“The Muppet Show” is a family comedy that aired from 1976 to 1981. “Muppets Tonight” is a continuation of the original show in which the Muppet characters are producers of a television show. The show aired on ABC from March to July of 1996.
On the 16th episode of “Muppets Tonight,” Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, the head of Muppet Labs, claims “society could really use a hero right now”. He creates a robotic Abraham Lincoln in hopes to bring back the heroic attributes of America’s 16th president to the present. Robot Lincoln proceeds to wreak havoc on the set of the show. Eventually the crazed robot calms down and Paula Abdul comes on stage, sits beside him and begins to sing “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers. Robot Lincoln seems to have a moment of introspection and then begins to sing along as well. A Muppet, Sam the Eagle, then comes on stage and talks about the important lesson concerning heroism that everyone learned.
Today the physical, material Robot Lincoln is stored with all the other Muppets that are no longer in use. The original manufacturer of the Muppets, The Jim Henson Company, sold them to Disney in 2004 and, upon the closing of that deal, the famous puppets were transferred to a building on the set of The Walt Disney Studio located in Burbank, California . There is no available information on whether or not Robot Lincoln is on display for the public. This indicates a lack of interest in the material memory of Robot Lincoln. In contrast, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and nineteen other Muppets earned spots in a glass case at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in 2013 . Robot Lincoln did not make the cut. The choice to display well-known television puppets over a re-creation of America’s 16th president is an interesting one. It may suggest a growing distanciation or “loss of detail” and “loss of emotional intensity” with Lincoln’s memory . These connections to Lincoln and other historical figures are steadily replaced with more recent memories, such as pop culture, television and technology – hence the selection of Muppets over a 19th century president. Although all Muppets maintain a material memory, varying placement of these artifacts can affect the portrayal of memory associated with the character. In Robot Lincoln’s case, the material memory has been removed from the dominant public eye and therefore takes away a small slice of Lincoln’s overall memory.
Although “Muppets Tonight” Robot Lincoln did not make it to the Smithsonian display, it is still a statement in itself that Lincoln was president of choice to play a role in the 16th episode (note: 16th episode and 16th president). In America the memory of Lincoln is held close to that of George Washington. Both presidents have been apotheosized and admired for their honor, courage and overall good moral standings. When society is in search of a hero, the Muppets choose to “revive” Abraham Lincoln. This portrays the dominant memory – a perspective held by the majority of the society – that is deeply attached to Lincoln as a hero, an idol and an American role model (Williams). It is interesting, then, that on “Muppets Tonight” the Lincoln robot does not behave in the expected manner. Shortly after his arrival on set, Robot Lincoln malfunctions. He becomes a crazed, Frankenstein-like character, which completely challenges our principal view of Lincoln.
Surprisingly, Abraham Lincoln has been remembered by way of several other robotic and multimedia embodiments. However, these different robotic Lincoln’s vary greatly. Perhaps one of the most famous robotic embodiments is the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln robot found at Disneyland. Here Lincoln is portrayed in a much more serious light. It is a scarily accurate physical reproduction of the 6’4” President that recites parts of his most famous speeches. The contrast between Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and the Muppet’s Robot Lincoln is astounding. Both are material memory sites that work in completely different ways. On “Muppets Tonight”, Lincoln is almost completely fictionalized. Aside from physical appearance and a few stuttered lines of the Emancipation Proclamation, none of Lincoln’s actions align with his historical behavior.
The conclusion to this episode of “Muppets Tonight” presents an interesting notion. Sam the Eagle appears on stage and says, “Heroes can not be built, they must be born. They cannot be made, they must be shaped by adversity like our fabulous guest star Paula Abdul who took a disaster and turned it into a rather nice number, don’t ya think?”. With this statement, Paula Abdul is presented as a hero for fixing a disaster. and there is no further mention of Lincoln. What message does it send that a music artist is referenced as the hero of the show rather than an iconic US president? It’s possible that it is simply an addition of irony to the show by the directors. Nonetheless, it challenges the dominant memory we hold of Lincoln as a hero and shows a very partial side of his character.
While the Muppets’ Robot Lincoln is a unique and interesting multimedia embodiment of the president, it is still very much a small, vernacular representation of Lincoln. This memory of Lincoln will not greatly influence the image of Lincoln that is so deeply embedded in the minds of most American’s today, which is so powerfully linked to honor and courage.
Image of Robot Lincoln after his malfunction in episode 16 of “Muppets Tonight.” (Image http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/Robot_Abraham_Lincoln)
- Schudson, Michael. “Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory,” in Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past. Eds. Daniel L. Schacter et al. (1995).