The Muppets 1.04: “Pig Out”

pigout

Ed Helms rocks out with Sweetums and Bobo.

After a mostly fun but slightly shaky third episode, The Muppets rebounds…mostly in its fourth outing, “Pig Out”. If there’s one thing this show has been absolutely fantastic at, it’s been finding new ways to explore these classic characters, paying respect to their past incarnations while either planting little seeds that yield fresh revelations and perspectives or simply reasserting what we’ve always known and loved about them in entirely fresh ways.

 

A great example of the former in this one is the sweet little reveal that Sam the Eagle has a huge crush on Janice. Sam has never been the most–for lack of a better word–human Muppet. The reason that he’s so perfectly cast as a network standards and practices guy is that he’s cold, staunch, and has no sense of humor. This episode starts him off with a oh so very Sam bit, in which he tells Kermit that he has to nix a (naturally) Gonzo-written sketch in which Piggy is meant to jump into a vat of chocolate pudding because “the network has concerns that a child might jump into a vat of pudding at home and drown.” When Kermit asks who would possibly have a vat of pudding in their homes, he indignantly responds, “You know America struggles with portion size!”

 

This is hilarious on numerous levels, firstly because it directly mocks the exact sort of histrionic, won’t-someone-think-of-the-children? garbage that has plagued the show in the media thus far and inspired various “family” groups to get out their pitchforks over the show’s “adult” content, and secondly because Sam then going on to defend America’s ignorance and obesity is a spot-on encapsulation of the character, who has always been both ignorantly snobby (there are many examples on The Muppet Show of his lauding something because it seems classical, even though he has no idea what it actually is) and a fierce proponent of everything American, even when some of those things should logically directly conflict with his faux-pompous leanings. In other words, he’s a Conservative Republican.

 

But then, immediately afterwards, Janice says, “Hey, Sam,” to him, leaving the bird entirely tongue-tied and undercutting nearly all of his puffy Sam-ness that immediately preceded it. And I absolutely love this, because for what is perhaps the first time ever, Sam actually displays a bit of a soul. A stoner rock chick who attends astral projection seminars might seem to be the last person he’d fall for, and yet that’s also what makes it so wonderful and surprising. The heart wants what the heart wants!

 

And the rest of the episode follows up on this beautifully, from Sam’s jealousy over Ed Helms’ flirting with her at Rowlf’s Tavern later that night to his desperate karaoke cover of Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings”. “I could fly higher than an eagle,” indeed! And what’s great about this plot is that, yes, it’s funny, but it’s also sweet and even a bit melancholy for Sam when he ultimately realizes how little the woman he loves even notices he’s alive. For a moment, his heart had leapt at her brief acknowledgment of his existence but eventually discovering that the brief hello had barely even registered for her is a crushing blow, which nicely blends mischievous Muppety humor with tender Muppety heart, while even adding further depth for a character who’ve always known and thought of only in one certain way but now is ever so slightly more fleshed-out.

 

Sam gets in touch with his inner C. C. Bloom.

Sam gets in touch with his inner C. C. Bloom.

“Pig Out” also manages to nearly do something similar for Statler but oddly pulls back later in a way that undermines that plot to an extent. As the episode opens, Fozzie is warming up the Up Late audience, starting with an excellent Fozzie joke–meaning it’s a groaner and yet one that’s actually almost funny–about how, in L.A., a yellow light means it’s time to update your Facebook status, and Statler responds that he’s going to update his Facebook status to “Bored”. I have to say that I love how well the show’s writers have been blending contemporary references into the Muppets’ gags. Remaining fresh and current to whatever time any given project happens to be produced has always been a Muppets staple yet some later productions haven’t been as great about doing this with such a natural flow, but The Muppets just seems to get it. And then effortlessly transitions to a more classic Statler and Waldorf bit that I’m sure they must have used before, when Fozzie insists that he‘s the one who tells the jokes, and they respond, “We’re ready when you are!” thus keeping it all within the classic dynamic.

 

This time, however, Fozzie finally gets unwitting and unwilling revenge on the old hecklers when the t-shirt gun he’s using to launch Up Late t-shirts into the audience, malfunctions and shoots Statler right in the face with a shirt, knocking him backwards off his seat and requiring an EMT team take him to a local hospital (Uncle Deadly gets a great line in which he offers Kermit help in covering up the accident). Fozzie feels absolutely awful over what happened and visits him in his room with a small bouquet of flowers. At first, Statler is typically awful to him. “It hurts to laugh,” he says. “So I guess I’m safe with you in the room!” But then he actually seems to soften for a moment after Fozzie scolds him for being so mean to him when he was just trying to apologize. Statler admits that Fozzie was the only to visit him in the hospital. Not even Waldorf came. “He’s afraid of hospitals,” he explains. “He fell asleep in the waiting room once and they took him to the morgue!” Fozzie suggests that maybe Statler be just a bit less “soul-crushing” and the two actually seem to have a moment, after which Statler then manipulates him into buying him reading glasses, a memory foam pillow, and on oscillating fan.

 

And I’m actually fine with that, because it keeps the scene from getting too saccharine while also being true to Statler’s character. It allows a bit of growth and change to occur in a relationship that has been combative for years but also does so within reason. At the end of the day, Statler’s a jerk and he’s not going to change overnight, and yet like Sam, he gets the chance to display a bit of humanity here. When Fozzie returns with the items, which he spends most of the night tracking down, however, he discovers that Statler is gone from his hospital bed, with the note “Sucker!” left on his pillow. And if this weren’t bad enough, during the tag scene, Statler pretends to apologize to Fozzie, inviting the bear out to dinner afterwards, when he has actually tricked him again. Statler and Waldorf are going to a different restaurant that night, although he says he’ll swing by the one he told Fozzie to meet him at in order to leave another “Sucker!” sign, and this I’m less pleased with.

 

Undercutting humor is one thing, but here, Statler doubles-down on being so awful that the scenario verges on full-on unpleasant rather than funny. It also doesn’t help that Fozzie behaves in such an overall subservient manner here. Fozzie’s personality has always been a fascinating combination of what seems to be massive overconfidence in his abilities often cloaking low self-esteem over his deficiencies as a comedian. When the original Muppet Show first introduced Fozzie, he was often played as a sad sack, victimized by Statler and Waldorf’s verbal abuse, and what Jim Henson and Co. soon realized was that this made the home audience find him pathetic rather than funny–it isn’t fun to see someone contantly being made fun of and with no resources at his disposal to stand up for himself–so what they had to do was give Fozzie a backbone, along with an unbreakable spirit, so that even though part of the joke is that he is a terrible comedian being heckled by mean old men, he himself is so sure of his own excellence that he isn’t broken by them.

 

Statler is carted off.

Statler is carted off.

This plot here, however, seems to have taken the character a step backwards in that respect. Fozzie admits early on that hecklers “keep you from fully liking yourself”–eep!–and later on, he seems so desperate to win over Statler that this reversal just comes across as cruel and sad. Earlier in the episode, I wasn’t overly concerned with the characterization, because Fozzie does stand up for himself for a time, and like I said, low self-esteem is a part of Fozzie’s subtext, but when Statler ultimately turns everything around, pranking Fozzie and then setting him up to have his feelings hurt again, it goes too far in the other direction. So I would say that this was a plot that had some intriguing possibilities and even handled itself well for a while but then backpedaled to the point of practically undermining everything that was positive about it.

 

And I understand where the impulse came from. I could see why these new Muppets writers wouldn’t want to suddenly “redeem” Statler, but I feel like there could have been a way for these two to come to a temporary understanding before Statler outwardly returned to Waldorf and his status quo to save face. To be fair, this might have been what the episode was attempting to go for, after all. He certainly seemed sincere in the hospital. However, if this is the case, it would’ve required some acknowledgment of this, such as a small wink from Statler to Fozzie at the end,or for Fozzie to be allowed to end the episode on some note of triumph rather than utter defeat at Statler’s malicious old hands.

 

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