Almost three years ago, I, a parent of young children, took it upon myself to provide you, presumably since you’re reading this, also the parent of young children, the service of ranking all the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse characters. You’re welcome.
I’m happy to report that while the reign of tyranny inflicted by Mickey and the rest of the Clubhouse gang has not fully subsided, it has diminished in intensity as this show makes fewer and fewer appearances around here. Additionally, the abomination known as Mickey and the Roadster Racers, with its shitty computer animation and oddly regressive gender politics never gets any play. Seriously, the boys get to be hotshit racecar drivers while Minnie, Daisy, and some annoying bird who sounds like she’s doing a bad Cyndi Lauper impression are shunted to the role of “happy helpers?” This show can get all the way fucked.
Gratefully, my kids have latched on to the Muppet Babies reboot, which is largely delightful. True, I’m starting to go mad from having seen all 19 episodes roughly a billion times each and having at least one of the songs from therein stuck in my head approximately 95% of each and every day. But still, this show is light years better than the unfathomably annoying Puppy Dog Pals or the grating British tweeness of Peppa Pig. In the interest of full disclosure, the other 5% of my brain is occupied by “Song #3” by Stone Sour, which is requested by my 2 and 4 year-old girls at least twice a day. The girls love buttrock, which is probably some epic parenting fail on my part, but whatever, man. You don’t know my life.
This iteration of Muppet Babies is more or less the same as the original with a couple of notable exceptions. First, there’s the obvious updating from 1984 to 2018. Nanny is now called Ms. Nanny. Nanny is younger, voiced now by Jenny Slate who’s 36, compared to Barbara Billingsley, who at the time of the original was 69 (!!!). Much more on Nanny, or Ms. Nanny below. Also, 69, nice.
Second, the core cast has been trimmed from an unwieldy 10 Muppet Babies to just six. Gone completely are Rowlf, Scooter and Skeeter. Bunsen and Beaker have been relegated to guest roles appearing in only one episode thus far. And in their place is a new character to the canon, Summer Penguin. Again, much more on Summer below.
Third, while still occasionally present, far fewer are the insane cutaways used by the original Muppet Babies. One of the things I remember most about the original, and present right there in the intro, are insertions of the characters into actual footage from Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and file footage of what looks like a WWI ticker tape parade. The show still mixes up its animation style to hilarious effect, but it’s not as gonzo (no pun intended) as the previous version, which hummed with anarchic glee.
Now then, onto the characters. After consuming this show pretty much every morning and every evening (it’s what my kids ask for before school and before bed – which is when we allow them to watch TV), I have many thoughts. Bear in mind, the whole here is much greater than the sum of the parts. So when I take these characters out of their context, their strengths and flaws become magnified. Even when we get to the bottom of the list, those characters I find most annoying (and they are annoying) still generally function well in the overall scope of the show. Muppet Babies is well-balanced and thoughtfully crafted, which is a testament to all involved.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun and say weird things about each character, now does it? Of course not! On with it.
If I were writing this list about the original version of the show, I have no idea where Animal would end up, but I can guarantee you it wouldn’t be #1. In the original, Animal was obviously much younger than any of his playmates (he’s largely nonverbal, and wore a baby’s bonnet, for Christ’s sake), and while I maintain this version of Animal is still a bit younger than the others, that gap has narrowed significantly.
That jump in age has allowed Animal to tone down his more annoying, baby-like qualities, and mature them into the coolest member of the playroom. He dresses cool, like he could slot into the band Stillwater at a moment’s notice. His hair is cool. He digs music.
And he’s completely fucking unhinged. In the “Card Shark” episode, the gang imagines they’re underwater and they go in for a group hug. Someone asks where Animal is since he loves group hugs, and we see Animal floating by tumbling around inside a bubble gleefully shouting “Bubble bubble bubble bubble, BUBBLE!” in the background.
When the rest of the gang needs to distract Summer so they can put together a surprise for her, they wonder who’s the most fun and able to keep Summer’s attention. The camera cuts to Animal wearing a fucking football helmet sitting inside the toybox holding an oar singing to himself, “Row row row your TOYBOX!”
Granted, that manic energy sometimes works against him like when Ms. Nanny takes away his drumsticks during quiet time and he turns into Animal Kong by virtue of an epic tantrum meltdown. He also ends up filthy in one episode and everyone does their best to contain him so they can toss him in the bath. I don’t have boys, but this scene feels like when I listen to my friends who do have boys describe what it’s like trying to contain this supernova of energy. It looks goddamn exhausting.
Ultimately, Animal’s virtues far outweigh his flaws. In the Halloween episode, Fozzie tries (and fails) to scare his pals because he’s insecure about his funny costume, so Animal dons a sheet to be a REAL scary ghost and succeeds, yet takes no credit for his actions and allows Fozzie all the glory. In the episode where they all want to be a band, while everyone focuses on their costumes, cool lighting effects and the other superficial trappings of music stardom, Animal preaches the virtues of practice. Show time comes, and he’s the only who doesn’t suck, which leads to a sick job offer from Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, his self-proclaimed favorite band. He turns it down because, get this, he feels he still needs more practice.
Rock on, Animal! Rock the fuck on forever! You’re nuts, but you seem to have your priorities in order.
- Summer Penguin
Because I’m a normal human being, when I saw the promos for the new Muppet Babies, I was leery of Summer Penguin. There’s a high Poochie potential here considering Summer is not only new, but has the unenviable task of moving the gender balance more toward the center. However, she’s terrific playing the archetype of a small-town girl far from home who’s doing her best to acclimate to her new surroundings with a positive outlook and a song in her heart.
Summer is a problem-solver, and generally the most level-headed of the bunch. Whereas Kermit is prone to bossiness, Piggy is myopic and aggrandizing, Animal is on another planet, Gonzo is deliberately out in left field, and Fozzie is derailing everything with a constant barrage of one-liners, Summer is the glue. She somehow brings all these disparate freaks together with pragmatism, good cheer, and a warm heart. She’s guileless, but not easily manipulated. Funny but not overbearing.
She’s susceptible to homesickness, and when things unravel for Summer, they tend to REALLY unravel putting her in a funk that can be tough to climb out of. To their credit, the other characters seems to recognize this intuitively and work overtime to pick her up. And she got a little overzealous while investigating who ruined the game of checkers between Piggy and Gonzo in accusing her friends one by one without evidence, but I chalk that up to seeking to restore peace in the playroom more than anything else. The baseless incriminations were undeniably bitchy, though.
Most notable about Summer is that she unquestionably has the best song in the entire series when she gets Animal to calm down in the Animal Kong episode. The song “I’ve Been There Buddy” is such a gorgeous expression of empathy, compassion, and emotional honesty, I was so caught off-guard by it the first time, I actually shed a few tears myself. Goddammit, watching this again while writing this stupid piece has made me cry all over.
Final note: For whatever reason, Summer reminds me of this story I saw on RealTV who the fuck knows how long ago that I can’t get out of my head all these years later. Isn’t that penguin adorable in his little backpack? Makes me want my own penguin.
- Ms. Nanny
I’ve been trying to put my finger on why I find this iteration of Nanny so charming. A huge part of it is Jenny Slate’s warm, and slightly off-kilter voice acting. Somehow Slate makes it unchallenging to picture Ms. Nanny having a life outside this job and this playroom that’s fulfilling. I think as a parent that’s reassuring because taking care of young children can be sort of dehumanizing and all-consuming. Ms. Nanny raises chickens in her backyard, which indicates to me she’s earthy and hippy. She alludes to going to the Renaissance Faire, which means she’s got some geekiness inside her.
She sees Fozzie feeling down with his head on a table, and approaches him with a hilarious line reading, “Hoooowwww…. yadoinFozzie?” It’s a long drawn out “How” followed by a fairly rapid-fire execution of the remaining three words. Ms. Nanny understands the absurdity of trying to navigate the feelings of toddlers and the general inconsequentiality of their problems to the world at large juxtaposed with the urgency of their problems TO THEM. It’s a balance between bemused distance and genuine compassion, a nifty tone trick tough to pull off in just four words.
More than anything, I think Ms. Nanny reminds me of our one-time nanny Sineah, who is an absolute ray of sunshine. She’s into landscaping and eating healthy and tiny houses and playing volleyball and all sorts of stuff. One time we couldn’t book her for babysitting, so me and another parent tag teamed the duties. She said to me, “We won’t be going on a fucking bug hunt or anything like our kids would do with Sineah, but we’ll have fun nevertheless.” It was a perfect description because Sineah has an unconquerable sense of adventure even if we’re only in the backyard.
I feel like Ms. Nanny has a similar vibe in that she’s authoritative, but approachable and not stern. She empowers the kids to imagine, and gives them room to have fun. This playroom, if it were real, and not comprised of mutant talking pigs, frogs, bears, and whatever the hell Gonzo is supposed to be, is a place I’d send my own kids. That’s the highest compliment I can give.
Also, maybe it’s hilarious thinking about Jenny Slate as Ms. Nanny, and then also as Mona Lisa Saperstein.
The ostensible leader. He’s ultimately a force for good, but sometimes doesn’t have all the proper leadership rhythms fully dialed in. In “Kermit Levels Up,” he forces the gang to keep participating in a video game simulation despite Fozzie’s repeated pleas about getting ready for his “funny joke show.” Now, I don’t necessarily blame Kermit for not wanting to sit through Fozzie’s “Take my wife… please!” routine for what I’m sure is like the 11th time that week, but c’mon, man. Listen to your friends.
In the pirate episode, Kermit assumes the leadership role and then doesn’t let anyone else help him, so no one has any fun. Read the room, guy!
If I’m hard on Kermit, who’s ultimately a good dude with some great songs and insights, it’s because being the leading man is tough. You’ve got most of the thankless exposition. You don’t typically get the plum one-liners. If this is Seinfeld, Animal is Kramer, Summer is Elaine, fuckin’ almost everyone else is George, and he’s Jerry.
Plus, and this is a solely personal thing, in one of the Halloween episodes, Kermit is afraid to try Nanny’s Boo-berry pancakes, which hit a little too close to home considering my own history with food anxiety. The rest of the gang spends the entire episode hectoring Kermit to just try the pancakes, which is ultimately correct, but watching this unfold transported me right back to my youth and filled me with anxiety. It’s like I was standing over my younger self just begging him to try a new food to end all this anxiety once and for all, but he couldn’t hear me. Food anxiety is awful, and I was simultaneously angry at Kermit for his seeming stubbornness and broken-hearted because I know exactly how he felt.
Previous versions of Piggy saw her as a gender-reversed Pepe le Pew, relentlessly pursuing Kermit as a romantic partner despite Kermit’s repeated and insistent resistance. That’s been gratefully toned down, which is welcome not just because that type of behavior is icky in general, but because these kids are goddamned 5 year-olds. There’s plenty of time for romance, just give yourself a decade or so.
The rest of the Piggy you know is still largely there. She’s narcissistic and vainglorious. She’s relentless in her other pursuits. She’s a ruthless cheater at board games. She’s obsessed with pink and forces her affection for it on everyone else. She’s undeniably funny both in her use of karate chops, and in her off-kilter way of speaking. Sometimes I feel like she’s channeling 80s comedian Judy Tenuta.
Watch 30 seconds of that clip linked above and then listen to Piggy ask Fozzie, “Hey Fozzie, did your great uncle Schnozzie say anything about A WHOLE LOTTA STAIRS?” and tell me you don’t hear Judy Tenuta in there.
- Mr. Statler and Mr. Waldorf
Instead of heckling the Muppets from the balcony in a theater, they live in the house next to Ms. Nanny and spend what looks like all day on the balcony that overlooks Nanny’s backyard. A few questions:
- What’s the deal with these two guys living together? Is it like a Felix Unger and Oscar Goldman thing, or something else?
- If they’re home all day, why the suits?
- Why are they so interested in commentating on the activities of toddlers?
- Seriously, [Seinfeld voice] what’s the deal with Statler and Waldorf?
During the “Grandpa Camp” episode, they’re surprisingly good sports about serving as Fozzie’s ad hoc grandpas and the goofy boot camp the gang puts them through. But their affinity for tortured puns and crappy jokes they share with Fozzie makes me happy I don’t work at the same company as these guys. Can you imagine being trapped in a meeting with them? Just give me the cyanide capsule now because the thought of two hours of this shtick followed by bellowing self-laughter chills me to my core.
Also not a part of the old canon, but he appears in one episode as a drop-in guest to the playroom. Since he’s also a frog, Fozzie, being Kermit’s best friend, assumes Carlos likes all the same things as Kermit. Fozzie’s intentions are good, but his execution is totally overbearing as the shy Carlos is forced to participate in a slew of activities he either doesn’t like or doesn’t want to do because Fozzie is one step away from becoming full Lenny from Of Mice and Men and petting poor Carlos to death with his insistence.
The reason Carlos is on this list at all is because Fozzie makes one too many suggestions, and Carlos’s explosive reaction makes me laugh every single time. If you don’t laugh at Todrick Hall’s line reading of “Banjo music?!?!” you’re dead inside. Maybe it’s that the line is immediately followed by Carlos hopping onto the piano and fashioning his own jaunty number about not making assumptions that everyone’s the same that’ll get your toes-a-tappin’. Maybe it’s the unexpected turn from meek and uncertain to fed up, assertive, and jazzy as fuck. Whatever the case, Carlos rules, but finds himself in the back half of this list because he’s only in one episode.
As mentioned in the intro, also only in one episode along with his life mate Beaker. Bunsen is a know-it-all poindexter who, in his episode, not only sings an insufferable song about how he knows everything (tell me you can’t picture some overconfident dweeb you remember from elementary school singing this very song and then fantasizing about putting your fist right in his suckhole), but then subsequently gets caught in a lie about knowing where rubber chickens come from. He keeps doubling down on the lie to the point of embarrassing absurdity, reminiscent of watching some member of the Trump cabinet go on cable news and flail wildly trying to defend something the President said, then refuted, and spiraling off into another dimension of this post-facts hellscape we find ourselves in.
Unlike the President’s army of moral-less, blabbermouthed, craven sycophants, Bunsen eventually owns up to the fact that he’s talking out of his ass and asks Ms. Nanny for help. Bunsen’s casual condescension and grotesque self-regard really rub me the wrong way, but your mileage may vary. Nerd.
Never says anything outside of his high-pitched “Meep meep meep,” looks like an old Senior Vice President I reported to in my corporate gig, and seems not dissimilar in social status and basic function (minus the gross sexual overtones) from The Gimp in Pulp Fiction. Moving on.
A 1980s New York-style asshole with comically exaggerated tough guy aphorisms like a toddler James Cagney, if James Cagney instead wore one of those sports jackets with the leather sleeves. He’s challenging the other Muppet Babies to dance contests and shit, and you keep waiting for the episode where he finally just proposes a ski race duel to save the playroom from developers or whatever.
I think he’s the villain of this show, insofar as this show has a villain, but mostly he’s just annoying and throws off the group dynamic in an unpleasant way. His board game cheating helps reform Piggy in the Card Shark episode, so that’s nice. Otherwise, when Rizzo shows up, I groan. Uggghhhh, it’s gonna be one of THOSE episodes, isn’t it.
Also, he’s the Tooth Fairy for some reason.
A self-avowed “weirdo” whose entire persona feels like a total defensive affectation a la Kevin McClain in Season 2 of American Vandal. “You have to aerate the tea…”
He’s constantly mugging for attention and answering questions no one asked. In the Christmas episode, Piggy walks up to him and says, “Gonzo I’ve got a question…” Gonzo replies, “I know. How many waffles have I stacked on top of my head at once?”
Jesus Christ, how long have you had that in your hip pocket? He offers putting underwear on their heads as a solution to a problem. He’s constantly grossing out the other members of the playroom with this put-upon food idiosyncrasies. Ms. Nanny serves everyone pancakes, and he asks for ranch dressing. He talks about his favorite “mustard and tangerine sandwich.” On “Kermit’s Big Show,” he suggests they put on the play “Beauty and the Baked Potato.”
It goes on, and it’s exhausting.
And on top of that, he’s weirdly competitive. At one point during the season, he wins a race, so he turns everything into a contest, even when no one else is competing. In “A Backyard Divided” he and Piggy have differing ideas about how they want to play, so they end up drafting other members of the group into their respective kingdoms and plot how to dick with the other. Gonzo episodes, and especially Gonzo/Piggy episodes are like Monica-heavy episodes on Friends. Time to find something else to watch.
If we project Gonzo a little into the future, you know who he’ll be? He’ll be that kid who you can pay 50 cents in the cafeteria to eat weird shit. He’ll be doing hot sauce challenges on YouTube and eating spoonfuls of cinnamon for everyone’s amusement, all while masking deep insecurity (probably).
With that said, the absolute funniest moment of this entire show thus far happened when Ms. Nanny asked everyone to draw a picture of their grandparents. Most of them are about what you’d expect. Then we cut to Gonzo, and this is his picture:
Nanny’s response: “That’s… uhhh… great, Gonzo.” That moment still cracks me up.
Gonzo’s eccentric worldview will ultimately serve him well, and I’m confident the character will grow up to be creative, interesting, and productive. But sweet God, I feel for the poor saps who have to endure the arduous journey of helping him figure it out.
Speaking of arduous, holy fuck, here we are. It’s not unreasonable to summarize my annoyance with this incarnation of Fozzie by pointing you to this article on the Deft blog called “The Meeting Cut-Up.” Notably this passage:
“It’s because so frequently those ostensible reasons for a staff meeting to exist in the first place took a backseat to the meeting’s real purpose – providing a forum for a frustrated amateur comic to unleash his or her (but let’s face it, 99% of the time we’re talking about his) shopworn jokes and blisteringly unfunny zingers on a captive audience. Worse, the perpetrator of this eye roll-inducing ad hoc open mic night holding everyone hostage was often whomever led the meeting. There must be something irresistible about the power of knowing people cannot leave until you tell them to, a power even then more irresistible to abuse.”
But let’s dig a little deeper. Fozzie is essentially Henny Youngman or Shecky Greene or Buddy Young, Jr. or any other Borscht Belt comic who’s act grew stale 50 fucking years ago. “Why did the snowman sneeze? He had a cold! Get it? Wocka wocka!” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing on its own. I’m a dad. I have a deep appreciation for Dad jokes and unleashing them on my 4 year-old who will either laugh her face off, or roll her eyes so hard it tears a hole in the ceiling.
What’s so goddamn irritating about Fozzie is his relentlessness with it. In “Kermit’s Big Show,” the gang decides to stage a rendition of the Three Little Pigs. Kermit serves as director. The dialogue then unfolds like this:
Summer: “I’ll help make the costumes.”
Fozzie: “I’ll tell the jokes.”
Piggy: “And I’ll be the star, of course.”
And there you go. Summer is helpful, Piggy is narcissistic and filled with self-regard, and Fozzie offers to tell jokes. In a script that already exists. Oy.
In “Grandpa Camp,” the whole gang puts Mr. Statler and Mr. Waldorf through their paces to serve as Fozzie’s ad hoc grandparents because his real ones live far away and he’s never met them. They do all sorts of fun stuff like fishing, and catching snowflakes on their tongue, yet all Fozzie wants to do is sit around and tell tortured jokes with these two geriatrics.
Look, I read more about comedy in the form of essays, biographies, compendiums, blogs, and everything else more than probably just about anyone who doesn’t work in comedy professionally, so I get fetishizing the art and wanting it to be all-consuming. Yet, even I find Fozzie’s singular myopia tedious.
Seriously, get one other hobby, asshole. Just one. Talk earnestly about how you’ve discovered the joys of cooking Thai food. Share your thoughts about why the decline of cars with manual transmissions is ultimately detrimental to society. Show us how you whittled a cutthroat trout out of an old log you found on a hike. Anything! Or even just shut the fuck up once in a while! Keep 25% of the jokes in the holster, quickdraw. Less is more.
Just, for the love of God and everything holy, mix it up from either whining (such as in “Kermit Levels Up” or “Grandpa Camp” or “Fozzie the Scare Bear” or, Christ, I could keep going – he is a whiny bitch when he’s not telling jokes) or punctuating unfunny bon mots with “Get it? Wocka wocka!” Which, P.S. if you have to end every one of these damn things with, “Get it?” the joke eats hog.
95% of the time Fozzie’s onscreen on this show, he’s not making it better, he’s making it actively more laborious to get through. What would make me happiest is if the other characters started treating him like the other Friends did to Chandler in the later seasons. In the early seasons, Chandler would snipe in with his one-liners, and you’d get reaction shots of the other characters laughing. As the show went on, the other characters started reacting more with a resigned sigh, and an expression of, “Yeah, he just keeps doing that, but we’re old now, so finding new a friend would be too much work.”
Just once I’d like to see Fozzie tell one of these jokes and the animators cut to the other characters who stand there stone-faced for a long beat. Cut back to Fozzie who doesn’t know what to do. Cut to the group, where Summer says, “Fozzie, we like you. But please stop with that.”
Fuck it. That’s all I want for Christmas. Because I know I’ll be watching this show probably twice a day from now until…
Merry Christmas, everyone. Have a great holiday!