Can you recommend a book or a course that will help me learn about storytelling? I get asked this a lot.
So often in fact that I’ve decided to write this post which will henceforth be my go-to reference for all future questions related to the art and craft of writing or telling stories.
Just watch a few episodes of The Muppet Show, or its reboot Muppets Tonight. It will teach you everything you need to know about how stories work. No, I’m not being flippant. I’m deadly serious. The Muppet Show, and in fact anything related to the entire franchise is rock solid when it comes to storytelling. It has all of the right ingredients. Let’s take a closer look.
- Jeopardy – each episode has this in spades, because of the simplicity of the premise. The objective each week was the same. Put on the show. And each week pretty much everything that could wrong, did go wrong.
- Incredibly stressed leading man – poor Kermit. No frog should ever have to put up with that much stress.
- Strong, confident, always bang-on-trend leading lady – Miss Piggy is an icon in so many ways.
- On again, off again romance – Kermit and Miss Piggy were the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor of the Muppet world.
- Iconic minor characters – pick your favourites from a list that includes Animal, Camilla the chicken, Gonzo the Great, Scooter, Rowlf the Dog, Beaker, the Swedish Chef, Clifford and many more. People get very involved in a debate about their favourite Muppets character which confirms the importance of lavishing attention on all characters, not just the main ones.
- Multiple perspectives – the narrative of each episode is so intensely layered and there are always several plot lines going on at once. The beat structure is extraordinarily complex. Each episode has a special guest, several crises to address so that the show can actually go ahead, one-off sketches, returning sketches, an interview with the special guest, and Statler and Waldorf providing commentary in the form of heckles and barbs from their box. No wonder Kermit was exhausted all the time.
- Story of the week – whether it was the original five series of The Muppet Show or the shorter run of the 1990s reboot Muppets Tonight in which the action moved from the theatre to the TV studio the show was always built around the guest. The guest is the story of the week. The names got bigger and bigger and there was nobody they couldn’t get to appear on the show. As proof, I offer one example of their pulling power. Prince. Or The Artist Formerly Known as Prince as he was then. I’ll just let that hang there for a moment while you take that in. They booked Prince. And he agreed. It is a life changing 23 minutes of television. Google it and watch in amazement. Prince. Playing the guitar and singing songs. With Muppets!
- Parody – they parodied some of the most iconic shows of all time and in doing so they created a sub-genre that was just as memorable. Pigs in Space is a classic example. The guests willingly parodied themselves. My favourite ever episode is from Muppets Tonight in which the guest is Sandra Bullock. In a direct parody of the film Speed, the weekly jeopardy focuses on a bomb in the studio which will explode if the show’s ratings drop below 50. Up steps, Spamela Hamderson to save the day. Spamela was one of the stars of a recurring sketch Bay of Pigswatch, itself a parody of Baywatch, and her actions make the ratings rise, only for them to fall when she gets tired. The dramatic tension, and the comedy work perfectly and on paper, it looks and sounds so simple. You know the writing is good if something that layered and nuanced feels simple. The Muppets did that every week. Even Jim Henson parodied himself. Henson was notorious for always going over budget and there are frequent throwaway references to the show’s budget made by the Muppets. Usually following a stunt or an explosion there will be a cutaway to a Muppet asking if that was in the SFX budget.
The franchise didn’t just lead to books, feature films and spin-offs, it laid a foundation for many other shows. Ricky Gervais nods to it with regards to Extras (the special guest). Tina Fey has openly acknowledged the influence of the Muppets on her creation 30 Rock (live TV). Once you start to look you’ll find similar references everywhere. Drop the Dead Donkey is a good example from British television. Each week they would get ready to go live to the newsroom and each week something would go badly wrong.
By all means, read books and go on courses. They will teach you things about writing and storytelling. But first, go on to YouTube and start watching Muppets clips and episodes. All you’ll ever really need to know is in those videos.