Monday, August 20, 2007

The Best Muppet

There are many directions I could go with an entry about “The Best Muppet.” I could, for example, give a rundown of all the Muppets I know, and include such obscure Muppets as those Gelflings from The Dark Crystal, and Dozers from Fraggle Rock, listing them alongside such crowd pleasers as Snuffleupagus.

Odds are, you did not remember them. And do not now,

either. But I do.

Or I could pander to the Baby Boomers, and talk about how Muppets really took over pop culture in a way that ventriloquist dummies and marionettes never did. I could then throw in asides such as pointing out that Sweetie recently tried to get the whole family to watch Dead Silence and that it was so terrible that I fell asleep and woke up only often enough to ask questions like why would they put the theater on an island with a moat? And I could then get nostalgic and ask if anyone else ever wanted, for some reason, one of those crazy bird marionettes that had cup-shaped feet and frizzy hair, and go from that into a riff about what was the deal with that bird that would drink from a cup, and did it actually drink,

or was that an illusion? I was never sure. (The bird was featured on an episode of The Simpsons back when that show was actually funny, too, so I could gather Simpsons-lovers into the fold, and work very hard not to alienate them by pointing that I have no desire to see that movie and that even the reviews make it sound tedious, like the show itself has become.)

I’m not going to go in any of those directions, though. I’m going to go straight to the point. Many of these “Best ofs…” boil down, in the end, to a close call between two things that arguably seem the best – as it did with Paris and Britney and Ashley and Mary Kate, among other things. And like those, this, too, comes down to really a question of just two Muppets, both of whom could credibly lay claim to the title of Best Muppet.

But only one can actually do so.

The runner-up, the near-Best but not-actually-The-Best-Muppet, is Gonzo.

Gonzo has many, many qualities that make him a close runner up for Best Muppet. He opened the Muppet Show each week with a different problem with his horn – presaging the way The Simpsons would later change Bart’s chalkboard task, Lisa’s solo on the sax, and the couch gag. (And maybe you never thought of that, maybe you thought The Simpsons was original because they changed the intro each week, but they weren’t the first.) Gonzo also had his crazy stunts, his weird love for chickens, the bendable nose, and was beautifully weird.

Also, and this can’t be discounted, Gonzo had one of the great songs in The Muppet Movie: “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday,” a song I used to be able to play on guitar and which I still know by heart and sometimes sing to little A and B as they’re falling asleep. That song weighed heavily in Gonzo’s favor, as did his trip on the balloons and appearance in The Muppet Movie in the first place, since that movie is one of the all-time classics of moviemaking.

But Gonzo lost because Gonzo, in the end, really was an extension of The Best Muppet, the Muppet who came before him and who really captured everything it meant to be a Muppet:

Loveable, furry old Grover.

Grover had it all, Muppet-ly speaking. Grover was cuddly, had the big eyes, the flat mouth, the big nose, the wavy crazy arms, the fun voice, and Grover was weird and funny and nice and above all, Grover was crazy and got into all kinds of trouble and dilemmas.

And Grover was Super-Grover, which involved Grover doing something that boys everywhere have done: put on a towel, and a helmet, and become a superhero.

But most of all, Grover has one thing going for him that even Gonzo can not match. While Gonzo has his song, Grover has his story:

The Monster At The End of This Book.

I love that book. (Note: not in past tense.) Remember this book? If you haven’t read it, you have to read it, and if you have read it, you’re probably smiling now. In it, Grover talks to the reader on the first page before realizing that the book is called “The Monster at the End of This Book,” and then spends the rest of the book trying desperately to keep the reader from turning pages to get to the end of the book because he’s afraid of the monster – which turns out to be him, and he’s very embarrassed.

I have always loved that book and remember it by heart, too, and the one part I remember the best is the part where Grover tries to keep the page from turning, and then when it does, and in the next page everything is in shambles, Grover says “Do you know that you are very strong?”

That book was a classic: it broke the fourth wall, in a book, and was funny and really out there and so avant garde for a kid’s book that it has always stuck with me.

How could any other Muppet live up to that? How could Oscar or Kermit or any of the Muppets ever compete with a literary classic? They can’t, of course, and that’s why Grover is The Best Muppet.

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