Waka! Waka! No one's censoring The Muppets but here's why The Daily Mail says they are...

The price of fear is constant made up vigilence.

I can understand why employees at The Daily Mail would feel a kinship with The Muppets. Like being a Muppet, working for the Mail titles must often feel a lot like having someone else’s hand up your arse and being made to parrot lines. The big difference is that Miss Piggy, Kermit, Gonzo and the gang have far more humanity and integrity that Jan Moir, Sarah Vine, Julian Glover and the ghoul parade in the Mail’s comment pages could ever achieve.

It was inevitable that the Mail, ever vigilant for signs of ‘cancel culture’ and the work of the ‘Woke Stasi’ would alight on the fact that Disney+ includes content warnings on a number of episodes of The Muppet Show. It already obsessed over alleged slights against Fawlty Towers and Dad’s Army for what seemed like months so the idea that Kermit might have been cancelled (much like his voice-a-like and less convincingly operated puppet Jordan Peterson) was irresistible.

Under the kind of restrained and balanced headline we’ve come to expect from the Mail titles — Now even The Muppets are branded racist Scarlet Howes, a news reporter for the Mail on Sunday, writes:

The Muppet Show appears to be the latest victim of political correctness with new warnings over its historic content.

The adventures of Kermit the Frog, Animal, Miss Piggy and friends now come with an alert about 'offensive content' and can only be seen on an adult account.

The move came to light when Disney made five series available last Friday on its streaming service…

Viewers are greeted with the disclaimer: 'This programme includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now.

'Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.' 

The warning is believed to refer to Muppet characters designed as stereotypes of Native Americans, Arabs and East Asians. 

In another episode, the singer Johnny Cash plays on a stage adorned with the Confederate flag.

Some episodes of the show, which was first broadcast 45 years ago, have disappeared entirely from British screens.

They include a 1979 one starring comedian Spike Milligan in which he and the puppets pay tribute to the 108 nations where the show was broadcast.

It depicted national stereotypes and polarised viewers for its fleeting use of a Nazi-style gesture. It is still available to American users of Disney Plus.

So, The Muppet Show, which previously wasn’t available on the streaming service is now in its catalogue but… that’s censorship? As it and other right-wing papers do when faced with the contextualising of history in general, The Mail on Sunday is angry because Disney wants to explain that racist stereotyping from 45 years ago to potentially young audiences.

The Mail on Sunday avoided mentioning that an episode featuring Chris Langham, then a writer on the show but later an actor, has also been removed from the series. But then that example would reveal that Disney had good reasons for putting up the warnings and excising some episodes: Langham was found guilty of possessing images and videos of child sexual abuse in 2007 and served six months in jail.

The Milligan episode has been a subject of debate among Muppet fans for years and the inclusion of the Nazi salute was controversial even at the time it was broadcast. Matthew Soberman of Tough Pigs, a website for “Muppet fans who grew up”, wrote about the episode in 2019:

There are some serious stereotypes here that simply do not fly with today’s sensibilities. Let’s start with the first musical number. The setup is that they’re doing a tribute to Japan, with a kabuki set design and the Mutations dressed as samurai dancing with swords. Out comes Fozzie Bear in a cowboy outfit singing “Oklahoma.”

Inherently funny premise, right? Then, several Japanese Muppets come out singing “We know we berong to the rand/And the rand we berong to is grand!” And that’s where it all falls apart. It’s a spectacular premise, with a great conclusion (Spoiler alert: “Oklahoma” becomes “Yokohama.”), but it’s that terrible characterization that derails what should be a fantastic sketch.

The finale, an all-nations tribute set to “It’s a Small World” where Milligan evades the guard of Sam the Eagle, is hysterical until Milligan disguises himself in a Chinese outfit and buckteeth and starts chattering around in mock-Chinese. It kills the whole mood… It doesn’t fit with the whole feeling of Jim Henson’s work.

… is the episode racist? Not to me. I genuinely believe that this work doesn’t come from a place of hatred or deliberate bigotry. I think a more fitting adjective is insensitive. The one thought that kept coming back to my head when writing this review was that this was made for 1979 – sensibilities were different, and we’ve become a more inclusive society. These stereotypes weren’t avoided because they were more acceptable then.

I’ve accepted this episode as a product of its time rather than timeless (like most episodes of The Muppet Show). But I also realize that I am a white male, and not necessarily the target of mockery. If I were Chinese, Japanese, or Arab, there’s a good chance I’d feel differently about the subject. 

But The Mail on Sunday didn’t seek out the opinions of dedicated Muppet fans for its outrage stoking. No, it used it’s now traditional approach of trawling Twitter to find a readymade rant to slot into the already-written article. The tweet quoted by Howes doesn’t show up in a Twitter search, but it may have been deleted since she published the story.

While The Mail is desperate to make this a story about ‘PC gone mad’ and ‘censorship’, fans of The Muppets Show actually appear to be generally delighted that it’s now available on streaming and the super-fans at Tough Pigs hail it, saying, “[Disney has] managed to clear over 98% of the series, and remastered the entire thing in the best quality we’ve ever seen of the show.”

They also explain that a number of the episodes that the Mail wants you to believe have been thrown in the memory-hole are, in fact, missing because of issues around music rights and might appear at a later date.

The Daily Mail is not alone in its spinning of The Muppet Show content warnings. Inevitably Fox News has boiled over with rage about the story. It rolled out Senator Tom Cotton — who called for troops to be called in to ‘deal’ with Black Lives Matter protests in a New York Times op-ed — to rail against the move as the hosts of Fox & Friends chuckled about the “Mickey Mouse move”. And, of course, one of the world’s stupidest men is aggrieved about the news:

The Mail on Sunday found its own mindless right-wing talking head to sound off about the story:

Tory MP Andrew Bridgen said: 'I would like to know which bunch of muppets thought this one up. It would appear if this continues kids won't be able to watch any TV programmes which are not newly made. Is nothing safe?'

Every tabloid journalist has a set of tame ranters in their phonebook and Bridgen, the Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire, has been a reliable source of outraged quotes since he sloped into Parliament in 2010. Usually, he’s found offering bumptious attacks on the BBC but no example of ginned up ‘wokery’ will occur without some dunderhead insight from him. Mail titles have quoted him 7 times in the past two months about various ‘outrageous’ issue.

It’s a handy arrangement for newspaper and politician alike. Bridgen gets to boast to his constituents about how frequently he has appeared in the national press, without mentioning how infrequently those appearances have been related to his work for them. The newspaper gets to bolster its flimsy outrage with concerns from an MP, despite the fact that they phoned him up and promoted the quote in the first place.

For The Mail, Fox News, and other right-wing outlets turning reasonable actions like putting content warnings on old shows into ‘censorship’ is a vital part of their mission to leave their readers and viewers fearful about the world. The so-called ‘war on woke’ is just a rebranding of the ‘90s battle cry “It’s PC gone mad!” and at the root of each there’s the same instinct: Fear of change.

Right-wing media relies on framing the world as an increasingly baffling place in which its consumers are no longer able to say or even think what they like. That increases the feeling within their audiences that only they understand them and only they are telling them the truth. Without enemies, within and without, the Mail’s entire business model wouldn’t work. That’s why it’s constantly on the attack, whether it’s judges during Brexit or Muppets during a global pandemic. But its greatest enemy of all will always be… context.