Back in high school, I spent a lot of time talking with the P.E. teacher about Muppets. He wasn’t a huge fan, but he did enjoy some of the Muppets’ work… with the exception of Miss Piggy. Miss Piggy bugged him. At first I wanted to argue and explain that the pig is one of the greatest fictional characters of all time, but when he said that Miss Piggy only seems to show up, be obnoxious, rub her ego in everyone’s faces, karate chop Kermit, and leave, I had to admit he had a point. Over time, she had become this way, and I still find her appearances in various media to be the ones I least look forward to out of all of the Muppets. While plenty has been written about how Gonzo’s evolution over time has not been for the best, I would like to be the first to expose the devolution of Miss Piggy and plead for its end.
I have a theory about fictional characters; I call it the SCIP Theory. I may not be an established writer with a complete understanding of character development, but I’ve noticed that one of the best ways to build a character is to start with the scared child in pain. We start with a child dealing with some emotional pain: a loss of loved ones, loneliness, bullying, etc. The child naturally fears that this pain is the essence of life, and will never end. (For example, a young orphan boy lives under the stairs of his nasty uncle and aunt’s home, where he is considered inferior to his cousin who bullies him, and he fears that he will never amount to anything.) The character’s solution to the problem, which is usually an illogical one since it is thought up by a child, then forms the journey that his/her life will become. This origin of personality does not need to be stated in the work of media featuring the character, but the writer/performer should probably keep it in mind.
That being said, it seems to me that Miss Piggy was built with a similar method of character development. The avid Muppet-documentary-watcher will recall that Frank Oz always had to reach inside himself and “get hurt” in order to play Miss Piggy. He knew to start with pain, and he worked up from that level. Miss Piggy became a very layered character, with a top layer of feminine diva. Frank has described her as a truck driver trying to be a woman, which reveals that below the feminine diva there is a masculine, rough, tough, trucker. These and other layers are key to the comedy of Miss Piggy, but are somehow lacking in recent appearances.
I should make it clear that I do not blame anyone in particular for the current problems with Miss Piggy, because I believe her devolution started, though very subtly, in the 1990s, and then gradually continued into the Jacobson years. The change may have come from the performers, writers, directors, studios, or perhaps another factor I have not considered, but the big change is this: Miss Piggy is now flat. Today she is a feminine diva, not a truck driver trying to be one. This may not seem like a big deal, but it is actually huge when one considers the source of the comedy of Miss Piggy.
This is the comedy of Miss Piggy: a fat pig (that is naturally a rough, tough, dirty slob) is trying to convince everyone around her, and even herself, that she is a beautiful woman…but everyone keeps poking holes in her guise, revealing the inner hog. The challenge is worse because she has to get her crush to fall in love with her, but he can see right through her.
That is the Miss Piggy joke, in all it’s irony. …Okay, I will admit that I do not have any source indicating that Frank Oz or any other official sources have described the character in this exact way. I still stand by this summary of the character, and dare any who disagree to find a clip from her first fifteen years indicating otherwise. Consider how her behavior on The Muppet Show is not only fixed on making Kermit believe that she is perfect, but making herself believe it as well. She used to be incredibly insecure and she had no idea how to handle it, and that is what made her likable. Now, she is not at all insecure, and the enjoyability of the character is reduced significantly.
The lower layers need to be there, and we need to see her accidentally revealing them at the worst possible times, or else she is not funny. Her comedy is in her complexity, and I rarely see this complexity anymore. It’s fun to watch her frantically try to cover up the holes people poke in her top layer, but her top layer is too thick for that now. Perhaps the issue is not as big as I claim it is, and maybe she is still just as lovable for everyone else as she used to be. However, keep this quote from Frank Oz* in mind: “She grew up in a small town in Iowa; her father died when she was young, and her mother wasn’t that nice to her. …She has a lot of vulnerability which she has to hide, because of her need to be a superstar.” Frank outlined her autobiography. This shows that he had a deep understanding of her pain, her past, and her complexity. This may sound horrible, but I want to see Miss Piggy in pain again.
*This quote comes from a New York Times article about The Muppet Movie published in June of 1979 by John Culhane.