(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
"The Muppet Show" arriving on Disney+ was so exciting. And it got us talking. Who are our favorite Muppets, and which Muppets do we most identify with?
AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
As they always say, the Muppets are the window to the soul. I'm Aisha Harris.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about our favorite Muppets on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Also with us from his home studio is Glen Weldon of the NPR Arts desk. Hi, Glen.
GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: (Imitating Kermit the Frog) Hi-ho, Linda.
HOLMES: And also here, of course, is NPR Music's Stephen Thompson. Hey, Stephen.
STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Oh, I'm so excited about this.
HOLMES: I am super excited about this, too. The four of us are together to talk about this most important of subjects. The first thing we are going to do is we are each going to tell you who is our favorite Muppet. And Glen has promised that his pick is going to just be clearly correct. Glen...
HOLMES: ...Hit me.
WELDON: I mean, I'm really looking forward to this discussion because one thing you can say is that people's opinions about Muppets are deeply felt.
HARRIS: Oh, God.
WELDON: Yeah, yeah.
HOLMES: Wonk-wonk (ph).
WELDON: Look, the answer is Rowlf. Rowlf's the best. This is known. It is an unassailable fact. It has been frequently articulated over the years. As recently as February of this year, Josh Kurp over at UPROXX wrote an article called "Sorry, Kermit, But Rowlf Is The Best Muppet Of All Time." So I got the receipts. And he lists a couple of reasons. He lists a few, so you should go read the article. But I'll summarize what he said basically.
His No. 1 - longevity. Rowlf was the first Muppet to rise to national prominence. He starred in a dog food commercial in 1962, and then he started turning up every week on "The Jimmy Dean Show," where he became this huge hit. He showed his range on that show, too, 'cause he'd banter with Jimmy; he'd banter with the guests. But he'd also sing and play the piano because he's great.
No. 2 - adaptability. Rowlf is one of the very few Muppets who can be, you know, silly for the kids, but, when called upon, he can transfer over to the kind of adult circle because he's got this - I wouldn't say sardonic, but kind of a world-weary vibe. So people say that's because he channeled Henson's kind of gently subversive energy, the mischief energy. And many who were close to Henson said that while Kermit is his best-known creation, Rowlf was the one that was much closer to who Henson was, how he saw himself - so much so that they semi-retired Rowlf after Henson's death.
So that's Kurp's take. I have a couple more points I'd add. One is that he absolutely rejects the reductive chaos Muppet vs. order Muppet binary - leaves it in the dust - because while he often can seem like he's the only adult in the room - and when you've got Kermit in that room, that can be a big thing because that's traditionally the slot that Kermit fills. Let's face it. Kermit is a buzzkill. He's a party pooper. He's a square. He's a narc.
HARRIS: Oh, wow.
WELDON: Rowlf's energy is very different. Rowlf hangs back. He's wry. He's knowing. He's wise. But when called upon to go all in on the stupid, he can do it. In a veterinarian's hospital sketch, he can just be a firehose of terrible puns. And his most frequent scene partner in those veterinarian's hospital sketches - Miss Piggy.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MUPPET SHOW")
JERRY NELSON: (As Announcer) Time once again for "Veterinarian's Hospital," the continuing story of a quack who's gone to the dogs.
JIM HENSON: (As Rowlf the Dog, as Dr. Bob) Well, Nurse Janice, who's the next patient?
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: (As Janice, as Nurse Janice) Well, see for yourself, Dr. Bob.
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #2: (As Miss Piggy, as Nurse Piggy) Oh - oh, it's Kermit, my Kermie (ph). Oh, oh, oh...
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #3: (As Kermit the Frog) Take it easy. I'm OK.
WELDON: Just one decade before he taped those sketches, Rowlf was the faithful sidekick to one Mr. Jimmy Dean...
WELDON: ...Who, for the kids who do not know, built an entire secondary career out of the wholesale slaughter of Miss Piggy's kind.
WELDON: Rowlf somehow managed to rescue himself from that toxic lifestyle, overcame the hate. You know what I call that? Growth - growth.
WELDON: But all that is purely academic. These are theories. Let's hear an example of why Rowlf is the best Muppet period.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MUPPET SHOW")
HENSON: (As Rowlf the Dog, singing) You held my hand as if to say, I love you. Then, we passed a brook, and George fell in and drowned himself...
HENSON: (As Rowlf the Dog, singing) ...And floated out to sea, leaving you alone with me.
WELDON: There we go. So two things about that stick out to me. No. 1 - by mixing in jokes with playing piano and singing a song, he is introducing to the children cabaret. That is iconic. That is some queer energy, and I'm here for it. Two - that song works because of who's singing it. It's kind of dark. Henson could go kind of dark at times. But the vehicle for that song is this freaking adorable fuzzy puppy whose ears are flopping all over the damn place as he's singing. So it's Rowlf. Rowlf's the best. Hands down, paws up.
HARRIS: Get him off the stage.
HARRIS: That's my Statler and Waldorf impression.
HOLMES: All right. Well, that's one idea. Aisha, do you have a different idea?
HARRIS: I do. And while Statler and Waldorf are among the best Muppets, the best Muppet is clearly - when you ask me who might be the best Muppet, I think it might be Miss Piggy.
HARRIS: Miss Piggy is by far the best for several reasons. For one, she is one of the few Muppets who has actually evolved her style over the decades. You can almost always tell what era we are in just by looking at her hair. If it's permed, it's the '80s.
HARRIS: If she's wearing a leotard, it's also the '80s because she is doing her Jane Fonda. She came out with her own exercise album, which is amazing.
HOLMES: She did.
HARRIS: One of the songs on it is "Snackcercise." And she also has a very wonderful Instagram presence. I follow all of them on Instagram, all these Muppets - well, most of the Muppets. She has by far the best one. Often her little pooch, her little doggie, is in those images, and she captions them very well, always calling herself - vous, vous, moi, moi, vous, moi, moi. And she just has this very distinct way of speaking that I love. She also can be - I mean, despite the fact that, yes, she is a violent, chaotic Muppet at times and there have been, you know, very good critiques of the fact that she could be a little abusive to Kermit - and I feel bad for Kermit; I really do. But I also think that she - it comes from a place of hurt and pain. And there are layers to this pig.
HARRIS: She is often being called anything from a hog, a sausage. She deals with all these microaggressions, and the only way to deal with those microaggressions often is for her to karate chop. And karate chopping, I'm OK with. I think it's all right in the world of this pig. I also learned from a very good Larry King interview that she had a very traumatic childhood. She's not close with her mother. Her dad was killed in a tractor accident. She even posed for an ad for bacon in the early days, when she was trying to get her start. So she comes from a place of self-hate, and I understand why she might be a little bit mean to Kermit.
Also, she has one of the best scenes in any Muppet movie of all time, which is from "The Muppets Take Manhattan." It is with none other than Joan Rivers.
HARRIS: And it is a scene (laughter) where they are working at a makeup counter, and Piggy comes in, and she's really upset with Kermit, and Joan Rivers tries to cheer her up.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN")
JOAN RIVERS: (As Joan Rivers) Piggy, you know, you were fine this morning. Did something happen at lunch?
FRANK OZ: (As Miss Piggy) My frog turned on me.
RIVERS: (As Joan Rivers) Yeah, I had some bad tuna myself.
OZ: (As Miss Piggy) I'm going to fight for him, though. I mean, do you think I'm pretty?
RIVERS: (As Joan Rivers) Of course, you are. You're more than pretty.
OZ: (As Miss Piggy) Gorgeous?
RIVERS: (As Joan Rivers) Don't push it, Pig.
HARRIS: So there you have it. It is Miss Piggy being vulnerable, being insecure, expressing herself. And I think she gets a bad rap for being so mean sometimes. I understand where it comes from. And that is why Miss Piggy is the best Muppet of all time.
HOLMES: I like it very much. I like it very much. All right. Thank you, Aisha Harris. Stephen Thompson - favorite Muppet?
THOMPSON: All right. First of all, I want to thank Aisha for sparing us so much hate-mail from Miss Piggy.
THOMPSON: So a couple of caveats here. When we did this callout - we did a callout for favorite Muppet - Glen's pick and Aisha's pick are both heavily focused on "The Muppet Show." And I grew up with "The Muppet Show," and it is near and dear to my heart. And when we get to the next segment, I will be talking about - extensively about "The Muppet Show." But since the callout was favorite Muppet, we specifically said this can include "Fraggle Rock," this can include "Dark Crystal," this can include "Sesame Street."
HOLMES: "Sesame Street."
THOMPSON: Now, "Sesame Street" is where I went for favorite Muppet. And I have spent long stretches of many different parts of my long life watching "Sesame Street." I watched it as a very small child. I watched it as the parent of very small children. And I occasionally like to check in with it now for nostalgia. And I will say, whether I am 2 years old, whether I am a snotty teenager, whether I am a college student, whether I am the parent of a 2-year-old, whether I am my current 48-year-old self, my favorite Muppet is Cookie Monster...
HOLMES: Oh, nice.
THOMPSON: ...Because - it's a very simple metric - Cookie Monster is always funny. All Cookie Monster has to do - you just hand him a cookie. It doesn't go anywhere except on the floor.
THOMPSON: That's funny every single time. And I have to say, when I was a struggling parent of a very young and screaming child and I would put on "Sesame Street" - I remember the morning after a particularly sleepless night, kind of pacing around, like, holding my kid, and "Sesame Street" is on, and Cookie Monster is doing whatever bit. I want to say it was the letter T. And he says something like, (imitating Cookie Monster) me cannot eat letter T. Me promise research department.
THOMPSON: And for whatever reason - it's so weird. For whatever reason, I just about fell over laughing. And it was a different kind of hearty laugh than I probably had when I was 2. But Cookie Monster is funny to everyone for the exact same reason. And the fact that you can have that same belly laugh at 48 that you had at 2 on the same - exact same level is a remarkable accomplishment. And that comes down to the heartfelt primal hilarity of the great Cookie Monster.
WELDON: Can me play devil's advocate for a second? The backside of this universality you're talking about - his always dependably being funny - is one-note. This guy's a one-trick pony. What do you say to that?
THOMPSON: You - OK. If you write the perfect song, you've made the perfect song. You can just play it over and over again. You belong to the ages once you've written the perfect song.
HOLMES: This is why Stephen thinks the best band is the New Radicals.
THOMPSON: Hey, man, we're still talking about the New Radicals.
WELDON: That's right.
HOLMES: Well, I appreciate that, Stephen Thompson. And I am going to go next. And I will say, once again, fairly one-note, but clearly, best Muppet - Animal. Animal is the best Muppet. Now, why? Because Animal is the most Muppet-y Muppet. If you think about Muppetosity (ph) in a certain way, Animal, who is the drummer for Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem - a brilliantly named band - he's got this sort of wildness, but he's also got the humor and the mischief. And I also admire Animal because with Animal, they do the most with the least. He does not say very much. He does talk a little bit, but he does not talk very much. Very often, he says things like, that's my kind of woman, to Rita Moreno after she clonks him with the cymbals when they sing "Fever," which if you've never looked that up, find yourself Animal and Rita Moreno doing "Fever."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MUPPET SHOW")
RITA MORENO: (Singing) Fever.
MORENO: (Singing) ...When you hold me tight...
WELDON: It's his finest hour. I'll give you that. It's his finest hour.
HOLMES: It's true. I - there is something about him that I have always found irresistible. He is all mouth and eyebrows.
HARRIS: Those eyebrows.
HOLMES: And I'm not going to necessarily say that I relate to being all mouth and eyebrows, but, you know, a little bit. So most with the least is Animal - Muppet-y energy, just pure, absolute Muppetosity straight into my heart, Muppet energy in the form of Animal.
WELDON: I'm aware of his work.
THOMPSON: Purest chaos Muppet. I think Animal's a great pick, Glen.
HARRIS: As do moi.
HOLMES: Well, I appreciate that. I appreciate your support. We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we're going to talk about the other main question that we have on our list today, which is what Muppet we most identify with - slightly different, but equally critical. So come right back.
Welcome back to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. It is time to do our second Muppet segment of the day. What Muppet do you most identify with? Now, Glen, I'm going to once again start with you. What Muppet do you most identify with?
WELDON: I'd love it to be Rowlf. It's not. And if I was a younger man and you asked me this question, I probably would have said Bert, because I certainly - when I was watching Burt as a kid, I just recognized something of myself in him. And I'm not talking about his living arrangement that is between him and his God, his Muppet God. I'm talking about his sensibility. I recognized it. Everything about him is nerdy.
He is the first nerd that millions of kids saw on screen, the bold-but-off-kilter fashion choices, subtle shoes, turtleneck, his love of pigeons and the letter W, his paperclip collection. He is a weirdly obsessive guy who worries about the rules and positively embraces how basic he is. And I love him for that. But no, as I get older, it's a different Muppet. Can you play me a little clip?
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MUPPET SHOW")
OZ: (As Sam the Eagle) I would just like to say a few words about nudity in the world today.
HOLMES: I knew it. I knew it was going to be that.
WELDON: Pause for the shock to gasps, which I did not hear. But OK.
WELDON: It's not his politics certainly. I think Sam and I would diverge there. It's not his pious morality but his vibe. His vibe is, if I could encapsulate, it's basically I never know what's going on. I don't understand what anyone's talking about, but if I did, I wouldn't like it. That's pretty much - that's where he's coming from. And as I get older, that's me. That's totally me.
And what is he teaching? He's teaching kids. If you encounter these people who have a stick up their butt, who set themselves up as moral arbiters, who stand in judgment and stroke their beards, that they are to be ridiculed. Their moral outrage is their weakness, not their strength. And their disapproval of you is meaningless. That is a very powerful lesson. I love Sam the Eagle, but I'm sometimes afraid I am Sam the Eagle.
HOLMES: I understand that, buddy.
THOMPSON: Let the record show that over breakfast this morning, Katie asked me, well, who's everybody picking? And I said, well, Glen, I'm not sure if it's going to be Bert or Sam the Eagle.
WELDON: Yeah, talk about one-note, I guess. I guess I have a vibe.
HOLMES: Yeah. I will say Bert, among other things, is a good anxiety role model so, you know. All right. Aisha Harris, what Muppet do you most identify with?
HARRIS: Well, I would want to be Janice, one of the other band members of Dr. Teeth, but I am not cool enough. So I'm not Janice. But I am a little bit of Kermit. Like, I'm very neurotic in that way. But I think all of that is overruled by, I'm sad to say, Oscar the Grouch.
HARRIS: The better you know me, the grouchier I probably will be at some point in time to you. So good luck, co-hosts.
WELDON: Fair warning.
HARRIS: I might pop out of that trash can one of these days. But for now, he is just so crabby and gets really irritated by a lot of things, surprisingly not children. That's like the one thing he doesn't get crabby about, which is the inverse of me because I find children irritating. But he has his things. He has his exceptions. He'll be nice sometimes. He'll be nice when it's convenient to him. And when I'm out and about in the world, when I was living in New York, being that New Yorker and dealing with strangers, that would be me. If I could get what I wanted from you, then I will be nice, but if not, don't talk to me. Don't touch me on the shoulder. This is why I wore my headphones all the time. I don't want to talk to you. So I am Oscar the Grouch. And I think this clip kind of symbolizes the way I have interacted with various people in my life unfortunately. This is him with Grover
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")
CAROLL SPINNEY: (As Oscar the Grouch) Who is kicking my can?
OZ: (As Grover) Hi, Grouchie (ph). I wanted to play a game, but everybody's busy.
SPINNEY: (As Oscar the Grouch) Play a game? You kick my can and bother me and expect me to play a game with - I don't play games with little furry monsters.
OZ: (As Grover) Grouchie, would you play a game with me please? Please.
HARRIS: So yeah, I'm sorry I didn't include this on my application for the job, y'all, but...
HARRIS: So that's me, Oscar the Grouch.
WELDON: Plus, lives in a TARDIS, so, you know, what's not to love?
HOLMES: It's true. It's true. He does. All right. Thank you very much, Aisha Harris. Stephen Thompson, what Muppet do you most identify with?
THOMPSON: Boy, you talk about agonizing. I have gone back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. And I've finally settled. Short answer - I've decided Gonzo because Gonzo has the kind of - the neediness of Fozzie with a little bit of the earnestness of Kermit. And I kind of decided, as I, you know, went through and performed an autopsy on my own soul...
THOMPSON: ...Found that it kind of created...
HOLMES: You found a lot of stuffing.
THOMPSON: I found that there is basically a triad of Gonzo, Fozzie and Kermit. And ultimately, it was really difficult to narrow down Muppets who embody two different combinations of personality traits. And I was kind of trying to decide between them. You basically - you have your earnest, striving, grasping, which would be your Fozzie and your Gonzo, Muppets who are dying for validation and will basically implode like a dying star if they're not loved.
THOMPSON: And then you have your combination of earnest, soulful, beleaguered that I kind of more thought of myself as. So that's where you get your Kermit and your Grover, to a certain point. So I think I probably identified as a Kermit, you know, the kind of beleaguered, hard-working, kind of keeps everything on track that I wanted to be. But really, I think I was Gonzo chasing chickens around.
THOMPSON: And so I think, when it comes down to which Muppet I relate to, Gonzo probably checks the most boxes.
WELDON: So Gonzo with Kermit rising.
WELDON: I love that for you.
HOLMES: It's very reasonable. You know, here's the thing. I also thought of picking Gonzo, which probably makes sense as we have been friends a long time. And we have, perhaps, complimentary Gonzo feelings.
HOLMES: But ultimately, I decided that despite the fact that Stephen has taken all the rest of the Muppets, essentially...
HOLMES: ...In his complex Muppet Zodiac of himself, I decided I would go with Grover. And the reason I decided to go with Grover is that Grover is cuddly and nervous.
HOLMES: And I consider myself to be cuddly and nervous and somewhat strong-willed, which Grover can be also. Specifically, I have spent a lot of my life feeling like Grover in those pieces where he's the waiter.
HOLMES: And the guy keeps ordering things. And he keeps bringing the wrong thing. Or they don't have the thing. And he keeps getting the order wrong. And he's in this situation with this man where he's clearly just trying his hardest. But he's never able to satisfy the customer. So he constantly feels, in his own way, beleaguered, despite the fact that he is also messing up quite a lot.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")
OZ: (As Grover) All-righty. You said you wanted it very rare? There is our little hamburger, sir.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Wow. That certainly is little.
OZ: (As Grover) Isn't it sweet?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) That's hardly enough to feed a flea.
OZ: (As Grover) I would not know, sir. We have never fed a flea here before (laughter). That's a waiter joke.
HOLMES: So the cuddly and nervous Grover is probably the Muppet with whom I most identify.
WELDON: Makes sense.
HARRIS: I love Grover. Grover's fun.
THOMPSON: Well, first of all, when I think cuddly and nervous, I specifically think of your dog.
THOMPSON: And second of all, when I think of the customer that you can never quite please, I think of the Internet.
HOLMES: Me too. But that is my answer. And I - look, here's what's most important. A few weeks ago, we asked you, all of you listeners, about your favorite Muppets. And let me just say, thousands, thousands of you responded. So tomorrow we are going to bring you the definitive ranking of Muppets according to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR listeners. And as always, to talk more about this - and I know you will - you can find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to you all for being here.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
HARRIS: Thank you.
WELDON: Thank you.
HOLMES: It's only the beginning. And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all right back here tomorrow for even more Muppets.
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