Almost seventy years ago, puppeteer Jim Henson created the muppets. In doing so, he advanced a number of techniques and concepts that were revolutionary in television at the time. But it wasn’t just about his technical accomplishments: the characters he created had an appeal that endures to this day. You can even buy muppets in miniature Funko Pop form.
This is slightly peculiar. While a few fictional characters from the early 20th century are still with us, they tend to have been reimagined over and over again. Just think of the Marvel and DC cinematic universes. In the case of the muppets, the actual characters exist in more or less the same form that they have for decades.
How can we explain the appeal?
The characters in the muppets have an appeal that isn’t fixed at any point in time. Kermit is a quiet, likeable guy who is prone to bouts of excitement. Animal is a ball of frenetic energy. Beaker is always nervous. Then there are supporting characters who don’t have a great deal of depth to them, but who nevertheless live in the memory, like the chef.
Children and adults alike can find someone to relate to.
The fact that these characters appeal across generational divides means that they can be enjoyed by the whole family at the same time. Shows that rely heavily on special effects, like Thunderbirds, might have been considered slightly dated by younger people. But since the Muppets have never tried to look realistic or sophisticated, their appeal is timeless. If you’re a parent who grew up with the muppets, then the chances are that you’ll introduce them to your children, just as the muppets were introduced to you.
The introduction of Sesame Street in 1969, which preceded that of the Muppet Show in the late seventies, helped to bring a string of child-friendly characters to public attention.
The quality of writing and improvisation can’t be understated. Often, the writers will throw in gags and offhand remarks that only the adults will appreciate – but the kids will still appreciate the main bulk of the show. Once you’re grown up, and get some experience of human interaction, you’ll understand Miss Piggy and Kermit’s relationship a little better; but you’ll still enjoy watching them argue when you’re a kid.
Some of the musical numbers in the muppets are so well-loved that they’re actually played outside of the show. Whether it’s “Mahna Mahna”, which is funny in a ridiculous way, or “Rainbow Connection”, which is genuinely moving, there’s something to appeal to everyone. You never find yourself waiting for the musical number to finish so that the dialogue and action can return – which is the true mark of a quality musical interlude.