There are many kinds of comedies. Slapstick, romantic, dark, road trip, parody, satire. You might think that 1979’s The Muppet Movie is a road trip comedy because at first glance it seems to be all about Kermit the Frog traveling across the country to hit the bigtime in Hollywood. But that’s not exactly true.
The movie is one big wink at the audience. Its framing device shows us that everyone in it knows that it’s a movie. It begins on a studio lot where the Muppets are eagerly awaiting the first screening of The Muppet Movie. We already know that they succeeded in their adventure, and what we’re watching is simply a dramatic recreation of the events that already took place.
When Kermit’s nephew asks if the events in the film accurately depict how the Muppets first came together, Kermit responds, “Well, it’s sort of approximately how it happened.” He’s letting us know that he’s in on the joke. And that joke is that this is an “isn’t it funny that” comedy. You can identify almost any joke in the movie with those words.
Isn’t it funny that Kermit the Frog is riding a bike?
Isn’t it funny that a bunch of ruffians thought there were literally drinks on the house they were in?
Isn’t it funny that a bear is driving a car?
Isn’t it funny that there’s a literal fork in the road?
Isn’t it funny that Miss Piggy just won a beauty contest?
Isn’t it funny that Miss Piggy is beating up a roomful of thugs?
Isn’t it funny that Steve Martin is playing a rude waiter?
Isn’t it funny that Mel Brooks is playing a German scientist?
Isn’t it funny that Animal grew to the size of a house?
Isn’t it funny that Orson Welles is the head of a studio and he instantly signs a contract to make Kermit a star?
But what’s the big deal? Couldn’t you do that with any comedy? For example, isn’t it funny that Jim Carrey is beating himself up in a bathroom in Liar Liar? Well, no, and I’ll tell you why. An “isn’t it funny that” comedy is distinct from other comedies because it is constantly telling the audience either that it’s about to tell a joke or it just told a joke. Think about it. It’s not me asking the question, “Isn’t it funny that” before all of these events in the film. It’s the movie itself doing that. While driving through the countryside, Fozzie muses on the fact that he’s a bear in his natural habitat – a Studebaker.
After Kermit tells Fozzie to take a left at the fork in the road, Kermit stares in disbelief as they pass an actual fork in the middle of the road.
Edgar Bergen and his dummy talk to the camera before the big reveal of who won the beauty contest.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing that the film constantly reminds us that we’re watching a movie. I wouldn’t expect a movie about a bunch of puppets interacting with real actors to take itself too seriously. The only other film series I can think of that falls into this category of constantly reminding the audience that nothing they see should be taken seriously is the Austin Powers films. 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery is always taking the time to explain why its jokes are funny. My favorite example is the famous “Who does No. 2 work for?” scene.
Then in The Spy Who Shagged Me, there’s this gem of a scene where Austin Powers and Basil Exposition explain the intricacies of time travel.
Of course, Goldmember takes things to a whole new level with its framing device. It begins with one of the funniest bits ever put to film.
And then the film ends with this funny twist, again hammering home the point that we were just watching a movie with Austin the whole time.
Goldmember takes the Muppet Movie route with its film-within-a-film conceit. And it works great. I suppose you could also say that Spaceballs does this to a lesser degree.
I’m not sure if The Muppet Movie was the first film to be quite so meta, but that hardly matters. The point is that any comedy that has the audacity to use its own script as a key plot point is doing something right.
Some comedies, like The Muppet Movie, can get away with explaining their jokes in detail to the point where it feels like the audience is participating in the jokes themselves. Isn’t it funny how that works?
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