My son was a fan of the Muppets long before they hit this news cycle. Henry, who is 7 and has Down syndrome, knows the names of every minor celebrity to appear on the original shows. “I want Juliet Prowse tonight!” he shouts gleefully. “Let’s watch Cloris Leachman. Dom Deluise is so funny!” When we let him, he’ll watch back-to-back episodes, and can recite whole stretches of dialogue from memory.
The Muppet Show might seem like a surprising choice for a second grader. But Henry is a second grader whose world can sometimes be an unaccommodating place. He’s often confused about how to play with quicker and more verbal classmates, teachers constantly correct his speech and posture, and he’s shuttled around to therapists who work on his behavior, fitness, and learning. When he’s watching the Muppets, he enters an alternate world where there is no disability because nobody is perfect and difference is the norm.
To be sure, much of The Muppets Show’s humor is aimed at adults. It relies on puns and cultural references that are completely lost on Henry. But he can certainly understand the highly expressive body language that comes along with verbal play. Decades before Twitter, Stadler and Waldorf had perfected the art of responding to a show in real time with a running series of nasty quips. “The question is,” Stadler asks grumpily, “What is a manah-manah?” “The question is,” his seatmate rejoins, pursing his mouth into a sour grimace, “who cares?” Whether or not you catch the exact content of their dialogue, the geezers’ sour grimaces and cranky tones say it all, and Henry laughs uproariously every time.
Then there’s the smooth-talking, smooth-headed Dr. Bunsen Honeydew introducing his latest invention, the Nuclear Power shaver. Henry knows nothing of nuclear power, and very little about shaving, but he certainly understands when Honeydew’s assistant, Beaker, takes one look at the shaver and erupts into nervous peeps while anxiously clutching his thatch of orange hair.
Henry, who has struggled with speech delays and still has trouble making himself understood, is especially energized by characters who communicate with no words at all, like the Swedish Chef and Animal. He loves vignettes where characters throw food, hit, insult, and sometimes even devour each other, and where things collapse and explode. Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” comes alive for him when sung by an enormous furry Muppet who has literally just devoured a small bird, who contributes a muffled chorus from inside his body.
Perhaps most important is that The Muppet Show represents a world with consistent characters, themes, and problems. At the end of a day filled with parents, teachers, and therapists telling him what to do, how to behave, and where to go, the Muppets are predictable and familiar. With comforting regularity, we know that Fozzie Bear will tell bad jokes, Miss Piggy makes unwelcome advances on Kermit and deals with her frustration by doling out karate chops, Dr. Bob will operate on an unfortunate patient, and the Swedish Chef will create mayhem in the kitchen. They’re not the greatest role models, especially when they’re being mean, grumpy, or violent, but they give Henry a deeply satisfying source of identification and a feeling of belonging.
Of the various Muppet movies that have come out since Henry was born, The Muppets is our favorite. I was struck by how much Walter, the puppet protagonist, resembles Henry, with his wide-set eyes, big grin, and wispy brown hair. Like Henry, Walter is tiny compared to his strapping older brother Gary (played by Jason Siegel), whom he adores. An early montage shows the two growing up together, Walter gamely participating in the same activities as Gary even as he gets knocked over in baseball and badly outpaced by his brother’s growth chart.
Like Henry, Walter is an avid fan of the Muppets. His dreams come true when he manages to reunite the original cast of The Muppet Show. Having always been something of an outsider, Walter is eventually welcomed into the community of Muppets, where everyone is different and there are few preconceptions about what it means to act or look normal. Watching The Muppets, I realized how much the show is about appreciating the unique capabilities of individuals who, in most other contexts, would be disabled. Rough and impolite, the Muppets remind us that variety is what makes life interesting, challenging, and worthy.
Down syndrome is caused by anomalous cell division that produces an extra copy of the twenty-first chromosome: I’d like to believe that the Muppet species is vibrant and interesting because its genes are subject to the same kinds of random mistakes as human genes. In a 1979 episode of The Tonight Show, Kermit and Miss Piggy appeared alongside psychologist and veterinarian Dr. Michael Fox. “I would advise some genetic counseling,” he told the couple. “You know, a pig and a frog could give rise to all kinds of strange things.” Miss Piggy’s answer was “Yes, I’m hoping so,” while her more cautious partner responded, “Yeah, bouncing baby figs…or pogs.”
Now that their stormy romance is over, we’ll never know what strange figs and pogs they would have sired. With the couple in Splitsville, can the new Muppet Show be even half as good as the original? Both parties insist that it can and I’m taking them at their word. When we tune in I’m counting on the Muppets to continue to carry the banner for the figs and pogs of the world-who really, in some way, represent us all.
Rachel Adams is professor at Columbia University. She is the author of Raising Henry: A Memoir of Motherhood, Disability and Discovery. She Tweets @RachelAdams212.
You might also be interested in: