Episode XXXIII: ‘The Great Muppet Caper’

great_muppet_caper

Title: The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
Rated: G
Directed by: Jim Henson
Starring: Kermit T. Frog
                   Miss Piggy
                   Fozzie Bear
                   Gonzo
                   Scooter

By: Count Vardulon

Pre-Screening Memories: While the Muppets were introduced in the mid-70s, and the show was cancelled in 1981, I truly belive it’s my generation, the children of the early 80s, who benefitted most from Jim Henson’s creations. Gathering the whole family around the television once a week to watch the new episode of the Muppet Show is nice, but being able to watch an episode every single day after school allowed me to be absolutely bombarded by Muppet-dom.

Adding to my absolute submersion in all things Muppet-y is the fact that the early 80s was the kick-off point for the Jim Henson Explosion, where fans were able to watch syndicated Muppets, Fraggle Rock, and Muppet Babies every single week. It was a good time to be young.

There was, however, one tiny gap in my Muppet fandom – because I was too young to see it when it came out, and too poor to have a VCR when it was on video, I never saw the Muppet Movie. A condition that persists to this day. Knowing the movie was out there and not having seen it was bad enough, but being the only one among my circle of friends that had missed out made me feel like I was just short of a Pariah.

So when I heard about The Great Muppet Caper, I knew I wasn’t going to miss this one. Then I did, in theatre, anyhow. Trips to the big screen were few and far between during my childhood, reserved only for films so important that the entire family absolutely had to see it. Which usually wound up being films that scarred me for life, like Swamp Thing, Wrath of Khan, and the big Kahuna – Transformers: The Movie. For one reason or another, Great Muppet Caper didn’t fit that criteria. I had one card left to play, though – a little something called the ‘Free Weekend’, th ose three days every year when the pay TV channels descrambled enough that the underpriveleged had a chance to pack a whole year’s worth of movie-watching into 72 beautiful hours of television.

Which is how I saw The Great Muppet Caper for the first time, and almost the last. I managed to catch it on regular television a couple of times over the next few years, but for some reason never watched it again in later life. In retrospect, I find this incredibly strange, since I credit the Muppets in general, and my two viewings of this film specifically, with defining my entire sense of humor. While I may not remember the plot’s specifics now – something about Charles Grodin being a jewel thief, and showing off their new muppet technology by having them swim and ride bikes, and, of course, the Oscar the Grouch cameo (huge for anyone Seasame Street devotee) – it’s the style of comedy that stuck with me.

I found the fact that characters in the movie were talking directly to me rather than each other to be an entirely new kind of comedy. These days I recognize that breaking the fourth wall is as old as the hills, but as a child the fact that the movie opened with the mai n characters discussing the credits, then moved on to the movie’s first song, which, as I recall, was a celebration of the fact that they were making a movie.

After seeing it, I became nuts for the entire style of comedy – anything with a wink or a nod to the audience was good enough for me, and while I may have gotten a little more discerning with age, I still find post-modern comedy and meta-commentary the absolute funniest types of humour, something I can guarantee wouldn’t be true if I hadn’t seen this film as a young child.

The thing I’m most interested in finding out about the movie is just how much of that comedy is based on this principle – really I want to know if my entire sense of humour is based on an entire movie, or just the opening sequence. Even more importantly, though, I’m desperate to discover if my childhood self was utterly deluded or if this was, in fact, the funniest movie ever made.

New memories – Well, if it’s not the funniest movie of all time (Ghostbusters, naturally), it really belongs in the top five or ten. That’s right, the thing that I first noticed when starting to watch it for the first time in nearly two decades is just how incredibly funny it is. There’s barely a moment that goes by in the film without a laugh, but more than the volume of the humour, it’s the variety that stands out. There are so many films out there that attempt to offer jokes both for the children in the audience as well as their parents, generally with disasterous results. As a general rule, it breaks down into “crude slapstick for the kiddies, double-entendres and awkward recent cultural references for the adults”. For a perfect recent example of this formula, just view any film from the Shrek series.

The Great Muppet Caper takes an entirely different tack – instead of aiming their jokes down at the assumed-to-be uninformed audience of children, nearly every joke in the picture is pointed squarely at their parents. During the few breaks in my laughter, I couldn’t help but wonder what Henson’s game was, and more importantly, what could I possibly have found funny in this film as a 5 or 6 year old? A little after the halfway point, as I watched Peter Falk (TV’s Columbo!) give one of the most absurdly comic speeches in the history of cinema, I realized what was going on in the film. Henson and company weren’t trying to entertain children, they were trying to educate them! Just as Sesame Street used Muppets as the sugar coating to help children swallow math and linguistic lessons, The Great Muppet Caper uses Muppets as a way of teaching children how to have a well-rounded sense of humor. It’s a simple trick: in a normal film, little children see a character fart or fa ll over, and they laugh.

In this film, they see a puppety oddball make a wonderfully clever or absurd turn of phrase, and their parents laugh. Even though they’re not sure why it was funny, the children laugh along because they don’t want to be left out. Then later, they ask their parents why a certain moment or line was so funny, and an inquisitive comedic mind is born. It’s genius. Henson knew that just putting the Muppets onscreen would get kids into the theatre seats – most people would have exploited that opportunity to get lazy and coast their way to an easy check, but instead, the filmmakers did something far more complicated and ambitious.

I haven’t even talked about the amazing cast yet! I had vague memories of Charles Grodin and John Cleese being in the film, but I had no idea that Diana Rigg (Emma Peel!) played the fashion designer/habitual victim of jewel theivery, who delivers the film’s second-funniest monologue. The Cleese scene is so brilliant that it could be a short film in and of itself – if it wasn’t ghost-written by him I’d be incredibly surprised, especially when I saw who was cast as his wife. And Grodin is absolutely hilarious, utterly selling his infatuation with Miss Piggy and doing some of the best ‘treating puppet as person’ acting I’ve seen, albeit filtered through Grodin’s slightly ironically detached screen persona.

Going into this movie I knew that much of my sense of humour could be traced back to it (absurdism, monsters talking to people, meta-comedy), and I assumed that the film had just been so funny that I’d been indoctrinated by the hilarity. Until actually watching the film, it never occurred to me that the idoctrination could have been the filmmakers’ intended goal. Looking back at it now, I realize that Henson and compnay were, most likely, looking upon the film as a device for creating lifelong fans of both their specific characters and the type of comedy they wanted to create.

Considering both my tastes and the amount of muppet paraphernalia I possess, I can safely say: Mission Accomplished.

Listen to count’s investigation into The Great Muppet Caper here, or use the handy device below:

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