“Who is that strange, bearded man?”: Muppet Family Christmas at 30

Jimchristmas

Today is the 30th anniversary of the special “A Muppet Family Christmas.”  I watched it originally when it aired in 1987.  We taped it off the television (except that we apparently were not prepared to do so and missed the first 6 minutes or so–tragedy!), and I’ve treasured it ever since.  I’ve watched it unabashedly at all times of the year, not only at Christmas.  After Jim Henson died, it was one of the sources available for me to turn for comfort.

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Fraggle Friday: Episode 102–“Wembley and the Gorgs”

“The Gorgs might be the bullies at school, but they might also be a mean boss, or an abusive boyfriend, or the Taliban. It’s a good thing we have Fraggle Rock, to help us figure it out. For all we know, there might be Gorgs everywhere.”
 –Danny Horn, “My Week with Fraggle Rock, Part 2: Big Shots,” ToughPigs.com, November 4, 2004.

I’ve wanted to write about this episode of Fraggle Rock for four years now, long before I had a Muppet blog, and long before the Schism.  I hope I can do it justice.

Let’s start things off with a song.  Take it, Wembley:

This song plays a relatively minor role in the episode, but I wanted to highlight it because it is one of my very favorite Wembley songs.  Steve’s voice here is like a soft, cozy blanket–warm and fuzzy and friendly.  Which, come to think about it, is a good description of Wembley’s character in a nutshell.

Now, instead of looking at the episode chronologically, let’s jump around and look at it thematically.  To that end, let’s get started at the end of this episode, in which Wembley makes a very profound statement: “I guess some slavery feels like freedom.”

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“We will march against the mighty; we will march against the strong”

“Why are you wasting your time with those puppets?” asked Rudy Pugliese, one of Jim Henson’s college professors.

I sometimes hear a similar question in my head: “Our democracy is imperiled, our Constitution is in crisis; why are you wasting your time worrying about the integrity of a bunch of puppets?”

To which the short answer is, in the words of Cantus, “No time is wasted time.”

Yes, the Muppets are puppets; that is undeniable, and it would be pointless and silly of me to argue otherwise.  But they are so much more than that.  They are symbols; they are fuzzy mirrors in which we see our own flaws and foibles reflected; they are useful rhetorical tools with which one can make subtle arguments against injustice and demagoguery in a nonthreatening way.  In the words of Steve Whitmire, “These characters stand for all of us, and we’re worth defending.” (my emphasis)

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Fraggle Friday–“Why?”

In my opinion, this beautiful song from Mokey is one of Fraggle Rock‘s most underrated.

This song is from the episode “The Preachification of Convincing John,” which I always think is something of a misnomer.  I mean, obviously Convincing John is in it, and he does preachify (or whatever the verb form would be), but it’s really a story about Mokey, and Convincing John is pretty incidental it.

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Sin of Omission


(Isn’t it miraculous how there seems to be a Fraggle Rock song that fits every occasion?)

Dear Steve, especially…but also friends, readers, “followers,” and people who surfed in here randomly looking for extended metaphors on child care or something…

(To that last group: thank you for stopping by, and I’m sorry that I didn’t have what you were looking for.)

I have a confession to make:

I went to a Halloween party on October 21st dressed “sort of approximately” like Kermit, with the intention of, to paraphrase what I said on October 19th, getting the word out, trying to evoke some “epiphanies” in the casual fans, perhaps spurring them to some kind of action, but at the very least, bringing them into the conversation.

And I failed.  

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Fraggle Friday: Episode 507–“Gone, But Not Forgotten”

This may well be the most discussed Fraggle Rock episode of them all.  I don’t think that I necessarily have anything new to add to the discussion.  But it’s October, and I always get to feeling morbid in October, and this episode suits my current mood, so I’m just going to go with it.

It’s interesting that, for all the Fraggles’ preoccupation with death, and notwithstanding the numerous close calls, this is the only episode that deals directly with it.

 

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Manny’s Land of Carpets–Redux

(Well, so much for the peaceful, quiet relaxation.)

First it was a migraine, then it was personal/professional issues…maybe there are forces out there that don’t want me to say what I was originally going to say about the Fraggle Rock episode “Manny’s Land of Carpets.”  Or maybe last week, or even yesterday, just wasn’t the acceptable time for me to be able to do it full justice.  In any case, I think I’m ready now, and I feel compelled to revisit my original ideas about this episode:

GOBO: Why does the Wish-Granting Creature promise so many things in so many different voices?  Something’s wrong here! […] I wish I knew which voice to believe.
ECHO: Believe!…believe!…believe…
[…]
GOBO:  All of a sudden, I know which voice to listen to!

We live in a schizophrenic society.  There are more voices now than ever before, all saying different things and all with different–and often sinister, or at least selfish–motivations.  We live in a world in which foreign agitators promulgate fake news stories across social media platforms to influence our elections.  We–well, I and at least some of you–live in a country in which those in authority try to undermine the credibility of those journalists who are actively TRYING to be truthful–or, at least, accurate–by disingenuously calling them “fake news.”

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Fraggle Friday: Episode 215–“Manny’s Land of Carpets”

“‘Manny’s Land of Carpets’–I love that show.  It was really a show about television; a show about the kind of delusional system that’s projected by people’s belief in, you know, the world that seems to be inside that box in the corner of the room, and that’s the way I saw it in the beginning, anyway.  And then it just got crazier and crazier as time went on, and it’s sort of one of those one-sentence ideas that you can crack it open and start to uncrack it a little bit, and it starts to really suggest there’s an entire universe in here–Manny’s Land of Carpets.”
             –David Young, writer of “Manny’s Land of Carpets

So, here is David Young, a writer working for a TV show, writing an episode of said show about how television is a “delusional system.”  You’ve got to admire his audacity and the unapologetic relish with which he bites the hand that feeds him.

(This is the topic about which I was going to write last week but had to postpone when I was beset by a migraine.  But maybe it’s just as well, because what I’m going to write now is different than what I would have written last week.)

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Fraggle Friday: Episode 218: “The Day the Music Died”

Well, the best-laid plans of Fraggles and frogs often go awry, I suppose.  I had a whole Fraggle Friday feature all planned out…and then I developed a migraine, with its attendant photosensitivity, which means I can’t turn on a light to see my notes, at least not without feeling as though a Doozer with an ice auger is standing on my head trying to bore its way into my skull.

So instead, let’s focus on the night when the lights went out in Fraggle Rock: episode 218, “The Day the Music Died,” aka The One With the Ditzies.

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Let Me Be Your Birthday Song

Happy birthday to Steve Whitmire and Jim Henson!  Steve, this year you get top billing; I don’t think Jim would mind.  🙂

I’m sure there are probably other examples of Jim and Steve singing together in harmony, but I can’t think of any of the top of my head, and it doesn’t matter because this one is probably the best anyway.

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Fraggle Friday: Episode 207: “Mokey and the Minstrels”

What follows is an open letter to Steve Whitmire:

Dear Steve,

Although I am a child of the ’80s, Fraggle Rock was, regrettably, not a significant part of my childhood.  I saw bits and pieces of it back in the day, but I never got to watch the series in its entirety until 2013–although I’ve been trying to make up for lost time ever since.  In a way, though, I think I’m kind of lucky because I think that maybe I get more out of watching Fraggle Rock as an adult, bringing my education and life experience to it, than I would have as a kid–a relatively blank slate.

Be that as it may, I identify strongly with Mokey.  Her abstract, fanciful, introspective approach to life, and her idealistic worldview, remind me a lot of myself.  In particular, however, I relate to Mokey in this episode of Fraggle Rock, in which she attempts to discern her vocation.  I’ve been trying to discern mine for 37 years, and I still haven’t quite figured it out.

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First Steps; or, Intellectual Warm-ups

CANTUS:  Listening is the first step and the last step.
MOKEY:  Ohhh…then I’m on the LAST step!
CANTUS: YOU…haven’t even begun.
MOKEY:  Well, I’m already there!  I mean…what about the ping?
CANTUS:  The ping is the start, but then comes the beginning.
–“Mokey and the Minstrels” Fraggle Rock, (Jocelyn Stevenson, screenwriter)

It’s been almost two months since I started this blog, and while I’ve created quite a bit of content that I can be proud of, in a way I still feel like I haven’t even really begun. 

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Fraggle Friday: Wembley’s Way

Someone posted the following video in the Muppet Pundit comments.  Steve has yet to talk about it, so I don’t know all of the backstory, but it appears that Steve returned to his old high school in 1988 with some of his characters (Muppet and otherwise) in tow to participate in a concert of some sort.

Take it, Wembley:

I have another confession to make: in all my years of studying literature, I’ve found that, a lot of times, I don’t think that an author’s–or, in a broader sense, an artist’s–most celebrated or well-known work is necessarily their best.  I read The Red Badge of Courage in grad school and was underwhelmed by it; my favorite Stephen Crane work is called The Monster; you’ve probably never heard of it, but it’s utterly brilliant.  Similarly, I love Madeleine L’Engle, and I love A Wrinkle in Time, but it was a early novel of hers, and I think her later works show a growth and a maturity that is missing in Wrinkle, as wonderful as it is and as much as I have always loved it.

My point is that “My Way” is so famous and so popular, and arguably so overexposed, that I’ve never been that impressed with it.  In fact, I’m not sure if I ever really paid attention to the lyrics before.  But watching Wembley sing this little duet, the lyrics suddenly smacked me in the face, particularly the last verse:

For what is a man?  What has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels 
And not the words of one who kneels.”

Those lyrics might have been written for and about Steve; that’s exactly what he’s doing on his blog, and he’s taken–and continues to take–the blows for it.

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Fraggle Friday: “Feel So Bad”

I apologize in advance because there are no good copies of the song I want to talk about on YouTube; at least, not that I can find.  There are two versions that I can find, both recorded by someone pointing a camera a television set.

This one has better video, in that there are no reflections on the screen:

This one has better (or at least louder) audio:

This is not one of my favorite Fraggle Rock songs.  Generally speaking, I don’t really like songs that consist of one four-word phrase repeated over and over.  That’s no fun for me to listen to and/or sing along with.  It makes me wonder if Dennis Lee was on vacation that week or what.

So usually, whenever I watch the episode of Fraggle Rock from which this song comes (“Don’t Cry Over Spilt Milk“), I usually skip over this song and the reprise, which is basically the same thing but with the word “bad” changed to “glad”.

But last week I DID feel bad, so it felt appropriate to post a link to this song.  Before I did so, I actually watched the whole song for perhaps the first time ever, and I realized that this song is really a tour de force musical performance by Wembley.

Which, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, necessarily makes it a tour de force musical performance by Steve Whitmire.

It seems to me that if you only have four lyrics at your disposal, you’ve really got to punch up your vocal performance and make each repeated phrase different from the last one.  I imagine that you’d have to think about subtext and making each phrase slightly different.

The more I think about it, this may actually be one of the most challenging songs in the Fraggle Rock repertoire.  You get off easy when it comes to memorizing lyrics, but everything else would be a lot harder.

Steve’s commitment to the performance is wonderful.  Definitely worth a second look.  I “feel so glad” that I finally decided to pay attention. 😉