The Muppets are back. For real, this time. (We hope.)
The trailer has just been revealed for Muppets Now, a new short-form Muppets series debuting on Disney+ on July 31. And it looks good. With tons of celebrity guests (including Seth Rogen, Aubrey Plaza and RuPaul) and the trademark zany Muppet humor, it looks like this could be Disney’s funniest – and most successful – attempt at revitalizing the characters for a new audience.
At the core conceit of Muppets Now is that each Muppet has his or her own unscripted series – one could be a cooking show, the other a variety show, etc. And celebrity guests are invited onto one of these shows and madness ensues. It’s a mixture of classic Muppets like Miss Piggy and Kermit and newer Muppets like Pepe and Walter, who was first introduced in 2011’s The Muppets movie. What will be screened on Disney+ are packages of these short-form, unscripted shows, which means even more Muppet-y goodness will come your way. Or, as the official press release says, “From zany experiments with Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker to lifestyle tips from the fabulous Miss Piggy, each episode is packed with hilarious segments, hosted by the Muppets showcasing what the Muppets do best.”
Disney, of course, has had a long and complicated history with The Muppets. Originally, the company was in talks to buy the characters, along with a number of other Jim Henson-owned assets, shortly before Henson’s tragic and untimely death in 1990. Michael Eisner, then the CEO of Disney, had a long relationship with Jim and thought that the two would make perfect corporate sense (Jim was excited about the prospect as well, and agreed for a lengthy consulting gig). After Jim passed, there were contentious, protracted negotiation with the Henson kids and an agreement could never be reached. At one point they even wanted to cancel plans for the Walt Disney World attraction Muppet*Vision 3D but were only convinced to let it stay after being reminded that it was the last project Jim ever worked on.
Later, the characters were purchased by German TV company EM.TV and after a few years with little success, were ready to sell. Eisner, in one of his last big moves while he was still in power, purchased the rights to the Muppet characters and characters from the then-popular preschool television series Bear in the Big Blue House, for significantly less than EM.TV had paid. Although the deal was far less flashy than the one he conceived in the late 80s, since it didn’t include the rights to any other Henson properties. (Sesame Street was never part of the deal, as much as Eisner longed for it to be.) With Eisner ousted a year after the Muppets deal was signed, and a new regime that was far less interested in the characters, the Muppets mostly floundered, reappearing in fits and starts that the entire company seemed to get behind only to lose interest just as quickly – a proposed movie called The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made, based on an old script that Jim himself had worked on and directed by Muppet veteran Frank Oz, lost momentum and was quietly shelved; The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted, two big expensive feature films, didn’t start a new franchise like Disney had desired; and the Office-like faux documentary series The Muppets was a nonstarter for ABC even though it rejuvenated the characters in a fresh and interesting way. And a live Muppet show of sorts, Great Moments in American History, was performed daily in Liberty Square at the Magic Kingdom. It got great guest response but was cut due to budget constraints. (Mercifully, Muppet*Vision 3D is still a staple at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.)
Along the way the characters bounced between divisions of the company, from their initial home of the interactive side of the company (which has since merged with the consumer products and parks divisions) and are now housed within Walt Disney Imagineering, the part of the company responsible for the rides, shows, and attractions for the Disney theme parks and cruise ships … for some reason. Clearly they have been lent out for Disney+ and we hope that the characters flourish on the direct-to-consumer platform. We love the Muppets and are always pulling for them. *insert Kermit crazy arm gif*