For a fleeting moment, it seemed like a "Daily Show" coup: an interview with embattled Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele about the GOP strip club scandal fallout.
But the guest turned out to be more felt than Steele. Jon Stewart quizzed a parody puppet of Steele, who, it was noted, resembles the old-school, blue-and-bald Muppet that was Grover's foil back when the Comedy Central host was a kid.
The bit, from a couple weeks ago, wasn't the program's first use of Muppet imagery: "Gitmo," a bearded, Guantanamo Bay-detainee version of Elmo, has been a recurring “Daily Show” character.
The Steele sketch comes as we're in the midst of the latest burst of Muppet-related satire and news. A month from the 20th anniversary of his death, the hand of Jim Henson is still being felt in pop culture.
Much of the new Muppet-inspired material takes the form of political satire: a video, posted this week on Funny or Die, is a clever, searing indictment of the military’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy. The mock newsmagazine piece, called "No Strings Attached," traces the plight of the Elmo lookalike Lt. Snazzy the Monster, a hero soldier who is outed as a puppet. (“They’re not right, man. They creep me out,” says one puppet-hating soldier.)
Late last year, MoveOn.org slammed Sen. Joe Lieberman’s health care stance by turning the Connecticut pol into a whiny Muppet-like figure (The video was titled “Lieberman Socks”).
Much of this humor is aimed at an adult audience that grew up on “Sesame Street.” The Muppet influence stretches beyond TV and the Web: The long-running "Avenue Q" recently was joined this month on the New York stage by the bawdy “Stuffed and Unstrung,” produced by Henson’s company for an audience with a Stewart-friendly sensibility (the show is advertised on "The Daily Show" website).
Meanwhile, a new Muppet movie starring and co-written by Jason Segel of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" fame is in the works. An exhibit, “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World,” opened this month at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, MA.
And the Muppets Studio is pumping out YouTube videos. The latest debuted April 1 and is the darkest yet: a monster Muppet (Big Mean Carl) clubs and gobbles up cute bunnies while crooning "Stand By Me." The look of the piece is reminiscent of the 2009 movie "Where the Wild Things Are," whose influences clearly include a touch of Henson amid Maurice Sendak’s own fantastic world.
The Muppets Studio’s first video, a takeoff of "Bohemian Rhapsody" released late last year, has notched nearly 14 million hits on YouTube. It's up for two Webby Awards, against other viral shorts like "David After Dentist."
Our votes are going to Kermit and friends. We won’t tell you how to cast your ballots, but will suggest you take a few minutes to check out the Muppet and Muppet-inspired videos below:
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