By Teddy Allen
This week in 1969, the children’s television program Sesame Street first aired on PBS.
What started with Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch launched an assortment of misfit, humorous, glorious creatures known as Muppets, and the world has never looked at a frog or at a pig the same way since.
Take your tacky comedians and your crude comics and give me Muppets any day.
Sesame Street was the idea of public television documentary producer Joan Ganz Cooney, who wanted to create an educational series for pre-kindergarten children, something that would help teach them their ABCs and how to count. It was set in a fictional New York City neighborhood with nice adults and the creations of puppeteer Jim Henson.
Immediate smash hit. Big Bird dominated the 1970s every bit as much as bellbottoms, tie-dye, and the Cincinnati Reds.
I was never a big Sesame Street guy. I was older by then and my pre-Sesame Street allegiance was to Captain Kangaroo (more on that another time). But Henson kept creating more and more characters, and each was bound for stardom and the silver screen — funny and clever and sometimes smart and sometimes silly — so by the 1980s, I was all about any Muppet movie that showed up.
The best in one small-brained man’s opinion is “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” released a mind-boggling 29 years ago in 1992. (I’d have guessed 10 years, tops.) During this holiday season — and Thanksgiving Eve is a week from tomorrow, Nov. 24 — you might want to give it a look-see. The songs aren’t great, but I think it’s overall genius, like most everything else this bunch creates and performs.
This adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol” stars Michael Caine as the miserly, Christmas-hating Ebenezer Scrooge, and he plays it straight as if he’s working with “the Royal Shakespeare Company,” he said. True to his word, he does nothing “Muppety.”
But the Muppets do.
The narrators are Gonzo the Great and, to add humor and wisecracks, the brilliant Rizzo the Rat. Love, love, love the Rizzo.
Kermit the Frog, the greatest Muppet of them all, maybe the Robert De Nero of Muppetdom, is, of course, Bob Cratchit. Miss Piggy is Mrs. Cratchit, and a tiny Kermit is Tiny Tim.
There is an understated scene early in which Bean Bunny shows up at Scrooge’s place of business on Christmas Eve, singing carols in the snow, and Scrooge sneers down and throws a wreath at him. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a rewind part for me, one of many tiny touches that make this must-see Muppets.
Remember Statler and Waldorf, the two cranky hecklers in the balcony in Muppet skits? They are the brothers Marley who come back to warn Scrooge and tell him he’ll be visited by three spirits. The loveable Fozzie Bear plays Scrooge’s old employer — Mr. Fezziwig in the original but Fozziwig here — who runs a rubber chicken factory.
And of course, a lot of rats like Rizzo are Cratchit’s co-workers, huddled about trying to keep warm underneath their shawls and stovepipe hats. A rat in a stovepipe hat? Now that’s comedy. (It’s the little things.)
Don’t get caught up in the gimmicks and forget the acting though. You’d think that after 50 years, Kermit the Frog would be typecast. Not hardly. Guy’s such a quality actor that I don’t see a frog when I see Kermit as Cratchit; I see Cratchit as Dickens might have imagined him — had Dickens imagined him as a frog.
Take 85 minutes, gather the loved ones, and enjoy yourself some “Muppet Christmas Carol” in the next few weeks. You’ll probably send me chocolates if you do.
God bless us, everyone.