Frog Soup for the Muppet Soul
Kermit the Frog attends the 12th Annual Latin Grammy Awards in Las Vegas, Nov. 2011. Photo: John Shearer/WireImage

I’m a 42-year-old male adult, and for the last few days I’ve been listening to the same song about Muppets on a constant loop and bawling.

The song comes from a soundtrack to the new Muppet movie (out Nov. 22), which otherwise doesn’t have a lot of surprises. There are songs about how great it is to have friends and songs about grappling with a Muppet identity crisis and songs with chickens squawking the melody to Cee Lo‘s “Forget You.” If Greil Marcus had strong opinions about Muppet compositions, he wouldn’t write a review of this album that begins “What is this shit?” His review would begin (and probably end) with “Yep, pretty much what I was expecting.”

But then there’s the song “Pictures in My Head.” Like the rest of the soundtrack, it’s not especially adventurous terrain. It’s a sentimental ballad about being sentimental. Kermit waxes poetic about the old days, singing lines like “Sometimes even frogs have rainy days” and “Your cannonball trajectory, it always gave me hope.” I have listened to it exactly (and I’m not exaggerating) 36 … no, wait, now 37 times, and I’ve cried each and every time. Sometimes I just tear up a little, and sometimes it’s the full-on keening that tends to happen only after the death of a parent or a child. I don’t know why I keep listening to it. Maybe because I can’t believe that a song about a Muppet missing other Muppets would make me cry this hard, so I just have to check one more time to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.

Everybody I’ve shared this embarrassing character flaw with tells me it’s nostalgia. I’m not crying over that specific song, they say, but my memories of Kermit the Frog singing “Rainbow Connection” in the first Muppet movie back in 1979. But I don’t think this is true. I never cried at “Rainbow Connection.” It’s a pretty song and I’m not aesthetically opposed to it. But it never gave me goosebumps. It doesn’t make me yearn for a different time and place. When I drink too much, I don’t sit in a dark room and watch “Rainbow Connection” on YouTube over and over again. I’ve had many heated discussions with my wife about the lyrics to “Rainbow Connection” and how they don’t make much sense. “Why are there so many songs about rainbows?” I can think of just two. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.” Oh, and that My Bloody Valentine song “Paint a Rainbow.” And the rainbow song from that awful Rolling Stones psychedelic record. And Mitch & Mickey’s “Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” from the Christopher Guest movie A Mighty Wind. And didn’t Dio have a rainbow song? Whatever, fine, there are a few songs about rainbows. But I wouldn’t quantify it as “so many.” It’s not like anybody is thinking, “Jesus Christ, enough already with the goddamn rainbow songs!”

In a weird way, I guess my unabashed weeping at “Pictures in My Head” is about nostalgia for me. But it’s not fond memories of watching singing Muppets on TV or in the movies that tugs at my heartstrings. It’s my fond memories of literally singing with puppets.

“It’s not fond memories of watching singing Muppets on TV or in the movies that tugs at my heartstrings. It’s my fond memories of literally singing with puppets.”

During the fall of 1978, my brother announced that he was going to become a ventriloquist. This isn’t the sort of news a parent wants to hear from their eight-year-old son. I will never forget the look on my father’s face. Our family was gathered around the kitchen table, having a hurried breakfast before fleeing our separate ways, and my dad was trying to read the morning paper in peace. He couldn’t have looked more disturbed if my brother had said, “Some of the guys and I have been experimenting with bondage, and I think I’m a sub/bottom. Can I use my allowance to buy one of those leather masks with zippers for eyes?”

There are a lot of very valid reasons not to reproduce, but the one they never tell you is this: You may, at some point during your child’s life, need to talk them out of a career in ventriloquism.

My father, wise as he was, couldn’t find the right words to explain exactly why this was a bad, bad idea. He just listened to my brother and rubbed his chin and frowned without being too obvious about it. “You do what you want,” he finally said, returning to his newspaper. “Just don’t bring it in the house.”

My brother had his reasons for being lured to ventriloquism, they just weren’t good reasons. It had something to do with an episode of The Love Boat, which featured an African-American ventriloquist act named Tyler and Lester. It was troubling enough that my brother was taking social cues from The Love Boat, but what’s really disturbing is that we were allowed to watch The Love Boat at all. When a parent walks into a room and realizes that their children are looking at Gavin MacLeod in short-shorts, aren’t they morally obligated to destroy the TV with the closest blunt object? And then, if you know anything about parenting, you sit down with your child for a heart-to-heart talk about nautical safe sex and male camel toes.

There was no talking my brother out of his choice. He’d even picked out his dummy from the Johnson Smith catalog, carefully selected from a diverse selection of three. It came with a monocle and a top hat, and vaguely resembled Charlie McCarthy, if Charlie McCarthy had made some major career missteps and ended up doing dinner theater in Michigan and developed an addiction to Oxycontin.

Of course, if my brother decided to do something, I had to imitate him. Never mind that I was two years older, and long past the age when an interest in ventriloquism, however casual, could be easily dismissed as “just a stage he’s going through.” Not wanting to be too obvious in my plagiarism, I picked the next most appealing dummy in the catalog: A freckled redhead named Danny O’Day, dressed in a plaid jacket and bow-tie. One look at Danny and you knew his entire backstory. He was probably the manager of an Orange Julius at his local mall, and he enjoyed playing the French Horn, chaperoning church social hay rides and crying himself to sleep. He’d kissed a guy once, but it was in college and he’d had too many wine coolers so he didn’t think it counted. His favorite karaoke song was “Playground in My Mind,”  he’d seriously contemplated growing a mustache and he’d eventually die in his mid-40s after a botched attempt at erotic asphyxiation.

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