It's not that Disney hasn't done anything with the Muppets since it acquired them from the Jim Henson Company in 2004. There have been YouTube skits, two movies (2011's The Muppets and 2014's Muppets Most Wanted), 2015's short-lived ABC sitcom, The Muppets, a series of shorts called Muppet Moments and an Emmy Award-winning reboot of Muppet Babies on Disney Junior and a series of live shows at the Hollywood Bowl and in London's 02 arena.
Yet, compared to the cultural-dominating juggernauts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Pixar, it feels like the Muppets have been shunted by Disney. Despite the tons of people -- evidenced by the popularity of things like Joshua Gillespie's Muppet History Twitter account -- still love the creations of Jim Henson.
But not all is lost. As reported in February, Josh Gad (Frozen, A Dog's Purpose) is starring and writing (with Once Upon A Time creators, Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis), in a Muppets show set to air on Disney+ in 2020 called Muppets Live Another Day. Unlike the last Muppets TV show, Live Another Day is purportedly a period piece, set in 1984 right after the events of The Muppets Take Manhattan. The show will start with Kermit having disbanded the Muppets for whatever reason, but the group has to come back together -- and presumably team up with whoever Gad is playing -- to look for Rowlf the Dog after he disappears.
Now, a mystery show with Muppet hijinks sounds like a great idea, make no mistake. Plus this weekend's announcement of Muppets Now -- a series of unscripted short films featuring celebrity guests -- is also a definite step in the right direction. But there's one other thing Disney+ could do with the Muppets that would get everyone talking and get Muppet diehards instantly on their side...
Bring back The Muppet Show.
IT'S TIME TO PLAY THE MUSIC
It's hard to imagine now but the original The Muppet Show was -- no fooling -- one of the most popular programs on the planet during its 1976-1981, five-season run. Even though Disney's only released the first three seasons on DVD to watch those is to watch the Muppets at their best, yukking it up with still-big celebrities like Steve Martin or Rita Moreno or now-obscure-but-then-acclaimed names like Avery Schreiber or Juliet Prowse, but still being uniquely themselves. Both an old-school vaudeville throwback and yet utterly timeless, The Muppet Show is still absolutely hilarious and charming.
The revivals that have come since then have had, to put it charitably, mixed results. 1989's short-lived Jim Henson Hour on NBC, a grab bag of Muppet hijinks involving CGI puppets and more serious stuff like The Storyteller, which was described by Frank Oz in Jim Henson's biography as lacking "the usual Jim focus."
And while 1996's Muppets Tonight introduced some Muppets that've become mainstays, like Pepe the King Prawn and Bobo the Bear, others have rightfully fallen into obscurity (the less said about Spamela Hamderson, the better). The show itself was canceled by ABC and the rest of its run was quietly burned off on the Disney Channel.
Similarly, variety shows -- of which The Muppet Show was one, through and through -- have fallen behind the wayside since their '70s heyday. Attempted revivals of the format, like Maya & Marty or Best Time Ever, have flopped hard.
But the Muppets can break that trend. Here's how.
IT'S TIME TO DRESS UP RIGHT
If you watched Seth Rogen's Hilarity for Charity on Netflix, you saw the huge applause the Muppets got when they popped in to perform "The Magic Store" with Kumail Nanjiani, Seth Rogen and Chelsea Peretti. What that segment showed was that the Muppets have a stronghold on the imaginations and affections of Gen-X comedians like those three, who grew up watching them as kids.
That affection could be used to a new Muppet Show's advantage. Bringing big names like Nanjiani, Rogen, Peretti and others in right off the bat is a guaranteed audience draw. Just as important is the show's format. Revivals like the ones above flopped because they tried to steer too far away from the format of The Muppet Show. But the best way to make a new Muppet Show work is to lean into its old-fashioned sensibilities. That doesn't mean the humor can't be modern; far from it. But for too long, Disney-era Muppets projects have focused on what the Muppets mean in a metatextual sense rather than just leaning into the wackiness and heart of the characters themselves.
After all, that kind of continual core emphasis on character and humor, coupled with gentle modernization, is why Sesame Street has endured for over 50 years. And since Kermit and the gang and Big Bird and pals are creative siblings, why not just borrow that Sesame approach?
It's easy to imagine the sort of guest stars that would thrive pretending to guest host a variety show surrounded by wacky Muppet antics: Awkwafina. John Mulaney. Andrew Rannells. Josh Brener. Nick Kroll. Chris Hemsworth. Thomas Middleditch. Ben Schwartz. Jon Stewart. Zac Efron. John Oliver. David Tennant. Kathy Griffin. Janelle Monae. Tessa Thompson. Chris Evans. Tiffany Haddish. Karen Gillan. Jackie Chan. One or more of those BTS guys everyone likes. Bobby Moynihan. Lady Gaga (to make up for that abysmal TV special she did with Kermit and the gang.) Ike Barinholtz. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. John Cena. Leslie Mann. Jack Black. Martin Starr. Maya Rudolph. Martin Short. Dan Levy. Kristen Bell. Dax Shepard. Ted Danson. Matthew Mercer. Oscar Isaac. Daisy Ridley. John Boyega. Lupita Nyong'o.
We could go on, but the point stands. There's loads of celebrities who'd be willing to play along with the Muppets and could draw viewers in. Combine that with a fresh take on the intersection of "family-friendly," "subtly anarchic," and "bitingly satirical" that the Muppets have always had, and you've got a recipe for success. One that could help ensure the Muppets are as vital again as they once were.