The Garth Brooks episode of Muppets Tonight

I was thinking about this recently because Garth Brooks came to Sioux Falls last month and gave nine concerts over the course of two weekends.  I didn’t get to go, but it was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of it all.

I only got to watch the first season of Muppets Tonight, before it skipped over to a cable channel, but of that first season, the Garth Brooks episode is the most memorable for me for several reasons; some lighthearted and some more serious.

This isn’t the entire episode, but it’s the section most relevant to what I’m going to discuss:

At the time that this episode aired, I was 15 years old and was involved in a production of Fiddler on the Roof at our high school.  (Not on stage; I played second clarinet in the pit band.  At first, I was bummed about not being cast in the play, as I had auditioned, but apparently the band director had asked for me specifically for the pit band, so that made it a little better.)  Anyway, for that reason I was really tickled watching this episode when Garth Brooks started singing “If I Were a Rich Man,” although I was disappointed that he didn’t do the Tevye dance.

At this same time, my younger brother had just finished a run as Louis Leonowens (Anna’s son) in a production of The King and I at the local university, and I could have sworn that this episode of Muppets Tonight also included a reference to The King and I.  I even remember talking about it with my mom, and her saying something to the effect of, “Oh, isn’t it funny that the Muppets referenced both those musicals in the same show?”  But watching the episode now, I can’t find any reference to The King and I.  Am I crazy?  Did I just dream the whole thing?  Have I been wandering around in a fugue state for the last 20 years?  And the worst part is, before I watched the episode again, I even made a comment to Steve on his blog about this episode referencing both musicals.  I suppose it’s too much to hope that he just somehow skipped over that comment, since it was in direct reply to him.  So embarrassing…

The other thing that makes this episode memorable for me is at the end when Garth Brooks sings “We Shall Be Free.”  It’s a beautiful, uplifting song and has since become a favorite of mine, but at the time I found it to be somewhat challenging because of the line “When we’re free to love anyone we choose,” which I interpreted–as many people have–to be a plea for LGBT rights including, but not limited to, same-sex marriage–which, at the time, was an issue for me and made me uncomfortable to think about.

So I was annoyed at the Muppets for making me think about this issue that I had always gone out of my way to avoid thinking about, and I was particularly annoyed immediately thereafter when Kermit and Bill the Bubble Guy turn to one another and nod in agreement.  It seems so stupid now, but I somehow felt betrayed by Kermit: how dare you be a separate entity with your own personality and point of view when I want you to be an extension of my own ego?  How dare you challenge my prejudices rather than mirroring them?

Looking back on it now, however, I suspect that what I was really upset about is that, deep down in the innermost recesses of my heart, I knew that Kermit was right and I was wrong, and I was annoyed at him for showing me the parts of myself that I didn’t want to see.  And yet, it was just over a year later that I faced an even bigger challenge to my worldview.

In May 1997, my middlemost brother–not only my brother, but my godfather, my hero, my friend; related by blood and kindred in spirit–came out as a gay man. 

At first, I struggled to accept it.  I guess I sort of felt that same sense of betrayal: how dare you be your own person instead of the person I imagine you to be?  How dare you not conform to my expectations of you?  I had tried so hard and for so long to avoid the subject, but I couldn’t avoid it any longer.  I had to make a choice. 

And yet, in a way, there was no choice.  My brother had never shown me anything but acceptance and understanding and unconditional love; how could I show him anything less?  I couldn’t have, even if I’d wanted to; I didn’t know how to love in a way that’s anything other than unconditional.  I still don’t.

But that doesn’t mean that acceptance came easily to me.  I knew where my destination was, but that doesn’t mean that I immediately recognized the path I needed to take in order to get there.  One thing that helped (one of many) was going back and watching the Garth Brooks episode of Muppets Tonight and listening to the song, and seeing Kermit’s little nod.  In other words, with little more than a casual flick of his wrist, Steve held a mirror up to my face and showed me what a closed-minded, sanctimonious little brat I had been all my life, and that it was high time that I grew up.  So I did.

Without even being aware of it, Kermit and Steve were there for me, pointing me on the path to acceptance and encouraging me to be the best and most loving sister, goddaughter, and friend that I could possibly be.

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