When I was a toddler my mum said the only thing guaranteed to bring me – and by extension her – a modicum of peace was The Muppet Show. For half an hour each week, the Muppets and their unique brand of noisy, vaudevillian anarchy turned my eyes into swirling portals of obedience.
When my son Jack came along I wanted to forge a common tie between our childhoods. With that goal in mind I set about Muppetifying his existence with the fiery-eyed zeal of a bat-shit Baptist preacher. I was a maniacal man of the cloth, a felt-obsessed fundamentalist with a Henson-sent mission to introduce our son to the all-consuming love of frog almighty.
Muppet DVDs flooded into our flat, all manner of movies and TV specials. Manah Manah became the official nonsensical anthem of our little kingdom of three. As Jack grew older, and gained the ability to toddle and teeter, the Muppet Show’s theme song became a siren’s call, a piece of music with the power to draw him from wherever he happened to be in the house straight to the feet of the TV, where he’d stand bent-kneed and bopping, beaming with born-again-glee and clapping his hands.
It was around this time that his maternal grandmother bought him a Gonzo stuffed toy, which instantly became an extension of his little hand. Jack guarded it like a junk-yard dog, not permitting even so much as a brief separation to allow his mummy to wash the grimy, big-snootered blighter. Piggy, Kermit, Animal and Fozzy soon followed, forming a full Muppet menagerie, but Gonzo steadfastly remained his favourite. He had a book chronicling all of the Muppets from the 1950s to present day, and he could identify the vast majority of them if you said their name.
I bought the Muppet Movie sound-track on CD so we could listen to the gang during car journeys. If ever wee Jack was grumpy and tired, even wailing and screaming from his car seat, it only ever took a few strums of Kermit’s banjo (careful, there) to snap him into contented silence. I swear that the Rainbow Connection was like a dose of aural ketamine.
I’d often sit next to Jack in his room bringing his Muppets to life: doing the voices, making them interact with him. This proved so popular that he’d frequently insist, on pain of tantrum, that those five fellows accompany us everywhere we went in the house, narrating everything as they went. My throat started to feel like a cat’s scratching post. It got to the point where I couldn’t even make a cup of tea without having to engineer a squabble between Piggy and Kermit, or make Gonzo do a death-defying leap from the top of the biscuit cupboard, Jack standing there silently scrutinising the performance, ready to chime in with a Waldorf and Statler-style putdown should things take a dip in quality. I was eventually held so thoroughly hostage by my kid’s imagination that I feared I wouldn’t even be able to go for a shit without Kermit announcing it as an act.
Jack’s mum hated The Muppets. Not straight away, but familiarity very quickly bred contempt. What was nirvana for our son for her felt like being Guantanamoed inside a giant clockwork orange. “You did this to us,” her haunted eyes seemed to say each time they met mine. “You’re the reason that I have to watch puppet pigs singing Copa Cabana eighty times a day, you bastard.” It wasn’t long before she was pig-sick of Miss Piggy, couldn’t bear Fozzy bear, wanted Beaker to beat it, Gonzo to begone, Scooter to scoot, and Kermit to fuck off.
She soon got her wish.
Jack began to refuse or reject items from The Muppets’ TV canon time and again to the point where I stopped offering them as an option. They receded from his day-to-day life, and then started to fade from his memory. Eventually, if the muppets appeared incidentally on some random TV show, or he caught sight of them in a book or magazine, he’d narrow his eyes and scrunch his face up, in the manner of a middle-aged man passing someone on the street they thought they kind of half-remembered from their school days. “Muzzy… Gruzzy… em… Fruzzy! That was his name. Fruzzy Hair. I think he used to sit behind me in English class.”
I’d like to think that in the months and years that followed the waning of Jack’s love for the muppets – as his obsessions evolved and expanded – that his mum actually came to retrospectively appreciate those felty little fuckers, and even kind of miss them. After all, if you’re going to be forced to watch something over and over and over and over again, ad infinitum, then you at least want that something to provide a dung-tonne of variety. And you can’t get much more varied or multifarious than a TV and cinema universe with so many crazy creatures that it makes Game of Thrones look like a two-character Alan Bennett play.
Still. Toy Story was Jack’s next great love. His mum was happier with this. Great movies, right? All three of them. Brilliant movies. You ever watched three movies twenty-five-thousand times? I don’t care if those three movies are home-movies of your own kids being born. After a few consecutive cycles you’re going to be reaching for the baby thermometer and stabbing your eyes out with it. “There’s a snake in my boots! Yes indeed there is. I’m going to use it to fucking strangle myself!”
A little bit of desperate IMDBing heralded the happy news that there were three five-minute shorts and two half-hour specials featuring Bonnie’s (nee Andy’s) gang that we could add into the movie rotation, but even then the novelty quickly wore off (although that scene in the Halloween special where the Pez dispenser pukes in disgust at the sight of the iguana boaking up a toy arm makes me laugh every single time). I even considered sending Disney a begging letter. “Please, please, please, please, for the love of God, hurry up and make Toy Story 4 so we can have one day, JUST ONE DAY, of watching those son-of-a-bitch toys doing something unexpected.”
If you’ve got, or ever had, young kids you’ll know how futile it is to try to counteract their brief but all-consuming obsessions.
“What do you want to watch today? Postman Pat, Ice Age, Count Duckula?”
“Woody and Buzz.”
“Madagascar 1, Madagascar 2, Madagasca…?”
“Woody and Buzz.”
“Oooh, how about How to Train Your Dragon?”
“Woody and Buzz.”
“I’ll give you a million pounds to watch nothing.”
“Woody and Buzz.”
… “The Muppets???”
The worst was yet to come. YouTube is both a blessing and a curse. I credit it with teaching Jack the alphabet – or at least expanding, reinforcing and cementing what his mum and I taught him – and making him more proficient with numbers, but there was a time when he fell in love with a series of videos by a kids’ content-provider called Chu Chu. As in, “I think I’d rather Chu Chu my own arm off than watch another second of these asshole videos.”
Chu Chu is an Indian company that produces Pigeon-Street-style animations of cherubic, rosy-cheeked white kids singing in stilted, weirdly-emphasised English with an Indian twang. Jack watched it so much I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d gone to school sounding like Apu from The Simpsons. Chu Chu bring all of your favourite nursery rhyme classics back to life, just like this one, you know, the one about your Dad chasing his son through the house in the dead of night because he’s going to eat all of the sugar raw… I mean, what the hell IS this shit?
To be fair to Chu Chu, 18-months to 2 years after Jack’s first exposure to their inimitable brand of transatlantic nursery-rhyme stylings we still sing the Johnny Johnny song, and the semi-bhangra version of ‘No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed’ is still our favourite.
While Jack enjoyed a series of micro-obsessions with Thomas the Tank Engine, Puss in Boots, Peppa Pig (that plinky-plonk theme tune is my Manchurian Candidate-style trigger for mass murder), Paw Patrol (one day I will kill you, Rubble, you big jawed arsehole. And why do the people in that town call on dogs for help instead of the fire brigade or the actual bloody police?) and various others, he’s now got a broad and sophisticated palate of televisual tastes. Which is code for ‘we probably let him watch too much television’.
But still no Muppets.
I picked up his little brother Christopher the other day, who’s too young to watch TV but certainly old enough to appreciate its bright and noisy charms.
“I think it’s nearly time we had a chat about the frogs and the pigs, young man.”