Thursday, June 18, 2015

How the Muppets Made Me Media Literate
(& Why I am Psyched for their Return to TV this Fall)

The Muppet Show is back this fall in primetime on network TV and poised to call our attention to all the media production techniques our current popular sitcoms use to make us laugh and reinforce our notions of personal and cultural identity:

The original Muppet Show was appointment TV every week for my family in the late 70s, but it wasn't until this particular moment (below) in The Muppet Movie that I realized how those fuzzy puppets had been teaching me all along about the construction of media and representation of culture and identity. Use this post to prompt the following questions:
  • How did you become media literate? 
  • What popular media supported your media literacy development?
  • How does parody call attention to media techniques and representations? 
In anticipation of the return of The Muppets to primetime network TV this fall, I reflect on this pivotal personal moment of critical distance, and discuss why parody in puppetry can be effective for media literacy development, as the new version of the show plans to lampoon confessional-style sitcoms like The Office and Modern Family while using the format of TV production sitcoms like 30 Rock that call attention to the making of a late night comedy show.

But first, let's set the scene. A darkened movie theater in Baltimore, 1979, I was six years old, and completely enthralled in the journey of Kermit the Frog (and his "weirdo" friends) to Hollywood with their goal of "making millions of people happy" and the love story between Kermit & Ms. Piggy that had unfolded over the past 45 minutes, which was falling apart before my eyes on the screen. And then...

Aha! This is all a movie, and a movie made by the characters on screen, no less! My young mind was blown! At that moment, I had a flood of awareness about all the ways that the movies and shows I watched were made to tell stories to audiences. I noticed the people around me in the theater watching, just like the muppets on screen watched the movie they had made in the story on screen. For the first time, I wanted to make a movie myself--at that moment, one where Piggy and Kermit would just be friends and go play with the other muppets (because the romance was making me a little uncomfortable!).

Parody Pulls Back the Curtain

This moment was the key for me that unlocked the constructed-ness of many other shows and movies, starting with the original Muppet Show, which was a parody of the most popular TV format of the 1970s, the variety show, but it offered backstage scenes of the producer (Kermit) and cast with audience commentary (remember the two old guys, Statler and Waldorf, wisecracking in the balcony, and the call and response moment in the opening theme song with the audience singing, "Why don't you get things started"). I began to see how the muppets were always making fun of how entertainment was made, always showing the seams in the otherwise seamless media representations in which TV and movies immersed me. Whether by singing slightly off key or subverting my expectations (like Gonzo's failed trumpet blast to start every show), the muppets always called my attention to my own expectations about how stories should unfold and I started to realize that those parodied TV shows and movies created those expectations, and that you could play with them and do things differently. I started to see how everything that the muppets did was making fun of popular culture, which I often encountered for the first time through their comedy. I think this had the effect of making me see everything as made by someone for some purpose, and that the purpose could be subverted or changed--and that subversion is fun!

[After the jump, more on pop culture parody as provocateur of critical autonomy, how the muppets made me question notions of race and gender, and ideas for making puppet parodies for ML]

This sort of perspective was vitally important for me at a time when making my own media wasn't an option and there was no media education in school or anywhere else for me. While this scene in the Muppet Movie gave me my first epiphany of self-awareness about my own burgeoning critical autonomy in relation to the mass media stories in my life (and led to my adolescent love of pop culture parodies and fake news on Saturday Night Live, and HBO's Not Necessarily the News), it wasn't until I took my first film courses in college that I realized just how important the muppets had been in developing my media literacy. I began this second epiphany when I saw Persona in a film course in 1992, and realized that the break in the film at the midpoint of the Muppet Movie in the clip above was (likely) an homage to Ingmar Bergman's use of this technique in Persona (muppets creator Jim Henson was an apparent Bergman fan, as seen plainly in his parody Silent Strawberries). As my class discussed the psychological construction of identity, in film and in life, I realized that the muppets had always played with social identity. I thought about how songs like It's not easy being green and the Rainbow Connection introduced me to concepts of race and gender difference, not to mention Ms. Piggy's stereotype-busting character of feminine strength. Looking back, I realized that the use of puppets and the allegorical use of animals and monsters in the muppet pantheon created a dramatic device where I could see cultural themes play out that I otherwise took for granted or engaged without critical distance. The muppets, by being puppets and not people, and by being different from each other and us while portraying our most beloved and esteemed parts of popular culture, challenged me to consider how we perform cultural identities and themes, and how popular media constructs our expectations about reality and identity.

How Can Parody in Puppetry Can Support ML Today?

The new Muppet Show coming to ABC this fall sounds like it will aim to strike this same chord that the original show did, parodying popular media and social identities by using the format of the most popular current TV comedy shows, for our current culture and audiences. While most of today's youth grow up making their own multi-media for daily communication, I think the muppets can still be relevant and useful for calling our attention to the value of our critical autonomy and how we can cultivate it through humor. Here's three basic ideas that would work well to engage learners in developing their media literacy through puppet parodies.

  • Show the trailer for the new muppet show; discuss meta-humor on media production
  • Ask learners to discuss and share clips of their own popular media favorites that call attention to or make fun of media production techniques, especially from kids' cartoon or puppet shows
  • Have learners use puppets to make a parody sketch of a typical TV show or movie scene (or in animation or machinima, if your group is versed in such things)

Actually, this sort of popular media parody is common in most kids entertainment today, and I think it would be most useful to show/discuss a few clips of muppet parodies (even just the trailer for the new show posted above) to get learners talking about how such meta-humor about media production calls our attention to the techniques used to make us laugh and engage with stories and characters. Then, ask learners to reflect on their own media favorites that do the same thing. Sesame Street and other kids shows with puppets continue to parody pop culture, as do cartoons from classic Looney Toons to Animaniacs to SpongeBob Squarepants, and kids shows like Disney's iCarly use media production as their premise. Most kids who watch TV (most kids) will be able to think of an episode of something they love or loved that breaks the fourth wall and heightens awareness of how media is made. While these sorts of self-reflexive parodies have become ubiquitous in youth entertainment since Jim Henson's pioneering efforts with the Muppets in the 1970s, I suspect that the connection to one's own media literacy development and understanding of media representations as constructions that affect our understandings of ourselves and our culture are not always clear. Having these discussions shifts the spontaneous development of media literacy through exposure to such meta-humor, to a space of awareness about our own media literacy skills and knowledge, perhaps allowing us to more easily activate our critical perspective on media as a tool for understanding media constructions--a fun tool, which we can apply more widely, at will. The obvious next step is to link this perspective by parody to our identities as creative media makers.

In 1987, in 9th grade, when my friend's family got a video camera, we proposed and shot a video project for a book report on Dickens called Simple & Eggbert's Great Expectorations. Our title was better than the execution, but we parodied the movie critic show (Siskell & Ebert) in our best muppet style in order to demonstrate our knowledge of the literature. Parodies require you to use your knowledge of media techniques in order to deliver humorous commentary on and through them. So, have your learners make a parody of some common trope in TV shows or movies by making a scene with puppets. Alternatively, you could use animaker or GoAnimate to make animated parodies; or use video game software to make animated shorts as machinima. The use of puppets or cartoons itself can call extra attention to techniques as our suspension of disbelief, and involvement in characters and story, is perhaps more willful in relation to puppets/cartoons than in more realistic media productions. I look forward to seeing how useful the new Muppet Show will be for inspiring media literacy teaching and learning this fall... stay tuned!

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