A Frog, a Bear, and a Pig Walk into a Bar: The Gracious Absurdism of Jim Henson and The Muppets

Pixar, Peanuts and now The Muppets – I guess it must be inner child week […]

David Zahl / 11.22.11

Pixar, Peanuts and now The Muppets – I guess it must be inner child week on Mockingbird! Christianity Today put up the full-length version yours truly’s “The Gospel According to Jim Henson” today, a truncated form of which appeared in the November 2011 issue of the print magazine. I’ve reproduced a few excerpts below. Wakka Wakka Wakka:

Why the Muppets and why now? Aren’t they irrelevant cultural relics? Never mind the fact that they represent the vanguard of “family entertainment”—child-friendly entertainment that neither excludes nor talks down to adults, nor resorts to lewd cynicism. In other words, intelligently wholesome media. Never mind their loveable makeshift quality, the refreshing scruffiness amidst the increasingly pristine world of kid pop culture, or the way they conjure such life and energy without help from the virtual world. Never mind the obvious imagination at the center of it all. We would do Jim Henson’s creations a serious disservice to align them with “culture war” concerns. Yet there is a moral vision at the heart of the Muppets that transcends those lines, and it is one that Christians, for the most part, can affirm…

Silliness… is where Henson shone. It kept the feel-/do-good-ism from ever succumbing to the piety of political correctness. Frank Oz, Henson’s great collaborator/co-conspirator—literally the Bert to Henson’s Ernie—once summed up their approach this way: “Whenever characters become self-important or sentimental in the Muppets, then there’s always another character there to blow them up immediately.” That is, despite going on record about “people [being] basically good,” the Muppet characters were wonderfully and truthfully drawn. Their bickering, broken collective was united by a shared ridiculousness: Fozzie was hopelessly insecure, Piggy an egomaniac, Kermit was long-suffering, Gonzo a self-described “weirdo,” Animal was, well, Animal, the list goes on. In the Muppets, the weaknesses tell the stories, not the strengths, and those weaknesses are frequently a source of humor.

Yet Henson’s was not an angry or nihilistic kind of absurdity; it was the sweet and, dare I say, loving kind. A life-affirming poking of fun that puts people on equal footing, not expecting them to be anything other than flawed. You might even call it a gracious absurdism. His faith in humanity began from an acknowledgement of limitation, not an illusion about perfectibility. He knew that joy flowed from honesty, rather than around it—sound familiar? In a similar way, Christians, whose identity is found apart from our ever-changing and often hopeless abilities and attributes, are free to laugh at ourselves…

G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.” If one can say with confidence that those on the extreme ends of the political and religious spectrum—left or right—are not known for their senses of humor, Henson surely must have been on to something. Where others found potential bitterness, he found the thread of human foibles; his lighthearted irreverence was as universal as the appeal of his characters…

So the Muppets represent something unique: irreverent but not cynical, childlike without being childish, playful at all costs (except that of others), sincerely self-effacing, hopeful but never saccharine. Sound a little like the fruit of the Spirit? Whenever the moralism threatens to suck the fun out of the proceedings, a character wryly breaks the fourth wall and winks at the adults, as if on cue. The Muppets may not be explicitly Christian, but one would be hard-pressed to find another system that affords the same life-affirming hilarity in the face of human striving and sin. There’s nothing mean-spirited about the Muppets—they predate the gulfing cultural divide that has appeared in this country over the past twenty years. In fact, Henson’s skills as an ideological bridge-builder are sorely missed…

Unless you count the priceless scene in The Muppet Movie when Kermit and Fozzie encounter Dr. Teeth and his Electric Mayhem band practicing in a church and Fozzie quips, “They don’t look like Presbyterians to me,” the Muppets have largely stayed away from religion. 

The closest they’ve come to the subject actually happened after Henson’s 1990 death, in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), which is one of the most faithful and moving adaptations of Dickens’ classic ever put on screen. The music is their most memorable since The Muppet Movie (1979), Michael Caine makes a devastating Scrooge, and the religious element isn’t muted in the slightest. In fact, the final five minutes are about as good an illustration of the joyful rebirth that occurs on the other side of genuine repentance as one is likely to find. I defy you not to be moved.

…The new crew [of Jason Segal, James Bobin and Bret McKenzie] is so well-positioned to succeed, that if they can’t pull off a Muppet revival, no one can. Soon we will have an answer to whether or not the franchise died with Henson. Of course, like any institution (or ministry for that matter), the sustainability of the Muppets says very little about their ultimate impact or significance. Lord knows, what we already have is gift enough! Thank God there’s nothing stopping us from re-watching the films—in order, if at all possible—getting reacquainted with our inner Muppet/child, and, most importantly, laughing ourselves silly. As Chesterton so wisely pointed out, humor of this kind can only deepen our faith.


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12 responses to “A Frog, a Bear, and a Pig Walk into a Bar: The Gracious Absurdism of Jim Henson and The Muppets”

  1. Jeff Hual says:

    Dave, this is SO good. Thanks for it!

  2. david babikow says:

    The “inner muppet”. Those fuzzy looking characters very much express something down and in each of us. Thanks for a great piece!

  3. MargaretE says:

    Saw the movie today, and this piece rings wonderfully true. Thank you, Dave.

  4. Stuart says:

    Read this piece just in time for the second round of our holiday weekend with family. Thanks, always!

  5. Chris Legg says:

    David – I wrote my thoughts about the movie (just went today) tell me what you think. I need to find the full article that you wrote – is it online somewhere?


    Good to read some more of your stuff – interested to hear your thoughts on this movie in particular.


  6. David Zahl says:

    P.S. I saw the film this past week and greatly enjoyed it. The zaniness was there as was the heart. And the jokes were genuinely funny. In our theater the adults were definitely laughing louder than the kids. Bret McKenzie of the Conchords deserves some major credit for the songs, esp “Muppet or Man” – an instant classic. Only criticism was that I still found myself pretty distracted with Kermit – he just doesn’t sound or act quite like Kermit. I like Walter though.

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