Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Janice: The Unsung Hero of the Muppets

Anyone who knows me knows that I love the Muppets. The original three movies (The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan) are all fantastic films that rely on a childlike approach to the world but never panders to them. People seem to hail "Shrek" as some kind of revolutionary film that started this trend. Dreamworks eventually took this schtick and ran with it, eventually creating abortions like "Madagascar" but that's another rant for another time.
The Muppets were never afraid to shy away from a joke. They treated their characters like functional adults. This would never happen in movies now, but when the Muppet films were made (at least, the three above) there were sexual and alcohol references in all of the films. They were never forced, but seemed to arise from casual conversations and were natural dialogue in the films. For instance, both Rowlf and Fozzie allude to alcohol in different films. Rowlf says he likes to "have a couple of beers" and "take himself for a walk" before bed. There's a joke there for adults, who laugh at the felt dog drinking, and one for kids who laugh at the phrasing Rowlf uses about going for a walk. Rowlf is a bit jaded as a lounge singer and this dialogue makes sense. On the other side of the spectrum, Fozzie is childlike and comments that champagne would taste like ginger ale if he added some sugar. There's a reason you never think for a moment that these characters aren't real people when you're watching a movie. They behave like real people. They have emotions and they all behave in certain ways.
And despite what politicians might tell you, kids won't start drinking because of this. They know that some activities are for adults.

Perhaps the most subversive character in the Muppets is Janice, the lead guitar player for the house band, the Electric Mayhem. In the Muppet Show she sings "With a Little Help From My Friends" and the writers made no attempt to say that she "gets high with a little help from (her) friends." With her other bandmates including Animal and Zoot, I don't doubt it. This scene even takes place during a "human" sacrifice, as Kermit notes. Can you see that flying now? Of course not.

Janice sings "With a Little Help From My Friends"

But it doesn't stop there.

Janice has two fantastic moments in "The Great Muppet Caper." The first comes relatively early in the film when Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo stop in at the Happiness Hotel for a room. Pops starts up the song and Janice gets the best and funniest lyric; "Still, the management is cheerful, though the whole joint's gone to Hell..."
Happiness Hotel
That's fine. Plenty of kid's shows from "Rocko's Modern Life" to "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" to "The Adventures of Pete & Pete" have mentioned Hell. It was much easier to get away with in the 80s and 90s. Can you see it happening on Nickelodeon or The Disney Channel now between advertisements for the new Hannah Montana album or "That's So Raven" (Is that even on anymore?)?
Her second bit is riskier and funnier. It strikes closer to the nanny state agenda we've cultivated in America; nudity.
The whole Muppet crew (in a group shot that no doubt took several dozen Muppeteers) yells over one another before Kermit can get them to shut up. When he does, Janice gets the final line that everyone hears because the room goes silent. If you've ever shouted something at a party as the music turns off you know this feeling.
Janice's life goals

The joke worked so well that in "The Muppets Take Manhattan" they turned it up a notch; "Look buddy, I don't take my clothes off for anyone. I don't care if it IS 'artistic.'"

Janice is hilarious. You may not have noticed her in the crowd of frogs and pigs and bears and... whatevers, but she's there. And she's awesome.
Disney has really dragged down the Muppet franchise. Did you see "Muppet Wizard of Oz"? I rest my case. When they started catering to kids, they dumbed it down and ruined its appeal. The Muppets weren't popular because they were by-the-books kids' characters. It was because they defied convention. Look at "Shrek" and "Shrek 3" to see what I mean. Hopefully Jason Segel, the Muppets fan he is, can rein then in and get them back on track with his new script.
And hopefully they won't be afraid to break some rules along the way. In the mean time, watch the old films. Count the jokes that would be impossible to do now, and enjoy the films as the great character interactions and hilarious slapstick showpieces that they are.

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