“A Muppet Family Christmas”: Christmas with old friends

“A Muppet Family Christmas”: Christmas with old friends November 25, 2016

muppetxmas1Welcome to a new, fun series I’m doing this holiday season. From now until December 25, I’ll be writing about some Christmas-themed pop culture I love, whether that’s movies, TV specials, music or just holiday experiences. Sometimes these will be short, fun pieces. Other times, they’ll be a bit longer and more introspective. I hope you have fun, share your own memories and have a happy season! 

So much of our enjoyment of the Christmas season comes from nostalgia. We gravitate toward the traditions of Christmas past, trying to recapture the magic of our childhood and introduce our children to the things that made the holidays so special.

Each year, I kick the Christmas season off with “A Muppet Family Christmas,” the 1987 Jim Henson holiday special. Watching it is like inhaling a pure hit of yuletide nostalgia, reminding me of the sights, sounds and feelings of my childhood. Which is weird, because it’s actually something I have no recollection of watching as a child.

It’s odd that I didn’t see this when I was a kid, because it’s definitely something that was right up my alley. The special aired on ABC in December of 1987, when I would have been 8, and features not only Henson’s beloved characters from “The Muppet Show,” but also the gangs from “Sesame Street” and “Fraggle Rock,” with a special (non-animated) appearance from The Muppet Babies. As a kid, I loved all of these shows, and it must have just been a fluke of timing that I wasn’t home to plop myself in front of the TV when it aired.

Because the show features characters from so many different TV shows, rights issues have kept it from being re-aired regularly, and the DVD and VHS releases actually cut out several sequences. If you want to see the show as it was broadcast nearly 30 years ago, the best way is to head to YouTube, where someone has uploaded a recording from the original broadcast, complete with the old commercials. Watching it every year is like time travel; I feel like a kid again, when every night featured a new Christmas special, every commercial sold something I desperately needed, and the air was thick with the anticipation of the holiday.

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The hour-long show features the Muppets heading to Fozzie’s mom’s farmhouse for a surprise Christmas visit. Unbeknownst to Kermit and the gang, Ma has plans to head to Malibu for the holidays and has rented the house out to “Fraggle Rock’s” Doc and Sprocket. Ma, however, welcomes Fozzie’s “weirdo friends” for the celebration, which grows to include the entire cast of “Sesame Street.” The special is basically an excuse to string together some holiday-themed musical numbers while Kermit waits for Miss Piggy to make her way home in a blizzard.

The special is one of the last to feature Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl and the rest of the regulars doing the voice work as these characters (Henson died in 1990; Disney World’s “Muppet Vision” attraction would be the last go-round for the gang). And while I’m thrilled that, despite varying quality, the Muppets have made a recent cultural resurgence, there’s no denying that there’s something lost without the original creators behind them. Henzon, Oz and company created these characters and worked together for so long that the comedy feels natural and organic, with a sincere streak under it all that is sorely missing from most modern family entertainment.

The Muppets have always been bizarre, off-kilter personalities, and the special makes no attempt to water them down. They’re self-described weirdos. They blast rock music in Ma’s living room, and Animal ruins a nostalgic moment when he bursts through a screen showing home movies. They overrun Ma’s house and ruin Doc’s plans for a relaxing vacation with their assortment of frogs, bears, pigs, chickens and whatever, but they do so with the spirit of an exuberant, hyperactive family gathering to celebrate together. Watching it, I’m reminded how much camaraderie fueled the original gang, a genuine glee in performing together that came from the way Henson’s close-knit crew collaborated. Recent iterations have captured that to varying degrees of success, coming close but leaning too hard on either melancholy, annoyance or childishness (the ill-fated “Muppets” TV show even brought in the most most un-Muppet of traits, cynicism). This special is pure, undiluted Muppets, and it’s amazing to watch the energy radiate even through a fading YouTube copy.

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Because many of the same performers voiced the characters on “The Muppet Show “and “Sesame Street,” the integration of the two casts is organic. While it might seem odd to have the hip Muppets brush up against the sweetness of “Sesame Street,” the combination actually provides the special with some of its most welcome moments of humor, particularly when the Swedish Chef tries to make Big Bird his Christmas turkey or Bert and Ernie explain their fascination with letters by saying, “Where we come from, this is small talk.”

“The Muppet Show” and “Sesame Street” feature some of the best musical work on television, so it should be no surprise that “A Muppet Family Christmas'” highlights are its carols. The show opens with the Muppets singing “We Need a Little Christmas” en route to the farmhouse, Doctor Teeth and the Electric Mayhem rock out to “Jingle Bell Rock,” the Sesame Street crew is introduced to “Here We Come A-Caroling,” and the Muppet Babies sing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Even the Fraggles belt out a memorable number with “Pass it On,” which makes the one part of the show that could feel inorganic one of its highlights (and its lone original musical number). I wish the soundtrack for this was available; it’s one of the great compilations of Christmas carols, and the use of traditional songs makes it feel timeless.

What Jim Henson and his crew did so well was lend a sense of sincerity under everything they did. That gentle optimism gives this special a warmth that few have (most TV Christmas specials fell like quick cash-ins). “A Muppet Family Christmas” feels like a chaotic, festive family gathering. It’s loud, it’s messy and it’s over-crowded. But when the characters come together for a 12-song carol sing in the family room at the finale, it’s one of the most joyful things ever put to TV (and the Jim Henson cameo is icing on the cake).

I kind of love that I never watched this as a child. Instead of “A Muppet Family Christmas” existing solely as something I loved when I was a kid, discovering it as an adult feels like reuniting with old friends to sing beloved songs around the fire. It’s a piece of holiday nostalgia that actually feels like like a nostalgic cash-in and more like a warm remembrance of everything that makes Christmas gatherings so special.

“A Muppet Family Christmas” is available on DVD for a hefty price. It’s also been uploaded in its entirety to YouTube.

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