Sesame Street and The Muppet Show are two classic television shows from the 1970s, the former of which has been on the air some 4,000 episodes and the latter of which is limping along as a revival on ABC. The Muppets revival suffers from the kind of self-consciousness that kills comedy, and worse, it is so out of touch with its furry roots that it insults the franchise. Sesame Street, conversely, knows its audience and has remained an institution because it stays undeniably itself while keeping up with the culture.
Sesame Street has long been an advocate for inclusiveness. Its racially diverse cast and sensitivity around current events and relevant cultural issues have made the show a safe place for children to explore the sharp corners of their world. It educates not just about numbers and letters, but also about our culture and how to navigate the pleasures and pitfalls of childhood. This is represented in the show’s latest character, a girl named Julia. Julia has autism. In the new online storybookWe’re Amazing, 1, 2, 3! Elmo and Julia have a pretty normal hang out, except Elmo knows he has to do things a little differently with Julia. Helping kids understand differences is the Sesame Street brand; it’s public television doing a public service. Over the past four decades it’s been on the air, the show has found a delicate way to engage with its audience without talking down to them. Most shows for adults can’t even do that.
The Muppets, on the other hand, is having a full-blown identity crisis. It’s not that the writing is necessarily bad, or that the premise is flawed. It’s just that these aren’t the Muppets we know. The original Muppet Show was a variety show, which was a huge thing in the 1970s (Laugh-In, The Smothers Brothers, Sonny and Cher, Saturday Night Live). Like many shows of that era, you could watch it with your family even if it wasn’t specifically for kids. I disagree with showrunner Bob Kushell’s perspective that the Muppets have become a kids’ product, and the idea to “bring them all the way back to what they were intended to be and then some.” The original Muppet Show was only “adult” in the sense that it was smart, and if the references went over your head, it wasn’t because they were particularly adult, they were just very sharp. The new Muppets lacks that savvy. It adopts the mockumentary style that is now almost passé. It doesn’t trust its audience, although I’m not entirely sure it knows who its audience is.
The lesson for The Muppets to learn is brought to them by the letter S. Sesame Street is designed for children, but it knows those kids and it loves them, and they love it right back. People love shows that respect their intelligence. Why else would Netflix revive the super smart Gilmore Girls and Arrested Development? I doubt that legions of fans will demand more 2 Broke Girls after that atrocity (finally) ends. In the words of Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others. So here’s a protip, network TV showrunners: Don’t disrespect the brand you’re carrying, and don’t assume we won’t “get it” if you try something clever. Otherwise, we’ll just go to Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, where our intelligence is, generally, not the punch line.
PHOTO CREDIT: Regis Martin/Getty
In this 2010 interview, Brian Henson spoke to Big Think about his father Jim Henson’s legacy