Frog Soup for the Muppet Soul

Kermit the Frog attends the 12th Annual Latin Grammy Awards in Las Vegas, Nov. 2011. Photo: John Shearer/WireImage

I’m a 42-year-old male adult, and for the last few days I’ve been listening to the same song about Muppets on a constant loop and bawling.

The song comes from a soundtrack to the new Muppet movie (out Nov. 22), which otherwise doesn’t have a lot of surprises. There are songs about how great it is to have friends and songs about grappling with a Muppet identity crisis and songs with chickens squawking the melody to Cee Lo’s “Forget You.” If Greil Marcus had strong opinions about Muppet compositions, he wouldn’t write a review of this album that begins “What is this shit?” His review would begin (and probably end) with “Yep, pretty much what I was expecting.”

But then there’s the song “Pictures in My Head.” Like the rest of the soundtrack, it’s not especially adventurous terrain. It’s a sentimental ballad about being sentimental. Kermit waxes poetic about the old days, singing lines like “Sometimes even frogs have rainy days” and “Your cannonball trajectory, it always gave me hope.” I have listened to it exactly (and I’m not exaggerating) 36 … no, wait, now 37 times, and I’ve cried each and every time. Sometimes I just tear up a little, and sometimes it’s the full-on keening that tends to happen only after the death of a parent or a child. I don’t know why I keep listening to it. Maybe because I can’t believe that a song about a Muppet missing other Muppets would make me cry this hard, so I just have to check one more time to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.

Everybody I’ve shared this embarrassing character flaw with tells me it’s nostalgia. I’m not crying over that specific song, they say, but my memories of Kermit the Frog singing “Rainbow Connection” in the first Muppet movie back in 1979. But I don’t think this is true. I never cried at “Rainbow Connection.” It’s a pretty song and I’m not aesthetically opposed to it. But it never gave me goosebumps. It doesn’t make me yearn for a different time and place. When I drink too much, I don’t sit in a dark room and watch “Rainbow Connection” on YouTube over and over again. I’ve had many heated discussions with my wife about the lyrics to “Rainbow Connection” and how they don’t make much sense. “Why are there so many songs about rainbows?” I can think of just two. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.” Oh, and that My Bloody Valentine song “Paint a Rainbow.” And the rainbow song from that awful Rolling Stones psychedelic record. And Mitch & Mickey’s “Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” from the Christopher Guest movie A Mighty Wind. And didn’t Dio have a rainbow song? Whatever, fine, there are a few songs about rainbows. But I wouldn’t quantify it as “so many.” It’s not like anybody is thinking, “Jesus Christ, enough already with the goddamn rainbow songs!”

In a weird way, I guess my unabashed weeping at “Pictures in My Head” is about nostalgia for me. But it’s not fond memories of watching singing Muppets on TV or in the movies that tugs at my heartstrings. It’s my fond memories of literally singing with puppets.

“It’s not fond memories of watching singing Muppets on TV or in the movies that tugs at my heartstrings. It’s my fond memories of literally singing with puppets.”

During the fall of 1978, my brother announced that he was going to become a ventriloquist. This isn’t the sort of news a parent wants to hear from their eight-year-old son. I will never forget the look on my father’s face. Our family was gathered around the kitchen table, having a hurried breakfast before fleeing our separate ways, and my dad was trying to read the morning paper in peace. He couldn’t have looked more disturbed if my brother had said, “Some of the guys and I have been experimenting with bondage, and I think I’m a sub/bottom. Can I use my allowance to buy one of those leather masks with zippers for eyes?”

There are a lot of very valid reasons not to reproduce, but the one they never tell you is this: You may, at some point during your child’s life, need to talk them out of a career in ventriloquism.

My father, wise as he was, couldn’t find the right words to explain exactly why this was a bad, bad idea. He just listened to my brother and rubbed his chin and frowned without being too obvious about it. “You do what you want,” he finally said, returning to his newspaper. “Just don’t bring it in the house.”

My brother had his reasons for being lured to ventriloquism, they just weren’t good reasons. It had something to do with an episode of The Love Boat, which featured an African-American ventriloquist act named Tyler and Lester. It was troubling enough that my brother was taking social cues from The Love Boat, but what’s really disturbing is that we were allowed to watch The Love Boat at all. When a parent walks into a room and realizes that their children are looking at Gavin MacLeod in short-shorts, aren’t they morally obligated to destroy the TV with the closest blunt object? And then, if you know anything about parenting, you sit down with your child for a heart-to-heart talk about nautical safe sex and male camel toes.

There was no talking my brother out of his choice. He’d even picked out his dummy from the Johnson Smith catalog, carefully selected from a diverse selection of three. It came with a monocle and a top hat, and vaguely resembled Charlie McCarthy, if Charlie McCarthy had made some major career missteps and ended up doing dinner theater in Michigan and developed an addiction to Oxycontin.

Of course, if my brother decided to do something, I had to imitate him. Never mind that I was two years older, and long past the age when an interest in ventriloquism, however casual, could be easily dismissed as “just a stage he’s going through.” Not wanting to be too obvious in my plagiarism, I picked the next most appealing dummy in the catalog: A freckled redhead named Danny O’Day, dressed in a plaid jacket and bow-tie. One look at Danny and you knew his entire backstory. He was probably the manager of an Orange Julius at his local mall, and he enjoyed playing the French Horn, chaperoning church social hay rides and crying himself to sleep. He’d kissed a guy once, but it was in college and he’d had too many wine coolers so he didn’t think it counted. His favorite karaoke song was “Playground in My Mind,”  he’d seriously contemplated growing a mustache and he’d eventually die in his mid-40s after a botched attempt at erotic asphyxiation.

Dummy Danny O' Day

Photo by Sofia Sanchez, used by permission.

When our dummies arrived, we devoted ourselves to learning the craft of ventriloquism. I figured out how to make the doll’s mouth move, which really wasn’t all that difficult. You just stuck your hand into the gaping wound in its back and pulled the string. As for the whole “lips not moving” part, I was clueless. I locked myself in my bedroom every night for weeks and rehearsed with Danny, mastering an exciting and innovative new form called Mute Ventriloquism. Some of my soon-to-be classic routines included “What’s the matter, Danny O’Day? Are you choking?!” and “I’m not talking to you either until you apologize” and the crowd favorite “I think Danny’s trying to tell us, with a series of winks and nods, that there’s somebody standing behind the door with a gun.”

My brother eventually lost interest (and/or discovered sports and girls, I’m unclear on the timeline) and his dummy was put into permanent retirement. But I opted to hold on to my ligneous companion. I had no interest in ventriloquism anymore, but it was still nice to have the company. I liked coming home from school and finding my red-headed cohort waiting for me. Sometimes, if I thought nobody was listening, I’d sit on my bed and tell him about my day.

“I never got the chance to mourn my plastic, aphasic sidekick. But thanks to the great Muppet comeback of 2011, I’ve been given a socially acceptable excuse to get all maudlin and simpering about what I’ve lost.”

I never mentioned Danny to my family. He was a secret, and I didn’t expect them to understand. Actually, even I didn’t understand. I was too old to be playing with toys, much less a toy that resembled an adult male with emotional problems. Forget the inanimate object part of it, he just wasn’t an appropriate best friend. But he was a good listener. And it was easy to feel superior to him. I may’ve been an insecure and painfully shy 10-year-old kid, but Danny was a grown adult living in a boy’s bedroom with no discernible source of income. Obviously he didn’t have a lot going for him.

“So what’d you do with yourself today?” I’d ask Danny every afternoon. “Watched a few Sanford & Son reruns? Made some mac-and-cheese for one? Don’t worry, man, things are gonna pick up. Maybe you update your résumé. Okay, okay, don’t get defensive. I’m just trying to help.”

I’m not sure how or why the singing started. The Muppet Show was popular at the time, and some of the songs must’ve gotten burned into my subconscious. “Mahna Mahna,” “Bein’ Green,” the Great Gonzo’s “Wishing Song” — I could sing all of it in my sleep. And if The Muppet Show was any kind of litmus test, singing with puppets was something that cool people did. Johnny Cash did it. Debbie Harry did it. Steve Martin sang with Muppets and made the banjo look badass. Lou Rawls and Gilda Radner and Peter Sellers and John Cleese and the guy who played Superman and the guy who played Luke Skywalker and pretty much everybody I considered cool was singing with Muppets on TV. Well, I had a Muppet (or at least a Muppet facsimile) and I could carry a tune, so ipso facto, I must be cool too.

I have no idea what my parents must’ve thought when they first heard the prepubescent caterwauling coming from my bedroom, as I sang both parts (high register for me, low register for Danny) to “We Got Us.” At some point, they decided that enough was enough. They didn’t make a big deal of it, thank god. I think my father would’ve been more comfortable sitting me down and saying, “Okay, son, it’s time you learned about masturbation. Drop your drawers and grab that hand lotion.” That would’ve been less mortifying than saying, “Listen, uh … wow, there’s no easy way to put this … That puppet you’ve been doing duets with every night rather than socialize with your peers? Yeah, it’s starting to creep everybody out. Maybe you find a friend who’s more age-appropriate … or real.”

So they did what any loving parent would do; they waited until I went to school and then got rid of the doll. When I came home, it was gone. When I asked about it, they just shrugged and feigned ignorance. There were no long talks about how “this hurts me more than it hurts you” or “we took it to live on a farm.” They just laughed and said, “Oh, that old thing? I didn’t even know you still had it. Hey, tell us again about that girl at school you think is cute.”

I’m pretty sure that’s why I cry whenever I listen to “Pictures in My Head.” When Kermit sings “Could we do it all again, make them laugh like we did then, we could harmonize for one more song,” I know exactly what he’s fucking talking about. I never got the chance to mourn my plastic, aphasic sidekick. But thanks to the great Muppet comeback of 2011, I’ve been given a socially acceptable excuse to get all maudlin and simpering about what I’ve lost. Everybody else thinks I’m crying over Jim Henson TV memories, but it’s really for Danny O’Day, my redheaded comedy sidekick with the plaid jacket and bow-tie, who never really made much of his life but was a damn fine singing companion. And he always let me have the punchlines.