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Muppets gone wild

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.”

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“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.”

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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.’ ”

Paul and Stinson cite as their inspiration an early giant of the genre, a widely forwarded trailer parody of “The Shining” that remixed scenes from the movie with upbeat music and narration to create an incredibly convincing romantic comedy trailer. However, the genre’s roots go back even further, before the dawn of the digital age, to at least 1987 when a filmmaker dubbed dialogue from “Apocalypse Now” over Winnie the Pooh cartoons and created a haunting nine-minute film, “Apocalypse Pooh Now” -- which in itself has found a new life today, widely forwarded and posted on the Internet.

In a parallel universe, a portal

AS soon as MySpace and YouTube made the passage from viral upstarts to new media establishment, the hunt for the next big thing went into hyperdrive. And it took tech writers and bloggers all of about seven minutes to crown an aspirant to the Online Hottie Throne. Second Life, the online virtual-world video game -- tomorrow belongs to you!

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Second Life, which you will no doubt soon be seeing as the subject of magazine cover stories, business analyses and cultural critiques, is a role-playing video game in which players create alternative reality characters (avatars) for themselves. They then go about living lives in a world that allows them to create, do, build or be anything they can imagine. They can construct mansions and furnish them, recruit an army and go to war, have relationships and bizarre group sex, attend AA meetings, sit in a coffee house and complain about their real lives -- all are part of the experience. There is a Second Life currency, which people earn in an allowance, augment by taking on jobs (the illicit ones being the highest paid, shockingly) and trade in the open market for actual U.S. currency (as of this writing, the exchange rate of SL’s Linden dollars to U.S. dollars was 284.50 to 1).

Web die-hards complain that Second Life is merely a watered-down version of the already established virtual game World of Warcraft. To which cultural savants respond, the tiny difference of not being in a Tolkien-inspired realm of orcs and jousting is likely what will make SL, shall we say, welcoming to a broader community. Non-techies ask: Why would I want to play a game where I have to get a job? Because, you’ll be told, this is more than just a game -- Second Life, the prognosticators wax -- is how you’ll communicate, make friends and navigate your world in the future. YouTube plus MySpace times Google, more or less.

Time will tell, but the recent explosion of interest was sparked Oct. 18 when Second Life gained its millionth member. The same week the United States gained its 300 millionth citizen -- but SL is growing, they will tell you, much, much faster. Already Reuters has assigned a full-time reporter to the virtual kingdom. Symposiums cannot be far behind.

richard.rushfield@latimes.com

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