On Being A Good Parent
Being a good parent means a lot of different things to different people, but one of the things it means to me is this: I will always try my hardest to take time and answer my daughters’ questions. She may have asked who’s shoes those are 16 times in the past 10 minutes, but each time I calmly respond “Those are your shoes, that’s why you’re wearing them.”
This philosophy also means that when the time comes that I don’t have an answer for her, I’m committed to finding one. I expected that time to come around when she started school, but as it happened it came this year when she is but 2 and a half.
On The Muppets
My daughter loves The Muppets. The first movie she ever sat through was Muppet Family Christmas. She has watched every episode of The Muppet Show at least twice. I maintain that this love comes entirely naturally to her, and has nothing to do with my own Muppet fandom.
So it was only natural that one day she would point at Gonzo and say “Daddy, What That?”
We’d been through this before with the other Muppets, and it had gone swimmingly. “That’s Kermit,” I’d say, “He’s a frog.” “Kernit. Frodd” she’d repeat happily. Miss Piggy (Pig), Fozzy (Bear), The Swedish Chef (Chef). Easy stuff. But now we came to this. The first question I did not have the answer to.
What. Is. Gonzo?
The Muppets have been around for four decades. During that time they have starred in 8 theatrical movies, 9 TV shows and 26 TV specials. Kermit and his crew have used those productions to ask some troubling questions: What would the offspring of a frog and a pig look like? Can Michael Caine dance? What if Tim Curry was a pirate? Questions I’ve struggled with and bested. But to answer my daughter’s question, I had have to peer deeper into the heart of the Muppetverse than any man should ever peer. I have braved the Muppet wilderness, and this is what I have brought back.
Here we go.
On Reality Itself
Of course, you probably think you already know the answer to my daughter’s question. “What is this idiot on about?” you think to yourself, “Gonzo is an alien.”
This idea was first put forward in 1999’s Muppets From Space. In fact, the entire plot of Muppets From Space is concerned with Gonzo’s “people” coming to earth to take him home. Case closed, column finished, move on.
Not so fast, bucko. What makes you so sure Muppets From Space is real? What makes you think its telling you the real story behind Gonzo? Its long been the conceit of Muppet movies that they are either presenting a fictionalized version of the real story or are just completely fabricated.
This tradition goes all the way back to 1979 and The Muppet Movie. The film begins and ends with a segment showing all the Muppets attending a screening of The Muppet Movie in a theater. Kermit explains that the movie depicts the Muppet’s arrival in Hollywood “approximately how it happened”. It’s therefore clear that Kermit et al. are merely actors playing themselves in a semi-autobiographical work.
NOTE: One important caveat here is that Statler & Waldorf appear in the audience for the film but NOT in the film itself. They are merely members of the general public. (This idea is supported by both The Muppet Show and Muppet Family Christmas). It shows that not all muppets are Muppets. That is, not all muppet-like-creatures are Muppet cast members. Remember this, it’s important.
This idea is made even clearer in their follow-up film. Released in 1981, The Great Muppet Caper stars Kermit and Fozzie as identical twins who are journalists. Miss Piggy plays an aspiring model. Kermit et al. have the same relationship with their characters here that any actor has with theirs. The movie exists entirely in its own fictional universe, without reference to the established characters that we know. Heck, the whole production even begins with a song called “Hey, A Movie!” to cement this idea.
On Non-fictional Muppet Movies
“Ok,” you think, “Great. The tradition of Muppet movies dictates that Muppets From Space is a fictional story, so Gonzo is not an alien.”
Good job! You solved my Gonzo riddle. Pour yourself a drink.
But hold on just one second! What if I told you that the markers that prove that The Muppet Movie and Great Muppet Caper are fictional stories aren’t present for ALL Muppet releases. In fact, there are three releases that don’t contain the combination of an explicitly fictional plot and impossible metatextual references that indicate a fictional Muppet movie. Those films are: Muppets From Space, The Muppets (2011) and Muppets Most Wanted. That’s right, the very movie that establishes Gonzo as an alien!
Muppets From Space has all the Muppet cast, acting exactly within their established characters, living in a house together. The Muppets living all together is not a completely new idea. The extremely short-lived CBS series Little Muppet Monsters established a shared Muppet dwelling way back in 1985. It is, perhaps, unusual that Statler & Waldorf live with the rest of the cast. As discussed earlier, they have been established as members of the public. However, their increased involvement in sketches in later seasons of The Muppet Show may indicate that, at some point between 1987’s Muppet Family Christmas and 1999’s Muppets From Space, they became fully-fledged cast members. So there is nothing in characterization or setup to indicate that Muppets From Space is fictional.
How about any meta-textual weirdness? Gonzo may be given some hope by one line in which Pepe refers to the adventure being like a “Muppet movie”, but the comment in context is not that much more meta than something you or I might say to a friend. Still very ambiguous.
On Job Security
However, not all hope is lost. As any private eye worth his salt will tell you, sometimes clues come from the most unlikely source. Thus, in order to finally solve the mystery of Gonzo, we must follow the tracks an unlikely suspect, an obscure Muppet who seems entirely innocuous, but may actually hold the key that unlocks the mysteries of the Muppetverse.
Bobo The Bear.
Bobo The Bear was a late addition to the Muppet universe. He first appeared backstage on Muppets Tonight as a security guard at KMUP, the TV station which airs Muppets Tonight. After that, he shows up again only in the TV Special A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa and in the movies Muppets From Space, The Muppets (2011) and as a cameo appearance in Muppets Most Wanted. That’s right, the 3 movies we’re interested in! Each of his major appearances give him similar roles, outside of the Muppet cast, and it is possible to trace quite a neat career path for Bobo just from these productions.
1996-1998: Muppets Tonight – At the start of the show, Bobo is already working as a security guard for KMUP.
1999: Muppets From Space – At some point between the end of Muppets Tonight and now, Bobo has moved into government work, presumably with a good reference from KMUP. He now works in a prominent position at C.O.V.N.E.T. While his position is not exactly a logical leap from security guard work, he seems to be a general henchman, which his skill-set and experience make him a good fit for.
2008: A Muppets Christmas: Letters To Santa – Bobo has remained in government work but has, at some point between 1999 and now, been significantly demoted (presumably after the disastrous mission depicted in Muppets From Space). He is now working as an airport security guard.
2011: The Muppets – After presumably getting tired of low level government jobs, Bobo has entered the private sector. He is now working for Tex Richman, as (you guessed it) a general henchman.
There are three important things to note here: First, Bobo’s appearances all see him play a specific type of role, which can be added together to give a consistent career path. Second, all of these roles place him in opposition to the main Muppet cast. He is not shown to be a member of the Muppet crew at any point, nor is he ever seen to be affiliated with their productions except in a tangential way.
Finally, and most importantly, most of his appearances occur in works which depict themselves as being non-fictional. Muppets Tonight is a continuation of The Muppet Show, the place where the established characters of The Muppets come from. A Muppet Christmas and The Muppets (2011) are set in a world in which The Muppets are all famous actors.
This all seems to suggest that Bobo is merely a member of the general public (NOT a Muppet cast member), whose various jobs have brought him into contact with the Muppets several times. His appearance as a henchman in Muppets From Space therefore cements its position as a non-fictional work. It’s much more plausible to accept that a former security guard would accept government work than to assume he would join a group of actors with whom he has butted heads in the past. Finally, we have confirmation: Gonzo is an alien, everything is great.
On Ricky Fuckin Gervais
And then Muppets Most Wanted shows up.
Muppets Most Wanted begins at the exact moment The Muppets ends. The big dance number finishes and the crowd dissipates. The first lines of the film are spoken: “And…. CUT!”
The Universe is torn asunder.
With two words, Muppets Most Wanted retroactively reveals The Muppets to be a work of fiction after all. Kermit et al., were just playing versions of their real selves.
At first this seems fine. Its just a fictional version of a true story, like The Muppet Movie. But the problems run deeper than that. Bobo’s presence ruins everything.
You see, the fact that Bobo has a role in the The Muppets means he is not just some hard-working security guard. He is a member of the Muppet’s cast. When did he join the cast? Was it in 2011, after leaving his government posting? Or was it in 1997, after Muppets Tonight? If it was any time before Muppets From Space in 1999, Gonzo’s status is unknown yet again.
But more than Gonzo’s species is at stake here. So much more. What if Bobo joined the cast even earlier? Has he been a cast member this whole time? Is Muppets Tonight also fictional? Is it all a sham?!
The implications of this are staggering. If Muppets Tonight is just another work of fiction, that means that The Muppet Show is too. Nothing is true!
Well…not quite. This state of affairs leaves one movie, one keystone holding all the others in place: Muppets Most Wanted. By revealing everything else, everything upon which The Muppetverse is built, as fiction, Muppets Most Wanted reveals itself as the only thing that is real. Walter, Costantine, Ricky Fucking Gervais. That’s the real, true story of the Muppets. Everything else is bullshit. They were just playing roles for 40 years. And now, finally, we know the truth.
But Muppets Most Wanted has one more trick up its sleeve. Right at the end, right at the climactic wedding scene, who shows up in the audience? Bobo The Bear. Its as if he’s saying “I’ve been here all along, hiding in plain sight. Everything you know is a lie.”
And so I return to my daughter a broken man. Not only do I not have the answer she seeks, but I have knowledge that to impart to her would be to destroy her world. It would be better had I never attempted to answer at all, if I had given up my researches and used that time to play with her and like, teach her to count or whatever. But what’s done is done.
Later she asks again. Pointing to Gonzo and looking up at me, all innocence.
“Daddy, What That?”
That’s Gonzo, honey. He’s a….whatever.