Why Getting the Muppets to Host the Oscars Might Be Trickier Than You Think

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No sooner did the hosting slot for the 2011 Academy Awards ceremony become unexpectedly empty, after the exodus of producer Brett Ratner and chosen host Eddie Murphy, then suggestions from all over the internet came pouring in. From John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, to Neil Patrick Harris, to Tina Fey, names were flying through the air like Waldo.

And speaking of Waldo C. Graphic, one of the most popular suggestions, so far as we can tell, is the Muppets. This makes sense, on a number of levels. The Muppets just delivered a spot-on ad campaign that’s put the characters pretty much everywhere you wouldn’t expect them, from WWE matches to surprisingly serious Canadian talk show interviews.

The Muppets themselves haven’t been so firmly in the public eye in more than a decade. At the same time, the Muppets’ primary purpose, as a… group? genre? work? is to comment on popular culture by pretending that these fictional characters are real live participants in it. The Muppet Show is a wonderful series of parodies, covers, and famous stars subverting their own popular images. The Muppet films run the gamut from riding-the-line-between-parody-of-and-tribute-to-classical-lit to loving pastiches of classic film genres like the Heist, the Road Trip, and Putting on a Show, and they all break the fourth wall to remind us that the movie’s characters are being “played” by the Muppets, who are “actors.” So to see the Muppets hobnob with actual stars isn’t just totally within the realms of possibility, it’s 100% what the Muppets are, and have always been, about.

But putting on an Oscars telecast? It might be more difficult than it appears.

But certainly not from a licensing standpoint. ABC has owned the rights to broadcast the Oscars since 1976, and will continue to do so until 2014. They’re owned by The Walt Disney Company, who in turn, is the current corporate home of The Muppets Studio (which remains a separate entity from The Jim Henson Company, sole owners of the Fraggle Rock characters; and Sesame Workshop, sole owners and creators of the Sesame Street Muppet characters).

No, I’m mostly going to be talking about the technical constraints of the Muppets hosting a live theatrical production, with maybe some speculation on how those constraints could be overcome. Yes, I’m going to be reminding everybody that the Muppets are puppets, a fact that I know many muppets are themselves uncomfortable with. Sorry.

Lets start with another reminder: The Muppet Show was not an actual theatrical production. It was a fake theatrical production. The number of logistical hurdles that this eliminated is, frankly, huge. No need for transitional bits so that the performers can change wardrobe, no need to hire extra performers for dancing segments because everybody else had to be back stage getting ready for the Western number. Theater numbers and back stage segments could be filmed hours or days apart and then cut together to appear like they were happening at the same time. You could have Kermit introduce a bit of Rowlf playing the piano, despite the fact that, you know, they’re performed by the same person. (Yes, it is Muppet performance policy that each character will be performed by one, and only one, assigned muppeteer.)

Muppets are, of course, fabulous at appearing live. But if you rack your brains, you’ll have to admit that Muppets almost always appear live, instead of perform live.

Then, there’s the sheer amount of video trickery and blue screen that goes into many Muppet performances. Even large whole body puppets that appear sans screens or waist-high walls like Big Bird have secret tricks to them (in this case that he is almost always holding something in right hand or has his hand pinned immobile against his feathers, because the puppeteer has his own right hand up in Big Bird’s head. Big Bird’s right hand can only move when there is a way to conceal a second puppeteer behind a wall or screen.) Editing tricks, blue screen, and other strange contraptions are the movie magic that allows Muppets, especially the ones like Kermit and Gonzo without articulate hands, to do even the simplest tasks like picking up objects, walking across a stage, drinking from a straw or eating a cookie.

So, we’ve got the fact that the Muppets don’t usually perform live, and that a lot of what they do is post-production finesse. Lets talk about theater construction for a bit. Every set on The Muppet Show was built with a floor five feet above the floor of the studio, so that the puppeteers could stand with arms raised over their heads, with the corresponding puppet set built to the height of their hands. There’s a particular anecdote about the Julie Andrews episode, which features an actual live cow for one scene. One, very nervously filmed scene, with one very nervous large animal standing five feet above the ground surrounded by very nervous muppeteers. This is obviously not something would probably be done for an Oscars telecast, but the question of how to hide performers is going to be the first question asked by anyone seriously trying to figure out how to get the production done. The majority of the most famous Muppets cannot walk across a live stage, and lose a lot of their expressivity when reduced to animatronic or marionette versions of themselves. Live puppet theatrical productions are most commonly performed with visible puppeteers (see Avenue Q, for example, or Broadway’s The Lion King) that the audience is tacitly asked to pretend aren’t there, something that the Muppets have not previously shown an affinity for.

Now that I’m done talking about pure technical hurdles, lets talk about logistical ones. There’s a big difference between compensating a single host, and compensating what basically amounts to a theatrical group. And Oscar hosts don’t do it for the money, they do it for the exposure; rarely getting paid anything north of $15k. $15k split between a group of performers whose faces won’t get seen and whose names will not appear in the publicity for the show is an inequitable solution at best. And even if it fulfills all of the internet’s dreams, ABC is not going to want to open its pocket book too wide at this late hour.

(Not to mention that the Internet, as a community, tends not to watch too much television and to DVR things and watch later while skipping the commericals or even pirate its television outright, so, you know, watching in the the least monetarily advantageous ways to a television network and its advertisers.)

That Said

All of these technical hurdles could be overcome! None of them are absolutely insurmountable. In fact, an Oscars telecast that fourth-wall-breakingly embraces the fact that it was thrown together in a very short amount of time and pretends to be a shoddy production could be really really funny with the Muppets in charge. I’m not the only one, I’m sure, who would get a kick out of a whole slew of waist-high-walls jokes, a set that occasionally fake-breaks to allow cover for puppeteers, or moving platforms that rise and fall to unexpectedly reveal Muppet characters just trying to make it on stage to announce whatever is next.

The host of the Oscars is also not always present on stage, to make way for celebrity presenters. What if the whole show was nominally the Muppets, but (in a strong traditional spirit) took advantage of the many, many stars who love to appear alongside them. Stars like the previously mentioned John Steweart, Stephen Colbert, and Neil Patrick Harris, all called in to help Kermit pull off this monumental production.

Heck, Kermit the Frog could host the show from backstage, with occasional trips to the front of the red curtain to announce the next number interspersed with plenty of pre-recorded backstage footage… just like the format of The Muppet Show.

All of Those Things Could Work

But in three months? Unexpectedly? Minus the time needed to work out an agreement with performers, acclimate the Kodak Theater stage staff to Muppet performances, and build sets and effects that would accomodate puppetry? As much as it would actually make me, a person without a single connection to a television signal, go (possibly miles) out of my way to watch Hollywood’s four hour, incredibly hyped, self-masturbatory pat on the back and ignore all the genre films it over looks and the fact that it can’t seem to ever realize that animation might not be a kids-only medium, I’m not holding my breath.

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Susana Polo
Susana Polo thought she'd get her Creative Writing degree from Oberlin, work a crap job, and fake it until she made it into comics. Instead she stumbled into a great job: founding and running this very website (she's Editor at Large now, very fancy). She's spoken at events like Geek Girl Con, New York Comic Con, and Comic Book City Con, wants to get a Batwoman tattoo and write a graphic novel, and one of her canine teeth is in backwards.