Is ‘The Muppet Show’ Racist?

A Disney+ disclaimer creates a cultural uproar

Like so many people of a certain age, I grew up watching The Muppet Show. The songs and sketches hummed in my brain, goofy background noise for years. After my son was born, and during the years when he was basically under my cultural control, I bought a collection of Muppet Show episodes on DVD and shared the delights with him. And when I watched the recent Disney+ Muppets reboot, I thought, this is OK, but it’s sure not the old Muppet Show.

Then, last week, more than 100 episodes of The Muppet Show appeared on Disney+. This would take my Muppet Show memories to a new level, and help escort me down the long slope to senescence. I chose the Steve Martin episode first. My wife likes Steve Martin, so I knew she’d watch that with me. So I was surprised when, before the episode, I saw this disclaimer:

The Muppet Show, the mandatory disclaimer said, features “negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures.” These stereotypes, it added, “were wrong then and are wrong now.” But Disney has decided to include them anyway to spark conversation and lead us toward a more “inclusive future together.”

What? Could it be? Was my beloved Muppet Show racist? I needed to watch some episodes and find out.

The answer is definitely: Yes. At the same time: Where else are you going to see Debbie Harry sing ‘Call Me’ with an all-puppet band?

Marvin Suggs and his amazing dancing stereotype machine

The racism on the Muppet Show takes a very specific form. Jim Henson was a progressive supporter of civil rights. So the Muppet Show doesn’t, as far as I could see, contain any racism against Black people. Maybe there’s some sketch with Bob Hope and the dancing Blackface chickens that I missed, but nothing stuck out. The Muppets had many prominent Black guest hosts, including Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Diana Ross, and Ben Vereen.

The one exception to that rule comes in the Johnny Cash episode. Unlike other Muppet guest hosts, who bandy about backstage sharing their dressing-room concerns with Kermit, Cash spends his time sitting in a barn setting, singing “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog” and “Orange Blossom Special” directly in front of a Confederate flag. That might have flown in 1978, but now our culture considers the Confederate flag basically the American Nazi flag. It’s cringey, but it’s also Johnny Cash singing with the Muppets. So what are you going to do?

If you’re Hispanic, there might be more material to find offensive. The occasional sombrero-wearing mariachi player pops up, muttering the odd ay yi yi. The show’s very first episode features Rita Moreno doing a ridiculous Puerto Rican “street” accent while Miss Piggy mocks her. But it also features Moreno dancing with, and then kicking the crap out of, a stereotypical French Muppet wearing a beret and a twirly mustache.

The Muppet Show’s real crime is trafficking in broad ethnic categories that no longer even remotely apply. The proper tea-and-crumpet Londoner, the effete, wine-swilling Frenchman, the bork bork bork Swedish chef had their days. But other than the chef, who’s so absurd that he’s basically become his own category of person, the categories don’t apply anymore. And some of them are way more offensive than others.

Muppet Show

I surfed through old episodes of The Muppet Show, watching the Muppets sing with Julie Andrews and Debbie Harry. There was an offhanded reference here, a greedy Arab puppet there. And then came the Spike Milligan episode. This British comedian and creator of The Goon Show, one of the most annoying people in entertainment history, presided over some sort of Muppet “Festival of Nations”, a broad parade of ethnic stereotypes that might have given people in a 1905 vaudeville hall pause. The opening number, a tribute to the “Land of the Rising Sun”, features Fozzie Bear singing “Oklahoma” while a group of slant-eyed puppets wearing Chinese peasant-style hats attempt to sing “Yokahama”.

Then, in the climax to the show, Milligan shows up in a rendition of “It’s A Small World” wearing a Fu Manchu costume and buck teeth. The groovy Hawaiian puppets in the image below are the least of the number’s problems. There’s a “primitive” Muppet with a bone in his nose. Watch this number and tell me: Is ‘The Muppet Show’ racist?

It’s like a kind of torture

The Disney+ disclaimer caused Fox News to express its own outrage that “cancel culture” had come to the Muppets, which caused the left-wing media to say that Fox News was itself racist because it refused to admit that The Muppet Show was racist. In other words, the ongoing culture war had come to Pigs In Space.

As someone for whom The Muppet Show is a defining document, I can admit that The Muppet Show is racist. If you are of Chinese descent, it’s particularly racist. But so what? Is there any thinking person alive who can watch the Peter Sellers “gypsy violin” song and not think “that’s racist?” Are people so uncritical that they will just take that 50-year-old musical number as gospel?

There’s also the fact that, other than maybe the Chinese, no culture gets stereotyped harder in The Muppet Show than white ethnic culture. Nearly every episode contains at least one song featuring jug-playing, foot-stomping, gun-toting hillbillies. Half of The Muppet Show is toothless old white Muppets strumming on the old banjo. Those stereotypes are also incorrect, and potentially offensive. But, like in the rest of the Muppet Show, the music is usually good.

We are very sensitive right now, like an exposed tooth nerve touching an ice cube. So do we really need a disclaimer? Can’t we think for ourselves? And there’s also something quite ironic about the fact that Disney is spending a lot of time, effort, and publicity to deliver us trigger warnings about anti-Chinese racism, while also doing everything it can to suck up to the Chinese government and help them downplay the ongoing genocide of the Uighur people. I didn’t see a disclaimer about that before the Crystal Gayle episode of ‘The Muppet Show.’

The old Muppet Show is not ‘A Muppet Christmas Carol’ or other late, bland Jim Henson material. It’s basically a stoner puppet comedy from the 1970s. Until John Denver entered the picture, it wasn’t really for kids at all. So when it comes to racism, or anything else, maybe it’s time that Disney stopped treating us like children.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

10 thoughts on “Is ‘The Muppet Show’ Racist?

  • February 25, 2021 at 4:29 am

    No. white people have proven they cannot think for themselves when it comes to recognizing racism in 400 years. Its not their place to decide what is offensive to other cultures, as they have tried to do for centuries to keep us in line. Its time ti listen, not speak for us. Listen and amplify our voices, not speak for and dismiss.

    • March 17, 2021 at 6:00 pm

      Thanks for thinking all white people are racist…..

  • February 25, 2021 at 5:32 pm

    Hey Frank, you should study racism in non-western cultures. It’s pretty horrific. Tolerance is a concept that has really flourished in the West.

    • March 3, 2021 at 11:09 pm

      You can’t reason with people who only see things as “Us and Them”. As if all white people are ignorant and racist by default…

  • March 5, 2021 at 2:08 pm

    We have truly lost the ability to laugh it ourselves. Humour is on its deathbed.

  • May 28, 2021 at 11:33 pm

    Not sure how the muppets is racist. Sorry don’t see it. I know at points it does depict certain stereotypical traits of people from other countries or nationalities or cultures. But if they didn’t have this then they would have been racist, would have been representing one type of person and culture? The majority of people from certain areas are recognized by physical and cultural traits BUT NO WHERE can I account in any of the episodes it shows that one culture or race is more Superior over another ( besides Miss Piggy but that is an individual and not represented of the pig race). The show was supposed to be made for entertainment ( sometimes satirical ). Geez the host is a frog puppet. This will be known as the age of censorship.

  • June 26, 2021 at 12:18 pm

    Um, are you implying that because the Chinese government is bad, the Chinese PEOPLE don’t need any protection from racism? Not with all the racism they’ve been facing during the whole pandemic? Aren’t you conflating the government’s actions, which most Chinese people don’t approve of and none consented to, with the people?

  • August 13, 2021 at 6:36 am

    Most of the argument here is great IMO but come on, seriously, you can’t see a reason why Disney should put a disclaimer before this? “when it comes to racism, or anything else, maybe it’s time that Disney stopped treating us like children.” The Disney+ app is FOR KIDS (not saying it’s not for adults too, but seriously). There are undoubtedly children on the app and I, for one, am glad that there will be disclaimers ahead of offensive programming (at least, for the kids that can/will read…).

  • October 28, 2021 at 9:11 pm

    (((Neil Pollack))). I’m wondering why a “fellow white” person would find racism in the muppets? Maybe because he isn’t a white person, he’s a jem. I’d be surprised if he found anything white people did that wasn’t racist.

  • November 4, 2021 at 6:39 pm

    The Muppets was created in a time when language was different, and the US was predominantly white. Slang changes over the years, just as what is and isn’t acceptable, socially speaking. What there racism back then? Yes, and it was ugly. There is racism now, and it’s still ugly. However, if you’re looking to be offended, you will always find something to offend you – people who fail to put these things into context and are quick to throw stones, might just be the ones having to defend themselves from the next generation and the next generation’s judgments. People used words and slang back then that is not acceptable today, and they did not use them to be mean in any way. What are you saying today that might be found offensive tomorrow, and would you ask for mercy from the next generation because of your own ignorance? How would you feel if somebody strong you up for something you said 30 years ago that was in no way meant to be offensive, and accuse you of being racist? How will it fit when the shoe is on the other foot? Remember racism against any race is wrong, including white people (And they do not have any corner on the racist market either, i’ve seen racism and plenty of different races) . The pendulum keeps swinging back-and-forth. Perhaps if everyone tried to live by the Golden rule instead of looking for the next person to pitchfork, there would be fewer problems in the world?


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