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'His finest hour': Henson biographer Brian Jay Jones and I chat about 'Muppet Family Christmas'
You can’t watch this Christmas classic on Disney+. We talk about why. PLUS: The DC Studios shakeup continues, ‘Wakanda Forever’ tops the box office again, and NFT-pushing celebs get sued.
I adore A Muppet Family Christmas. It was my first entry into the world of Jim Henson. My mom taped it off TV, and our family would watch it on VHS year after year after year. Now, you can watch several bootlegged versions on YouTube.
Why YouTube and not streaming or Blu-ray, you ask? Surely, someone could be making money on this thing.
A Muppet Family Christmas, in its original form with all its songs and characters, does not exist on any official streaming service or physical media.
Brian Jay Jones was kind enough to chat with me about that last week. If you’re not familiar with Brian’s work, he has written several biographies, including ones on Washington Irving, George Lucas, Dr. Seuss and — most importantly for us here — Jim Henson. (It’s fantastic and you should check it out.)
We talked about how we watch Muppet Family Christmas, why there’s no official version available and what the special might’ve meant for Henson’s future had he not passed away. We talked for an hour and a half about so much more than this Christmas special, some of which I hope to share in the next edition of Popculturology.
As such, this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bill Kuchman: Everyone, especially this past week since it’s the 30th anniversary, talks about Muppet Christmas Carol. But to me, A Muppet Family Christmas — that’s my Muppet movie. And I think that’s actually how I was first introduced to Muppets.
Brian Jay Jones: I actually came to Muppet Family Christmas late. I have to tell you I actually came to Muppet Family Christmas, I think, when I was writing the bio.
My Christmas production was always [Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas]. That’s why even when we come down to those contests over what’s the greatest Christmas special, when it gets down to Emmet Otter and Muppet Family Christmas — as well it should, in my opinion — I have to give the edge to Emmet just because of the nostalgia thing. But I love Muppet Family Christmas. I think it’s probably [Jim Henson’s] finest hour.
Bill: I love that cameo toward the end. I feel like Muppet Family Christmas had a special place for him. He died in 1990. Obviously he had no idea he was near the end.
Brian: There’s something super cool and a little eerie that he makes an appearance in that one. The gang’s all here. Jim makes his appearance. And then we lost him kind of shortly there after.
“I can’t attest to how important [Jim Henson] thought it was at the time, but I think the fact that he appears in it gives us an indication of that.”
— Brian Jay Jones
Bill: One of the lines that got me is, “They certainly seem to be having a good time out there, Sprocket. I like it when they have a good time.”
Brian: It’s great. I choked up watching it again last night. It gets me every time.
Bill: In your book, this whole special boils down to two pages. Do you have any idea how this came together?
Brian: No. I love that kind of stuff. I don’t remember there being anything in the files on it at all really … I should maybe go back and search his interviews at that time. Maybe if I go back and look, I might find something there where he talks about the origins of that.
Bill: To me, [Muppet Family Christmas is] the Avengers of the Jim Henson universe.
Brian: To me, it’s the DC/Marvel crossover. It’s everything. It’s every universe colliding in there.
Brian: There’s something so cool about when they go to the door for the carolers and you see Ernie and Bert bounding in. They’re all sitting there, and Grover is sitting behind somebody he shouldn’t be sitting behind. It’s such a cool moment. And it really makes me wonder who had that “wouldn’t it be awesome if?” idea there.
Bill: The rights issue is the big thing here. Disney+, you have all that Disney money. But in reality it’s not just Disney that has this problem. This is a Henson production and everything has gone in different directions now.
Brian: I always wonder with this stuff, like when The Muppet Show was in limbo and we were all debating would it ever be on Disney? I don’t actually know the math on this, but I constantly say the rights issue on something like for Disney is a fucking rounding error.
I’m sure Sesame, especially with HBO’s involvement would be like, we’re fine. You’ve got dispensation. I would really think between Disney, Henson and Sesame, they could pull this off. I don’t know why it’s impossible. We all seem to think it is. I seem to think it is. I don’t see it happening. I don’t why it wouldn’t though.
Bill: People do love this movie. The YouTube bootleg that I watch every year now has 1.4 million views … But for some reason, no one cares enough to flag it for copyright violations?
Brian: That is amazing. It makes me wonder if there’s a nod and wink on it. Remember at the end of Mystery Science 3000, they’d say keep circulating the tape?
Bill: For a special that obviously mattered to Jim Henson, that matters to so many people, this is the way we watch it? This version, it actually ends, as the credits are rolling, with a plug for the evening news —
Brian: The dead baby?
Bill: With keeping a dead baby alive. A doomed baby! Why is this how we’re watching this?
Brian: It’s still underground even though it’s out there for everybody to see on YouTube. Watching it with the commercials. There are some people out there I see who say “I have this on VHS,” but I don’t know if there was ever a complete version on VHS.
Bill: I don’t think so. You can go on Amazon right now and buy an official DVD of it. It’s like fifty dollars. It has the wrong version of Miss Piggy on the cover.
The “official” cut is also has different opening titles and is missing the “Sleigh Ride” musical number with Fozzie and The Snowman …
Brian: Which is like the best part. One of the best parts.
Bill: The Muppets Baby section is cut out. And I think the songs at the end are gone too.
Brian: It just doesn’t make any sense.
“[A Muppet Family Christmas is] a gift from above. It landed here for all of us to enjoy. We don’t know where or why or how.”
— Brian Jay Jones
Bill: I don’t know if it’s one of those things where no one cares, or it’s just not a priority for Disney and Henson?
Brian: Yeah, I don’t know. It could be that it’s not a priority. Now apart from the jurisdictional issues with the characters, it’s the music issues. And I always think, it’s the Disney Company. How hard is it to clear songs? Christmas songs are in things all the time.
Bill: I think if Disney were to say: “Henson, HBO, we wanna make this right. We wanna put this out there for real. How much would we have to give you?,” they could make it happen.
Brian: I would love to see them figure something out. Again, I can’t attest to how important Jim thought it was at the time, but I think the fact that he appears in it gives us an indication of that. Especially since it did come out so close to his death when you get that magical moment.
Bill: This is one of the all-time Christmas specials, and unfortunately with Jim being gone, he didn’t make it to this era of everyone really showing affection for it.
Brian: This is probably that era when he’s trying to figure out how to get back into TV. … When you’re going through the archives, there’s a lot of stuff on what became the Jim Henson Hour. That was where a lot of his energy was going into, getting back on TV.
It’s like Jim was like, how do we get back on TV? What do we do really well on TV? Well, we do The Muppet Show really well, we do the Fraggles really well, we do Sesame Street really goddamn well.
So you put those all together. This is what we do. It’s almost his love letter to television in a way, as well. It could be that this is him practicing — if we get back on TV, this is the kind of fun shit you’re going to get out of me.
The problem we’ve got, Bill, is I’m no help on the big question you’ve got. Why? We don’t know yet. It makes me want to go back and look.
Bill: That just goes back to the core of [Muppet Family Christmas]. It exists. People know it exists. People love it. But we don’t know how it came about, we don’t know why we can’t get it now.
Brian: It’s a gift from above. It landed here for all of us to enjoy. We don’t know where or why or how.
A huge thanks to Caitlin, my wife, for giving this interview an edit and a second set of eyes.
Happy Monday, and thanks for reading Popculturology. I love writing about pop culture, and I hope you enjoy reading this newsletter. If you do, please subscribe. It’s the easiest way to make sure you get every edition of Popculturology. Now let’s get to the news.
The DCU shakeup continues
It’s been a week for DC Studios and the former DCEU. Among the carnage: Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman sequel (and possibly Gal Gadot as the title character), a Black Adam sequel, Henry Cavill’s return as Superman and Jason Momoa in the role of Aquaman.
So. As for the story yesterday in the Hollywood Reporter, some of it is true, some of it is half-true, some of it is not true, & some of it we haven’t decided yet whether it’s true or not.
Although this first month at DC has been fruitful, building the next ten years of story takes time & we’re still just beginning.
[Peter Safran] & I chose to helm DC Studios knowing we were coming into a fractious environment, both in the stories being told & in the audience itself & there would be an unavoidable transitional period as we moved into telling a cohesive story across film, TV, animation, and gaming.
But, in the end, the drawbacks of that transitional period were dwarfed by the creative possibilities & the opportunity to build upon what has worked in DC so far & to help rectify what has not.
We know we are not going to make every single person happy every step of the way, but we can promise everything we do is done in the service of the STORY & in the service of the DC CHARACTERS we know you cherish and we have cherished our whole lives.
As for more answers about the future of the DCU, I will sadly have to ask you to wait. We are giving these characters & the stories the time & attention they deserve & we ourselves still have a lot more questions to ask & answer.
Gunn is one of the more open people working in the entertainment industry right now, hopping onto social media to address major stories like this one or even to clarify minor things like why the Comic-Con trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 wasn’t going to be available online.
That said, what’s he really going to say here? “Yup, we’re cleaning house. It’s all gone. We wanted a fresh slate.” No. Of course not.
My main takeaway from Gunn’s statement is that he didn’t deny any specific of the THR piece and he all-caps focused on “STORY” and “DC CHARACTERS.” Not specific actors. Not specific movies. Gunn and Safran are going to do whatever they have to do to tell the stories they want with the characters they want.
It sounds like Warner Bros. Film Group heads Michael De Luca and Pamela Abdy asked Jenkins to take another run at a treatment for the sequel after feeling that her take wasn’t working. Jenkins refused and reportedly told De Luca and Abdy “that they were wrong, that they didn’t understand her, didn’t understand the character, didn’t understand character arcs and didn’t understand what Jenkins was trying to do.”
TheWrap also confusingly reported that Jenkins’ Wonder Woman sequel was one of a few “ongoing enterprises” that “nobody was going to mess with.” (The others in that group are allegedly Matt Reeves’ Batman sequel, Todd Phillips’ Joker sequel and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Superman project.)
Steven S. DeKnight, the showrunner on Daredevil’s first season and director of the Pacific Rim sequel, had written a treatment for a Man of Steel sequel. Warner Bros. execs weren’t a fan of the treatment, but before another set of writers could take a run at the project, Gunn and Safran arrived.
In addition to that, Flash and Batgirl screenwriter Christina Hodson was repeatedly working on a Batman Beyond adaption that would’ve continued Michael Keaton’s return as Batman, possibly showing him romantically involved with Catwoman in the future.
Heat Vision also had some Superman news, reporting that there was a “long-range plan” to return Henry Cavill as Superman that would’ve happened through a massive Crisis on Infinite Earths adaption. Unfortunately, Dwayne Johnson’s independent push to bring Cavill back for Black Adam derailed that plan.
Taylor Swift is directing a movie
Taylor Swift knows you can’t EGOT without an Oscar. The singer/songwriter is jumping into the moviemaking game and will direct an original script she’s written for Searchlight Pictures.
“Taylor is a once in a generation artist and storyteller. It is a genuine joy and privilege to collaborate with her as she embarks on this exciting and new creative journey,” Searchlight presidents David Greenbaum and Matthew Greenfield said (via Variety).
No word on a title, plot or cast for Swift’s film, but she has Guillermo del Toro on her side.
The Dark Tower rises again
The Dark Tower movie we got in 2017 is barely a movie. Yes, it has actors reading lines, was recording in some form and then shown it theaters, but it failed on just about every other level. (I know that it didn’t fit the character’s description in the books, but Idris Elba as Roland Deschain was pretty cool.)
Now Mike Flanagan and Trevor Macy will attempt to turn Stephen King’s sprawling set of novels into a television series. Deadline broke the news on Thursday that Flanagan, the filmmaker behind Doctor Sleep and Netflix’s The Haunting series, has written a pilot and season outlines for a Dark Tower adaption.
Rights to this project exist outside of Flanagan and Macy’s former Netflix deal and current Amazon deal. Flanagan did cite Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power as an example of “current shows on Prime Video that fit your palette of tone, genre treatment and budgets that you’d like to have for your shows,” so that bodes well for Dark Tower if it winds up at Amazon.
What’s on your mind? Leave a comment to let Popculturology know your thoughts on pop culture.
Star Wars Jedi: Survivor
I own a PS4. I don’t play it often. I bought it when everyone else in the world bought a PS4 to play Sony’s Spider-Man game. (Absolutely worth it.) Since then, I’ve played Star Wars Jedi: Outcast and a bit of MLB: The Show. (There are too many games in an MLB season.)
Thanks to Star Wars Jedi: Survivor and the upcoming Spider-Man 2 video game, I’m going to have to buy a PS5. Don’t tell Caitlin. It’ll be a surprise.
Star Wars Jedi: Survivor will be available on March 17, 2023.
“They have to now. It’s time,” my wife said as Gregory and Janine almost kissed at the end of Abbott Elementary’s Christmas episode.
Assuming we’re following the Office template, which Abbott Elementary has expertly navigated through its first and second seasons, this show should have its “Casino Night” moment by the end of this season.
Rick and Morty
Remember last week when I was bragging about being caught up on Bob’s Burgers? I thought I was about to check Rick and Morty off my list of shows only to realize that the universe somehow snuck not one but two episodes into my YouTube TV library.
I tackled the crassly named “Analyze Piss” on Saturday, instantly recognizing Will Forte’s voice as the episode’s villain Piss Master. (Or was Jerry the true villain?) Which member of Congress will be courageous enough to propose a law requiring Forte’s Last Man on Earth to get a final season before anyone greenlights a Big Bang Theory revival?
This is one that I had never seen but Caitlin suggested watching over the weekend. It passed the “is it worth $3.99 to rent through Apple?” test, and we set out to watch The Holiday, Nancy Meyers’ Christmas romcom.
Points to whoever convinced Meyers to write and direct Make Cameron Diaz and Jude Law Kiss: The Movie.
Turns out the rumors of a sequel to The Holiday were false too.
Every Home Alone movie, ranked (Keith Langston, Entertainment Weekly)
We’re in denial about the true cost of a Twitter implosion (Eve Fairbanks, Wired)
All school kids should eat lunch for free (Bridget Huber, Mother Jones)
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Um, where’s the Saturday Night Live section that usually runs on Mondays?
Don’t worry, it’s bigger and better. I’ve spun the section off as its own newsletter! Deep SNL Thoughts publishes on Sundays, and the first edition is already live.
Weekend of Dec. 9-11, 2022
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (1)
Weekend gross: $11.1M / Total domestic gross: $409.8M / Percent drop: -37
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever wraps up its fifth week on top of the domestic box office chart. Unless Disney forgets to transmit Avatar: The Way of Water to theaters, James Cameron’s sequel will dethrone Wakanda Forever next weekend. Ryan Coogler’s film climbed to the No. 9 spot among entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, passing Iron Man 3’s $409 million and putting Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ $411.3 million into its sights.
Violent Night (2)
Weekend gross: $8.7M / Total domestic gross: $26.7M / Percent drop: -35
Strange World (3)
Weekend gross: $3.6M / Total domestic gross: $30.5M / Percent drop: -29
The Menu (4)
Weekend gross: $2.7M / Total domestic gross: $29M / Percent drop: -22
Weekend gross: $2M / Total domestic gross: $17M / Percent drop: -27
Cameron isn’t letting the ten-year gap between his first two Avatar movies deter him from talking a ton of about the third and fourth and fifth Avatar movies during the promotional tour for The Way of Water. While chatting with Collider, the director revealed that Avatar 4 is so crazy, instead of getting studio notes, all he got back was a note that said, “Holy fuck.”
“You think you know what [Avatar 4 is] about, and then, oh no, you don’t,” Cameron told Collider.
Avatar 4 is an office romcom, isn’t it?
Celebs who promoted NFTs get sued
Jimmy Fallon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Justin Bieber are among a group of celebrities being sued for promoting Board Ape Yacht Club NFTs.
“The truth is that the Company’s entire business model relies on using insidious marketing and promotional activities from A-list celebrities that are highly compensated (without disclosing such), to increase demand of the Yuga securities by convincing potential retail investors that the price of these digital assets would appreciate,” reads the complaint filed on Thursday in California federal court.
All of this is so stupid and so predictable. Look how cringeworthy this segment between Fallon and Paris Hilton is.
Super Mario Bros. Movie visits the Mushroom Kingdom
Once you picture Chris Pratt’s Mario voice as Linda Belcher from Bob’s Burgers, you can never un-hear it.
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