This week Variety reported that ABC has ordered a pilot presentation for a revamped version of "The Muppet Show." Precious little is known about it, except the log line that says the Muppets are meeting at ABC to pitch a new Muppet Show...which won't happen unless Miss Piggy signs on. It's being co-written by Bill Prady ("The Big Bang Theory") and Bob Kushell ("The Simpsons,") which has me an uncomfortable combination of optimistic and skeptical.
The description of the Muppets putting on a show about putting on a show is all very meta, but that's how the Muppets have always been. Was "The Muppet Show" their "real lives," or were they playing characters? When Kermit's nephew Robin asks him if "The Muppet Movie" tells the true story of how the Muppets all met, Kermit kind of shrugs and says "approximately." So this new series could be seen as an extension of the storyline in the 2011 and 2014 films, which have the Muppets reviving their careers and going on a world tour. Jason Segel, who wrote and starred in 2011's "The Muppets," wanted that movie to end with the announcement that the Muppets were getting a new television series....but ABC/Disney wasn't ready to commit to that. Will they now?
"The Muppet Show" ran from 1976-1981 in syndication, and there have been a total of eight theatrical films and many made-for-tv specials and dozens (hundreds, probably) of other television and talk show appearances. But the other times the Muppets have had a television series, 1989's "Jim Henson Hour" and 1996's "Muppets Tonight," they've fallen flat. I have my own theories about why that is, but one of the biggest problems has been they didn't have the same mix of characters they had with "The Muppet Show." In both of the later series, Frank Oz had scaled back his involvement with the Muppets, so his characters (Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear) weren't around. By the time "Muppets Tonight" came about, creator/performer Jim Henson and performer Richard Hunt had passed away, and while they re-cast Kermit the Frog, many other characters, like Rowlf the piano-playing dog, guitarist Janice, band leader Dr. Teeth, and go-fer Scooter became voiceless background scenery. Part of the richness of "The Muppet Show" had been lost.
In the last two Muppet movies (both excellent, by the way), every major and minor Muppet has a voice. They even revived long-dormant characters like the ghoulish Uncle Deadly, and created a new character Walter, who I thought I'd hate, but quickly became a new favorite. The "new" generation of performers has been working with the Muppets for more than a decade, many alongside Frank Oz and other puppeteers whose characters they've inherited. They include incredibly strong performers who are just getting to the peak of their careers. I want to see what they can do. Along with classic characters, it's an opportunity to see new ones; I've been campaigning since the 1990s to get an adult version of Muppet Babies' Skeeter (Scooter's adventurous twin sister) into the Muppets. In any case, everyone's back. We could have an episode where Rowlf has more to say than one joke, or where the Electric Mayhem gets to bring the house down. With this diversity of characters back, one of the biggest problems with "The Jim Henson Hour" and "Muppets Tonight" will have been overcome.
Now they just need to make it good. There's a lot of potential. The short sketches that work best with the Muppets (the Swedish Chef, Muppet Labs, Pigs in Space), the songs, whether original or covers, the incredibly random acts like Gonzo's stunts or Lew Zealand's boomerang fish -- they're all still funny. Even better, they're incredibly shareable via social media. If they get it right, they could get it very right.
It remains to be seen if the format will be "The Muppet Show," with a single guest star each week, or a somehow updated version, ala "Muppets Tonight." Finding the right format and the right tone may be the most difficult challenge. Hopefully they'll continue to draw the guest stars, and hopefully they'll find a way to match the insane diversity of guest stars that "The Muppet Show" had. A series that had Julie Andrews one week, Mark Hamill, C-3PO and R2-D2 the next, Alice Cooper, Beverly Sills...it was an amazing run that paid tribute to every kind of pop culture.
Where ABC knows the Muppets, and Disney owns the Muppets, the pilot presentation is both more than and less than a traditional pilot. All of the doors are open, it sounds like the Muppets will just need to play the music, light the lights, and put on a show. I hope it's a good one.