My World of Flops Case File #103 Little Muppet Monsters
When Muppet Babies was unleashed upon a grateful public in 1984, it was such a big hit for CBS that it wanted more of that inimitable Muppet magic. So it commissioned another Muppet-based Saturday morning cartoon show from the good folks over at Jim Henson Productions/Marvel called Little Muppet Monsters that would combine live-action segments of new little kid Muppets hosting a television show with cameos from Muppet legends like Kermit and Fonzie and animated segments that included Pigs in Space from the Muppets television show.
The result felt at once lazily slapped together in a cavalier, decidedly un-Muppet-like fashion and way too overly conceptually complicated and ambitious. The project was seemingly doomed from the start. The animators took so long to turn in their work that when the show was mercifully put out of its misery many of the thirteen episodes that had been ordered had not been completed.
It turned out to be a moot point, since only three episodes of Little Muppet Monsters ever aired. That’s right: only a single episode separated the series’ finale from its premiere. Not every Sesame Street or Muppets-related project is a hit, as evidenced by the fact that I’ve already covered Elmo’s Adventures in Grouch Land for My World of Flops and intend to cover the famously botched Muppets single-camera reboot in the not too distant future, but it’s rare for a Jim Henson-related production to fail this quickly and dramatically. Or anything to fail this quickly, really. Little Muppet Monsters was on the air only slightly longer than Anthony Scaramucci was Trump’s press secretary. That’s how I judge brief amounts of time these days and Little Muppet Monsters only outlasted the Gooch by a couple of days.
Despite the public’s enduring interest in anything Muppet-related Little Muppet Monsters has never been available on home video in any form and, as far as I know, the ten episodes that never aired are lost forever.
CBS envisioned Little Muppet Monsters as the second half of an hour-long Saturday morning block collectively known as Muppets, Babies & Monsters. .
Little Muppet Monsters hoped to ride the coat-tails of The Muppets and Muppet Babies, to exploit the powerful emotional hold Kermit and the gang held over children and adults alike. But the short-lived show’s connection to two of the most beloved TV shows of all time proved a curse as well as a blessing.
The way CBS and the Henson/Marvel folks packaged and aired Little Muppet Monsters made it impossible to not compare Little Muppet Monsters to its siblings in a way that did the short-lived kiddie variety show no favors.
What I will call the Muppet All-Stars—Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Animal—are all over Little Muppet Monsters in animated and, less frequently, live-action form, yet the way the show clumsily implements the adult stars into the action reminded me at times of the Simpsons spin-off episode where Lisa mechanically announces to Chief Wiggum, as if contractually and professionally obligated to, that she “can’t wait to hear about all the exciting, sexy adventures you’re sure to have against this colorful backdrop (in New Orleans)!”
Well, l’m afraid that audiences, and the adult Muppets didn’t have much time to see or hear about all the exciting, sexy adventures little Muppet monsters Tug, Molly and Boo were having against the not-so-colorful backdrop of a basement they have transformed into a makeshift studio where they broadcast what we’re watching to the Muppets upstairs.
The sub-public access TV show conceit serves as a ramshackle but study framework for regular segments featuring the adult Muppets, like the aforementioned animated version of the old Muppet Show mainstay Pigs in Space that seems to take up as much of the show as the Little Muppet monsters segments do and assumes that the show’s target audience of small children are awfully interested in a warmed over parody of Star Trek, canned ham, as it were, and “Kermit the Frog, Private Eye”, an absurdist animated mystery parody with Fozzie as Kermit’s sidekick that the live-action Kermit introduces at a typewriter as the product of his own writing.
I was surprised to discover that Kermit’s cartoon voice was provided not by Jim Henson but rather by Frank Welker. As animation fans and listeners of We Hate Movies know well, Frank Welker is the king of voiceover. If you need someone to voice a squirrel with an ulcer, a zany space alien dog or an ascot-loving, trap-springing preppie detective, Welker is the man you call. But he seems a bit of an odd fit for a character this distinctive. Welker’s work as Kermit isn’t bad, necessarily, but it just feels like a dumbed down, sped-up version of Henson’s melancholy frog journalist.
Gonzo pops by for “Gonzo’s Freaky Facts and Oddball Achievements”, a segment whose use of out of context public domain black and white footage just serves as a reminder of how much better Muppet Babies handles that kind of material.
Muppet Babies puts Little Muppet Kids in a bit of a weird spot, niche-wise, since it’s ostensibly aimed at a younger audience, being about babies in a nursery and all, but its humor and allusions and structure are all pitched much more overtly to adults and people who enjoy using drugs. Little Muppet Monsters accordingly felt like a weird middle sibling left to scrap for their place at the table.
Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and their fellow O.G Muppets have had roughly a half century to worm their way deep into the hearts and souls of the public. Poor Tug, Molly and Boo, in sharp contrast, had roughly one hour of airtime to establish themselves as worthy members of an entertainment dynasty the likes of which we haven’t seen since the heyday of Cam’Ron and the Diplomats.
The standards for new Muppets are absurdly high. How how? Well, I’d like to introduce you to a couple of characters who got a big push and then just kind of petered out when they didn’t prove as popular with audiences as hoped. Here is Alice. She’s Snuffy’s baby sister. Truth be told, personality-wise, she’d kind of annoyingly limited. She basically just repeats things in a delighted, high-pitched girlish squeal and has a vocabulary not much more advanced than Groot, but holy fucking shit is she cute! Look at those eye lashes! And that face! And that little baby snuffulupagus body!
Here’s Alice in action. Pretty ridiculously, almost obnoxiously cute, huh? And she still wasn’t appealing enough to audiences to hold on as a regular Muppet on Sesame Street. Alice had her heyday, but you won’t see much of her today, not because she wasn’t cute—if anything, she was excessively, irritatingly cute—but rather because the standards for new characters are so high and it’s hard to compete with the public’s love for venerable characters like Cookie Monster, The Count or Big Bird.
Or take Curly Bear. Same deal. Baby. Bear.. A teddy-bear-looking cutie with a sassy personality and adoring and occasionally resentful older brother in Baby Bear.
Or think of Herry Monster. For a long time he was everywhere, on the TV show and all over the books. Then one day he ran afoul of Elmo when he was riding really high, both in terms of fame and on that booger sugar, the Wow powder, and now Herry is buried in an unmarked grave next to Cary Elwes in New Jersey, or so Muppet lore has it.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with Tug, Molly and Boo but there’s nothing distinctive about them either. Muppet Babies accomplished the remarkable feat of re-imagining some of our most beloved childhood icons in ways that somehow made them even more lovable, adorable, irresistible and subversively bizarre. Little Muppet Monsters was cursed with having to debut three forgettable new characters in a high stakes environment alongside a hit that made its shortcomings seem all the more glaring by comparison.
In the pilot episode, rapscallions Tug, Molly and Boo are banished to the basement for their shenanigans and monkey shines where they broadcast their very own television show to the adults above with puppet penguins as their band and contributions from many of the top Muppets in segments like Fozzie’s joke corner, which is devoted to the artlessness of the chicken joke .
My son has just started telling jokes and, as you might imagine, they make absolutely no sense and are absolutely adorable. I of course helped indoctrinate him in this wonderful, horrible new world the same way my father did, with “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
That made me wonder if the perennial whose “punchline” about getting to the other side is “funny” because it’s so unfunny and also not really even a punchline in the sense that we understand the mechanisms and traditions of comedy and the joke form is, in fact, the world’s most popular and widely disseminated bit of anti-humor. It fits many of the requirements of the form. It’s unfunny in a way that makes us think about why we find things funny and unfunny, that deconstructs itself in the plainest, corniest fashion imaginable, that embodies anti-comedy and the cornball mainstream Americana at the same time.
Anti-humor or not, Declan found this quintessentially unfunny joke very funny. I am less enamored of it. It somehow just does not feel fresh to me.
So I was not the target market for Fozzie’s brief chicken joke themed solo showcase. In this instance at least, there is no joy in repetition. Even at the outset Little Muppet Monsters felt tired and confused, unsure of its identity, its audience or its tone.
Little Muppet Monsters was the quickly extinguished weak link of the Muppet family. It hoped to extend Jim Henson’s empire but instead gave audiences characters they knew and loved in unsatisfying, mediocre, exhausted animated form and new live-action Muppet characters that, while amiable enough, weren't worth getting to know, and god knows CBS wasn’t about to give the show anything in the way of time or space to find its audience or its voice. No, it was hello, goodbye for the three episode boondoggle, which would be more of a shame if Little Muppet Monsters wasn't so weirdly complete a misfire.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure