Winter holidays tend to drive people slightly crazy. This is true almost everywhere, but the annual departure from reality and taste is especially obvious here, in New York City, where, for no apparent reason, the streets are being besieged by puppets. Glassy-eyed marionettes jerk through ballroom dances in shop windows; ominous porcelain figures form pagan tableaux at Saks 5th Avenue (which also features female mannequins in wedding dresses, posed next to male mannequins with carrot noses â€“ call it Bride of Frosty). But, in the midst of a relatively barren winter, when the most talked-about exhibit is a collection of flayed and mutilated human corpses (â€œBodiesâ€¦ The Exhibitionâ€ at the South Street Seaport), one can only give thanks for the fact that Muppet Christmas specials are playing non-stop at the Museum of Television and Radio.
Although the Muppets are ostensibly kidsâ€™ stuff, theyâ€™re also a major touchstone for nearly every twenty-something in the city: the fashionista who describes her dour, shaggy indie rock boyfriend by saying that heâ€™s â€œsort of like Boober from Fraggle Rock,â€ the Parsons students who can have long, earnest discussions about the uses of surrealist juxtapositions, pastiche and mixed media in Muppet Babies, the struggling playwrights who sincerely believe that The Muppets Take Manhattan is the most honest and insightful reflection of their experience. And so, for the sizable number of young city folk who donâ€™t care to know what a cleaned and preserved intestine looks like, it is worth noting that, for a fairly reasonable fee, you and your closest friends can gather in a posh screening room to watch the Fraggles discover the meaning of Christmas â€“ again.
Along with the familiar canon -- Emmett Otter, The Bells of Fraggle Rock, and other shows too well-worn to need a lengthy description â€“ the Museum of Television and Radio is showing a long-lost TV special starring Ed Sullivan and some very, very rough early versions of the Muppets. Itâ€™s a primitive, hokey little thing â€“ there are strings everywhere you look, and several of the puppet characters sit on chairs with convenient and poorly hidden holes in the seats â€“ but thereâ€™s something charming about its sheer, sweet badness. In several scenes, Ed Sullivan â€œreadsâ€ a Christmas story to a group of children, who seem to have been drugged for the occasion. Sullivan is shifty, stiff and creepy; his eyeballs twitch back and forth in his head with the alarming regularity of a Felix the Cat clock. Meanwhile, one poor child repeatedly bashes his head against the back of a couch, in what looks like an act of sheer desperation. He has looked into the face of terror, and its name is Ed. But when the Muppets start singing â€“ well, theyâ€™re Muppets, and theyâ€™re singing, and their heads are doing that odd boneless back-and-forth dance that theyâ€™ve always done, and for some people that just happens to be the definition of entertainment.
This exhibit is irrelevant if youâ€™re too old for it, and inexplicable if youâ€™re too young. But if itâ€™s for you â€“ well, you know who you are, you know that you want it, and now, you know where to go. - Sady O.
"Celebrating 50 Years of the Muppets" is on display until January 29, 2006, at the Museum of Television & Radio (25 W 52 Street). For more information, call 212.621.6800.
Ms. Sady O. is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic. She also writes the Brain Porn Culture Blog.