This weekend, my wife and I took our kids to go see The Muppets, which is the first Muppet movie that has come out in some time. What made this particular movie different was that it was aimed at the adults in the audience more than the kids. Specifically, this film was made by people my age (I am 41) who grew up with Sesame Street and later, the Muppet Show, and who have gone many long years with the Muppets not really being part of pop culture anymore. The movie references all that, in which the Muppets themselves realize they are not famous like they used to be, which makes their task of raising $10 million to buy back their old theatre before some evil businessman levels it that much more difficult.
There were a bunch of folks my age in the theatre with us, and there were moments in the movie that collectively put a lot of dust in our eye, if you know what I mean. Near the end, Kermit sings “The Rainbow Connection,” a song that he played in the very first Muppet Movie, and which has become an unofficial theme song not just for the Muppets, but for Jim Henson himself. If you are unfamiliar with the song, it’s a perfect artifact of the kind of bruised optimism that pervaded the late 1970s, the kind that disillusioned dreamers held on to in the hopes that maybe the idealism of yesterday would continue on to tomorrow. As kids, we missed all that point. There was just a simultaneous happiness and sadness to it that struck us deeply. Kermit was the first guy to introduce a generation of children to the feeling of bittersweetness, I suppose, and to be taken back to that moment was pretty special.
A movie like the new Muppets is one of the first moments of real nostalgia for somebody my age, since I am not just being brought back to something I loved as a child, but I’m doing it with my children, which also lets me know that something I love is transcending generations. It’s not that the Muppets are particularly deep, but the makers of this movie seemed to understand what it means to love something and then to kind of lose it, and to have the joy of passing it along after a delayed rediscovery. They know what it means to share something that means a lot to you to a new generation. And in so doing, we realize not just that we are getting older, but that our kids will do the same with their kids, and so on. We are all part of a process. We are all part of somebody else’s nostalgia. And we must all one day leave the world we remember so fondly – which, of course, is one of the reasons why you fine people are in the profession that you are in.
There is something else to all of this, though. It’s easy to get nostalgic over anything from your younger days. The Muppets carry a certain weight to them, however, because their creator, Jim Henson, died from a staph infection in 1990 in one of those weird cases that really was unforeseen and unexpected. People my age were old enough to think, “that’s sad,” but not young enough to really be bothered by it. I was in college at the time. The last thing I could possibly care about then was the untimely passing of the Steve Jobs of puppeteering.
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It was not until years after, when I first introduced my kids to Sesame Street and learned to some surprise just how much the show had changed in the years since I had seen it last. Competition from the children’s TV industry Sesame Street created forced the show to aim at much younger viewers, so the content was a lot more basic than it was when I watched it. This has kept the show going, but it also means that kids forget having ever seen the show, which is kind of sad. But it also explained why my kids had no clue who Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Animal and the rest all were.