Part One in Our Seven-Part Series of Muppet Reviews
Sometime in the last few decades, however, Meta escaped from the university and into the atmosphere, a sentient virus that has spread throughout the culture ever since. Our movies have grown self-conscious; our TV shows, self-referential; and Meta has wedged its way between writers and their writing, so that almost everything onscreen seems to stand at an ironic distance from, well, just about everything else.
Some writers milk Meta for easy humor, or rely on it as a crutch—as if to say, “Yes, this is bad storytelling, but it’s okay, I’m in on the joke.” In shows like 30 Rock, the Meta gags occasionally earn a laugh, but even then, it’s a cheap laugh.
For other writers, Meta emerges as an intellectual puzzle. Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation—a movie about the writing of the very movie you’re watching—obsesses over Meta, diving through layer after layer of self-reference. At the movie’s end, it’s hard to tell whether you’ve penetrated the writer’s soul, or just been spinning in circles while Charlie Kaufman hid behind smoke, mirrors, and doppelganger Nicolas Cage.
Meta also represents the centrality of pop culture in people’s lives. I spend my evenings watching characters on screens; but how do those characters spend their evenings? Probably watching screens, too. For example, Abed from Community is a character on a TV show who imagines himself and those around him as characters on a TV show.
But before 30 Rock used Meta as a hedge against criticism; before Charlie Kaufman led us into the dizzying Meta maze; before Community used Abed’s TV obsession to remark on its own cultural role; before I ever attempted to coin Meta as a proper noun; before all of that, there were the Muppets.
The Muppets were Meta before being Meta was so Meta.
The Muppet Show featured a variety-show-within-a-variety-show 35 years before 30 Rock, while The Muppet Movie starred a bunch of puppets who dreamed of starring in a movie. Even their more conventional films—like 1981’s excellent The Great Muppet Caper—include winking celebrity cameos and musical numbers like “Hey, A Movie!” Two of the most iconic Muppets—gray-haired hecklers Statler and Waldorf—exist only to crack belittling jokes about the very program that they are appearing in.
Muppet Meta was a superior breed. It worked not as a hedge, nor as a cop-out, nor to alienate and challenge the audience, but to engage them. (“I’d call that a medium sketch.” “Why?” “Because it wasn’t rare, and it certainly wasn’t well-done! Doh-ho-ho!”) Meta was their way of bringing you inside.
That’s a lot for the new film The Muppets to live up to. Thankfully, its Meta moments work. “May I suggest we save time and pick up the rest of the Muppets by using a montage?” one character asks. (Like montages themselves, montage jokes never fail.)
But The Muppets makes a bold and risky meta-maneuver: letting the Muppets’ onscreen fate mirror the dismal condition of the franchise itself. The 20 years since Jim Henson’s death have watched Kermit and company gradually fade from glory. Now Disney is trying to revive the Muppets with a movie about trying to revive the Muppets.
As such, the film’s first half dwells on the characters’ sorry and scattered state. Kermit lives alone, moping around a Hollywood mansion. Fozzie has clung to show biz too long, and is now working casinos in Reno for table scraps. Gonzo has sold out his avant garde dreams to become a plumbing magnate in a business suit. Beneath the jokes, the script strikes a bleaker tone than the Muppets ever have. This may alienate some audiences, just as it alienated Muppet old-timers like Frank Oz, who rejected outright the idea that the Muppets could ever drift apart.
This film’s awareness of its own commercial viability marks a new kind of Meta for the Muppets. Past films acknowledged them as performers, entertainers, dreamers—but never as celebrities, much less washed-up, B-list celebrities. It’s strange to hear the Muppets fretting over something so crass as their own marketability, and the film’s middle part sags a bit under the dreary weight of the premise. You could denounce this Meta plotline as a crime against the Muppets’ classic brand of vaudeville humor, or rage at screenwriter (and star) Jason Segel for daring to let the business infect the art.
But The Muppets is rescued from the Meta morass by the same thing that always rescues the Muppets: their sincerity. From start to finish, they spend the movie singing songs, cracking jokes, and rallying against the bad guys—all the things that characters in stories used to do, before they became infected with self-awareness.
I don’t know whether they can brew an antidote for the rest of us. But seeing the Muppets survive the Meta virus gives me hope, at least, that the disease might not be fatal.