What the hell just happened?
I wasn’t sold on Muppets Now after the first episode. It plays like a 30-minute compilation of YouTube’s cringiest hits – and in fact, that’s the framing device for this whole series. Each episode opens with Scooter hurriedly uploading his friends’ short-form programming to a streaming site, usually with some complications as other characters pop in with requests or complaints.
The vibe is very “Muppets take YouTube,” except sometimes it feels like Fozzie Bear has total control of the writer’s room. Which isn’t great, considering his whole schtick is being bad at jokes! But pretty soon I realized that hammy humor is part of the point, and in fact helps to sell the premise. I started out as a doubter, but after four episodes I’m fully on board.
Muppets Now is only the latest in a long string of attempts to recapture the magic of The Muppet Show. That ’70s gem asked viewers to imagine a weekly variety show populated entirely by puppets and their celebrity guests. So this latest pivot-to-YouTube falls in line with the big picture plan evident in earlier efforts to make the Muppets resonate in one area or another of pop culture.
Individual segments like the Swedish Chef’s cooking show or Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker doing the “make science fun!” thing have a purposefully rough and amateurish feel. We’re not being introduced to the Muppets, stars of the stage and screen for more than 40 years. The characters settle into their long-established roles, but their hunger (and mild sense of desperation) hews to an idea of reintroducing them as a network of forever-struggling influencers.
It’s weird as hell. Fever dream weird. Cats weird. Asking yourself, out loud, “Am I actually high right now?” weird. Even in that first episode, before I caught on to the premise, I spent 30 straight minutes staring at my screen in a dumbfounded state. I couldn’t look away.
I also couldn’t tell you why. After all, the Muppets have always been a little bit strange. Yeah, they’re puppets, but the fiction sells them as fully formed, thinking beings. We like them in many cases because of that dissonance. But Muppets Now goes a step further.
As much as Muppets have remained alive in the pop culture consciousness since the ’70s, they’ve also never really found their footing in modern entertainment. Past attempts to “update” them have generally fallen flat. And while I’m not sure Muppets Now is fully there, it’s the most successful effort so far in finding a fresh home for their classic antics.
The weirdness lies, I think, in the culture clash of it all – the tension between this troupe of anachronistic entertainers and their varyingly successful efforts to ply their craft in a dramatically changed world. Their struggles to manufacture the same kind of realness that makes a successful YouTubers feels both familiar and forced, but in that inescapably wholesome Muppet way.
Take Miss Piggy’s segment, which pops up in all four of the episodes. The Muppets’ top diva is her insufferably vain and obnoxious self, but regular appearances from her personal assistant, Deadly, as well as IRL celebs Taye Diggs and Linda Cardellini, transform Piggy’s relentless cringe into something entertaining.
Yes, Piggy’s diva sensibilities have always been the butt of a long-running joke. But Muppets Now plays with that against the backdrop of a modern lifestyle environment that’s been shaped by beauty bloggers and self-help workshops. Piggy might not be doing anything new broadly, but seeing that old schtick play out while she’s talking about self-care is part of the fun.
Especially with her supporting cast in the mix. It’s not that anyone is openly tearing her problematic behaviors down; she’s not that terrible, and the show is quietly snarkier than that. Deadly is a constant questioning presence, a straight man who takes Piggy’s shit willingly while destroying her persona with barely heard retorts and double meanings his boss never picks up on. Cardellini and Diggs, meanwhile, demonstrate infinite patience with Piggy’s shenanigans – which makes her many self-owns all the more entertaining as they just smile along politely.
The Disney+ revival series is frequently unfunny, but it’s also weird as hell.
The comedy of Jim Henson’s Muppets has always been at its best when their antics are cast in sharp relief against the more grounded human players. In years past, this traditionally took the form of blockbuster celebrities. The Muppet Show‘s list of guest hosts reads like a who’s who of entertainment titans, from Steve Martin to Elton John to the cast of Star Wars.
Muppets Now wisely recognizes how important that human element is, but the updated premise makes room for more of an everyperson vibe. Mixed in among celebs you know like Diggs, Cardellini, Danny Trejo, chef Roy Choi, and Aubrey Plaza (who has an epic showdown with Piggy) are less recognizable performers filling those roles.
Pepe the King Prawn’s recurring game show, for example, features actors playing roles – admittedly using their real first names, but celebrity isn’t the selling point for their presence. They’re just people, appearing on this bizarre game show with unclear and ever-changing rules. Pepe’s lines may be the jokes, but it’s the contestants’ reactions in the face of incessant Muppet-y weirdness that make us giggle. The influencer game in our real world is in many ways about letting everyone reach for their 15 minutes of fame, and Muppets Now creates the space to capture that aspect of modern entertainment.
There’s also a breakneck pace that ensures even the unfunnier bits are ever only a few minutes from being over. It’s strange, though. Muppets Now episodes run for around 30 minutes, the same as the old ’70s show. Thinking back on the earlier series, it feels like each episode used to fit in so much more. There was the regular parade of celebrity guests, live performances, backstage cutaways, and an assortment of sketches, not to mention audience moments (see also: Statler and Waldorf).
Muppets Now serves up only three or four YouTube-style segments per episode. And yet somehow, the new series feels busier than the original – more noise, more flash, more extra in general. It moves faster, talks louder, and doesn’t pause to consider the live audience, because there isn’t one anymore. It puts the Muppets front-and-center, and lets their inherent wackiness shine.
The audience – both the real one and the imagined one – is all at home, watching on their computers or smartphones or streaming boxes. The resulting feel is downright funky. On the one hand, it’s a revival of some of the best and most beloved aspects of Muppetdom in the way the characters interact, both with each other and with their human guests. But on the other, it’s inescapably modern and shaped by the fast-paced and forever noisy landscape of social media where everything in every genre is available at all times, and you can always get what you want now now now.
After four episodes, though, I’m still not sure who this show is for. It’s definitely not kid-friendly comedy. A younger viewer may laugh at the slapstick antics and shaggy, flailing puppets, but the words coming out of their flapping mouths occasionally reference dating and (very obliquely) sex in ways that, at best, kids won’t get. And at worst? Get ready for some uncomfortable questions.
That puts Muppets Now more in the realm of adult comedy. But what kind of adult?
Is it for late teens and younger twentysomethings whose childhoods were shaped by streaming video and social feeds? Is it a nostalgia play for Millennials and Gen Xers who watched the Muppets in some form as kids, but whose tastes have since shifted?
Or is Muppets Now aiming for a crowd that’s harder to pin down, a sort of cross-generational fandom raised on everything from The Simpsons to Aqua Teen Hunger Force to Rick and Morty? The wholehearted lean into delirious weirdness is our biggest clue that this is exactly it. This is Adult Swim with floppy puppets.
Or, to put that idea in simpler terms: You don’t have to get baked to appreciate Muppets Now, but it probably helps.
Muppets Now is now streaming on Disney+.