Saturday Night Live

The Muppets Grow Up

Kermit's new show, which debuts Tuesday, will test whether fans will accept familiar characters in an unfamiliar situation.

Jon Stewart's final "Daily Show" last month turned into a roast of sorts, with ribbings delivered, in person and via video, by a slew of his former correspondents, past guests and longtime satire targets, from blue and red states alike.

One roaster stood out, though, for his redness and utter lack of a state: Gitmo, the Guantanamo Bay Muppet. When Gitmo realized his captivity would extend beyond Stewart's "Daily Show" tenure, he delivered a profane death threat to the host: “I’ll kill you!”

The bit offered a fitting last hurrah to a key recurring character employed to help process bleak times, via the juxtaposition of the Muppets and dark humor.

Jim Henson's creations allow us to cling to childhood, even if in a small, sometimes sardonic way. But even if we never quite grow up, the Muppets apparently must.

“The Muppets,” a new reality show takeoff in which Kermit, Miss Piggy and their pals deal with adult problems, debuts Tuesday on ABC. The program represents a fork in the road (if not in the literal, Fozzie Bear sense, as seen in "The Muppet Movie") for how we view some familiar felt friends.

Part of Henson's genius rested in creating characters that played to adults and kids on different levels. "Sesame Street" endures as a show not only to grow up with, but to grow into and share with new generations.

The original "Muppet Show," which debuted nearly 40 years ago, proved family friendly with the Statler-Waldorf bickering and Kermit-Piggy tempestuousness getting laughs from different age groups for different reasons. The show and subsequent movies attracted big name guest stars – among them, Steve Martin, Bob Hope, Joan Rivers and Elton John – who were not only in on the joke, but wanted to be part of Kermit's club.

Jason Segel, who was months away from being born when “The Muppet Movie” came out in 1979, brilliantly revived that spirit 32 years later with his film, "The Muppets.” The flick found the right mix of child and adult friendly humor, steeped in the characters and a corporate-greed plot, without using nostalgia as (too much of) a crutch. Last year’s follow-up, "Muppets Most Wanted," proved near as much fun, if not near as successful.

"Most Wanted" co-starred Tina Fey, best known for "Saturday Night Live," which, in its early days, featured skits with adult-geared Muppets. The late hour presumably shielded youngsters from the comically grotesque likes of King Ploobis, Scred and the Mighty Favog. But “The Muppets” airs at 8 p.m., when it's unclear how the mockumentary format and more adult premise will sit with the kiddies.

In this Muppet rendering, Kermit produces Miss Piggy's talk show, which airs after "Jimmy Kimmel Live!” The couple has broken up, with Kermit dating a younger porcine princess named Denise and Piggy romantically linked to Josh Groban.

The show is being promoted with a series of fun clips and ads touting the breakup in gossipy fashion, and reintroducing the Muppets’ supporting cast (one poster shows Fozzie getting his back waxed).

Successfully putting beloved, familiar characters in an unfamiliar situation marks a major challenge, no matter what the target audience’s age. But then again, as Kermit and friends proved time after time, the Muppets know how to beat the odds to put on a great show.

Check out a promo for the new program as fans get ready for a more personal look at the Muppets.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.
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