Monday, May 30, 2011

Just for the Halibut

"Well I've got a dream too. But it's about singing and dancing and making people happy. That's the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And, well, I've found a whole bunch of friends who have the same dream. And it kinda makes us like a family."
-Kermit the Frog, The Muppet Movie

I have a Muppet problem.

My love of the Muppets is deep and unironic. Some of my earliest memories are of The Muppet Show. What I find interesting, looking back, is the way the Muppets have remained a pretty constant presence in my life. As I child I was probably a bigger fan of other things, but my interest would wane (and sometimes wax again in adulthood), but the Muppets were just sort of always there in some way or another.

Jim Henson's death was the first - and maybe the only - celebrity death that really affected me, as if I had known him. 20 years later, I still wonder what work he still had in him, and get sad that we'll never see it.

Maybe that's why the Muppets make me so emotional, or maybe it's just something about the power of good puppetry, that weird magic that happens when an inanimate object comes completely to life. Either way, I have some kind of Muppet weeping trigger.

Last year I was in Atlanta on business and I went out of my way to go to the Center for Puppetry Arts. I was completely delighted by the props and puppets from Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, and Emmett Otter's Jug Band Christmas. And then, in a small room, were a handful of Muppet Show and Sesame Street characters. I teared up looking at Rowlf. He was clearly old and worn through in spots, like a well-loved stuffed toy. Yet in spite of that it was somehow alive, this character - this person (okay, dog) - I knew so well, given such a strong personality by Henson that even motionless in a glass case it felt like looking at an old friend. Or like meeting a celebrity idol in real life. A museum employee told me that although Rowlf had appeared in various films, he hadn't spoken since Jim Henson died. I later learned this story wasn't true at all, but I still want it to be, and I'm not at all embarrassed to have welled up over it in front of a stranger.

Okay, so this is a reasonable thing to get emotional about. But when Boy and I went to Disney World in December, I cried at the Muppet 3D movie. You guys, I cried at the trailer for the new movie. I have a Muppet problem.

I've been watching season 3 of The Muppet Show on DVD, and it's delightful but I can absolutely make it through an episode without breaking down. I can't explain any of this. I guess I get emotional about post-Henson Muppet things (the Disney World movie is one of the last things he worked on before he died) that get it right, which is harder than it looks (see Muppets Tonight and Muppet Treasure Island). When the tone (and the voices) are on, it's a little like magic, like these people (not just Henson but all of the original Muppeteers, most of whom have retired) are somehow still in these characters' souls. (As for seeing the original Rowlf, come on, you'd have to be heartless.)

ANYWAY, I've been thinking about this because for Christmas, Boy got me a gift certificate to make my own Muppet at FAO Schwarz (yes, I cried), and today we finally braved the crowds of horrible tourists and did it. It. Was. Awesome. The Whatnot Workshop is in a quiet corner of the store (it turns out, as much as I hate tourist traps like FAO, once you get through the first few feet past the entrance, it's actually pretty cool in there). The women who were working the counter really seemed to enjoy their jobs and love the Muppets. They would occasionally play with the samples for passing children, and they were really good at it! The set design was thorough but not overbearing, and there were plenty of samples to look at, which was helpful since you design your Whatnot in two dimensions.

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You're given a packet of colorforms (colorforms!) with which to design your Muppet. I could have done this for hours (you get to keep the kit, so I just may). I'm easily stymied by too much choice, but I was also fascinated. Changing just one part could completely change the whole personality of the puppet. For instance, I thought the blue guy looked a little…special, with his wide grin.
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But add eyes, and the grin becomes sinister…
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…or kinda drunk…
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…or sweet.
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Even just a nose makes a difference.
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I had originally thought I would make a Muppet of myself, but none of the parts really leant themselves to that. And besides, that would basically be Nicky from Avenue Q. So I decided instead to make Crankypants J. Hatemachine. A Muppet of my soul, if you will. There are really only four parts to pick, but we did a lot of mixing and matching. I chose the frowny-faced body, and different features made him look depressed, or scared, or way too mean. Even changing the outfit changed the feel of him.

Finally, I gave them this…
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…(and some money), and 20 minutes later…
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…they gave me this:
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I love him! I imagine him as a cross between Sam the Eagle and Bert. Definitely someone voiced by Frank Oz back in the day. I didn't cry even a little. This was pure joy. I might have to make another one someday. I like that orange body and the hoodie too. Crankypants may need a friend.

I guess it's a little ironic that I used the thing that most brings out my inner sap to manifest my inner grouch, but given how much I liked Oscar when I was little, maybe it just makes sense.
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1 comment:

Heidi said...

You know? I had no idea I could make muppets at FAO Schwartz - that is so awesome. I'm totally doing it next time I'm in NY.