Muppets From Hell
“Have you seen the god damn ratings?” he screamed, his red power tie flailing as we cowered in our executive chairs. “The fucking Teletubbies are beating us! I don’t even know what a Boobah is!” Mack Herbovitz slammed his fist on the table, the small glasses of ice water rippling with the force of the hit. “For goodness sake, people, we’re fucking Sesame Street! We’re a god damn American institution!” Suddenly the fire was gone. He slouched down into his seat, the rest of us still too fearful to speak. “We weathered Barney and Dragon Tales, and all those imitators in the 90s, but now? The British? Really? What the hell are we supposed to do.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Lindsay Walsh leaning forward an biting her nails. Slowly, she raised her hand and tepidly spoke. “Perhaps, if I might be so bold, we need to be more relevant to today’s kids?”
“More relevant? MORE relevant? They’re kids!” screamed Mr. Herbovitz. “What the fuck do they know about relevance!? They bought the shit out of Elmo!”
“Yeah,” I said, unable to hold my tongue, “but he does look like a giant fuzzy fetus. And hey, what’s more relevant these days than abortion?” The room went silent. I could see the vein on Mr. Herbovitz’s forehead slowly throbbing as he glared at me.
“You,” he said firmly, “are a fucking GENIUS!” Every jaw in the room dropped as Mr. Herbovitz smiled and started pacing. “We set this upcoming season at an abortion clinic. We can deal with AIDS, with other STDS, with pregnancy! This is your relevance, Ms. Walsh! We can deal with hygiene and the importance of using protection! We can have Elmo do a day in the life of a fetus! This is edgy! This is what we need!”
I shot Lindsay a look of pure fear, my sharp tongue perhaps forever tainting Sesame Street. “Uh, sir,” I said. “I’m not sure we can pull this off.” Mr. Herbovitz stopped and looked at me, his smile dimming.
“You may be right, Mr. Roberts. We might not be able to.” Relief washed over me, but before it had a chance to cleanse my soul, Mr. Herbovitz continued. “But you can! I want you to take full charge of the show this year. Ms. Walsh, you’ll be assisting.”
“Sir,” Lindsay cut in, “what about the right wing groups?”
“You’re right,” said Mr. Herbovitz, his smile failed momentarily again. “But if we film it in England, what can they do! Hell, we have stages all across the world we can use! Two months, six episodes! It’s perfect!”
Lindsay and I glanced at each other one more time. We didn’t dare contradict the head of the Sesame Workshop, but we both knew what that look meant. What in the hell are we going to do?
I grew up on Sesame Street. Not literally, but it’s where I learned my alphabet and spent my educational TV watching time, In fact, when I was little, it didn’t matter what capacity I was watching the Muppets, whether it was in Labyrinth, or the Muppet Show, or Fraggle Rock. Whatever those silly Muppets might be doing, I wanted to see it. When I was offered the job at the Sesame Workshop, how could I say no? And how I wish I had.
There are a number of little known facts about the Muppets, and it’s only because of how badly these last two months have gone that I feel at all comfortable revealing the truth. They have you sign a confidentiality agreement if you ever actually make it on the set, but I simply don’t care anymore. Odds are they’re already working on wrecking my career.
Most people believe that Muppets are Jim Henson’s puppet creation. They’re a creation, alright, but not by anyone on this planet. In 1947, Roswell experienced a strange phenomenon that’s responsible for the UFO rumors and Area 51 becoming conspiracy legends. What’s not advertised is that the nearest government official was actually Paul Henson, Jim Henson’s father and an agronomist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After meeting the fuzzy creatures, Mr. Henson simply couldn’t bring himself to turn the aliens over to the government. Instead, he packed a few of them up, claiming they were stuffed animals for his children, and brought them home. There, with the young Jim, they stayed and played and learned about language and human culture. I can’t verify this, as I never met Jim Henson in the flesh (he was long dead before I ever got this job), but rumors have it they were huge fans of children’s programming and helped inspire Jim to his future calling, having him put on puppet shows for them after school. In 1951, the Muppets repaired their ship and left. Jim, who sorely missed them, began working to recreate them as puppets. Little did he know they would return to Earth, and sooner than anyone could’ve guessed.
A mere 9 years later, in 1960, the Muppets returned, this time on their terms. Not only did they have a working ship, but Henson’s popularity as a puppeteer astounded them. At first, they were content to spend time with Jim and his shocked family, enjoying the fruits of his labor. But the more they watched, the more they wanted to truly be part of the show. By 1963, they had convinced Henson to create the Muppet Workshop and bring several others into the Muppet fold.
Of course, you know what happened next: Muppet Mania.
I’m sure many of you have seen the segments where they show the Muppets as puppets, complete with puppeteers. I won’t lie and say they were faked or anything like that. The truth is far more insidious. The Muppets and Henson, realizing the way in which an alien life form would be treated by the government, began to create exact replicas in puppet form. On closed set shoots and Muppet only productions, the Muppets themselves could act and write. With non-vetted actors or crew and with live performances, the Muppets do the voice work from afar while puppeteers use their dopplegangers to cover for them. I know it’s a far fetched story, but if you ask any kid who’s been on the show, they’ll tell you the Muppets are real. This is because they always let kids work with the Muppets themselves. Who’s going to believe a bunch of kids anyway?
The first time I met the Muppets in person, I was stunned. I had just sat through four hours of rigorous screening and tests making sure I was ready. I hadn’t been told they were real, nor did I know what was in store. The Sesame Workshop had quietly run background checks on me, and as soon as they saw I had smoke my fair share of pot during college, and likely beyond, they knew even if I revealed their secret, no one would believe me.
Walking into that studio was like a dream come true. It was all here. All of my childhood memories. There was the stoop Big Bird (who, by the way, is not a real Muppet–none of the really big ones are) would sit on and chat with his friends. And there was Oscar’s trash can. And there… could it be? It was Grover! And… he was smoking a cigarette…
“Fuck,” said Grover, “another asshole in on this? This is going to be one of the worst kept secrets ever. What’s your name dipshit?” I stood there, my mouth agape. “Well, turd for brains? Would you rather we just call you dipshit?”
“Uh… I’m… uh… Ben.”
“Great. A real fucking pleasure.” The Muppet took a drag off his cigarette. It looked huge in his hands, despite being a Virginia Slim. “Whatcha gonna be doing for us?”
“I’m… a writer.”
“Excellent. The last batch were a bunch of fucking douchebags. Their well went dry years ago. Let’s walk.” He turned and started strolling down the set. After a few steps, he stopped and turned around and shot me a perturbed glance. “You coming, dipshit?” I couldn’t even respond. I just trotted after him. “Obviously, you’ve passed the tests, and by now you’ve realized we’re real living, breathing organisms. Well, I want to be clear that you better do a fucking good job or I’ll rip your fucking nuts off. I’m sick of being relegated to Super Grover. Back in the day, I was the shit. I was all over this show. The kids loved me. I was the Sesame Street version of Gonzo, who, by the way, is my cousin, but that’s neither here nor there.
“For the last decade, I’ve been stuck doing this shitty Elmo’s World, all because the writers and honchos think Elmo sells better since Kermit took off. I mean, ever since Jim died, this place has been shit. Now Jim, he knew how to run a show.
“Alright… Dan is it?”
“Ben,” I corrected as he took another drag off his cigarette.
“Ben, yeah, sorry. I’ll be expecting good things from you. Through that door is Piggy’s dressing room. She and Kermit had a spat, so she’s come here to take some time. She wants a part in the next season. I doubt you’ll be able to do that, but if she sticks around, maybe in a year or two. Regardless, she’s a demanding cunt, so watch out.”
“Uh, thanks,” I stammered.
“No worries, kid.” Grover turned and strolled back down the set. As I stepped towards the door, he called out, “And make sure to knock. Who knows whose hand she’s got in her right now!”
I’ll spare you the details of my meeting with Ms. Piggy. Needless to say, it wasn’t the last time I saw her get the stuffing fucked out of her. The point of this little flashback was to give you perspective. I spent that first year as a low level writer. Every once in a while, one of my sketches would fly. I especially loved writing for Mr. Noodle, but that was primarily because it meant I didn’t have to work with any of those fucking Muppets.
Of all of them, Grover may have been the nicest, but that’s not saying much. Every one was a fucking primadonna who thought the show should revolve around them. None of them, were worse than that god damned Elmo. Perhaps that’s why I finally slipped up at that meeting. Or maybe it was the fact that he took a dump in my lunch because he didn’t like a sketch I wrote for him. Either way, the end result was the same: six episodes over two months of Sesame Street Clinic. I just thank god it never actually aired on PBS.
It took almost 3 weeks for Lindsay Walsh and I to get everything set up in London. First, we rented a studio warehouse that was out of the way. It had to be in a nice enough area that there’d be no breaking and entering, but in a bad enough neighborhood that there wouldn’t be much traffic. Lindsay hand picked the crew that came with us, most of them family men so we wouldn’t have to fly American kids out to help with the show. I, meanwhile, got a wicked security system installed. We may not need it, but better safe than sorry when aliens are involved. Last, but not least, Lindsay, the five writers we brought, and I sat down to start writing the scripts.
At first, everyone was a little hesitant. No one wanted to write about abortion or AIDS or anything like that… at least not for kids. That’s part of what sparked the idea that destroyed any hope of the show airing.
As I sat there, staring at the satellite TV after our third night of writing nothing useful, I flipped on HBO. Pee Wee’s Playhouse was on. Not the TV show, but the special. The one of adults. With Jambi the lecherous genie and Miss Yvonne the whore. It was for kids, but not. It was everything I could hope for in that cynical, snide, sarcastic way.
I rushed to the video rental place down the block from my hotel and grabbed a copy of Pee Wee, a copy of Howie Mandell’s Bobby’s World bit, a copy of Wonder Showzen, and anything else I could think of that fit that vein. The following day, I was already sitting at our table with a smile on my face and a TV and DVD player ready behind me when the others walked in.
“What’s going on?” Lindsay asked. “And why do you look like that?”
“I had an epiphany,” I said, the excitement drawing me from my seat like a big hit in baseball. “Today, there will be no writing until we’re done watching!”
“Watching what?” asked Bob Hammond.
“Just grab a drink, grab a seat, and you’ll see.” I waited a few minutes for people to get comfortable. A few of them whispered amongst themselves, but I ignored it. Finally, when everyone was seated, I hit play.
Two orders of Chinese food, a case of beer, and twelve hours later, we were back to scribbling, but each of us had a wicked little smile on our faces. We knew what we had to do. We knew the only way to succeed was to fail so miserably, they’d have no choice. And we knew we could do it.
“Ok, I’m done with my forms,” Piggy said. The receptionist took the clipboard from her fuzzy hoofed hands and looked at it. “Can I see the doctor now?”
“You’re here for an abortion?”
“Shhhhh! Not so loud,” Piggy replied as she fearfully glanced about the clinic waiting room.
“You do realize it’s illegal to perform an abortion in your third trimester, and judging by your size, you’re probably already in your seventh or eighth!” I stifled a laugh as the look of shock crossed over Piggy’s face.
“WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS! THIS ISN’T IN THE SCRIPT!” screamed Piggy. “I DEMAND TO SEE THE WRITER!”
“I thought you were an actress,” I said nonchalantly, my smirk eyeing her squarely. “If you can’t deal with improv, perhaps you should look for other work.”
“Listen, bub, I’m Ms. Piggy. I’ve been a star since before you were born. And if you drop another fat joke like that without telling me, I will karate chop your ass to hell! HYAH!” I couldn’t help but laugh at the awkward arm movment she used to punctuate her threat.
“Maybe if you spent more time acting,” I sneered, “and less time with some random hand up your asshole, you wouldn’t end up in a silly abortion clinic! Hell, between you and your puppet, I think everyone here has seen at least one hand wrist deep in your rectum!”
Piggy may have packed a wallop in the Muppet movies, but in reality, none of the Muppets have much strength, so it wasn’t exactly hard for me to ignore her when she started swinging at me. After a few useless punches, she screamed and stormed off the set as the rest of the crew cracked up.
“Alright, someone grab the Piggy puppet,” Lindsay yelled over the laughter. “And get a move on. We’ve still got a ton of shooting to do.”
Piggy was the first Muppet to leave the set and file a complaint about the show. Even after Elmo and Oscar walked, we still had enough Muppets in on the project (and supportive too) that we were able to finish all six episodes. The day we premiered the first one to Mr. Herbovitz and the other higher ups was the day we were fired. They said the entire six episode run was “a useless pile of dog shit.” I still think they could find a late night home on HBO or Showtime and wow a lot of people. For now, though, I’ll just be content knowing that I showed those asshole Muppets that we humans deserve some respect.
As I walked out of the studio on the last day of shooting, only one Muppet said anything to me. “You did good, dipshit,” said Grover. “I think I might actually miss you.”