Editor’s update: We are happy to report that after this article ran, we’ve received word that Tango will appear as an actual muppet dog in Season 52 of Sesame Street this fall. Tango’s animated debut is just the beginning. However, the idea of a muppet that exists outside of the confines of being an actual muppet is still, arguably, weird. Therefore, the original article continues below.
Try to imagine a muppet that only exists as an audio track. It sounds sacrilegious, but it’s been happening for decades. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, Frank Oz, Jim Henson, and all sorts of classic Sesame Street folks laid down wonderful records in which Bert, Ernie, Big Bird, the Count, Oscar, and the rest of the gang did all sorts of schticks, minus the visuals of a puppet going through those classic muppet motions, because, of course, it’s only a record.
Now, did Oz and Henson keep themselves honest and bring the puppets into the recording studio? Is Ernie really Ernie without the puppet? Is Frank Oz’s performance as Yoda worse in the Star Wars prequels because Yoda was (mostly) CGI? (Yes?) These are questions that might keep some of us up late at night. And now, there’s a new and disturbing wrinkle. Because the world of virtual, non-physical muppets, is getting even weirder.
In a forthcoming new animated HBO Max special Furry Friends Forever: Elmo Gets a Pup, Elmo will adopt a puppy named “Tango.” But because this is animated we won’t see Elmo with a “real” puppy, instead, he will interact with an animated cartoon puppy.
In Elmo’s World, Elmo’s goldfish Dorothy is a real goldfish. (And Elmo is a “real” muppet.) In various episodes of Sesame Street, the Sesame muppets interact with “real” people and sometimes animals. Failing that, you’ve got a muppet dog who does not speak named “Barkley,” which stood in stark contrast to Rowlf the Dog, who, you know, talked and stuff.
But Tango is neither of these things. It’s just a cartoon dog for a cartoon Elmo. It feels like a double-betrayal. It’s one thing to try and wrap your mind around cartoon-only versions of muppets, but it another thing when a cartoon version of a muppet creates a very real missed opportunity.
Elmo is very unlikeable, but at least the muppet version of Elmo interacts with his World, which often includes real things. This is what makes the Sesame muppets, arguably, so much more interesting than other children’s show characters; their tactile muppet-ness gives them a layer of reality that you cannot find in cartoons.
Now, sure. Muppet cartoons have been happening for a while (Muppet Babies, et al.) but that doesn’t take away the betrayal of the brilliance of the muppets. The cool thing about the puppetry of the muppets is that they’re always kind of breaking the fourth wall for children; they are this thing that clearly isn’t real, and yet, they are real, because a puppet is a real thing you can play with. Giving Elmo a dog that is neither a flesh-and-blood-canine nor a muppetized puppet dog is, when you think about it, really weird. If anything, it already feels like Tango is a dream that Elmo is having or a nightmare we’re going to be forced to download into our brain, Minority Report-style.
On top of this, there’s also now a podcast-only muppet named “Foley,” who exists only in the world of podcasts, and again, as far as I know, has not been constructed as an actual muppet. This would be like if Dr. Frakenstein only re-animated the brain of the Creature, and perhaps, hooked up a few eyeballs so it could look out of a formaldehyde-filled jug. (Apologies to the ghost of Roald Dahl for that analogy.)
The point is, I choose to believe Oz and Henson brought in the actual puppets to record the non-vintage Sesame Street records. When I listen to these records with my daughter now, I don’t hear two guys in a recording studio, I see, in my mind palace, Ernie and Bert. This is as it should be. Somehow, they got away with it.
But a cartoon dog for a non-muppet version of Elmo? What’s the point? What makes this muppet dog more special than other cartoon dogs? If a muppet adopts a dog, but a puppeteer isn’t there to supply the fake barks, did it really happen?
Furry Friends Forever: Elmo Gets a Puppy will debut on Thursday, August 5 on HBO Max.