – “This film was far more adult driven than it was for kids.” It has been twelve years since the last Muppet movie to hit the big screen, which is a long time for the franchise to lay dormant. I agree with Rebekah’s assertion that many of the kids who did see The Muppets on opening weekend were “dragged to see The Muppets by their nostalgic parents.” If my Twitter feed – full of comedians and screenwriters and actors and culture critics – is any indication, that’s exactly what happened. Parents wanted to share this with their children, when they bothered to take the kids with them at all.

We’re going to come back to that in a bit, but for the moment I’d like to consider the film’s meta-narrative. I don’t mean the moments that overtly break the fourth wall, though those are interesting in and of themselves, but the way the story of the film itself parallels its production. The Muppets begins with a tale of how Walter – who seems to be awfully muppet-y himself – looked to the Muppets as heroes growing up. He watched The Muppet Show religiously, with his brother Gary (played by Segel) by his side. The Muppets gave him hope, and they made him feel like he belonged.

In a recent appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to promote the film, Segel describes his own childhood experience with the Muppets. “Kermit kind of defined who I wanted to be, not only as an actor but as a man,” he says with surprising sincerity. In the various interviews I’ve seen with Segel about the film, it seems that it is impossible for him to be jaded about the Muppets. They mean the world to him, especially Kermit “the everyman”. Just like Walter (who is really Segel’s doppelganger in the film, even if he actually plays Gary), Segel idolized the Muppets. Just like Walter, they shaped who he wanted to be.

The plot of The Muppets really kicks off when Walter overhears Tex Richman’s nefarious plan to destroy the Muppet theater, and Walter, Gary, and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) seek Kermit out to round up the old gang. The theater is in disrepair and it takes a lot of convincing to get a network to air the telethon. A network executive (played by the wonderful Rashida Jones) lays it all out for them: they aren’t famous anymore.

Again: sound familiar? In the same interview with Fallon, Segel asserts that he spent years working on the film, eventually just telling people he was doing it in the hopes that somewhere along the way the right people would believe him. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing over how well The Muppets would or wouldn’t do – much like the fictional Muppet theater, the brand’s cultural capital has seen better days – but despite those concerns, Segel made it happen.

I don’t want to belabor these parallels too much, but I, at least, can’t watch the film without them jumping out at me with big flashing lights. Alan Sepinwall goes so far as to call the movie “the greatest work of fanfiction I’ve ever seen.” I can’t contest that, and like Sepinwall, I mean it positively. What else can it be, really? Segel may have been writing this film for the past four years, but you can guarantee that he’s been dreaming up scenarios for it since he was a kid. Walter gets to (obvious spoiler alert) help save the day for the Muppets, and Segel got to make them relevant again.

But that returns us to Rebekah’s analysis of just who the audience for this film is. Segel, in those moments when he’s not making the movie for himself, has made it clear that he, at least, envisions it for children. He thought it was “unjust” that kids under twelve didn’t have their own Muppet movie. Think about that. Unjust. The Muppets were so important to Segel as a child that he can’t imagine a generation of children growing up without them. To the best of my knowledge, Segel isn’t a father; this is not a case of a Hollywood star wanting to make a family-friendly film for their children to watch. No, in Segel’s mind, this is a public service. Children need the Muppets.

But I’d push it further. This isn’t just for children, but for future comedians. Both on Fallon and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Segel emphasized the importance of the Muppets in the development of his comedic voice. “The Muppets are kind of the gateway to comedy for a young comedian,” he said. “It leads to SNL, and it leads to Monty Python and all that kind of stuff.” Segel isn’t alone in placing the Muppets in that echelon of comedy – consider the sheer joy with which Chris Hardwick interviews the Muppets for The Nerdist podcast as just one other example of many. (That’s also, I would think, the reason that we hear references to Steve Martin and Bob Hope in The Muppets. The Muppets were part of a big comedic moment, a different but equally potent source of nostalgia.) Numerous comedians working today trace their careers back to watching the Muppets as children. The Muppets is made for the next generation of comedians as much as it is anyone else. Segel is speaking to the next him through this film.

And really, so are any parents that take their children to see the movie based on their own nostalgia. They want their children to love the thing they loved in their own youth. Returning to the anecdotal evidence of my Twitter feed, a number of parents reported watching old episodes of The Muppet Show with their children once they got back from the theater. (A number of grown men also freely and openly admitted to crying at the end of the movie, but that’s a different point.) They spoke of that shared experience with joy and pride. There’s a yearning for redemption in those moments, or at least affirmation.

This film is a labor of love, for Segel and everyone else behind and in front of the camera. (The celebrity cameos come fast and furious – I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more people lined up to participate than they could accommodate.) By making The Muppets, or by seeing The Muppets with their children, people are grabbing hold of a rare chance to be the person they imagined as a child, with all the problems and promises that entails.

And as with so much of our nostalgia for childhood things, The Muppets ultimately comes with a heavy dose of idealism. In the film, the Muppets are told that they don’t belong in today’s world – they’re too sincere, we’re too cynical. But, Segel’s film seems to say, if we, in our hard world, can believe in the Muppets…maybe we can regain something that has been lost. If we trust the message of the film, we can rest assured that our childhoods aren’t gone forever, and the Muppets will never, ever stay disbanded.

Watch Jason Segel on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon here.

Casey Wilson is a PhD student who loved The Muppets even though she hasn’t a shred of nostalgia for them from her childhood.

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