Christopher Smith is nostalgic for the Muppet Show


One of the great TV memories of my generation is the Muppet Show, which was an ATV production filmed at Elstree, but all-American in its comedy.  And it was American comedy at its best: a bit of slapstick, a bit of smaltz, and a self-deprecating look at the national character.  Unlike so much in life nowadays, it didn’t take itself too seriously, and it hit the spot that made it accessible both to children and their parents.  I was surprised to discover that it was first broadcast as long ago as 1976, and it only ran for five series, finishing in 1981, but each of those series comprised 24 episodes, and so jollied us along through the dark evenings, running from September to March.

It was, of course, a puppet show put into the context of a music hall theatre, and through it all ran the love-hate relationship between Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.  I now know, thanks to Messers Wikipedia and Sons, that there was an extra sketch in the UK version each week, because adverts in this country took up less time in the allotted half-hour than in the States: they needed to fill 26 minutes in the UK, but only 22 in the US.  It’s all carefully documented in an entry titled ‘List of Muppet Show Episodes’, which reveals that our American friends never got to see such gems as Rowlf the Dog (my favourite character) and Sam the American Eagle singing ‘Tit-Willow’ from the Mikado, which has certainly stuck in my mind since my ten-year-old self watched it in 1977.

Well, the rights to the Muppet Show are now owned by the Walt Disney Company, and modern-day Disney is jolly woke.  ‘As part of our ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion, we are in the process of reviewing our library and adding advisories to content that includes negative depictions or mistreatment of people or culture’, their website tells us.  And a number of Muppet Shows have been found guilty of the charge.  If you want to watch those particular episodes on Disney’s streaming platform, you must first have a long look at an ‘advisory’ (which means ‘warning’, I think), telling you that ‘This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of peoples or cultures.  These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now.  Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together’.

Oh, heck.  What was that all about, then?  Something to do with the potential  cross-species relationship between Kermit and Miss Piggy?  Surely that’s no longer disapproved of.  Is the Swedish chef a little too Swedish, or Sam a little too American?  Perhaps it was that sketch where Peter Sellers sang ‘Gypsy Violin’.  (‘Have you got any requests?’  ‘Yes, but you’re gonna play anyway.’)  Not being a subscriber to the late Disney Brothers’ television channel, I’ll have to leave it to someone else to work out exactly what viewers need advising about before they risk watching the Muppet Show, but it is fascinating to observe how what was undoubtedly ‘family viewing’ in 1978 has become ‘negative’ in 2021.

All this was happening in February, but I must confess to having only just caught up with the news.  I suspect I had other things on my mind at the beginning of this year.  But I do find it galling that the company didn’t make clear what aspect of each programme called for the warning.  The press speculated, but viewers were never told.  And the same warning has been slapped in front of some of those very familiar Disney cartoon films, like Dumbo, Peter Pan and the Jungle Book.  And this takes us into similar territory as so-called ‘cancel culture’.  Without wishing to over-egg the pudding, I’d say that this sort of thing offends against the principles of natural justice.

How do these decisions get made?  Who decides when something has fallen into a ‘problematic’ category?  Who gets consulted?  Where is the public discussion?  What actually is the problem?  And if one person makes an accusation that somebody’s work is inappropriate to be shown without a warning, a different person should, surely, take the decision about whether to impose a warning, since no-one should be judge in their own cause.  If I were Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppet Show, I’d want to know who my accuser is, what exactly the charge is, and how I might appeal against the judgment.  But, of course, no-one gets consulted, and, in any event, none of this happens for genuinely altruistic reasons: it’s done so the relevant corporation or institution will not fall victim to the wrath of the online mob.

And perhaps what gives it away is the fact that the warning notice includes those words piously claiming that content that is deemed ‘harmful’ should stay in the broadcasts, so that we can ‘learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together’—even though we’re not told what the harmful content is.  If you can’t name a possible problem, how can you begin a conversation about it?  But, of course, genuine dialogue is neither welcome nor encouraged.

Meanwhile, remind me: which Hollywood studio made a film last year based on a Chinese legend which it filmed in the Xinjiang province of China—the province where the government is persecuting the Uighurs—and whose credits thank the ‘public security bureau’ there, which provoked a spat between British MPs and the studio about its attitude to human rights?  That’s the same film whose lead actress subsequently shared her preference for police over pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong.  Oh, and, if you’ll forgive me for going back to Wikipedia, the film was criticised by Chinese critics for ‘its cultural and historical inaccuracies, and its depiction of Chinese people’.  Gosh.  Worth an advisory notice?