Muppets inspire us to make world a better place

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ABC's "The Muppets" premiers Tuesday at 8 p.m.

It’s time to get things started ... again.

Kermit the Frog and company make their way back to network television when The Muppets premieres Tuesday evening on ABC.

I know where I’ll be: sitting in my family room, laughing and smiling along with the colorful creatures on the screen, just as I was nearly 40 years ago when the original Muppet Show aired (1976-1981). The gang is back together, and this time I get to share them with my children.

Shot in documentary format and complete with behind-the-scenes interviews and glimpses into the personal lives of the felt-covered stars (à la 30 Rock), this new incarnation of the show finds the Muppet gang producing a late-night talk show hosted by Miss Piggy.

The premise harkens back to the original show, which likewise covered the behind-the-scenes antics of Kermit and friends creating a variety show. While the historic vaudeville Muppet Theater has been traded in for a television studio, the cast has not.

And it is the cast that has drawn generations of children and adults into the Muppet family, characters that are loving but not without fault, irreverent but not without kindness, hilarious but not without sincerity, and struggling but not without hope. It is a cast not unlike us, or the human hands that brought the Muppets to life — Jim Henson.

Henson was a childhood hero of mine and an icon in our family, an inspiration of creativity, hopefulness, and kindness, someone whose ambition in life, as he once stated, was to “leave the world a better place than when I got here.” When he did abruptly leave the world in 1990 at the age of 53, he most certainly had achieved that goal.

Shortly after his death, while sitting with my family on my childhood back porch and discussing Henson, I remember looking out the backyard toward our garage. I wondered aloud: “Wouldn’t it be great to paint a mural of the Muppets all along the side of the garage?”

To which my father, always one to prod, nudge, and support the dreams of his children, replied: “You can’t paint one on the garage, but you can in your bedroom.”

That was all we needed to hear. In the ensuing months, my brothers and I — with the much-needed assistance of a future sister-in-law who happened to be an artist — sketched and painted the Muppets on my bedroom wall. There was Kermit, of course, and Miss Piggy. Fozzie and Gonzo. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker. Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. Even Lew Zealand and his boomerang fish made an appearance.

When finally finished, more than 30 colorful characters smiled from the plaster canvas that was my bedroom wall. Jim Henson, sitting in a director’s chair, was painted on the door. Not a bad group of roommates to have.

I was reminded just how special that wall was — or rather, how special my parents were for allowing us to paint it — when Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch gave his famed “Last Lecture” in September 2007. My father was dying of cancer at the time, and so was Pausch.

During his lecture, Pausch reflected on his own childhood and recalled asking his parents’ permission to paint on his bedroom wall when he was a teenager. “I want to paint things on my walls,” he said, “things that matter to me.”

Pausch’s father, like my own, gave him the green light. “He encouraged creativity just by smiling at you,” recalled Pausch.

So it was that he set to work painting the things that mattered to him: a quadratic equation, chess pieces, a rocket ship, a submarine, and Pandora’s Box. Inside Pandora’s Box the young Pausch wrote the word hope.

To me, Pausch’s wall and my own Muppet mural embody what is at the heart of Jim Henson and his furry friends. They are lovers and dreamers, filled with passion and hope, working together to leave the world a happier place, and inspiring us along the way.

Tuesday night, when those rainbow-colored teenage roommates of mine come to life in our family room, I’ll watch in gratitude as Henson’s legacy inspires a new generation of lovers and dreamers.

I’m curious to discover what they'll paint on their own walls.

Contact Michael T. Dolan, a writer from West Chester,  via www.conversari.com.