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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Reexamining Large Flightless Birds

Somewhere between the small western Massachusetts towns of Montague and Turner’s Falls, one of those inexplicable random notions hijacked my train of thought like a hungry hobo looking for a meal or, failing that, a stabbing victim. The idea immediately took over my total attention, forcing me away from the daydream I was having about what horses would say to each other if they could speak.

The thought that burrowed its way straight through my mind was simple, but carried with it what can only be described as potentially catastrophic ramifications.

Is Big Bird a Muppet?

Take some time to think about that. Really consider for yourself how you feel about and define “Muppet” and how you approach pop culture classifications in general. Keep in mind that the term “Muppet” was created by Jim Henson to describe his half puppet, half mop creations. They are typically hand puppets with some added facial controls and boneless arms controlled by a stick attached to the hand. The Muppet brand name, however, extends to all the other Henson character beyond The Muppet Show and Sesame Street. I disagree with that definition and will stick to the popular idea that Muppet = mop + puppet.

My immediate reaction was that of course Big Bird isn’t a Muppet; he’s a guy in a suit. He’s no more a Muppet than any other costumed Jim Henson character. Is Jareth from Labyrinth considered a Muppet? Certainly not! In order to be measured among the pantheon of Muppetry, a character must be at least partially a puppet and have undeniable mop-like properties. This is why furry creatures like Grover -

I just remembered how the Big Bird idea germinated in my thoughts. I saw an enormous orange cat slouching itself down the road and thought of Garfield. Whenever I think of Garfield the comic cat, I then think of President James Garfield, which of course leads me to the other hilariously named President of the late nineteenth century, Grover Cleveland. Now, there isn’t a functioning subconscious born after 1970 that won’t automatically leap from Grover Cleveland to Grover the (in retrospect, seemingly bi-polar) blue monster from Sesame Street. It was then just a short hop to Big Bird and my current quandary. My mornings are spent on a very long bus ride of free association.

Back to the topic at hand. The mop definition is why furry or “felty” creatures like Grover or Ernie are Muppets, but a decidedly non-moppish Henson character like the leathery Yoda is not. So where’s Big Bird fit in? His feathers certainly land him in with the moppish camp, but if he’s just a man in a suit he’s no more a Muppet than Godzilla is.

Cleary, some research was required before this would be settled in a satisfying way. An unaccredited NPR interview with Carroll Spinney, the actor who plays Big Bird, is very enlightening. “Spinney stands inside Big Bird with his right arm extended above his head,” claims the article. “His right hand is the bird's beak, his arm the bird's neck. It's not very comfortable, especially if you're claustrophobic. He can't see out, so a tiny TV set strapped to his chest shows him what he looks like to the children viewing the show at home.”

Eureka! If this story is true and not some kind of elusive cover-up arranged by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it would seem that Big Bird, specifically his head, is indeed a puppet, making the big guy a certified Muppet.

Does this evidence conclusively solve the mystery of Big Bird’s breed? Hardly. People keep cherished characters close to their heart and can be very inflexible when it comes to changing their perspective on a character that practically raised them. I welcome any further thoughts, arguments or threats to extend and broaden this important debate.


Hanny Dopkins said...

Dose a muppet have to be created by Jim Henson or the Jim Henson Company? Can the muppet definition expand beyond the scope of one company! I say that it should. Muppets are puppets who are soft and mop like. Why not Lady Elaine Fairchilde! While she isn't the most "mop-ish" puppet I've ever seen, doesn't the fact that it brought so much happiness to us all count, even just a little?

Deehan said...

Certainly not.