Muppet Appeal Crosses Generations

Jim Henson's characters return to film and TV - to big acclaim

LATELY, Lori Allebach and her friends have carved out a new ritual on Friday nights: watching - or at least videotaping - ABC's new comedy "Muppets Tonight!"

No, Ms. Allebach isn't part of the "Sesame Street" age group that has traditionally delighted in Kermit and Miss Piggy. Rather, she's a young professional in Titusville, Pa. - and part of a sizable crowd of twentysomethings and older who have warmly welcomed the Muppets' comeback.

"I feel like I'm 5 again," says Allison Downs, a young professional in Boston, of watching both "Muppets Tonight!" and their recent movie, "Muppet Treasure Island" (an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic). Indeed, for many adults, seeing the Muppets takes them back to the late 1970s when "The Muppet Show," a variety program similar to the new TV series, was a hit.

"I grew up with the Muppets," Ms. Downs says, agreeing that they provide a link for young adults to their childhood.

Informal estimates by moviegoers of audience demographics for "Muppet Treasure Island" also indicate adult enthusiasm. On the movie's opening night in February, for example, an audience in a downtown Boston theater was nearly all spirited college students, both men and women.

Other audiences, such as those that both Allebach and Downs describe, had some children but also a considerable number of adults.

It's no mistake that adults, in addition to children, find the Muppets entertaining. Their ventures over the years have been designed for wide audiences. (TV viewers were even treated to Miss Piggy's appearance at Monday night's Academy Awards show.)

The Muppets debuted on television in 1955 in "Sam and Friends," a family show oriented a bit more toward adults. Among other projects, the Muppets became regulars on "Saturday Night Live" in 1975 for a one-year run. And in 1976 "The Muppet Show" was launched and went on to become one of the most-watched shows in the world.

What has resulted is a "sense of humor [that] appeals to adults and kids in different ways," as Allebach describes it. After the Muppets' creator, Jim Henson, passed away in 1990, Jim Henson Productions (headed by son Brian Henson and Charles Rivkin and co-owned by all five Henson children) has continued this multilayered approach to humor.

In "Muppet Treasure Island," for example, children may especially enjoy Gonzo's amazing ability to withstand being lengthened to many times his height. Adults, on the other hand, may chuckle more at Miss Piggy's musings about "unhealthy relationship patterns" or the incongruity of Henry Kissinger's book "Diplomacy" popping out of a pirate's chest.

A similar phenomenon occurs in "Muppets Tonight!," which revolves around the adventures at the Muppets' TV station, KMUP. Sight gags, such as Miss Piggy's nephews creating office mayhem, appeal more to kids, while jokes that poke fun at American culture, like the "Pigs in Space" skits, have more meaning for adults.

And guest stars on the show have large adult followings. The lineup for the first five programs has featured or will feature Michelle Pfeiffer, Garth Brooks, Billy Crystal, John Goodman (scheduled for March 29), and Cindy Crawford (April 5).

But longtime Muppets fan Keith McNeil, an insurance agent in Petaluma, Calif., has reservations about the new show. Feeling that it's targeting an older audience, the father of two says, "The Muppets should stand for a certain guaranteed level of innocent humor" - and he's not sure it measures up to that standard.

Nevertheless, Nielsen ratings for the show have been promising; it's been one of the strongest midseason debuts. The premiere episode won in its time period among young adults and households, in addition to being the highest-rated show of the week among children ages 2 to 11.

Box-office figures for "Muppet Treasure Island" have also been strong. It has grossed $32 million and is among the top 20 films.

In the end, it's the simple, childlike things that make the Muppets' return so endearing. Susan Miner, a computer professional in Boston, sums it up with, "[It's] nice to see Kermit the Frog in fine form."

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