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New Muppet videos debut on YouTube

Disney returns to the Classic Muppet style in new videos exclusively premiering on YouTube

Courtesy of Globe and Mail
July 25, 2008

When you've got a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when you've got a franchise, everything starts to look like a licensing opportunity.

That seems to have been the sad fate of the Muppets, those genius creations that started off as implements of education and satire, but wound up endlessly adapted into ever more tiresome remixes A Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppets in Space whose reviews have become ever more tepid.

In fact, wandering the Internet, it's hard not to detect Muppet nostalgia in the air. There's also the lingering gloom that accompanies a once-great brand — think of Saturday Night Live, never able to escape the conventional wisdom that its glory days have come and gone.

It's as if the franchise has been making decades of withdrawals on the capital it built up with the relentlessly inventive Muppet Show, until not much is left. It's hard not to see Kermit on a talk show these days (he was on Live with Regis and Kelly in 2006) without taking him as a token of better times, when he had something entertaining to say.

Cue the Internet, eager to help. The place is awash in Muppets. Muppet Show clips are one of the many colonies of pilfered material that thrive on YouTube. Ditto Sesame Street, which has become a major player in the online nostalgia industry, as Elmo-hating thirtysomethings massage long-dormant neurons with the sound of the Pointer Sisters counting to 12.

Not only have the Muppets' owners not fumigated YouTube to purge it of their material (the copyrights are scattered across Disney, Sesame Workshop, and the Jim Henson Company), they've actively hopped on board. Sesame Street, for instance, has a wealth of archival footage up. And when a preview of Leslie Feist's appearance on Sesame Street, counting only to four more evidence of declining educational standards! was released last week, it immediately became a viral video in its own right.

And now, brand-new Muppet Show sketches designed especially for the Web have started appearing on YouTube. They're there under the guise of being posted by the characters themselves. In the best tradition of viral marketing campaigns, their real origins have been left mysterious. They do, however, give every indication of being official productions; Disney listened very politely to my questions on this subject, and didn't call back.

But any corporate skulduggery is forgiven for one simple reason: These things are good. Not just passingly cute, but somehow reminiscent of what made the Muppets tick in the first place.

They're short pieces, mostly musical sketches: The Swedish Chef and Beaker sing the Habanera from Carmen with only the words "bork" and "meep;" Gonzo and his trained chickens cluck out the Blue Danube Waltz; Sam, the American Eagle, his attitude as relevant as ever ("WORLD wide web? Is there a way to put this on just the American part?"), leads an Independence Day sing-along. At the end of each, Statler and Waldorf, the disagreeable old men in the balcony, peer into a computer screen and deliver a zinger. "How many hits did that thing receive?" "Unfortunately, not enough to kill it!"

Groan. It's all very self-aware; a couple of the skits are even explicit send-ups of the split-screen videos that have proliferated on YouTube lately, in which one person sings different parts of the same song into their webcam, then splices them all together in one Brady Bunch-style montage.

It should have been a recipe for disaster. Loading down an act with trendy Web references is a tactic that's as promising as trying to impress your teenagers with cool slang. Did Muppets in Space go south? Then let's try "The Muppets Go Viral"! But these shorts left me tickled. Not just because I was passingly amused, but because they give me a glimmer of optimism for a franchise I'd given up on years ago. In their ephemeral way, these shorts drill down to the same substance that's on display in all those old Muppet Show clips: musical sketch comedy, well sung and absurdly executed.

What happened? It's as if, by trying to wedge the Muppets into the conventions of viral video, the producers of these shorts accidentally got back to basics. The Muppets never really needed to adapt to the Web in the first place: Their oldest sketches meet the same criteria that help propel a viral video today: short, instantly accessible, diverting, catchy. They were Web stars decades before the thing was invented.

The Muppet Show was, first and foremost, a variety show. For everything else its creators packed into that half-hour, it always did justice to its musical acts. Later Muppet incarnations tried to capitalize on the popularity of the characters by using them as storytelling implements, which eventually lent them the sad feeling of a bunch of actors getting together long after their show closed. The new YouTube shorts signal that the show is back on again.

There's a lesson here for those who are still searching for the right way to adapt video for the Web. The answer isn't to be endlessly self-referential, or to contort to match the perceived whims of new media. Stick to a simpler ethos: It's time to play the music. It's time to light the lights.

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