Political Muppets

From hunger on Sesame Street to Cookie Monster on Occupy Wall Street, we’re seeing the issues of the day through the googly eyes of Jim Henson’s creations.

Jason Segel’s new Muppet movie is barely six weeks away, promising laughs and 90 or so precious minutes of an escapist mix of childhood memories and an adult comic sensibility.

It’s not really a comeback film – the Muppets, after all, never left. They’re seemingly everywhere these days, showing up in differing contexts that offer anything but a refuge from reality. From hunger on Sesame Street to Cookie Monster on Occupy Wall Street, we’re being asked to see some of the issues of the day through the googly eyes of Jim Henson’s creations.

Sunday brought a very serious Sesame Street special marking the debut of Lily, a Muppet battling hunger – or, as it was put on the show, “food insecurity.” Meanwhile, the Muppets have been cleverly co-opted for an Internet meme dubbed “Occupy Sesame Street,” which seems less a satire on the Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York, than humor-laced support for the movement.

Photoshopped pictures of Elmo, Burt and other felt friends being arrested at the Lower Manhattan encampment are flying across the Web, via Facebook and Twitter. But the image that’s become a symbol of sorts of the cause is a shot of Cookie Monster, in full swanky Alistair Cookie mode, with the caption: "99% of the Worlds (sic) Cookies are being consumed by 1% of the monsters."

This follows the recent Internet-driven – and headline grabbing – campaign to get Ernie and Burt to marry on Sesame Street, an inspired piece of the political (puppet) theater of the absurd. We’ve also seen Jon Stewart, one of our premiere political satirists, banter with “Gitmo” (Elmo as a Guantanamo Bay detainee) and a puppet version of (now former) Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele that looks a lot like the perennially exasperated blue Muppet who served as Grover’s main foil.

Stewart is 48 – part of the under-50 population that grew up on Sesame Street, which debuted in 1969. The Muppets have stuck with many of us well into adulthood, fuzzy surrogates who not only help us process a complicated world, but spur us to act – often with the kind of gently irreverent humor associated with the franchise. The familiar images pack a deceivingly powerful impact, in spite of – or perhaps because of – the strong link with laughter.

That speaks to the enduring legacy of Henson, whose homemade puppets not only foster passive enjoyment, but encourage creativity. It’s worth noting that the Google doodle launched last month on what would have been Henson’s 75th birthday is an interactive exercise in digital puppetry that allows the user to pull the virtual strings.

It’s also worth noting that a day after serving as the child stand-in trying to grasp the tragedy of poverty on the Sesame Street special, Elmo played a far lighter role in a mock PSA on “Conan.” He tells some very cute pre-schoolers it’s wrong to bully redheads – with one exception. “Some redheads are really scary,” Elmo says after the kids burst into tears upon seeing Conan O’Brien’s picture.

It’s a scary world – thankfully, there are Muppets to accompany us. Check out Elmo’s PSA below as we await Segel’s movie and more fan-fueled Muppet madness to come:

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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