Twenty years ago this past weekend, a shining figure from many of our childhoods passed away. Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets and countless films and television shows, died at the age of 53 after suffering organ failure due to a severe infection of Streptococcus pyrogenes. I remember finding out the news at school and being devastated—so much of Henson’s work had defined my early childhood, and he was gone. But, through the years I’ve realized while Henson may no longer be with us, his legacy lives on, both in the work he did and the work he inspired.
Still, have you ever stopped to notice just how geeky the whole Muppet crew was? Just looking around at the work Henson did it’s hard to think that he could have been anything other than a geek. Only a geek would have the kind of drive to create such whimsical, offbeat, hilarious, and often touching characters (not to mention with such an eye for pop culture and bizarre humor). But I think his understanding of the many kinds of geeks goes far beyond the surface. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I see that Henson and his team portrayed a wide variety of geeks within the Muppet spectrum. Take these examples:
The Band Geeks – Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. Certainly Dr. Teeth and crew make some great music. But they’re not exactly mainstream cool, now are they? Starting with their sartorial missteps (really, Janice, that fringe has got to go) there’s a overarching outcast quality among the band members. I mean, Dr. Teeth had to have been ridiculed in school, but he clearly took the difficulties of his childhood and turned it into something positive. In other words, he totally owned it. Then there’s Animal. Clearly he’s got some issues, but has (mostly) worked them out. I can’t imagine that he was every popular. That’s not even to mention their equipment. Have you ever really looked like it? It’s like something out of Yellow Submarine and Alice in Wonderland.
The Science Geeks – Fairly obvious, we have Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and the immortal Beaker. These two are the voice of science for the Muppet contingent, although their exploits are not always particularly successful. Still, there is something comforting about their presence, even if occasionally they blow things up. And sometimes Honeydew and Beaker are actually helpful, as in the film Muppets In Space when they aid in Gonzo’s rescue by creating a series of inventions. And according to the Muppet Wiki, the geeky duo’s fame has had long-standing effects:
In a 2004 Internet poll sponsored by the BBC and the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew were voted Britain’s favorite cinematic scientists. They beat Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock, their closest rival, by a margin of 2 to 1 and won 33 percent of the 43,000 votes cast.
The Theater Geek – Well, certainly all of the Muppets perform at one time or another. But Scooter seems to be drawn to the nuts and bolt of theater and performance unlike the other Muppets. While he started off his career on The Muppet Show as the gofer (a position he is rumored to have attained due to nepotism), he has also been portrayed as the manager for Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem and, in the Muppet Babies cartoon, something of a computer prodigy. He’s got the glasses, the strange sense of fashion, and the general geeky qualities down. He just always seems to be where the action is, and is on good terms with almost everyone on stage and off. It’s all about the charisma, I think.
The Gonzo Geek – Words can’t really describe Gonzo. I know he’s a geek. It’s sort of part of his whole spiel, isn’t it? From his affinity for chickens to his possibly alien parentage, Gonzo is the sort of geek that goes beyond classification. And that’s what makes him so special. He might make you scratch your head, but at the end of the day he’s still one of the geeks. While there’s still some room to debate exactly what Gonzo is (there have been ret-cons since 1999’s Muppets In Space, it seems) he still continues to be one of the most entertaining, bizarre, and impossible to pin down Muppets. And that’s why we love him.
The Kitchen Geek – Børk! Børk! Børk! Move over, Alton Brown. The Swedish Chef might not cook anything you actually want to eat, but he’s got more passion for cooking in his mustache than Emeril Lagasse has in his biggest BANG BAM. From tennis rackets to fire extinguishers, no piece of equipment is out of place in the chef’s kitchen. But to add to the geeky cred of the chef, he’s something of a sensation of the Internet according to the Muppet Wiki:
In 2003, Opera Software published a special Bork version of its internet browser that turned the MSN Web site into mock Swedish. Mozilla Firefox also contains a popular add-on called Bork Bork Bork! that allows the selective translation of text from Web pages of the user’s choice. It is also a display language there.
The Visionary Geek – Kermit is, as his creator and voice before him, the visionary geek. No, he’s not the most handsome. He has some quirky habits. He lives in a swamp and plays the banjo. He doesn’t even wear clothing. But Kermit brings everyone together. And certainly, he has elements of all the different kinds of geeks: he’s involved in production, performance, and while he stays away from the culinary aspects (lest he end up as the dish himself) he always supports that off-beat geekiness we love so much about the Muppets. For the Muppets Kermit is as important as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. He’s the glue. He knows it’s not easy being green, but he’s risen above it.
Really, I could keep going for pages on the subject. When it comes down to it it’s no surprise that the Muppets have such a wide appeal to geeks. Far beyond the occasional Star Wars spoof or special guest, Jim Henson made a show that highlighted geeky tendencies, and made them entertaining, cool, and truly memorable.
Who are your favorite geeky Muppets? I kept to the Muppet Show for the most part, but there are so many beyond!