The Muppet Show Mash Up – Character and Cultural Connections Between M*A*S*H and The Muppet Show
What does a TV series about a group of misfit surgeons in the Korean War have in common with a ragtag group of puppets running a variety show? The obvious answer is not a lot, but this could not be further from the truth. I am talking about M*A*S*H and The Muppet Show – M*A*S*H, a comedy drama based around a U.S army medical base in the Korean War; The Muppet Show a comedy series featuring Jim Henson’s Muppets and their live variety show. M*A*S*H and The Muppet Show aired in overlapping years. The Muppet Show premiered on September 5, 1976 screening 120 episodes over five series until March 15, 1981. M*A*S*H was adapted from the 1970 feature film, MASH (dir. Robert Altman) which was in turn based on Richard Hooker’s novel, MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors (1968). M*A*S*H screened in the U.S from September 17, 1972 until February 28, 1983.
The political and social environments in which these shows were born played a pivotal role in their development and subsequently why they are so similar, particularly in terms of their parallel characterisation.
The Patriarchs: Hawkeye and Kermit the Frog
M*A*S*H and The Muppet Show both feature groups lead by a patriarch. Alan Alda starred in M*A*S*H as Captain “Hawkeye” Benjamin Franklin Pierce, a wise cracking, gangly doctor and the overall leader in the M*A*S*H world. We can draw a direct line between Hawkeye and the Muppet star, Kermit the Frog – also a comical, gangly, unassuming leader of his own group of misfits. Looking at both characters there is not only a physical similarity (as much similarity there can be between a man and a puppet frog), but their roles are almost identical. While Kermit is not as overtly comical as Hawkeye, they are both the centre of their respective shows from which all else emanates. In their patriarchal positions, both hold authority over their groups, instituting an almost familial relationship dynamic. In the recent film, The Muppets (2011) this family dynamic is repeatedly emphasised with Kermit always at the helm, holding the group together just as he did in The Muppet Show heyday. M*A*S*H shows this patriarchal family state by virtue of army rank, with lower ranking characters such as Radar and Klinger always seeking out Hawkeye with their problems. This patriarchal role is not externally imposed on Hawkeye or Kermit, as both assume the role themselves with Hawkeye always initiating any scheme or plan and Kermit always taking control of his show.The patriarchal similarities between Hawkeye and Kermit are particularly compounded by the dominant female in each show. In M*A*S*H and The Muppet Show, a battle between feminism and traditional patriarchal roles takes place with the interplay between Hawkeye and Houlihan, and Kermit and Miss Piggy respectively. Both shows are a microcosm of the contemporary social changes taking place in the United States and around the world, with Houlihan and Piggy’s interactions with their leading men representing the feminist push against what had been accepted gender roles. The feminist characterisation of these ladies is expanded later in this discussion.
The Comical Offsiders: Fozzie Bear and Hunnicut
Allowing Kermit and Hawkeye to sparkle in their respective shows were the always important comical off-siders. For M*A*S*H, there were two in the series run, both of whom were essentially the same character. Captain John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers) played the comical off-sider until 1975 when he was replaced for the reminder of the series by Captain B.J. Hunnicut (Mike Farrell). Hunnicut was Hawkeye’s best friend, confidant, and comedic partner. The interplay between the pair helped to establish the tone of M*A*S*H style comedy – a type of rebellious, anti-establishment, sarcastic humour – for each episode and the series.
Parallels can be drawn from Hunnicut to The Muppet Show’s Fozzie Bear. Fozzie is Kermit’s loveable off-sider, and as a stand-up comedian he is literally Kermit’s comedic partner. Fozzie and Kermit are best friends in every Muppet show and Muppet movie. Fozzie’s jokes are generally bad which allows others in the cast to play off him with their own sharp sarcasm and wit. The similarities also extend to the physical; Fozzie and Hunnicutt both have ginger brown hair, Hunnicut often with facial hair. The strong similarities between these characters also further reinforces the parallels between Hawkeye and Kermit.
The Oddballs: Klinger and Gonzo
Jamie Farr’s portrayal of Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger, in M*A*S*H is almost the mirror image of The Muppet Show’s Gonzo. Both have large noses, outlandish behaviour and even more outlandish costumes. While Klinger’s oddball behaviour was part of his attempt to be discharged from the army as mentally unstable, Gonzo is a little strange as he is an alien and just a weird guy. In their actions and appearance, both Klinger and Gonzo can be seen to represent the uncertainty and flippancy of disenfranchised social movements of the time, a self-discovery and a method to rebel against the norms of established society. They are the outsiders with heart and humanity, and are searching for a deeper connection. In M*A*S*H it was a cross dressing soldier searching for a way out, in The Muppet Show, a hook nosed alien searching for identity and a place to fit in.
The weird outsider character is common in television, and like Klinger and Gonzo often appears with unusual physical characteristics to set them apart and enhance their odd behaviour. Examples include Kramer from Seinfeld, the Lone Gunmen from The X-Files, Chucky from Sons of Anarchy, and Game of Thrones’ Tyrion Lannister. The outsider appeals to a little piece of every viewer as we all think we are unique. The oddballs provide a voice to elements of society that cannot be explored in main characters.
The Leading Ladies: Houlihan and Miss Piggy
Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit) was the starring female of M*A*S*H, and the frustrated sexual tension between herself and Hawkeye was a key component in the show. Miss Piggy was the starring female in The Muppet Show and an unrelenting pursuer of Kermit’s affections. There is some physical similarity, both with blonde hair, big blue eyes and a dominant physical facial feature – Piggy and her snout, Houlihan her “hot” lips. Interestingly, The Muppet Show featured an ongoing skit with Miss Piggy playing a nurse, driving home the similarities even more.
Houlihan and Piggy are both extremely strong women and are direct expressions of their contemporary social and cultural environments. Where Hawkeye and Kermit represent the patriarch, Piggy and Houlihan personify the burgeoning feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s that pushed against the established social patriarchy. Piggy and Houlihan walked a fine line between being pursued by a man, being the pursuer of a man and being strong independent women, thus appealing to a wider range of viewers. Although Houlihan and Hawkeye did not end up together, there was a chemistry that at times erupted in passion. This was likewise with Miss Piggy and Kermit in The Muppet Show, although the characters were eventually married in The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984). The 2011 Muppet film continues Piggy’s balance of her need for independence and her love for Kermit.
The Straight Man: Burns, Winchester and Sam the Eagle
The straight man is a long familiar character in a wide variety of TV shows. Howard Cunningham in Happy Days, Ned Flanders in The Simpsons and Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory are a mere few. The purpose of the straight man is to be a target, a deflection and a contrast for the humour of other characters. In M*A*S*H the straight man was both Major Franklin Burns (Larry Linville) and Major Charles Winchester (David Ogden Stiers). Both Burns and Winchester were upstanding, straight arrows in the M*A*S*H camp. Both of them thought they were better than everyone else; Winchester in particular was a lofty snob. Burns and Winchester, while different characters, both fulfilled the same straight man purpose.
Sam the Eagle played the straight Muppet. Most like Winchester in behaviour and attitude, but Burns in looks (especially the smirk), Sam the Eagle was self-righteous, balding, perpetually grumpy and overly bossy, all traits of both Burns and Winchester. In M*A*S*H it is the rebellious Hawkeye and Hunnicut who are always at odds with the straight men; in The Muppet Show, Sam interjects and cuts through the chaos, but is ultimately himself cut down by the assorted cast. These straight characters represent authority, rules and regulations. They instil what is the right path, not necessarily morally or ethically, but in a black and white sense. Their right is an organisational right. Both sets of characters represent the same authoritarian ideal, and both sets are the target of ridicule.
Metaphorical Function: Sweetums and the Duality of North Korean Soldiers and the Monstrosity of War
There is no physical duality between the Muppet Sweetums and any M*A*S*H character, however Sweetums does embody a thematic connection. Sweetums can be seen to parallel the duality of the North Korean soldier and army in general in M*A*S*H. There are times in M*A*S*H where the U.S. medics treat a Korean solider. There is often resistance but the patient is typically scared, friendly, or confused, but at all times human. The war and the greater enemy are personified in these patients, these fragile human beings. This is Sweetums. He is all rage, yelling and flailing arms on the surface but beyond that he is peaceful and serene, and has just as much humanity as everyone else. Both Sweetums and the Korean patients show a different side of a brutal surface. This resonates with the idea that M*A*S*H and The Muppet Show are comparably reflective of a time of great social change that was inspired by the human condition.
M*A*S*H, The Vietnam War, Moratoriums and Movements
Such obvious parallels between such an unlikely paring of shows all has to do with when they were created for television. Both shows were developed in the United States in the 1970s, but carried with them a social climate developed in the 1960s, a major decade of social and political change. This turbulent decade saw President John F. Kennedy elected and assassinated; Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the first real push for Civil Rights legislation. The 60s was also the decade of the hippie counterculture, a rebellion against the mainstream, government and social order which was driven in a big way by protests against the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. This sentiment was at its highest in 1969, the year of the large Moratorium protests against the Vietnam War. This anti-war movement spread beyond the hippie culture into universities, and into the wider community. Mainstream media beamed coverage of the war and protests into households throughout America delivering a new socio-political awareness to the average person. This new awareness led eventually to popular culture being able to appeal to this new sensibility with edgier and more political programming. This is where M*A*S*H comes into play.
M*A*S*H was a perfect show to illustrate the lighter side of the military, during a time when America was still ensconced in the continuing Vietnam conflict. While being based around the Korean War, the similarities to the Vietnam War written into the show are undeniable. M*A*S*H allowed people to laugh at war but also see the darker, more real side of the conflict and the human nature of the enemy. It was effective in bringing the military that in previous years had been shunned and shouted down by the protestors, into the media in a more positive tone while still showing the dark side of war.
The Muppet Show and Popular Counter-Culture
The Muppet Show was developed within these same movements. While not so much a direct product of the anti-war movement, The Muppets were definitely children of the free loving counter-culture which flourished in the 1960s. The best example of this is The Muppet Show house band, Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem. There are a variety of claims as to which real life musicians Dr. Teeth’s ensemble were based on. Flamboyant American musician Dr. John is said to be the inspiration for Dr. Teeth himself, while the mad Muppet drummer, Animal is rumoured to have been inspired by The Who’s drummer, Keith Moon and also Fleetwood Mac’s Mick Fleetwood. Obvious parallels can be made between Muppet flower-child guitarist, Janice and iconic American counter-culture artist, Janis Joplin. Sgt. Floyd Pepper bears a resemblance to Jimi Hendrix, with his name an obvious reference to Pink Floyd and The Beatles album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The Muppet Show in general has a very free and artistic nature about it, all of course contrasted by the austerity of Sam the Eagle. M*A*S*H shares this free spirit quality. Hawkeye and Hunnicut rarely dress in uniform and never salute. They continuously flaunt the rules, laugh at regulations, and despise authority. Hawkeye and Hunnicut embody the social movement of the 1960s, again contrasted by Burns and Winchester, those stiffer, stricter types around them.
M*A*S*H and The Muppet Show were each developed during a time of massive social change. It was a time of protest, anti-authority and fun and these qualities are evident in both shows. They may have slightly different methods, but they certainly share characters with parallels in look and action due to the ideals which they represent, the movements from which they were born, and the social and cultural sentiments their respective creators wove into the fabric of the shows.
The Muppet Wiki
Suggested Further Reading and Viewing
Finch, Christopher. Jim Henson: The Works – The Art, The Magic, The
Imagination. New York: Random House, 1993.
Hooker, Richard. MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors. New York:
Pocket Books, 1968.
Solomonson, Ed. TV’s M*A*S*H: The Ultimate Guide Book. Pennsylvania:
Bearmanor Media, 2009.
MASH. Altman, Robert. Aspen Productions, 1970.
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