Welcome back to 60 for 60, a yearlong celebration of Steve Whitmire and his work in anticipation of his 60th birthday later this year. This month we celebrate Steve’s work as Beaker, specifically in the viral videos that the Muppets made for YouTube.Despite the fact that Beaker is one of my favorite Muppets, I originally hadn’t included him in this project, for reasons that seemed to make sense at the time but that I can no longer remember. Then I watched the viral videos in which he features again and realized what a travesty it was to leave them out, because each of them is completely brilliant, and it’s some of the best and most Muppety content the Muppets have put out in the last 30 years. By all accounts, Steve had a lot of input into the creation of the viral videos, which means that he gets a lot of the credit for their quality and success.
In June 2017, The Muppet Mindset published questions for the “ALL NEW Great Muppet Survey,” an updated version of their previous “Great Muppet Survey,” which I had filled out in 2013 and revisited in 2018. They published two sets of responses to the “ALL NEW Great Muppet Survey” but have never mentioned it since, as far as I can tell. This was approximately a month before they, along with ToughPigs, broke the news of the Schism, but whether they abandoned the project as a direct result of the world turning upside down and sideways, I do not know.
I recently discovered the “ALL NEW” survey questions and thought, “I have access to these questions and I have a blog; why don’t I just answer the questions on my blog instead of submitting them and waiting to see when and if somebody else decides to publish them?” So that’s what I’m doing. Thanks to Jarrod Fairclough for the questions, and I hope you don’t mind me taking matters into my own hands.
“Dixie Wailin'” is certainly one of my favorite Fraggle Rock songs, if not my very favorite. So it bothers me that almost everyone who covers it seems to get the lyrics wrong.
“This may be one of the most saccharine Henson specials ever. The bunnies are all extremely cutesy, the forest impossibly idyllic, and everything’s very happy, cheerful and colorful.“
–TV Tropes on The Tale of the Bunny Picnic
Granted, it’s not exactly Watership Down either, but when I watched it for the first time recently, I couldn’t even finish it in one sitting because I was so upset by it.
Sure, the bunnies are cute and the colors are bright and the music is peppy, but much like Fraggle Rock, there are some serious themes hidden underneath the candy-colored exterior. Our Hero, Bean Bunny, is constantly bullied by his big brother, Lugsy, and the dog is blatantly and brazenly abused by the farmer. Ladies and gentlemen, Jim Henson brings you the charming story of adorable animals being tormented and mistreated…enjoy!
But eventually I went back and finished it, because I knew the payoff had to be worth it…and it was.
Is it just me, or was the conflict in this episode really avoidable?
This may well be the most discussed Fraggle Rock episode of them all. I don’t think that I necessarily have anything new to add to the discussion. But it’s October, and I always get to feeling morbid in October, and this episode suits my current mood, so I’m just going to go with it.
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.
WEMBLEY: Well, SO WHAT?!?
“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.”
Sesame Street is special to me. Way back in the day, before the capability to call up virtually every Muppet performance ever done with the click of a mouse, Sesame Street was the most reliable–and sometimes only–source of Muppet content available to me. Even after I learned to read and count, I continued watching it when I could–i.e., whenever I wasn’t in school–for several years.
In fact, there was a brief span of time when I had started school but my younger brother hadn’t yet–he is two and a half years younger than me–and he would watch Sesame Street while I was at school and then report to me what had happened when I got home. I don’t think I asked him to do that either; he just knew I would be interested. I remember him singing me a song that Don Music had apparently sung that day, of which the title and only lyric seemed to be “You’ll be so flabbergasted!”
(Since the advent of YouTube, I’ve been looking for that clip ever since, to no avail. I don’t suppose anyone out there has access to it, do you? If someone could get it to me, I’d be eternally grateful–just so I know that I didn’t dream it.) Thank you to reader/commenter Mike, who was able to find the clip on YouTube and was gracious enough to share it. Check it out below:
It’s always interesting to me to find out what other people’s favorite Muppet/Sesame Street characters are, and why. I think it oftentimes reveals a lot about the person because we tend to project our own characteristics and traits onto the Muppets with which we identify. For example, Street Gang author Michael Davis sees Grover as a middle child because Davis, himself, is a middle child and identified Grover’s…persistence as an expression of the middle child’s desperation for parental attention. That raises the question of who/where Grover’s other siblings are, but it doesn’t really matter; Davis needs Grover to be a middle child, and so Grover is a middle child for him. The Muppets are kind of like Batman in that respect; they can be whatever we need them to be.
As for me, my favorite Sesame Street characters are Bert and Ernie, because they remind me so much of myself and my older sister.
For nine years, my sister was sort of in the catbird seat in our family; being the youngest child and the only girl, she had the privilege of having a bedroom all to herself, whereas the two boys had to share.
Then I came along and ruined all that.
Not that she ever put it to me that way, but I think that may have been in her mind on occasion. Now she was no longer the only girl and had to share her bedroom. And even though she was (usually) accommodating and solicitous of me, I think she resented her loss of privacy–understandably so, I should say. Not only that, but a couple years later when my younger brother was born, my sister became the middle child. It was sort of a double-whammy.
Anyway, when I was five and my sister was fourteen, the dynamic between us could be very similar to the character dynamic between Bert and Ernie. I never meant to be obnoxious, but I hero-worshipped my three older siblings so much that I wanted to spend all my time around them, doing what they did, which wasn’t always convenient for them. To be fair, for the most part the three of them were very indulgent with me and didn’t mind me tagging along, but my sister’s patience with me would usually wear out right around bedtime. Much like in Bert and Ernie sketches, I’d be all tucked into my bed, and some sort of profoundly philosophical, preschooler sort of thought would come into my head, and I’d want to talk to her about it, and–just like Bert–she would say, “Mary, go to sleeeeep!”
I’ve felt for years now that Bert and Ernie’s comedy stylings are underappreciated, so in 2013 I embarked on an endeavor to celebrate their comedic chops by posting at least one Bert and Ernie sketch in my old blog every weekday for one year. I made a very conscientious decision to use clips from the official Sesame Street website or YouTube channel whenever possible, out of respect for their copyrights.
Well, no good deed goes unpunished, as it turns out, because sometime in the intervening four years, the official website has been revamped and all of the links I made to their website are now dead. So now I’m on a mission to find those clips on YouTube–whether they’re on the official Sesame Street channel or wherever they may be–and post them again.
In today’s selections, the comedy stems directly from the fact that Bert and Ernie are puppets:
ASIDE: While on the Sesame Street YouTube channel, I took a look at the Season 47 sizzle reel. About 30 seconds in, Grover appears to cause a snowstorm by means of a magical sneeze and says, “Snow in the fall? How is this possible?” It made me laugh out loud; clearly Grover has never been to South Dakota, where we routinely incorporate snow boots into our Halloween costumes.