Welcome the next installment of my year-long look back at the decade that was ruled by big hair and bigger egos. Every other week I’ll be covering pop culture tidbits from the 1980s, sharing memories, choking on the ridiculousness, and maybe offering an insight or two into what made the 1980s so great/bad/silly. Serving as my inspiration are two lists from Buzzfeed, and I’ll include links to the original list items in each post. So throw on your neon windbreaker, lace up your hi-tops, and adjust your Wayfarers, because this DeLorean is taking off! (Ugh. Did I really just type that? Gag me with spoon, seriously.)
List item #1 from 50 Things only ’80s Kids Can Understand
That Muppet Babies is greatest cartoon of all time (sorry, Rugrats).
To give you an idea of just how Muppet-centric my general, everyday thinking is, please point your attention to Exhibit A: One of the enemies (called a “MUTO” from Godzilla (2014.)
When I watched this movie, every time one of the MUTOs appeared on screen, especially in full-view, walking around, all I could think of was this:
That long-legged creature is a Landstrider from The Dark Crystal. (And if you didn’t know this, please drop whatever you’re doing right now and WATCH DAT MOVIE!) Outside of the original Muppet Show, The Dark Crystal jump-started in earnest what would become a lifelong obsession with the Muppets and Jim Henson’s work. I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m the world’s most awesome Henson fan, because there’s plenty of his stuff, and more recent stuff from the studio, that I’ve never seen. But if you put in front of me any assortment of movies plus only one Muppet/Henson movie, any one, and you can probably guess what I’ll pick to watch.
You can probably also imagine the elation in my teensy little kid-sized heart when The Muppet Babies first aired.
Though the adult part of me wants to argue with Buzzfeed calling The Muppet Babies the “greatest cartoon of all time,” my younger self can definitely get behind that, because as a kid, I l-o-v-e-d The Muppet Babies.
The Muppet Babies followed in the time honored tradition of miniaturizing adult forms into cute, wittle infants. In this case, we followed the adventures of amazingly erudite and sophisticated cast of pint-sized Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzy Bear, Rowlf, Scooter and his new sister Skeeter, Gonzo, Animal, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and Beeker (along with a few other familiar faces here and there). Most of the episodes revolved around the kids using their vibrant imaginations to conjure up adventures and stories. The ragtag band of orphans (which is a little weird to think of now, though we never saw a single parents, so what other conclusion could be drawn?) was looked after by a sweet yet faceless nanny (voiced by Barbara Billingsley); and not faceless in the horror-movie sense, but the audience never saw much of her upper half. (So maybe she way just a pair of legs! Oh, the humanity! No wonder the Muppet babies always wanted to be anywhere but in their nursery!)
Macabre thoughts of headless nannies aside, The Muppet Babies was a topnotch cartoon for its time — it was fun to watch, energetic, and great for kids with overactive (or perfectly active) imaginations. It was also on for a long time. Wikipedia placed its run at 1984 to 1991, which is none too shabby considering that the Muppets themselves had faded some from the spotlight by the turn of the 1990s. (R. I. P. Jim Henson, 1936-1990.) While I do remember watching the show regularly for many years, I’m not sure I stuck with it throughout all of its seven years. Having younger siblings meant that the the tradition of watching Saturday morning cartoons continued into my high school years, though by The Muppet Babies‘ later years, I had developed a keen interest in Mystery Science Theater 3000, which, also being on Saturday mornings, trumped most animated shows.
As I tie a bow on my thoughts here, I find myself going back to the “greatest cartoon of all time” statement. As fantastic as the cartoon landscape was throughout the 1980s, I honestly feel like better stuff came out of the 1990s (and I’d count in there a few that towed the decades like Garfield and Friends). But one of the things that set The Muppet Babies apart from many of your classic 80s cartoons like The Smurfs, Strawberry Shortcake, He-Man, and The Snorks, was that it helped set the stage for what was to come in the 1990s. While it lacked the joyful wit and wonderfully twisted humor that we later saw in The Animaniacs, Freakazoid, The Tick, Tiny Toon Adventures, and more Nicktoons than you could shake a stick at, The Muppet Babies was somewhat ahead of its time in its adultness. It wasn’t necessarily one of those cartoons that appealed to both children and adults — the creators pretty much defined their audience the moment they put “babies” in the title — but it didn’t speak down to kids. The Muppet babies weren’t perfect, they didn’t always save the day, and they didn’t always do the right thing. The show spoke to kids, rather than at them, with the message “be daring but be smart,” which the Muppets themselves had (mostly) purported years before. Thanks precedents set by the “adult” Muppets, the kiddy versions could still participate in all the wackiness of romance, scary stories, dangerous adventures without repercussion. Unless they got caught by their doting (headless?) nanny. In which case, they had to learn from their mistakes. Few cartoons have managed to be less cartoony and more animated, but The Muppet Babies achieved just that.