Muppets Now, the troupe’s first foray into the world of streaming, takes on the YouTube era with hilarious – if somewhat disjointed – success.
If you can’t be funny, be happy, and if you can be both, then you’re probably doing pretty well at life. The Muppets have spent the better part of a half-century (yep, they’re old) being both things, but even when they fail at being funny, they’re at least the most damn joyful collection of puppets that ever bumbled their way onto a screen. Comedy moves faster than almost any other art form, but the Muppets have remained funny by sticking to one core bit: it’s funny to see puppets do people things.
That core has carried the troupe through the decades, with enough creative renaissances (Treasure Island and the 2011 movie come to mind especially) that it feels like they’ve never left us. They’ve yet to have true success in the streaming era, which feels odd given how tailor-made the easy watching of The Muppets seems for the current moment. Muppets Now, which drops weekly from today on Disney+, marks their first entrance into an era where we deserve to have these glorious felt creatures at a press of a button, not after diving deep down YouTube holes. (Disney+ has a smattering of other Muppets content but it’s all recent, and there’s no sign of the 70s show – their peak – being put online anytime soon.)
Much like the famed Muppet show of the 70s was a parody of the then-tired variety format, Muppets Now is a parody of the kinds of YouTube series you watch to numb your brain from the realities of 2020. Miss Piggy is an influencer, the Swedish Chef is a Bon Appetit style chef, while the pair of Dr Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker are doing their own riff on Mythbusters. It’s ripe territory for parody, and the jokes are essentially what you’d expect here: Miss Piggy is a facile influencer and an even more shallow interviewer, the Swedish Chef is a bad cook, and Honeydew and Beaker mess up nearly everything they attempt. But the jokes work because of the cast’s commitment to the bit, and because of our comfort with the punchlines – these are the things we make fun of to our friends, even as we’re both watching them.
Let’s be frank here: Miss Piggy is one of the great comic creations of the 20th century, and she’s the highlight of any piece of Muppet content you can name. That remains true here and it’s her parts of the show that are the most skewering, like when she asks Aubrey Plaza what her favourite story was that her publicist wrote for her. Miss Piggy is the ideal character for a show like this to showcase. She can sub in for a vapid late show host, a vapid wellness influencer, and a vapid YouTuber while never losing what’s key to her character – the larger-than-life personality and strange vulnerability (that snout retracting inwards is Streepian in its heartbreak). It makes you (or me) wish that there could be a whole show that centres on her, but then we’d miss the macabre comic horror of a turkey, a new Muppet called Beverly Plume, host a cooking show where she regularly cooks meat.
The main flaw of the show is that it replicates the same flaws of the form that it parodies. It doesn’t feel like a cohesive show. It feels like you could put the sketches in any order – much like a YouTube algorithm would – and the show wouldn’t be meaningfully different. Part of the joy of any Muppets show is the liveliness and the chaotic good energy of the whole endeavour; the feeling that everything is holding on just by a (puppet) string. Even the best and slickest variety shows have that thrill of when one small thing goes wrong, the whole thing goes wrong. But Muppet Now’s sketches are self-contained so there’s no chance of the cumulative build of an episode being ruined by one chaotic thrill. And because of the way many of the sketches are shot, there’s also a sense of fatigue: there’s a very celebrity-by-Zoom feeling to many of them that we’ve seen far too much of in the past few months, even if the sketches weren’t shot in quarantine.
Another muddled aspect of the show has to do with who it’s actually for. Is it for people who are already fans of the Muppets? Is it for adults who spend their idle time clicking through these videos? Or is it for kids whose parents just want a couple of minutes of reprieve? The answer is strangely unclear. While the humour tracks regardless of age, the guests are more likely to be recognisable to an adult with some semblance of a finger on the pulse (Aubrey Plaza, Taye Diggs, RuPaul) than they are to a child. So unless you happen to be gifted with a child who’s smitten with Dead to Me’s Linda Cardellini, they’re unlikely to be drawn in and then hooked by the names. And if they are, then bless your strange precocious offspring.
The Muppets, however, are hard to truly screw up. With the exception of the unmentionable 2015 reboot, they’re a cast of characters you can put into any situation and the jokes will come. Even more crucially? The joy will come. It’s fun just to type the phrase “Dr. Bunsen Honeydew” and it’s even more fun to watch him do silly dumb experiments. So while Muppets Now might not be gold all the way through, there’s enough of a surface that you’ll more than make it through the six fleeting episodes on Disney+. I wouldn’t say no to more of this, but what I really want is a Muppets show that responds to this moment a little bit funnier, a little bit happier and frankly, a little bit better.
You can watch The Muppets Now on Disney+