Fraggle Friday: “Pebble Pox Blues”

Slightly off-topic, but I was thinking about this one today because Lin-Manuel Miranda has shingles.

And while I of course feel sorry for him–because by all accounts, shingles is a miserable illness–I’m also shocked and disturbed because I didn’t know it was possible to get shingles in your 30s.  Lin is the same age I am; that means I’m susceptible too.  Crap.

(Unless, of course, it only attacks obscenely talented and successful thirty-somethings, in which case I’m off the hook.)

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Twelve Days of Muppet Christmas/Epiphany 2018: “The Christmas Toy”–Allegory versus Applicability

DANNY HORN:  Hey, did I ever tell you about my theory that Mew’s death is a metaphor for AIDS? It’s 1986, and gay men are dying all over the place. The creators are TV puppet people from New York and LA, so obviously a lot of their friends are dying. So in this special, you get Mew — the despised, unfairly judged cat-toy — dying suddenly. Rugby realizes how precious Mew is… but he figures it out too late. […] Then the fantasy is that the dead loved one can be resurrected and vindicated, just through the power of love and Christmas. You can see how this was an appealing fantasy for artsy people in 1986.
KYNAN BARKER:  Did I ever tell you MY theory that sometimes a kids’ TV special is just a kids’ TV special?

–, “My Week with Another Christmas – Day Two: Doll Be Home for Christmas,”  December 24, 2003.

Today is Epiphany, so I wanted to do not only a Christmas-themed article but one with some real substance to it, and this 14-year-old conversation about The Christmas Toy is a good jumping-off point for a discussion of allegory versus applicability.

An allegory is a detailed, in-depth metaphor that represents a situation or event in the real world.  Authors who write allegory are usually not very subtle about the point they’re trying to get across.  For example, I would consider A Christmas Carol to be an allegory:  There’s not much to speculate about what the three spirits represent; it’s right there in their names.

On the other hand, a work has applicability if it can support multiple interpretations, regardless of what the author’s intention may have been.  As J.R.R. Tolkien explained it, “I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other resides in the purposed domination of the author.”  Tolkien ran up against this attitude often when Lord of the Rings fans would ask him questions about the allegorical meaning of the novels, to which he would respond that there was none, but that it was applicable to many real-life situations or events.

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Fraggle Friday: Episode 406 “A Tune for Two”

It goes without saying that we’ve all witnessed some horrific events over the last week, and it’s hard to know how to address it.  I want to acknowledge it in a way that’s respectful and sensitive to the pain that people are feeling.

At the same time, I think it’s important that, in the words of Jon Stewart, we grieve but we don’t despair.  The moment that we give into despair, the moment that we start believing that nothing can change and what we do doesn’t matter, is the moment that our enemies win.  

And by “our enemies,” I mean those who foster divisions among us, those who embrace the darkness at the expense of the light, those who seek to build walls instead of bridges. They are easy to recognize, especially when they march through the streets wielding torches (tiki or otherwise), as well as when they get up and make speeches that give comfort to the violent agitators while blaming the victims.

So we need to fortify ourselves against the despair by affirming hope, and there’s a lot of hope to be found within Jim Henson’s body of work.  In fact, this is exactly the sort of situation that Fraggle Rock was created to address.  And when it comes to addressing the events in Virginia last week, one Fraggle Rock episode immediately came to mind: “A Tune for Two,” which deals with the issue of racism perhaps more directly than any other episode of Fraggle Rock.  Now, I could just  focus on the song “Children of Tomorrow,” which is the triumphant culmination of the episode and its message of unity, but I think that won’t mean as much unless we really delve down into the episode.  So that’s what I’d like to try to do now.

“A Tune for Two” is episode 406 of Fraggle Rock.  Of the main Fraggle characters, it features Wembley most prominently.  The episode was written by Laura Phillips, whose work on Fraggle Rock I consider to be a bit uneven, but she always gives good Wembley.  She really gets into the character and brings out all his subtle nuances, all his various lights and shades, and whenever she and Wembley come together, something magical happens.

Like all Fraggle Rock episodes, this one starts out in the workshop with Doc and Sprocket, and while we’re on the subject, this may be an opportune moment for me to point out something about Sprocket.  Sprocket was performed by Steve Whitmire, but I keep forgetting that, because Steve makes Sprocket seem so lifelike that I keep forgetting that he is not a real dog.  Jim Henson said in the documentary “Down at Fraggle Rock” that Steve’s performance as Sprocket was “very doglike, and also somehow more than human,”  and I humbly and wholeheartedly concur.

Anyway, Doc’s houseplant “Lucinda”, a spathiphyllum, is wilting, and he declares that “the way to give a plant the will to live is to talk to it.”  Personally, I would have tried watering it first, but to each his own.  Doc’s attempt to revive his plant by talking to it will absorb most of the rest of his portion of the episode.

Meanwhile, down in Fraggle Rock, Wembley is beside himself with excitement about the Duet-a-thon, an event that we’ve never heard about until now but is apparently Wembley’s favorite Fraggle event.  Following some obligatory exposition from Red and Mokey, Wembley goes bouncing off to his room to ask Gobo what they’re going to sing.

Gobo, meanwhile, is working on writing a new song, which I always think is kind of funny that Fraggles can just make up songs as they go along, but then when they sit down to try to write a song, they have trouble.  In this case, Gobo is trying to think of a word that rhymes with “treacherous.”  Here is where it makes a difference if you’re like me and you’ve only gotten to see Fraggle Rock as an adult: the first, and perhaps only, word that comes to my mind when trying to think of a word that rhymes with “treacherous” is “lecherous.”  Of course, if you were a kid watching, you would never think of such a thing.  It doesn’t make sense in a Fraggle context either, and indeed, Wembley instead suggests the nonsense word “bletcherous,” but this is one instance wherein watching Fraggle Rock as an adult kind of ruins the joke for me.

Anyway, just at this moment Traveling Matt arrives from Outer Space, saying that he has returned for the Duet-a-thon and that singing a duet with his nephew Gobo will make him the proudest Fraggle in the Rock.

Obviously this puts both Gobo and Wembley in an awkward position.  And, in all honesty, I have to admit that if I were in Wembley’s position, I probably would have just stood there quietly to watch what Gobo would do, hoping all the while that he would end up picking me.  But not Wembley; he insists that Gobo sing with Uncle Matt:

GOBO: Hey Wembley, you don’t think I’d let you down, do you?
WEMBLEY: I think if you don’t sing with your uncle Matt, it will break his heart; that’s what I think.  Now, get in there and start rehearsing!
GOBO:  Yeah, but–

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Wembley Fraggle, a character whose primary trait is supposed to be indecision, but in reality, his primary character traits are empathy and selflessness.  His goodness makes me feel ashamed of myself.

Wembley’s self-sacrifice necessarily comes at a personal cost.  Holding back tears, Wembley goes off by himself and meets Cotterpin Doozer, apparently for the first time.  It’s funny to me how four of the Fraggle Five become friends with Cotterpin, but only ever one at a time.  But no matter.  Wembley gives a brief explanation of why he is so upset, and Cotterpin tells him that he shouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

Encouraged, Wembley bounces away again and runs into Boober.  He asks Boober to sing with him in the Duet-a-thon but Boober, being Boober, refuses and says that he hates the Duet-a-thon.  At that moment, Tosh shows up with a special song that she wrote especially for Boober: “The Sun Set in the Sky Like a Rhubarb in a Pie.”  Enticed by the prospect of…pie, perhaps, Boober agrees to sing in the Duet-a-thon with Tosh.  Wembley doesn’t take this well; his angry face is absolutely priceless.

Alone and depressed once again, Wembley sings “Duet for One,” which is truly one of my favorite Fraggle songs of all time.  “Children of Tomorrow” gets most of the attention in this episode, and deservedly so, but this one…I don’t know, maybe it just resonates with me because when we had to pair off in school, I always seemed to be the odd one out.

Anyway, Cotterpin finds Wembley in tears yet again, and even though she doesn’t quite understand what the Duet-a-thon is at first, she comforts him.  And when she finds out it’s a singing contest to find out who can sing the best duet, she offers to sing with him.  They have a hard time coming up with a song at first because Wembley can only think of songs about “Fraggle stuff” and she can only think of songs about Doozer stuff.  Wembley acknowledges the difficulty but suggests that they write a song about “friendship stuff.”

Meanwhile, Gobo, Red, and Mokey are trying to figure out a way to include Wembley in the Duet-a-thon.  Gobo starts out by asking Uncle Matt to drop out so that he, Gobo, can sing with Wembley per the original plan, but of course, Uncle Matt misunderstands and decides to sing with Wembley instead of Gobo.  Then we have some funny Abbott-and-Costello-style antics wherein the Fraggles keep switching partners trying to resolve the problem.  The effort everyone goes to is nice, but they expend a lot of effort trying to fix a problem that no longer exists, and if they would just talk to Wembley, they would know that.

Unfortunately, Wembley is about to have an even bigger problem.

Gillis Fraggle is registering Fraggle pairs for the Duet-a-thon.  Now, I have to take a moment and mention how much I love this character.  He is performed by Richard Hunt, who used exactly the same voice for Gillis Fraggle that he did for my beloved Don Music on Sesame Street.  I’d like to think that Gillis Fraggle is really just Don Music in Fraggle form (minus the headbanging).

Unfortunately, Gillis Fraggle is not so awesome this time around.  He initially laughs  when Wembley says that he wants to sing with Cotterpin, and then he says that Cotterpin can’t participate because the Duet-a-thon is a “fine old Fraggle tradition.”

Wembley’s response is lovely: “If this contest is a ‘fine old Fraggle tradition,’ then I don’t know if I want to be a Fraggle anymore!”  And he storms off.  Gillis Fraggle isn’t impressed, but I think it’s one of the greatest Wembley moments ever on the show.

Unfortunately, Cotterpin doesn’t get to see Wembley’s noble freak-out on her behalf.  She’s too busy excitedly discussing the Duet-a-thon with other Doozers, who try to convince her, as bluntly as possible, that Wembley is going to let her down:

DOOZER #1:  My mom and dad told me you can never trust a Fraggle.
DOOZER #2:  They’re just too silly to depend on.
DOOZER #1:  My mom and dad told me Fraggles lie all the time.
DOOZER #2:  And they forget everything they say right after they say it.
DOOZER #1:  My mom and dad said all Fraggles hate Doozers.
DOOZER #2:  And they don’t care about what we feel at all…

The Doozers’ description of Fraggles sounds more like Donald Trump than any Fraggle I’ve ever seen.  But I guess that the point; the Doozers regard Fraggles as outrageous caricatures rather than seeing them as they really are.

Of course, Fraggles don’t always present themselves in the best light, either.  Just at this moment Wembley rushes up and says, “Cotterpin…you can’t be in the Duet-a-thon,” thus seeming to confirm the worst suspicions of Cotterpin’s Doozer colleagues.

Dear little Wembley, why on earth would you start off like that?  Why didn’t you start off with the line about how you don’t know if you want to be a Fraggle anymore?  Cotterpin would understand that; she’s been there herself.

But then Wembley redeems himself, at least as far as I’m concerned:  “All I know is you’ve got just as much right to sing in the Duet-a-thon as anybody else!  And I’m going to go back and tell the other Fraggles that a Duet-a-thon without you in it isn’t worth having.”  But poor Cotterpin, nursing a raw wound and poisoned by her Doozer friends, doesn’t believe him…at least not yet.

And now we come to the last scene before the finale.  I’m mostly just going to quote from it because it’s so good on its own:

WEMBLEY:  The Duet-a-thon is supposed to be fun, but I don’t see how it can be if it means leaving someone out!
GILLIS:  But we’re not talking about “someone,” you foolish fellow!  We’re talking about a Doozer.

“So what?!?” indeed!  This is so ironic for us in the audience because we’ve already seen the Gorgs make similar assumptions about Fraggles, that they’re little more than garden pests without the dignity of names.  The Fraggles aren’t much better when it comes to the Doozers.

GILLIS: The Duet-a-thon is just for Fraggles!  That’s the way it’s always been!
WEMBLEY:  Well, I’ve got news for you: just because something’s “always been” doesn’t make it right! […] And if my friend Cotterpin can’t be in the Duet-a-thon, I don’t want to have anything to do with it!

At this point, Gobo speaks up:

GOBO:  I agree with Wembley!  If Cotterpin Doozer can’t sing in the Duet-a-thon, I won’t either!

And what with Gobo being the designated voice of reason for all of Fraggledom, all the other spectating Fraggles start up a chant of “WE WON’T SING!  WE WON’T SING!”

By this point, Cotterpin has arrived on her little scooter thingie and has heard every word.  Meanwhile, Gillis is distraught by the turn of events:

GILLIS:  But that leaves no one to sing in the Duet-a-Thon!  We’ll have to call the whole thing off!
WEMBLEY:  Listen, I’ve got a better idea.  Instead of cancelling the Duet-a-thon and making everyone unhappy, why not just let Cotterpin sing?”
GILLIS:  Why, that’s the most brilliant idea I’ve ever heard!

At this point, I’d like to point out, in case there was any doubt in anybody’s mind, that Fraggles are much nicer than humans.  Not once do any of the other Fraggles accuse Wembley of having ulterior motives, of championing Cotterpin’s cause just because he wants someone to sing with in the Duet-a-thon…make of that what you will.

Cotterpin and Wembley reconcile, and they enter the Duet-a-thon together; Wembley wearing a visor like Cotterpin’s, and Cotterpin wearing a tiny banana-tree shirt like Wembley’s.  And so they sing, with Wembley taking the gorgeous harmony line:

And everyone in Fraggle Rock joins in, including Junior Gorg and Sprocket, whose singing revives Lucinda the houseplant.  “There’s something magical about music,” Doc observes.

I had always thought the world was full of mystery.
I had seen so many faces that were strange;
And it sometimes seemed that each one was my enemy,
And I said our fighting ways would never change.

But I learned to meet my brother and my enemy,
And I learned that we are none of us alone.
For I found a friend who’s different, and he cares for me,
And I know a place we share can be our home.

As I was transcribing these lyrics for “Children of Tomorrow,” it suddenly hit me.  WE ARE, in fact, the children of tomorrow.  I, as a child of the ’80s, and any of you reading this who are my contemporaries or younger…we’re the ones the lyrics are referring to; we’re the ones the song was written for.

It’s a little bit humbling.  It’s a little bit frightening.  It’s a lot to live up to.

And as much as I want to use my own words to answer the charge, I find that my own words just somehow do not seem adequate.  So once again, I stand on the shoulders of geniuses and pull a paraphrase from J.K. Rowling:  Our enemies’ gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great.  We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust.

Or, as the Fraggles–and all the denizens of Fraggle Rock–say, “Help us to live here with our other, our brother; one in heart, one in hope, one in pain.”