One of my favorite YouTube videos is a scratchy, 60-second sales pitch for grocery-store chow mein. The setup is strictly Mad Men—“Behold, a sad bride who can’t cook”—but the insensitivities of a bygone era are waved away with the introduction of the weeping young woman’s co-star: “Behold a dragon, who lurketh in the pantry.” (Cue the scaly interloper in a chef’s hat: “Lurk, lurk.”) His lurking completed, the dragon proceeds to holler a gospel of stove-top Chinese-American cuisine, blithely unaware of the cans, utensils, and pans he’s flinging across the kitchen. The whole thing is a feat of puppetry, foley work, and pyrotechnics, a hectic vignette that exits as loudly and quickly as it entered—like the cheerful serpent himself.
Astute observers should be able to trace the provenance of the ad and its featured player: The half-moon eyes, felted skin, and husky bark mark Delbert, the La Choy Dragon, as the creation of Jim Henson and the organization that was still known, in 1967, as Muppets, Inc. While Kermit The Frog and friends sought a more permanent place in the primetime lineup, Muppets, Inc. paid the bills with commercial gigs and guest appearances on the variety-show circuit, appearing in sketches that hinged on the hallmarks of the La Choy campaign: Big energy, smart humor, and just a hint of danger. The running time and comedic content of these clips make them a natural fit for YouTube—and a continued influence on the new generation of puppeteers who host their work on YouTube, if the platform’s many, many recreations of classic Muppet routines are any indication.
And the amateurs aren’t the only ones in this game: Since 2008, the site’s bountiful (and legally murky) archive of vintage Muppet material has been supplemented by new videos starring the characters. Some mimicked the nascent vocabulary of web video, some resembled Muppet Show segments updated for the digital age, and most were punctuated by a built-in comment section populated by former opera-box hecklers Statler and Waldorf. From “Stars & Stripes FOREVER!”—the sole upload of user patrioticeagle, an in-character page for self-appointed guardian of good taste, Sam The Eagle—until the premiere of the Jason Segel-and-Nicholas-Stoller-penned The Muppets in 2011, YouTube was the prime source for new Muppet material. The videos were a low-stakes way of re-injecting their stars into the cultural conversation, paying off in huge play counts—to date, the “Muppet Music Video” cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been viewed more than 54 million times—and an armful of Webby Awards.
It was a full eight years before any of these uploads revived a Muppet chestnut in earnest: In December 2016, the return of space-opera spoof Pigs In Space was heralded by a three-minute, fittingly stomach-churning parody of Alien. A Gravity-inspired sketch followed, its reference points contemporary, its contents classic. First Mate Piggy takes a bunch of abuse, Captain Link Hogthrob and Dr. Julius Strangepork act like metaphorical pigs, and Piggy vents her frustrations through mild slapstick. It’s short and to the point, readily shared and easily digested in a trip down a YouTube rabbit hole—or furtively viewed between more pressing tasks—further proof that the Muppets are perfect for the platform.
All the while, the franchise’s Disney guardians continued to seek out more traditional, higher-profile venues for the characters, with varying degrees of success: The 2011 movie was a moderate hit; its followup, Muppets Most Wanted (a much stranger, much funnier film predestined for cult status) less so. And Pigs In Space wasn’t the only piece of The Muppet Show resurrected last year: In the penultimate episode of ABC’s one-and-done mockumentary The Muppets, the host of Up Late With Miss Piggy is sidelined by an on-set accident, requiring her friends and co-workers to reach into their vaudeville trunks and pull out segments like Veterinarian’s Hospital and Muppet Labs.
“Generally Inhospitable” is one of the best installments of a show that was canceled just as it was starting to find its legs. It’s not just the warm, narcotic power of nostalgia, or the satisfaction of seeing Rowlf The Dog pulled back into the main Muppet ensemble after spending the rest of the season behind a bar. It’s the sense of those responsible for The Muppets figuring out the best use of these characters. It proved to be a case of too little, too late, but for one week, the self-contained silliness of “The Ballad Of Beaker” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” infiltrated the show.
The primary joke of The Muppets was always “Yeah, but what if they dealt with real-world problems like relationships and workplace politics?” Or, in the more direct words of Dave Holmes: “Except now they’re assholes!” Character flaws that are funny in the short run—ego, gluttony, the inability to speak in coherent sentences—are less so when stretched across 16 episodes of a lightly serialized sitcom. The Muppets’ cinematic outings have plumbed the deeper levels of the Muppets’ personalities and Kermit and Piggy’s romance, but even the best of those films, The Muppet Movie, functions as a series of sketches strung together by a cross-country road trip. This type of thing is not, as noted Muppet enthusiast Wyatt Cenac once said, playing to the Muppets’ strengths:
I was kind of bummed out when they did the ABC show, because it felt like, oh, that is going away from what they do really well, which are these little short vignettes. Everything that was in the original Muppets show was built for the internet. It’s these two-minute bits, whether it’s Animal and Harry Belafonte in a drum-off, or Rita Moreno having some weird dance thing in a saloon. When they did the ABC show, they threw all that stuff out the window, and went the exact opposite direction.
As a noted Muppet enthusiast myself, what I missed during the ABC series’ run was the organic anarchy of the La Choy Dragon ads or the Cenac-endorsed “Stand By Me”: The spoon that goes flying when Delbert slams a can of chicken chow mein on the counter; the way Big Mean Carl shouts “Hi, I’m a bunny!” at the beginning of “Stand By Me.” (If anyone was responsible for this type of joke on The Muppets, it was usually the horned, caustic Carl, a relatively recent addition to the Muppet troupe.) Call it The Flying Spoon Factor, those comedic grace notes that suggest any visit with Bunsen Honeydew or the Swedish Chef is mere seconds away from spinning out of control. In the Muppet canon, the expectation of entropy can account for the comedic tension of entire segments: When you’ve seen The Newsman get clobbered by the subject of one story, all subsequent Muppet Newsflashes are colored by the anticipation of future clobberings, buryings, and devourings. That’s a tension that’s best sustained across a few minutes—or a few seconds.
The new Pigs In Space was produced in the leadup to the ABC series, but it still points a way forward for the Muppets after The Muppets. After a long stretch of inactivity, a diverse slate of new videos has followed Pigs In Space to the official Muppet Studios: A Valentine’s Day greeting from Janice and Floyd, a “thought of the week” from Miss Piggy, a “Top 10” compilation of Muppet News Flash segments, and the announcement of The Muppets’ upcoming run of live shows at the Hollywood Bowl. After the failure of The Muppets, it’s a sign of Disney pursuing new avenues for the characters’ established charms—the Hollywood Bowl shows got an unofficial warm-up in Dr. Teeth And The Electric Mayhem’s set at last summer’s Outside Lands, a one-off event that inspired more praise and enthusiasm than any of The Muppets’ 16 episodes. And most of that praise and enthusiasm came from people who saw the performance in the same place where they can watch “Sad Bride,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and hopefully many more new Muppet videos to come.