Our featured article today is by guest writer Arianne Gallagher. She brings us a review of the book Kermit Culture. Enjoy!
Kermit Culture: Critical Perspectives on Jim Henson’s Muppets
Edited by Jennifer C. Garlen and Anissa M. Graham
McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, $35.00
(out of 5)
When I first discovered that this book was going to be released, I was ecstatic. It appears to be a Muppet fan’s dream: a book full of articles analyzing the Muppets on an intellectual level. How many of us have written essays and articles for our classes based on the Muppets while only receiving awkward glances from our peers? (Guilty!) Now we can look back on those moments and smile, because hard-core Muppet fans much like us got together and actually published their articles, justifying our own academic endeavors with the Muppets.
However, I couldn’t agree more with Dr. Teeth, who is quoted at the beginning of the preface with his famous line from The Muppet Movie, “This is a narrative of very heavy-duty proportions.” Even though the book is only 216 pages long, it’s a very heavy read with a lot of academic jargon that can take even the best reader weeks to get through. The articles are grouped nicely into the three parts, but the book as a whole does not flow easily throughout, which can be expected to a degree, considering it’s a collection of articles. The main thing I did not like about the book is that many of the articles are filled with the aforementioned intellectual jargon with little or no explanation as to what they’re getting at.
For example, in “Stuffed Suits and Hog-Wild Desire”, Lynn D. Schneider describes Statler and Waldorf’s theater box as: “Linear qualities commingle with nonlinear qualities: commodities, earnings, and predictable Newtonian ‘causation’ mix with color, light, harmony, and movement.” What the heck does that mean? McFarland publishing advertises that this book is for academics as well as fans and the common reader, but what can fans and the common reader get from sentences like that, which sound like they’re in another language and don’t fulfill any purpose for the article as a whole? I would definitely have to say that the main problem with the book is that it is overall difficult for the reader to connect with and understand fully what the author is trying to say. It automatically frustrates the reader by putting them on a different plain from the authors, and you feel like you don’t get your money’s worth, especially since the book costs about $40 with shipping.
There were also times when I did a double take when reading some of the things the authors were trying to argue. In, “The American Journey Narrative in the Muppets Movies”, Tara K. Parmiter takes an intense look at the running gag in the The Great Muppet Caper where Kermit and Fozzie are identical twins in terms of journey narratives, stating the importance of being able to distinguish one’s self from others. She states, “If Fozzie can’t recognize his own physical appearance, how likely is he to understand his own individuality?” the article as a whole is fantastic, but there are moments like these in this article and the others where the authors put way too much into some of the skits and scenes that are merely part of the Henson brand of silliness and comedy. Fozzie and Kermit being identical twins is just one of the many running gags that are part of the Muppet portfolio of jokes, not an examination of self-identity. Yorrick trying to eat Kermit during the “I’ve Grown Accustomed to your Face” lip-sync on The Ed Sullivan Show is just one of the many bits where the Muppets fill the comedic void by having one character eat the other, not something to examine, “in light of postmodern feminist and queer criticism of rape and violence directed at drag queens, drag kings, and transsexuals, and the transgendered” as Kathleen Kennedy describes in her article, “It’s Time to Get Together for Some Sex and Violence on The Muppet Show?” I know these are academic articles that are analyzing the Muppets intellectually, but some things really just are jokes and Muppet silliness designed only to entertain, and there are times, in my opinion, where the authors go a little far in their explorations of these skits and scenes.
Despite some of the frustrations I had while reading the book, either trying to understand what the author was trying to say or understanding why there were overanalyzing simple components of Muppet culture, the book contains lots of literary gems. “Gonzo, the (Great) Cultural Critic” by editor Jennifer C. Garlen contains a fascinating look at how Gonzo’s perception of culture on The Muppet Show slowly gets accepted by the audience and the guest stars, while Sam the Eagle’s perception of culture gets rejected even though he generally portrays the traditional view. There are also wonderful descriptions and characterizations of the Muppets throughout the book. For many Muppet fans, we know we love the Muppets but have difficulty describing why or how much the Muppets really impact us. Ben Underwood recognizes this in, “How to Become a Muppet; or, the Great Muppet Paper” when he states that, “many fans regard the Muppets as embodying an important message. Most of these fans would be hard pressed, however, to explain what that message is.” Many of the authors capture the way many people feel about the Muppets perfectly and provide us with phrases to express the aspects of the Muppets that we love so dearly. Julie G. Maudlin provides us with one of these phrases in “The Muppet Show as Educational Critique”: “In spite of the gratuitous explosions and excessive nonsense, there is a certain nostalgic sweetness about the Muppets, an implicit compassion that seems to undergird the chaos”. Tara K. Parmiter also gives us one of these “Kodak moment phrases”: “Jim Henson and company remind us that home need not be centered in place but can be found in community… the Muppets assure us that our journeys need not keep us away from those we love. At journey’s end, the Muppets always know that they have not returned home, but have found it. As Kermit puts it in the last line of The Muppets Take Manhattan, ‘What better way could anything end? Hand in hand with a friend.’ What better way could the journey end?”
The other literary gems I discovered were found in the Works Cited sections of many of the articles. If you think it’s surprising that now there’s a whole book of academic essays about the Muppets, some of the articles cite other academic articles in which to wet your appetite of Muppet criticism. Titles such as, “a Weirdo, a Rat, and a Humbug: the Literary Qualities of The Muppet Christmas Carol” and “The Performance of Nonconformity on The Muppet Show—or, How Kermit Made Me Queer” are more than enough to spark the curiosity of any reader to find out more. I know that I plan to find some of these other articles to add to my pleasure reading list.
All in all, this book has its hits and misses throughout, but a reader can really appreciate it for what it is: a bunch of articles written by Muppet fans. Their love of the Muppets comes through clearly in the text, even though some of their ideas don’t. It’s a long and difficult read, but worth the time. It is a little pricey, but if you get a chance to splurge it’s worth having on your bookshelf. Hopefully more collections of essays like “Kermit Culture” will be developed and maybe some of us Muppet fans will get to publish our own scholarly articles and “Great Muppet Papers” after all.
Order your own copy of Kermit Culture today!
Tomorrow on The Muppet Mindset: An exclusive interview with veteran Muppet writer Jim Lewis!!