During a lightning-fast promo for The Muppet Show, a trustworthy newscaster type informs the potential audience that the new variety program truly has something for everyone, even satisfying discerning eggheads with the "underlying symbolism of everything." It's one of the great comic moments collected in Muppets 101, the first program in the Muppets, Music & Magic: Jim Henson's Legacy series playing this summer at the Detroit Institute of Arts' Detroit Film Theatre.
That line's also a knowing wink to the intergenerational appeal of the Muppets, whose layered performances offered different levels of comprehension for children and adults. (The animators at Pixar, now part of the Disney kingdom along with the Muppets, took this lesson to heart.) Henson and his colleagues used the conventions of television to broaden the audience for puppetry, and invented something that feels so real, it's as if it always existed.
This impressive collection of rarities, programmed by the Jim Henson Legacy and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, showcases the evolution of Muppetry, particularly the interplay between humans and their puppet counterparts. The unvarnished delight Lily Tomlin shows when singing "I Got You, Babe" with Scred on Saturday Night Live is a hallmark of Muppet interactions, in large part because their creators developed strong personalities for each character.
Watching the vaudevillian interplay of manic Fozzie Bear (Frank Oz) and ultimate straight-man Kermit the Frog (Henson) as they improvise Muppet Show intros, or the hilarity that ensues when the unintelligible Swedish Chef, monosyllabic Animal and indecipherable Beaker interpret the Irish ballad "Danny Boy," is to again appreciate the creative process that brought both delight and insight, without ever talking down to anyone.
Muppet History 101 is showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 27. Call 313-833-3237 or visit dia.org/dft for the complete schedule of Muppets, Music & Magic: Jim Henson's Legacy.