‘Muppets Mayhem’ Brings Sorely-Needed Fun and Self-Parody to the Pop Music World

The Disney+ series takes one part of the original Muppets franchise — the rock band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, previously relegated to the background — and not only updates it but expands it into a whole new entity all its own.

Disney/Mitch Haaseth
Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. Disney/Mitch Haaseth

I’m only up to episode four of “Muppets Mayhem” — the new Disney+ series revolving around the Muppet rock band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem — and already I have more than a few favorite moments. 

Take this one: early in the fourth show, the band stumbles across a vintage VHS tape of themselves playing the classic R&B hit “Rockin’ Robin” on a 1980 episode of the original “Muppet Show.” This becomes a mantra for the episode: the overarching plot of the ten episodes is that the Electric Mayhem are a legendary band who have toured for fifty years, but, for whatever goofy reason, have never made an album. 

Lily Singh plays an ambitious young “record label lady” (as the band calls her) who is determined, against incredible and often hilarious odds, to get their album produced. After they watch the video, they decide they want to include “Rockin’ Robin” on the album. Ms. Singh, however, insists that they have to record something new (to paraphrase Albert Brooks on a classic episode of “The Odd Couple”), “something now, something happening.” 

So the band tries a set of collaborations with marquee-name contemporary pop artists to turn the 1958 “Rockin’ Robin” into something now and happening. Kesha reimagines this rather flighty and frivolous pop ditty as a deadly serious anthem of social significance: “he rocks in the treetops all day long, but is that his choice — or society’s?”  (Dr. Teeth responds, “Kesha just imploded my brain and broke my heart.”) 

Then they team up with Desiigner for what they call a “mumble rap” interpretation, which is completely incoherent.  But it’s not nearly as strange as the version presided over by Deadmau5 (think “dead mouse”), which isn’t even music so much as costumery in which the band wears giant cartoon rodent heads and crashes into things.  

The most palatable take on “Rockin’ Robin” is a reggae arrangement featuring Ziggy Marley, who, emotionally overcome, storms out of the studio after a few lines because it turns out Janice, the band’s guitarist, broke his heart many years ago.

Both of the key strengths of “Muppets Mayhem” are brought out in this segment, which only last two minutes.  It’s a chance for the current music industry to get away from its epically self-aggrandizing seriousness (is there anyone alive who can watch more than two minutes of the Grammy awards without choking?) by imbuing contemporary pop with a sense of fun and self-parody that it sadly lacks on its own.

The insider gags and Easter eggs are abundant, starting with the band themselves: Doctor Teeth (Bill Barretta) sports a beard, glasses, hat, and keyboard in an undisguised homage to Dr. John the Night Tripper (maybe there’s something Professor Longhair and Dr. Hook in there as well).  Fender bassist Sgt. Floyd Pepper (Matt Vogel), who happens to be constructed from pink cloth, amalgamates the Beatles and Pink Floyd.  

Saxophonist Zoot (Dave Goelz) takes his name from Zoot Sims and his hat and image from Gato Barbieri.  Lips (Peter Linz) borrows the mumbles routine of fellow trumpeter Clark Terry.  Guitarist Janice (Holly Thomas) is like totally for sure a California blonde valley girl flower child, with the name of Janis Joplin and a diamond shaped face reminiscent of both Mary Travers and Joni Mitchell circa 1970; she’s the one who embraces every new age trend from aromatherapy to “pantsless yoga.”  

Animal (Eric Jacobson) is an exaggerated semi-verbal amalgam of every wild-and-crazy, off-the-rails rock or jazz drummer ever.  You could also make the point that Penny Waxman (Leslie Carrara-Rudolph), the New York-y yenta who owns the record company, is a riff on Florence Greenberg of Scepter Records.

The idea of taking something old and making something new out of it, as shown in this bit, is at the heart of the show.  “Muppets Mayhem” successfully takes one part of the original Muppets franchise — a subset of characters who were previously relegated to the background — and not only updates it but expands it into a whole new entity all its own. 

In the best Muppet tradition, the music is excellent — every episode has a very worthwhile, straight “cover” of a classic tune which underscores the most genuinely heartfelt and emotional part of the show.  Episode four builds to one of the most touching interpretations of “God Only Knows” that I have yet to hear — delivered in the tradition of such epic Muppet ballads as “The Rainbow Connection” and “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday.” 

And yet I wonder: Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem were first seen in the 1975 special, “The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence,” and are clearly an early ‘70s rock group with horns a la Chicago or Blood, Sweat & Tears.  They exemplify the age of bands extolling sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. 

While there’s plenty of the latter, there’s virtually none of the first two — this is nothing like the sexed-up puppet parody “The Happytime Murders” (2018) directed by Brian Henson, son of Muppets founder Jim Henson. Neither weed or even tobacco is even mentioned, so how is it that the members of the group all talk like stoners? 

Here’s hoping that the series fares better than “Muppets Tonight” (1996-1998) and “The Muppets” (2015-2016), two excellent shows that didn’t run nearly long enough. “Muppets Mayhem” should please both lifelong fans like myself as well as millennials who, unlike myself, actually know who Zedd and Karamo Brown are. 

Now I only wish that, next season, that Kermit and Piggy and the other Muppets might make cameo appearances like the rock stars do here, and like the other “Star Trek: The Next Generation” characters do in “Picard.”  Can you picture that?  

The New York Sun

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