The folks at Fox have been wondering whether the Muppets are trying to “brainwash kids against capitalism.” If they’d done their homework – if they’d checked the Verona Project transcripts – they wouldn’t have to ask. KGB officers gave me a few prominent (if coded) mentions. They did as much for a number of my friends. Fact is, for a few decades, I was a true comrade – a card-carrying, dues-paying member of the Communist Party. But, like the late Irv Kristol, who once pitched his tent on the Left, I’ve revised my views. Once I played a patriotic American on TV; now I can claim without blushing to be one in fact.
I wish I could say that my involvement with the Party, like Mary McCarthy’s, was a simple matter of happenstance – of making the wrong friends and guzzling cheap wine at the wrong apartments. But if I’m being honest, I have to admit I was committed from the get-go. Even as a fledgling, I had my beak stuck in the Daily Worker. As a senior at Bronx Science, I canvassed for Henry Wallace. During term breaks from City College, I worked as a counselor at Camp Children of the Sun, down in the Poconos, where I taught the kids to sing “Jarama Valley” and “Bandiera Rossa.” I was no Woody Guthrie, I’ll grant you, which may have been why Henson didn’t give me too many solos later on.
That’s where I met Kermit, who was serving as camp director. Kermit had revolution in his blood. Both of his great-grandparents sacrificed their legs to feed the Paris Commune. He’d been a correspondent – or, as he liked to say, a roving reporter – in Spain. When Orwell published Homage to Catalonia, Kerm was the first to denounce him as a Trotskyite. “It’s not easy being red,” he told me with a sigh one night. That made a big impression. Here was a frog with a heart, but a frog who knew that hearts are not going to build the workers’ paradise. When he suggested I follow him into show business, how could I refuse?
Kermit certainly knew how to crack the whip over at the UPMCMF – the United Puppets, Marionettes and Claymation Figures. The cast of Davey and Goliath was reactionary to a man – hardly surprising, when you consider the Evangelical Lutheran Church was bankrolling the show. Davey, who was the same cocky little bastard on-camera as he was off – proof, if anyone needs it, that he couldn’t act – wanted to impose the blacklist. In that quiet, unassuming way of his, Kerm reminded Davey that his high and holy bosses might be unhappy to hear he’d been flitting around with Roy Cohn and G. David Schine. Davey backed right off, although, to everyone’s sorrow, Scooter gave Kermit the cold shoulder for some time afterward.
For years, saving our own union cards was all any of us could do. That changed when ATV brought us all together on The Muppet Show. Overnight, we became culturally relevant. Here, if you’ll permit me a small immodesty, is where I came into my own. Critics were quick to notice I gave my character Nixon’s scowl – true enough. Even now, I take real pride in helping heal the wound that Watergate made in the American psyche. But my buzzword, decency — as in “At long last, have you no sense of decency left?” — was an homage to Joseph Welch, who put Joe McCarthy, that shicker demagogue, in his place. The classic liberal in me still reveres his memory, though I gather not all of my new friends at the Weekly Standard would concur in that judgment.
One evening in 1980, I was having drinks with Lorne Michaels. Rumor had it the Muppet Show was on the chopping block; Saturday Night Live was the hottest thing on television. It seemed to me like a natural next stop for a seasoned sketch comic, but Lorne wasn’t buying. He pointed out, for example, that I’m only 33” tall, which would have caught me below the belt, were that distinction consistently applicable. Just as I was about to collect what remained of my self-respect and leave, this regal baritone boomed out my name. “Sam?” it said. Then, with great gravity and deliberation: “Pardon…me…sir…but…aren’t…you…Sam…the Eagle?”
I turned around, half-expecting to be served with a summons. Instead, I found myself beak-to-beak with Jeane Kirkpatrick. I knew who she was, of course. I used to read Commentary to get into character (and, I’ll admit, for the book reviews). I was about to tell her off – maybe a show of moxie would convince Michaels to give me a spot behind the news desk, next to Jane Curtin – but then she started gushing. “I never miss your show,” she said.
Well, before you could say, “neoconservatism,” we were deep in conversation. When you’re an actor, you get used to people talking to you like you’re a halfwit. This is especially true, I’ve found, for actors who appear on kids’ shows and are made of foam. It was heady stuff, having this public intellectual address me as a peer. “Because left-wing revolutionaries invoke the symbols and values of democracy–emphasizing egalitarianism rather than hierarchy and privilege, liberty rather than order, activity rather than passivity–they are again and again accepted as partisans in the cause of freedom and democracy,” Jeane told me, with a demure sip of her whiskey sour.
Enrapt, I listened as she cooed that the Carter administration “remains willing to ‘destabilize’ friendly or neutral autocracies without any assurance that they will not be replaced by reactionary totalitarian theocracies, totalitarian Soviet client states, or worst of all, by murderous fanatics of the Pol Pot variety.”
I was about to say that one out of three wasn’t bad, but then, locking her eyes with mine, she popped the maraschino cherry in her mouth. Words fail me when I try to describe what her tongue went on to do with the stem. All of a sudden, I was agreeing to visit Chile as her guest. You’d have thought someone was pulling my strings.
Pinochet turned out to be a very nice guy. So, in his way, did Menachem Begin. Those evenings I spent by the fireplace at Gstaad with Bill and Pat were among the happiest of my life. Reagan, though, was a real wet blanket. When he gave Sinatra his Presidential Medal of Freedom, I was given to believe I was next in line. But the Great Communicator passed me over for Helen Hayes. Mr. Gingrich, if you’re reading this, remember – I’m in your corner. Say the word, and I’ll do a TV spot for you. Give me the right hairpiece and Romney’s own kids won’t be able to tell us apart.