Muppet Babies and Paul's Boutique
My four year old son Declan and I are obsessive sorts. We are of the mindset that if something is worth enjoying at all, then it’s worth compulsively consuming in a frenzy of appreciation. So it is not out of character that we went from thinking, “The Muppet Babies reboot is super charming. I bet the 1980s original would be delightful as well” to binge-watching every episode available on Youtube (there are a few, I’m pleased to say, if anything but a complete archive), reading the entire Muppet Babies literary catalog at bed time and Declan running away while happily yelling “Animal go bye bye!”, something I found simultaneously adorable and alarming.
It’s crazy how closely synced my brain is with that of a four year old. Neither of us found anything strange about watching in order three separate compilations just of Animal saying his catch-phrase “Go bye bye!”
I became obsessed with the Reagan-Bush era The Muppet Babies the same way that I fell in love with Sesame Street in my late thirties when I first became a dad. I’m hoping to become mature enough to really appreciate the non-baby Muppets in movie and television form when I’m in my fifties or sixties but I don’t want to rush things.
One of the things I love about the original incarnation of Muppet Babies is how much it reminds me of one of my favorite things in the world, which is Beastie Boys’ 1989 magnum opus Paul’s Boutique. It’s the album that found the trio abandoning the ironic frat boy shtick that made them ridiculously popular with License to Ill in favor of a trippy 1970s stoner funk vibe that realized the kaleidoscopic, mind-blowing possibilities of sampling as an art form like no other album before or since.
Paul’s Boutique was the product of a tiny window in pop culture where sampling had advanced to the point where sonic mad scientists like The Dust Brothers, the duo that produced the album, could create dense tapestries of sounds from movies, TV shows, party albums, funk records and everything else that captured their stoned imaginations that were so funny, vivid and rich that it almost seemed like sacrilege to rap over such intricate perfection.
At the same time, the business of monetizing songs sampled by rappers was still primitive enough that a group like Beastie Boys, or De La Soul with their similarly revolutionary 3 Feet High and Rising could legally license samples from a dazzlingly diverse array of sources, including songs by The Beatles and Johnny Cash, without bankrupting their labels.
Paul’s Boutique came out in that brief golden age of sampling, before the Gilbert O’Sullivan/Biz Markie lawsuit over “Alone Again (Naturally)” changed everything, and not for the better, where the licensing of samples was concerned, when it was still possible for an album as audacious and sample-packed as Paul’s Boutique to exist.
Muppet Babies was not quite so lucky when it came to being available on a legal basis for later generations. The television show brought sophisticated, Hip Hop style sampling to television by combining original animated segments (the raps, as it were) with clips from an amazing and, I would imagine, incredibly expensive cross-section of movies and TV shows and various visual flotsam.
An episode my son and I watched yesterday parodied Star Wars not just by having the Muppet Babies playing variations on Star Wars’ perennials but also by implementing actual footage from George Lucas’ silly space opera about monsters from outer space into its narrative while riffing simultaneously, extensively and creatively on both iterations of Star Trek. Also, time-traveling was involved. The whole episode unfolded with a stoned, free-associative dream logic seemingly more in line with Fireside Theater than The Muppet Babies’ Saturday Morning peers.
Of course, The Muppet Babies is far from being unique in appealing both to small children and stoned adults. Think of literally everything the Krofft Brothers did with their gaggle of puppety, nightmare-inducing oddballs. Or about the Happy Days cartoon that had an anthropomorphic dog named Mr. Cool and a girl from the future named Cupcake who operated a busted time machine. What the fuck was up with that shit?
But with the possible exception of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, no other fixture of 1980s kiddie television embraced the challenge of delighting kids and stoners alike with trippy-ass shit that’ll fuck your ass up quite like Muppet Babies.
What I’m saying, friend, is that whoever came up with that crazy shit was clearly blasted out of their gourd on sweet, sweet Mary Jane. They were zooted on kind bud, puffing on the weed with roots in hell and letting it take their imaginations straight to crazy town, where all of the best ideas can be found.
In that respect, Muppet Babies was just like Paul’s Boutique as well. Hell, you could argue that the Beastie Boys’ towering masterpiece had an even druggier, even more stoned vibe but The Muppet Babies remains an enduring classic of Saturday morning stoner comedy.
Of course the problem with creating your art and entertainment upon the bones and skeletons and foundations of the art of others, as both The Muppet Babies and Paul’s Boutique do, is that there will come a point when the people whose work you’re building on are going to ask to be compensated for their work.
Beastie Boys, astonishingly, had that covered with Paul’s Boutique. The album represents a triumph of legal wrangling and licensing as well as a creative touchstone. By all rights, some legal snafu or tricky uncleared sample should keep the whole glorious extravaganza from being available to the masses yet Paul’s Boutique has delighted us for three decades and isn’t going anywhere.
The same cannot be said of Muppet Babies. If it were even possible for The Muppet Babies to pay a licensing fee to the people who hold the rights to every movie and TV show they sample, it would probably cost roughly one bazillion dollars. That would be prohibitively expensive unless everyone on earth bought a million copies. I should probably concede at this point that I am both very bad at math and also incredibly imprecise.
There is a reason the Beastie Boys never changed their names to the Beastie Men or the Beasties. Deep into their glorious career it suited them, for there is a joyous sense of play at the heart of the group’s music, a life-affirming playfulness rooted unmistakably in the innocence and crazy energy of childhood.
There’s a reason Beastie Boys and Muppet Babies both have names clearly delineating that they are most assuredly not adults: the Boys weren’t quite babies but they weren't exactly grown-ups on wax either, and that has proved one of its most charming characteristics.
Beastie Boys were bohemians and intellectuals and artistes but they were also human cartoon characters, goofballs, cut-ups, men perpetually in touch with their inner child. The studio was their second home, their version of Nanny’s playroom where the only boundaries were the limits of imaginations that knew no limits, only dazzling possibilities and opportunities.
The Beastie Boys may have been filmmakers and film distributors and activists and publishers and intellectuals and feminists in their real lives. Beastie Boys evolved and matured as dramatically and publicly as any act in Hip Hop but when it came to their music, they always retained the playful innocence of the sandbox.
The Muppet Babies, which ran from 1984 to 1991 overlapped with Paul’s Boutique to the extent that the cultishly adored kiddie version of Jim Henson’s beloved creations could be said to both inspire the album and be inspired by its dazzling technological and comic innovations.
The Hip Hop masterpiece and cult kiddie cartoon layered pop culture reference upon reference in a way that anticipated the films of Quentin Tarantino, who was doing with film what Muppet Babies did with television and Beastie Boys did with Hip Hop. They were breaking bold new ground rooted inextricably in their love and appreciation of pop culture’s glorious, fuzzy, half-remembered, half-misremembered past.
Yes, I fell instantly in love with The Muppet Babies partially because I possess the mind of a small, immature child and partially because it reminded me so much of my beloved Paul’s Boutique, even as it’s exactly that element, the inspired and wide-ranging use of sampling as a tool and as an art form onto itself, that will probably prevent it from ever being legally released in my lifetime. That’s a shame but thankfully Paul’s Boutique isn’t going anywhere.
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