When I’d started in on watching The Muppets Mayhem, my greatest fear was that it was going to "correct" Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem for not being sufficiently productive in ways required by the normative, capitalist economy.
In the end, I guess they avoided doing that, as much as is possible for a franchise owned by a large, globally-dominant entertainment corporation, and the Mayhem seem essentially to remain in their own little do-it-yourself world, although there are two episodes near the end where it gets pretty dicey.
One thing about television in the age of social media, though, is that I’ve had my attention brought to certain problematic tropes that once learned I then recognize right away.
Earlier this year when I was doing another rewatch of The Good Place, I blogged about the running gag of Kristen Bell’s Eleanor routinely getting wrong the last name of William Jackson Harper’s Chidi Anagonye. I’d felt the need to bring it up because it hadn’t been all that long since I’d learned that Jasika Nicole hated a similar running gag on Fringe in which John Noble’s Walter routinely gets wrong the name of her character, Astrid.
When a Fringe fan apologized for not seeing it that way but as a term of endearment from curmudgeonly Walter, Nicole explained, “Most white people don’t do things to intentionally hurt the feelings of POC. And that’s the point. No one ever thought to ask how it made me feel cause it was written through the lens of whiteness. Just cause someone doesn’t SEE the harm doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
Having been tagged into the conversation, Noble himself chimed in to say, “I can see that now,” adding: “I apologize for anything I may have done to appear disrespectful.” Nicole, though, quickly made clear that her former co-star had nothing for which to apologize.
So, anyway, it happens again on The Muppets Mayhem. This exact same running joke.
Just to be clear: it’s once again an actor of color bearing the brunt of the gag, as characters regularly get wrong the name of Tahj Mowry’s Moog.
It should be noted, of course, that I’ve no idea if this bothered the actor himself. That’s not really my point, as I’m bringing it up mainly to illustrate that certain things that previously went unregistered by me now get noticed immediately when they happen again.
Worse yet for The Muppets Mayhem, after going to this well repeatedly with Moog, the show somewhat gobsmackingly runs the same joke on another Black actor: none other than Morgan Freeman, who plays himself. It’s weird to go to the same well twice like this, and I admit that I wasn’t sure I was going to blog this at all until the show did it to a second person.
Technically, it happens to Lilly Singh’s Nora, too. TV Tropes tries to wave all of this away: “Due to his hazy memory, Zoot rarely gets anybody’s name correct (like calling Nora ‘Dorothy,’ Moog ‘Gorp,’ or Morgan Freeman ‘Marvin’).” The problem is that all these examples, the only ones they provide despite the “rarely”, are people of color. Also, Zoot isn’t the only one who does it.
It should be noted, as TV Tropes does, that the show does appear to take an editorial stance against some naming jokes: “Moog starts calling her ‘Thunderdome’ but stops when she makes clear she doesn’t like it. JJ calls her ‘Smoochie’ no matter how much she tells him not to.” The repeated misnaming of people of color, however, remains a gag.
Again, to be clear: I’ve no idea if any of these actors at all were bothered by the joke. It’s just that after the Fringe story, I keep running into it in other shows and it’s seemingly, indeed, always at the expense of a Black character.
It’s not my place to police the joke. It’s just that I’m fascinated by its endurance, and fascinated as well at how so much of the context of watching television has been shaped by things I learned from what was social media at its best: exposing me to viewpoints and lived experiences to which I’d otherwise not likely have had access.