John Walker's Electronic House

Archive for September 8th, 2004

by on Sep.08, 2004, under The Rest

I’m grateful that I can truly say, with the Muppets I’ve been able to defy the cliche “you don’t know how much you love something until it’s gone”. I’ve always known how much I love the Muppets. I’m reminded of this now they’re gone.

I know this happened in February, but I only found out this evening. Chatting with Richard Cobbett, I was asking him if he’d heard that Sesame St. is now sponsored. He hadn’t, so as I was about to deliver the grotesque punchline that the PBS pre-school programme was now sponsored, unbelieveably, by MacDonald’s, he found this:

The text of the URL should be enough to tell all. Disney now own the Muppets.

Jim Henson created something incredible. Muppets began appearing on American television in the 1960s, but it was Sesame St. that made them famous. A non-commercial educational programme that understood that pre-school children could learn by using their imaginations.

And it was powerful.

Think of another programme that Channel 4 have broadcast without commercials. Let alone a daily, hour long programme. Because to put adverts in Sesame St. was to destroy its reason for existing. That Channel 4 were prepared to do this was a sign of its strength. But more importantly, Sesame St. was a sign that the Children’s Television Workshop and Muppets Inc. cared deeply about what they were doing.

The success of Sesame St. allowed Henson to make the Muppet Shows, and by this his creations became world famous.

Henson had a vision. He created programmes and films that were driven primarily by imagination. His children’s television programmes had more depth and sophistication than the majority of adults’ programming. Take Fraggle Rock. As a kid, I saw a show about this group of underground creatures who had adventures. As an adult I look back on it and realise it was a satire of social structure. The Fraggles were the middle classes, existing in a world beneath the upper class monsters (the King, Queen and Prince) and the working class Doozers. The Doozers built because what Doozers did was build. The Fraggles ate their constructions without caring about them or the effort behind the source of their favourite treat. And every episode contained a ‘post card’, spoofing our world seen through the eyes of the Fraggle. (I could be completely wrong in my reading of this, and I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts).

Muppet movies always make me cry. (To avoid smart-arse responses, I’ve not seen Muppet’s Treasure Island). There are some that are clearly designed to – they feature sad sequences, tear-jerking scenes. But while those always get me blubbing, that’s not the only thing that makes me cry when I watch them. I find myself overwhelmed by the love that has gone into the characters on screen. I find that I’m too delighted by their existence to know what to do with all the emotion.

And none more so than ‘The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson’. (This is all from my memory, so lots could be misremembered. Post corrections in the tsukkomis). Released in November 1990, six months after Henson died, this is one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen. The Muppets are all asked to gather together to celebrate Henson’s life, who they still believe to be alive. As one large group, they begin reading through the readers’ letters that they find, and it is in reading these letters that they learn of his death. They are destroyed, and one by one leave. But it’s Gonzo who remembers who Henson was, and why they are there, and makes the others come back. I think it’s all done with a song. And it makes me cry just to remember it.

I’m not entirely sure why – why the Muppets always move me so much, why they overwhelm me so I become a big wet blubbering wreck. But I’m fairly sure it’s the love. They exude caring love. You can’t create something like Gonzo without loving it.

If you search Google for “Jim Henson’s vision” today, you’ll get results about the Muppet 3D ride at Disneyland.

If you go to, you’ll be redirected to a picture of Kermit wearing Mickey Mouse ears, and be told that he’s “the happiest frog on Earth.”

When I opened that picture it shocked me. I felt the wind leave me, and replied in four select letters to Rich. And then about ten seconds later it really hit me, and I burst into tears. I realise I’ve mentioned crying quite often in this post, but hey, that’s me. However, before it was because of not knowing what to do with such happiness. Tonight I feel like the five year old me just got kicked really, really hard in the face. Because people have stopped caring. Henson’s foul children could not give a shit about what their father created, referring to the Muppets as “assets” and how they can “exploit our… properties”. They have allowed something beautiful to die a hideous, undignified death. They will cite that the “franchise” has not been successful for ten years, and so this will save their “assets”. But what they appear to have never understood is that with Henson’s death, and Frank Oz’s retirement, no one holding the sticks loves the Muppets any more.

Sesame St. died a few months ago, the day it became sponsored by MacDonald’s. Which was the same day as the Sesame St. Pizza Hut promotions began. And the MSN sponsorship. Or is it AOL now? A programme aimed at five year olds and under, encouraging their audience to develop brand loyalty to poisonous fast food chains before they’re ever old enough to know what money is. I wonder if such economic ideas will be added to “Near and Far” and counting to 10, in their educational sketches.

I’m floundering, and not really tying this all together very well. Maybe I sound silly, getting so upset about this. I am certain that I’m not. I loved the Muppets – they meant so much to me. They inspire me. My passion in youth work is to let young people know that with their imagination and the strength of God behind them, they can change the world. Jim Henson taught me a big part of that.

They didn’t get Sesame St. thanks to what is now called The Sesame Workshop. But what remains of it (if you’ve seen an episode lately, it’s a sad site filled with the sponsorships and elongated sequences of Elmo in a CGI room linking classic clips from the 80s and 90s) can’t have long to live. Not that the state it’s in is really living.

I hate Disney. I despise them. And now they own the Muppets. As someone on the Muppet Central forum put it:

“I’m marking my calender.

Today is the day my childhood died.”

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