When Sesame Street made its debut in 1969, TV was already hard to escape—and kids didn’t even have iPads back then. Now, with Baby Shark pumped out of every electronic device available, Paw Patrol the topic of White House discussion, and kid-aimed YouTube rife with strange content creators gaming its algorithmic system, the screen has solidified its formative place in modern life. And those in the ‘60s could see it coming: the prime directive of Sesame Street was to “master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them.” When The Muppets hit ABC in 2015, that idealism had been updated to exhausted disillusionment. That might not have been an inaccurate change, but it’s certainly not what The Muppets excel at. Thankfully the summer’s new Muppet shows—Disney+’s unscripted Muppets Now and HBO Max’s The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo—may exist in a radically different pop culture zeitgeist, but they still embody puppet savant Jim Henson’s strengths by demystifying and democratizing an entertainment industry they’re excited to be a part of.
Adult media illiteracy causes enough problems on a daily basis, whether they’re in the comments section or the Oval Office, making it clear how desperately kids need an early and comprehensive education on the subject. As frivolous as it might sound, responsible access to the blurring lines of late night TV, news, and celebrity culture is key for the curriculum. American culture uses talk shows and guest stars to test the viability of political candidates, showcase who is “marketable” to the masses, and represent the norm. The options available to kids are almost all soul-suckingly capitalist, politically compromised, or otherwise evil. When Elmo puts on a suit and tie for his big late night comedy gig, it’s a relief knowing I won’t find racist jokes when I scroll back through his Twitter account.
The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo, which premiered on HBO Max earlier this summer, features the lovable red muppet becoming the talk show host with the second-highest amount of self-laughter in his monologues (after Jimmy Fallon, of course). With a “studio audience” of adults, kids, and Muppets—recalling John Mulaney’s excellent Sack Lunch Bunch special—Elmo showcases the best of late-night talk show humor: pop culture guests showing a new, more human side of themselves; variety antics that often poke fun at the process itself or reveal the Muppet behind the curtain; and personality-filled monologues.
The metahumor isn’t entirely dependent on a working knowledge of TV or talk show norms (though it certainly helps to have them) and owes a lot to late night’s first famous redhead, Conan O’Brien. But as raucous and zany as it feels—one of the best parts of late night TV is the feeling that audience and host alike are getting away with something—The Not-Too-Late Show is inherently kid-focused. The subject matter of the recurring segments, where guests play songs or take part in games, include brushing your teeth and making silly faces. There’s even a nightly goodbye song to help transition kids from primetime to bedtime.
The adherence to genre format is part introduction, part education. Not only do young viewers get to feel like Big Kids for watching the same kind of show they might glimpse their parents laughing at after delivering a goodnight kiss, they learn about an entire section of the world mapped around entertainment—a world that might otherwise feel inaccessible if all they saw were celebrities delivering adult-oriented anecdotes as a predominance of white dude hosts led them from couch to couch. With the familiar Elmo and Cookie Monster running the show, the pinnacle of pop culture is as easy to get to as 123 Sesame Street. Whether it’s in the booth, on the couch, or behind the desk, every role in the show’s production becomes a possibility for the audience.
The relatively low-fi Muppets Now taps into more pure Henson art, leaving the explicitly educational focus of the Sesame Workshop for an entertainment experience that informs through tone and content. The Muppet Show wasn’t supposed to be just for kids (one of its pilots was titled The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence), but its bananas antics became a gateway to pop culture for many impressionable, starry-eyed show biz wannabes. Beyond the guest list of iconic actors and legendary musicians, the bevy of parody at hand eased kids into mainstream media with slapstick and silliness, from soap opera knock-off “Veterinarian’s Hospital” to “Pigs in Space” to Sam the Eagle’s ridiculous editorials.
Where Mark Hamill, Vincent Price, Elton John, and Diana Ross were once humanized and sillified by their foam-and-felt companions, RuPaul, Seth Rogen, and Taye Diggs take part in the media mélange of Muppets Now. And it still floats between the scenes and behind-the-scenes in a way that makes both more fun. That gives it a simplified 30 Rock feel (or Between Two Ferns, according to our Keri Lumm), where the ridiculous variety of TV genres (and the nonsense behind creating them) are brought down a few pegs.
Interspersed between hit-and-miss reality shows and celebrity chefs are bits of industry operation filled with references to having final cut, getting coverage, or punching up jokes. And it’s best when it all falls apart. Like the failures and trials of the Sesame Street stars, the explosive disasters of the Muppets—flecked with jargon shrapnel to separate the media circus from the regular circus—not only return the Muppets to their unpredictable and childishly dangerous roots (how far they’ve come from blowing people away in a coffee ad), but make them even more approachable. Nothing says “relatable” to kids more than making a mess and goofing off.
Game shows are fun, but the rules can get overly complicated. So Pepé changes them at whim (away from the network-approved format and licensed showtunes), becoming the Eric Andre of Muppet reality TV. Mythbusters made science fun, but Bunsen and Beaker’s segment makes science secondary to the fun. This literal deconstruction of the entertainment industry is another idealistic screed where the show-making is just as funny and interesting as the show itself—despite all the various sticks in the mud that kids know all too well.
The marketing for Muppets Now gave the behind-the-scenes showbiz aspects of The Muppet Show enhanced details—updated for 2020. Trailers teasing what’s to come took the form of a Zoom meeting, complete with a screen-shared presentation deck and an annoying guy from Legal. The realities of the entertainment world, from the press release statements to the top secret status of the release date, were Muppetfied not just to put a smile on the face of exhausted critics like myself, but to continue the franchise’s legacy of poking fun at the details of the industry while making them accessible for all audiences.
Neither Muppets Now nor The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo reach the heights of the original The Muppet Show, but the map-hucking, enthusiasm-flooring directional change back to anarchic idealism is a welcome one. The segments may have gotten a facelift and the lingo may have been updated, but the same addictive and attractive qualities of entertainment TV are being put back to use for something good—even if it’s not capital, brought-to-you-by-the-letter-G Sesame Street Good.
Muppets Now is now streaming on Disney+; The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo is streaming on HBO Max.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
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