Digging deep into the buried strata of pop culture from two months ago: I wasn’t a huge fan of The Muppets overall- too much sad, nondescript new guy, too little Swedish Chef- but the low point was definitely the song “Let’s Talk About Me,” the god-awful rap delivered by Chris Cooper’s villainous oil tycoon:
Entertainment Weekly described this scene (which features Cooper dancing around his office in a Muppet version of a rap video) as “brain-pausing, spit-take inducing lunacy” and “one of [the Muppets'] strangest big-screen moments.” I’ll grant that it’s a weird scene.
However, I don’t think the song or the scene themselves are all that weird. To understand this scene, you have to know that, because music was such a big part of the show, the world of the Muppets was tied in to pop music in a very deep way, even to the extent that there are Muppet characters (the Electric Mayhem) who have specific referents in the real world of rock and roll: Keith Moon, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, Dr. John, Gato Barbieri. Numerous pop musicians appeared on The Muppet Show, and for pop music performances to happen on the show, so far from being remarkable, was part of its very structure.
But when The Muppet Show was on the air, hip-hop wasn’t much more than a gleam in the eye of a few DJs in the Bronx. The last widely seen Muppet film (The Muppets Take Manhattan) was made in 1984, the better part of a decade before the gangsta rap explosion. There’s no overlap between the world of the Muppets and the world of hip-hop.
Therefore, I don’t really think that what’s weird about this scene is the song or the action themselves. I think what’s weird about it is simply that the Muppets have never done a rap before. So the weridness is simply the incongruity of seeing a 60-year-old white man and a bunch of puppets performing a pastiche of gangsta rap.
In my opinion, that’s as far as the “joke” goes, because the song that Cooper performs here is really stupid. Sample lyrics:
I got more cheddar than some super-size nachos
Got cash flow like Robert has De Niros
I use more greens than Vincent Van Gogh
I make the baker make my bread out of dough
No, don’t eat it though- it’ll make you ill
There ain’t no flour in a hundred-dollar bill
As I mentioned, this is essentially a pastiche of a rap song, constructed out of the signifiers that are used in pop culture to represent rap lyrics: boasts about having money, expressed in the form of awkwardly phrased rhyming analogies and bad puns. Not only is this an old joke, it’s barely even a joke at all, because this is actually what some people think rap is. In fairness, this used to be sort of true- 20 years ago.
I don’t find this scene funny. But that doesn’t mean that the idea of finding humor in the juxtaposition of Muppets and rap music is completely without merit.
I think the Bert & Ernie one is my favorite, probably for the clip of Ernie rapping while Bert tosses and turns in bed.
Ultimately, the Muppets may have to engage with hip-hop in the same way they do with other pop music. Today, rap has been popular for nearly as long as rock and roll had been when The Muppet Show debuted, and if Mick “Bitch” “Rocks Off” “Sister Morphine” Jagger can be a Muppet, then surely the day can’t be too far off when Jay-Z, or at least ?uestlove, is rendered in felt.
Anyway, if the problem with “Let’s Talk About Me” isn’t simply that it relies on the juxtaposition of Muppets and rap, maybe the problem is that gag rap songs aren’t funny.
Let’s see if we can find some evidence for that.
The Community Christmas rap is especially instructive, because Donald Glover’s verse is a lot more enjoyable than Danny Pudi’s. Why? He’s a better rapper! Interestingly, Pudi’s most absurdly hilarious line:
If years were seasons, this December
Would be the December of our December
is similar structurally to one of Cooper’s from “Let’s Talk About Me:”
If something’s for sale consider it sold
I’ve got so much gold I gold-plate my gold
but the impact isn’t the same, because as mediocre as Pudi’s rapping is, Chris Cooper’s is downright TERRIBLE!
Sorry! I loved you in Lone Star, man.
So I think the lesson here is not that joke rapping isn’t funny, or that Muppets rapping isn’t funny, but that poorly performed rap isn’t funny (unless of course the joke IS that it’s poorly performed). Which makes sense; would it be funny to hear Chris Cooper performing a ridiculous folksong badly? No; it would be funny to hear a ridiculous folksong performed well:
Frankly I think it would be hilarious if Chris Cooper were a really good rapper. Unfortunately, it’s apparently not as easy as it looks.
To bring this all home, I feel like I need to point out that not only can rap be funny as a joke when it’s well-executed- it can be hilarious even when the music itself is not a joke. As someone who was into Weird Al (who has at least two other raps that I could have used above instead of “White and Nerdy!”) before any normal-people music, I think that’s one of the things I appreciate most about hip-hop.