-The Muppets Survival in Show Business-
Justin Piatt – People in show business have always struggled. Not financially necessarily, but artistically. This is because it is the only art form that is described as a business. It takes millions of dollars to make a movie, put on a play, or run a successful television series. Because of this, there are dozens if not hundreds of people offering their opinions and putting their hands into what should be a very personal process. Is it really the way to go? After all, would we ask that a board of directors question Rembrandt’s every stroke in the creation of his Self Portrait?
I’d like to offer a few examples that illustrate why the system used to make movies and shows generally fails, which will take us to the point of the article: why the Muppets have survived.
First, we’ll start in the 1920s when Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy became a comedy team unmatched in the world of film. When the pair first started out, they worked at Hal Roach Studios, also known as the Lot of Fun. Stan Laurel was given a great deal of control over the movies he and Mr. Hardy made, acting as a writer and directing the directors in charge of his movies. However, as Laurel and Hardy got bigger and bigger, their movies got longer and longer. Thus, their movies got more expensive. Hal Roach felt that, since he was spending so much money, he had to have more control over his movies. This did not sit well with Stan, who was the creative force behind Laurel and Hardy. Eventually, this pushed Stan and Ollie away from Hal Roach Studios in pursuit of more creative control.
What they found instead was a world of businessmen interested in nothing more than the almighty dollar. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s involvement in their films was limited to acting, and for the most part, they were not even allowed to ad lib in their films. Their films suffered, and it quickly brought an end to their career as a team in Hollywood.
Now we’ll move forward to the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. A new comedy team billed as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were entering the spotlight, and widely considered the greatest comedy team of their time. It amazes me the similarities between Martin and Lewis and Laurel and Hardy. And yet, right from the start of their career in Hollywood, they were given virtually no control over their films. It’s painfully obvious how this hurt them comedically and personally. The wonderful thing about Dean and Jerry was the way they played off each other, made obvious by their frequent appearances on the Colgate Comedy Hour. Of course, this didn’t matter to Producer Hal Wallis, who turned Dean Martin into nothing more than a singing straight man in their movies, and turned Jerry Lewis into an annoying monkey-boy. The frustration caused by making sub-par movies, made only because they sold tickets, was a contributing factor in the team’s eventual split.
What does any have to do with the Muppets? Everything. We see that creative people, when allowed to be creative, can do great things. But when they are restricted and oppressed by studios interested only in money, the art of film and television is destroyed. Jim Henson and Frank Oz, perhaps the greatest comedy team since Laurel and Hardy or Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, were blessed with creative control over many of their projects. It’s true that they were somewhat restricted by being on Sesame Street in that their humor had to be appropriate to the audience and educational, but within those confines Jim Henson and the Muppets created magic, Ernie and Bert being perhaps the prime example of the creative and comedic genius behind the Muppets.
Fast forward to the days of The Muppet Show: Lord Lew Grade gave Jim Henson absolute control over what he did. He had trust in Jim, knowing that he would give him a quality product if left to his own devices. Had Jim sold his series to one of the US networks, it may be a safe bet that The Muppet Show would have never achieved the kind of worldwide success that it did, and would have probably failed very quickly.
Unfortunately, the Muppets also illustrate what can happen with studio or executive interference. For more details, see the article The Best of the Muppets at their Worst covering Muppets From Space. In brief, Jerry Juhl’s original story was destroyed when the material was handed over to a hack director.
In recent years, it seems the Muppets have been allowed to control their own productions again. The videos on YouTube have proved that truly creative people being allowed to do what they do best works. The Muppets have survived for fifty-six years because they are the best in entertainment with the best people behind them, and here’s hoping this fall’s The Muppets will continue that trend.
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier