In the opening number of 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol, we follow Michael Caine’s Ebenezer Scrooge as he heads through town on his way to work, tormented every step of it by the jeers and mocking taunts of his known coldness and cruelty by the residents of the dreary British neighborhood where he lives.
It’s kind of a d*ck move on all their parts. I’m just saying there’s at least some degree of chicken-and-egg debate to be had here and maybe, just maybe, part of why old Scroogie is such a d*ck is that he can’t step out of his front door without even the vegetables declaring they don’t like him. Bullying sucks, y’all. Hurt people hurt people.
But for as many times as I’ve watched this movie and listened to this song, there’s an aspect that I never noticed until recently.
Now it is all I can see.
At just close to the two-minute mark, right after the bridge, Scrooge moves through the town center and passes by a puppet show where the puppeteer of the show and then one of the puppets each have a solo (“He has no time for friends or fun” “His anger makes that clear”) before Scrooge continues by.
Except, y’all. The puppeteer. The puppeteer is a Muppet.
I pretty much haven’t been able to think about anything else since.
The Muppets have never been afraid of breaking the fourth wall; they frequently do so, whether on their shows on in their movies. I even remember an episode of the Jim Henson Hour where the Muppets, in character, explained to the audience the process by which they are created. At yet even that deep dive into how the Muppet sausage is made doesn’t feel as earthshattering as this brief glimpse of a Muppet, himself a puppet, furthering the cycle by creating and performing with puppets of his own.
While his moment in the song is focused on friends and fun, and a quick slapstick comedy bit, it feels like there is one fleeting moment where the Muppet puppeteer himself is suddenly self-aware of his own place in the world. He continues on with his part of the script, but in that second you can see the deep existential crisis in his eyes.
Most disturbing of all is the end of this little vignette. As soon as the puppeteer and his puppet have their solo, in which the singing puppet’s puppet has a line of its own, suddenly the other puppet smacks him hard with a bat. This age-old Punch-and-Judy-show move may be built into the art form, but it appears that this is also a tragic reenactment of this very same Muppet understanding his place. When his own puppet speaks up for itself, he brings down the wrath of another. There is no escape for the Muppets, and the puppeteer realizes that.
It’s worth noting that The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppet feature film produced after the untimely death of Jim Henson. Suddenly the Muppets found themselves adrift from their creator, passed around by his family’s company via Disney movie deals or ABC TV shows and reruns of their former days airing on Nickelodeon. Everything about the Muppets was at once the same and different, even down to Kermit, who still existed but sounded strange, changed somehow.
This puppeteer is all of us learning that we have been controlled from just out of frame our entire lives, to the point where we don’t even see those who work our gears, and hardly notice when those faces change. We try so hard to create our own worlds out of this understanding, our own puppets that will, like us, lash out at the more visible enemies in our worlds. But deep down inside we know that if we speak out too much, we will be struck down, likely even by one of our own. So instead we end up on this unyielding cycle, slapping a smile on our faces, cackling, and dancing like the puppets we are.
Anyway, Merry Christmas!