“Hi there, Sam, you're just the eagle I was looking for, because today I wanted to salute two beloved cultural institutions born in the 1970s.”
“Finally! A kindred spirit! Someone who understands that what we need more of around here is culture and an appreciation for history.”
“I couldn't agree more, Sam, as anyone who's read my blog, Grognardia, would know.”
“A blog, eh? Isn't that one of those new fangled Internet thingies where self-important blowhards with too much time on their hands talk down to everyone who disagrees with them?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“That's what I thought! How do I get a blog of my own?”
“I'll tell you later, but, as I said, right now we're going to honor two beloved cultural institutions that first appeared in the 1970s.”
“The Republican Study Committee and the Trilateral Commission, both of which were established in 1974?”
“No, not those.”
“The Moral Majority and the Covert Action Information Bulletin?”
“No, not those either.”
“The Office of Net Assessment and the Executive Intelligence Review?”
“Surely, you're not talking about National Public Radio?”
“No, no, of course not. What do you take me for, some kind of hippie?”
“Well, you can never be so sure about people nowadays. Why, the things I could tell you from my time on The Muppet Show ...”
“What a coincidence! The Muppet Show is one of the two beloved 1970s cultural institutions I wanted to discuss.”
“The Muppet Show? A beloved cultural institution? Pop cultural maybe, but I'm interested in high culture -- programming that elevates the mind and ennobles the soul, not the low brow ephemera that distracts Johnny Know-Nothing from the drudgery of his daily existence.”
“I ... see.”
“So what's the other 'beloved cultural institution' you intend to discuss? Let me guess: Pong? Duck Hunt perhaps?”
“No, Sam. I'm as devoted to uplifting and edifying activities as you are. That's why I want to talk about another 1970s cultural institution that is, in my opinion, both uplifting and edifying -- Dungeons & Dragons!”
At first glance, it might not seem as if The Muppet Show and Dungeons & Dragons have a lot in common other than the decade in which they were both born. That's what I thought too when this blog's furry green proprietor approached me about doing a guest post on this very topic. What could I possibly say about these two staples of my youth that somehow connected them in a way that might provide even a small bit of insight to others? I spent a long time trying to unearth some hitherto unknown connection between Jim Henson and Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, something -- anything -- that might let me talk about these world-changing creations as part of a larger movement in entertainment in the 1970s.
And that's when it struck me. When I think back on the decade of my childhood what I remember was a riotous mess of strangeness. This was, after all, the decade of Star Wars, Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was a decade obsessed with the weird, the Fortean, and the Satanic, from King Tut to Bigfoot to The Amityville Horror and more. It was, for a kid like me, a great time to grow up, serving up a heady stew of half-digested oddities, claptrap, and, above all, fantasy with which to feed my imagination. I still largely subsist on a diet of such nonsense, the taste for which I first acquired more than three decades ago.
Both The Muppet Show and Dungeons & Dragons -- heck, roleplaying in general -- are fruits of that riotous mess of strangeness I remember so well. They grabbed hold of everything that was going on at the time, from the ridiculous to the sublime, and ran with it in amazing, imaginative directions. They treated us to the spectacle of Ethel Merman singing a duet with a vain, anthropomorphic pig and to a game where Conan and Gandalf can team up to fight Dracula. They were vehicles of wild imagination that taught us that value of reckless borrowing from anything we could get our hands on to create something that was somehow more than the sum of its parts, whether it was throwing an alien spacecraft or a cowboy into a D&D adventure or spoofing medical soap operas with a cast made up entirely of animals.
It's worth noting too another important lesson imparted by both The Muppet Show and Dungeons & Dragons: fantasy isn't just for kids. Whereas Henson's earlier Sesame Street was clearly aimed at children, The Muppet Show wasn't. It was broadcast in prime time and contained plenty of sly humor and allusions that would go right over a child's head, even as he laughed at the sight of Gonzo eating a rubber tire to the music of “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Likewise, D&D was a game whose audience included adults; my Holmes-edited Basic Set proclaimed itself “the original adult fantasy role-playing game.” That may seem like a small thing, but, to a child like me, it suggested that growing up didn't mean an end to fantasy, a lesson I've carried with me all these years and imparted to my own children, thanks to these beloved cultural institutions of the 1970s.
- James Maliszewski