Of all the people whose art and philosophy have shaped the man I grew up to be, I think it’s possible that I have been most influenced by Jim Henson. The way the Muppets interacted with one another and the values they lived by formed a foundation for an understanding of relationships that has continued into my adult life. I can trace how it’s affected my ideas about friendship, family, monogamy, individuality, cooperation, and personal ethics. Some people joke that they were raised by wolves, but I would definitely say that I was raised by Muppets.
My time with the Muppets also influenced what kind of comedies I enjoy. For instance, movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where the main character’s dream is to create muppet musical theatre, or Dodgeball, where a bunch of quirky underdogs band together to save the one place they feel like they belong. For me, empathy is an essential component of humor. My response to a lot of things is to laugh. I think people sometimes worry that I’m mocking them, but most of what I find funny in life and art is the recognition of the common absurdity of human experience. I’m laughing at both them and myself with compassion for how we all, as Justin Halpern’s father so eloquently phrased it, “do dumb shit.”
I admit I was predisposed to like Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I’d been fond of Kristen Bell in Veronica Mars – a fondness that increased exponentially when she confessed to Ellen DeGeneres how intensely she loves sloths – and I’ve had a soft spot for Jason Segel since I first saw him in Freaks and Geeks. I found Peter, his character in Sarah Marshall, really appealing and relatable, but it wasn’t until Peter got over his writers’ block and created the vampire puppet rock opera, A Taste for Love, that I realized I was picking up on him being muppet-identified. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop created the puppets for the show, and Segel went on to pursue his love of Muppets as a writer/producer/lead actor in the 2011 movie, The Muppets.
In The Muppets, Walter, a young muppet who is a huge fan of the original Muppet Show, finds out that Statler and Waldorf are selling the old Muppet Theatre to Tex Richman, an oil magnate who plans to demolish it and drill on the site. Walter convinces Kermit the Frog to find the other Muppets, who have drifted apart over the years, and ask them to do a telethon benefit show to raise $10 million in order to buy it back. They fall short of their goal, but reunite as a family and get their happy muppety ending. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story actually reminds me a lot of the The Muppets.
In Dodgeball, the loyal staff and members of Average Joe’s gym have thirty days to raise $50,000 to save the gym from being bought out by White Goodman, owner of the Globo-Gym chain, who plans to demolish it and build a parking garage. They decide to try to win a Las Vegas dodgeball tournament with a $50,000 prize, which they could to use to pay off the mortgage and keep the gym open. They lose faith in each other and almost forfeit the game, but they remember to put friendship first and everything else follows.
Peter LaFleur: Hi. I’m Peter La Fleur, Owner and Operator of Average Joe’s Gym. And I’m here to tell you, you’re perfect just the way you are. But if you feel like losing a few pounds, gettin’ healthier, and making some good friends in the process… then Joe’s is the place for you.
That friendship makes anything possible and everything better, and that we’re all lovable despite all being weirdos are both things I learned from the Muppets. Contrast that with the hilarious cartoon evil of Globo Gym’s values:
Globo Gym Announcer: …Tired of being overweight and under-attractive?
White Goodman: …Oh, hello. I’m White Goodman, Owner, Operator, and Founder of Globo Gym America Corp, and I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to be stuck with what ya got.
Where Globo Gym has magazine models, Average Joe’s has Steve the Pirate, who dresses in full pirate attire and starts sentences with “Arr!” Peter makes every oddball member feel like they belong, and it’s that sense of community or alternative family that makes the gym worth fighting for, and the film so endearing to me.
I think a lot of how I feel about the role of friendships, open relationships, and the construction of family found its roots in my muppet-identified childhood. The idea that family is who you commit to, whether or not they’re related to you officially or biologically, definitely describes how I’ve chosen to live my life. It helped me grow up to be an adult who believes in friendship as a basis for love, and in allowing for different people – friends, lovers, and life partners – to be equally important and meet different needs. The ending of Dodgeball gets that too. Peter falls in love with a girl who turns out to have a girlfriend, but at the end she kisses them both and they all seem happy. Even as a shorthand resolution to a comedy, that kind of positive, drama-free portrayal of polyamory is rare.
So what did the Muppets teach me? That the best solution to most problems is cooperation and sharing. That friendship is central, and family is who you make your life with. That different kinds of relationships are equally important and I don’t have to choose one kind of love over another. And that people who feel like they don’t fit anywhere else can find each other and be happy.
“I have a dream too… And I found a whole group of friends who have the same dream, and that makes us sort of like a family.”
– Kermit the Frog, The Muppet Movie
alex MacFadyen still dreams of finding the Rainbow Connection, but in the meantime he sings his son to sleep with it.