The Understandably Lost History of the 1980s Muppet Babies
In a recent blog post I marveled at how curious and unfortunate it is that entire decades of national treasure Sesame Street are unavailable legally in anything resembling a complete form. Looking for Mama’s Family? You’re in luck, because a quick trip to Amazon reveals that you can buy individual seasons, a six DVD “Mama’s Favorites” compilation that, spoiler, everyone I know is getting for Christmas this year, and every following year as well, and even a complete collection available for the unfathomably low price of 54.99. At that price, you can’t afford not to buy it.
The vast majority of the first two decades of this beloved institution are seemingly lost to the ages, victims of licensing or a lack of foresight or the sheer, staggering, overwhelming amount of Sesame Street contained in its first few decades of existence.
After very much enjoying the new Muppet Babies reboot and watching the holy living fuck out of it with my family I decided to look up its 1980s version on Youtube. I was the ideal age for it the first time around but I had not revisited it as a dad because it has never been available on DVD.
Watching Muppet Babies for the first time in decades, it almost instantly became clear why. The staple of countless Gen-X childhoods combined original animation with live-action footage to illustrate the Babies’ vivid imaginations and give their world a trippy, meta-textual, brazenly post-modern quality.
Some of these clips are undoubtedly public domain, and consequently free for anyone to use and abuse. But a lot of these clips are not just of familiar phenomenon but some of the biggest intellectual property of the past century. An episode that I watched with my son, for example, prominently featured a clip of the Stay Puft marshmallow man set-piece from Ghostbusters. I’m amazed that they were able to get actual footage from one of the biggest blockbusters of all time for the show originally. I cannot imagine how complicated, difficult and expensive it would be to go to another studio and try to secure the rights to use Ghostbusters footage for the sake of even a single episode.
Muppet Babies would still be an entertaining show without the regular integration of live-a footage from across the pop culture spectrum but that definitely adds another layer to the show, a layer, alas, that has more or less ensured that future generations would not be able to enjoy it the way mine did.
Yes, it would seemingly require a level of inter-studio cooperation on the level of Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Ready Player One without an equivalent payday at the end of all that legal wrangling and complicated, expensive licensing
However, it is worth considering that Disney now owns not only The Muppets but also Marvel and Star Wars. The house of the Mouse is currently in the process of buying Fox, which will give them access to even more lucrative characters and franchises.
Yes, Disney is buying up seemingly the sum of pop culture at such a rate that it seems possible that at some point in the future they’ll own the rights to all of the live-action footage in Muppet Babies because they will have a virtual monopoly on pop culture’s past as well as its present.
That, friends, would be a dystopian nightmare in so many ways but it would at least have its silver lining in finally making the 1980s Muppet Babies available on DVD for the sake of a grateful, if beaten down populace wriggling unhappily under the angry thumb of Mickey Mouse and his evil corporate minions. Economic democracy would go bye-bye but at least we’d get full seasons on DVD, so, you know, it wouldn’t be a total loss.
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