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Muppets gone wild

It's cold, it's cruel, but when Scorsese meets the `Street,' the parodies flow in endless streams.

October 29, 2006|Richard Rushfield | Times Staff Writer

SWEEPING through the debris field that makes up today's YouTube catalog, a few emerging schools of webcamography are evident: confessional videos by teenage girls, stolen footage of Jon Stewart and Asian game shows, caught-on-camera car accidents and faux pas, adorable pet moments and rampaging, ultra-violent, foul-mouthed Muppets.

Not surprisingly, it is that final genre that is attracting the great auteurs of the Internet today. Suddenly, everywhere you look across the Internet, Kermit and Miss Piggy, Ernie and Bert are cussing each other out like gangstas, battling to the death with armored weapons and restaging the edgiest films of our time.. The Muppet remix features the likes of "The Muppet Matrix" and "Murdah Muppets." The Web and its accompanying tools of low-budget editing have granted filmmakers the power to manipulate and reframe the great characters of entertainment to their hearts' desire. But with this freedom , an arms race has also begun, sending filmmakers in a competitive frenzy to place the Snuffleupagus in ever more compromising positions.

Among the recent entries to the unauthorized oeuvre: an animated shot-for-shot restaging of "The Matrix" trailer featuring Kermit in the Keanu Reeves role; a music video of rapping Muppets With Attitudes in which the N.W.A song "F*** tha Police" is cleverly dubbed into snippets of Muppet footage; and "C for Cookie," a spoof of "V for Vendetta" in which an underground hero played by Cookie Monster fights for citizens' rights to eat snacks all day long against an oppressive Big Brother-like dictator played by Oscar the Grouch. (Elmo tries his hand at the Natalie Portman role.)

Perhaps the most circulated recent entry into the genre is "Martin Scorsese's Sesame Streets," a series of respliced scenes from the Henson flagship show overdubbed with snippets of trademark dialogue from the director of "Taxi Driver" and "Goodfellas" canon. Panning over a scene of "Street's" Muppet and human cast singing atop their urban stoop, to jazzy theme music, a narrator intones, "In a world so familiar, some secrets just can't stay hidden." Soon we hear Joe Pesci's voice emanating from Grover, demanding of a little girl: "I make you laugh!?! I'm here to ... amuse you!?!"; Big Bird confronting Snuffleupagus, "You talkin' to me? Well, I'm the only one here, so you must be talkin' to me"; and Ernie and Bert's quiet domestic life recast as a fraught scene of betrayal and mistrust. "One neighborhood where time stands still and nothing is what it seems," the narrator deadpans. "Sometimes the most dangerous place to go is back home."

"Sesame Streets" is the work of Jim Paul and Max Stinson, two Chicago advertising executives who cut the piece for a film festival thrown by their firm and then uploaded it onto YouTube so they could share it with their friends, little realizing that it would soon be colonized by the voracious Internet audience, copied, linked to, e-mailed and reposted around the Net for an audience that now surpasses half a million viewers. In a case of how the Web's power often leaps away from its creator's intention, the pair were so unsuspecting that the video would have an audience outside their immediate circle that they didn't even put their names on it, posting simply as "mscorsese."

"We both like the Muppets," Paul said by phone. "So this was an opportunity to take these two extreme worlds and put them together."

Accustomed to working in the medium at their day jobs, the pair wanted to demonstrate how "you can take different audio and video, and take situations that actually exist and make it feel like something very different than how it was meant," Stinson said.

Starting first by writing a "Mean Streets"-esque trailer script, they sifted through DVDs of "The Best of Grover" and "Follow That Bird" to find moments that would give new meaning to the words, and vice versa. One shot, for instance, of Bert looking through the window at a sleeping Ernie is as spine-tinglingly sinister as anything in "Cape Fear." "We were looking for a moment of betrayal," Stinson said, "and suddenly we saw that shot and it just changed the way you look at it."

As the Muppet remix race builds, an almost diametrically opposed sub-genre is clogging the Internet airwaves: human re-stagings of the classic "Mah-Na-Mah-Na" song from "Sesame Street." At a recent count, YouTube had more than 100 non-Muppet retellings of "Mah-Na-Mah-Na," including a trash can "Mah-Na-Mah-Na," several baby "Mah-Na-Mah-Nas" and a "Drunk 'Mah-Na-Mah-Na.' "

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