‘The Muppets’ head back to TV with a show-within-a-show

There’s a new pig in Kermit’s life, an ABC exec named Denise.
There’s a new pig in Kermit’s life, an ABC exec named Denise. ABC

Last winter, Miss Piggy found herself doing what many middle-aged actresses are forced to do when they hit the box office skids: looking for work.

The kissy-kissy queen had experienced a long-awaited movie comeback in 2011 with The Muppets, which took in $165 million worldwide for Walt Disney Studios. But a 2014 sequel, Muppets Most Wanted, was a relative flop. Disney’s studio cut its losses, and a campaign to bring 1970s-era puppets to the Pixar generation ended.

But at least one person had not given up on Jim Henson’s colorful felt misfits. Bill Prady, an executive producer of The Big Bang Theory, went to ABC, which is owned by Disney, and pressed to put the gang back on TV. He was convinced he could overcome the biggest challenge facing the Muppets: how to keep longtime fans happy while bringing in new ones.

In the end, ABC not only gave the Muppets a new comedy — it gave them two.

The Muppets, a half-hour series that debuts at 8 p.m. Sept. 22 on WPLG-ABC 10, provides Kermit the Frog and crew with their first regular television gig since 1996. The construct is a bit like 30 Rock. A certain porcine egomaniac hosts a show-within a-show called Up Late With Miss Piggy, which ostensibly runs after Jimmy Kimmel Live. Kermit serves as the executive producer, and he is dating (tension alert) an ABC executive who also happens to be a pig.

Produced as a mockumentary, with quick-zoom reaction shots and confessional cutaways, The Muppets is intended in particular to parody series such as Parks and Recreation and The Office.

“You know, talking to the camera about how you really feel and then cutting back and saying something completely different — I just hate that,” a solitary Great Gonzo says to the camera in a clip released online, calling it a “totally overused device.” Cut to Gonzo in a crowded room: “I love it. Great device.”

Bob Kushell, one of the creators of the new series, said the setup was “a tip of the hat to what Jim Henson did with the original show, which was to take a format that was pervasive on television at the time — variety, in that instance — and twist it in a way that felt fresh.”

On Up Late With Miss Piggy, the Swedish Chef runs the set’s craft services. Writers include Gonzo and Pepe the King Prawn. Scooter books guests, Fozzie Bear serves as Miss Piggy’s on-air sidekick, and the persnickety Sam Eagle is the network’s head of standards. Each episode will feature one or more guest celebrities (Reese Witherspoon, Josh Groban, the band Imagine Dragons), and plot lines will sometimes skewer other comedies.

The Muppets” will also focus on the characters’ personal lives more than ever before. Gonzo is experimenting with online dating, for instance, and Fozzie has a human girlfriend. ABC recently used Twitter to announce that Kermit and Miss Piggy were no longer sharing a bed.

Playing to misty-eyed older fans while feeling contemporary enough to attract younger new ones is a difficult magic trick to pull off. Not everyone is convinced that The Muppets will succeed.

The Muppets is not the same old comedy we always see, but it also doesn’t feel like a show that you have to watch every week,” said Darcy Bowe, a vice president at Starcom USA, a firm that tells mega-advertisers where to buy commercial time. Noting that ABC has scheduled The Muppets at 8 p.m., Bowe added, “I don’t know that the tone feels super family-friendly. What we have seen so far was not as warm and fuzzy as I would expect.”

By Henson’s design, the witty and weird Muppets are supposed to live in the real world, steadfastly believing that they are alive. He was also insistent that they embody a grown-up sensibility — so much so that he named the original 1975 pilot The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence. But those rules were often broken after Henson’s 1990 death, leading to an identity crisis for the characters.

“Rightfully or wrongfully, the Muppets became more of a kids’ product over the years,” said Kushell, whose most recent series was Anger Management, the sharp-edged cable comedy starring Charlie Sheen. “We want to bring them all the way back to what they were intended to be and then some. But never so much that anyone has to explain anything uncomfortable to their kids.”

Disney’s cycle of on-again, off-again efforts to put the Muppets to work started when it bought the character rights in 2004. It was difficult from the beginning. A television parody of America’s Next Top Model called America’s Next Top Muppet died in the planning stages. Miss Piggy was pimped out as a Pizza Hut pitchwoman, prompting a fan backlash. An effort to use online video to reignite sales of Muppet merchandise fizzled in the 2008 recession.

“Like most Hollywood stars, we are wholly owned subsidiaries of some big company, and, you know, that gets strange,” Kermit told a recent gathering of television critics and reporters.

Finally, the 2011 movie struck a chord. But the damage from years of disjointed comeback attempts was hard to reverse. An entire generation felt little affinity to the characters.

“In my view, the Muppets have had their brand bungled since first coming off TV,” said David Srere, the co-chief executive of Siegel + Gale, a branding consultancy. “Great brands keep it very simple. They know who they are, and they know who they aren’t. Who are the Muppets? It’s hard to say at this point.”

He continued: “But here is the good news. From what I can tell, the new show is going back to go forward. That is a really, really smart thing to do. Sarcastic, endearingly edgy, adult, an environment where it’s always all about them. That is the Muppets.”