“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.
Although I’ve written 45 of these Rants from the Hill since the essay series launched back in July, 2010, there’s one word I have studiously avoided using. It is a filthy word, one that immediately conjures up a range of unpleasant associations. It is so very nasty that even I knew better than to allow this word to creep into a single sentence of a single Rant. Needless to say, it is a four-letter word. But I have decided that, as a Nevada writer, I must now reveal this dirty word. To quote the Eighties Robot character in the 2011 movie The Muppets: “R. E. N. O. That spells Reno.”
In fact, I have the Muppets to thank—or, more accurately, to blame—for my need to finally reveal this foul word. Not long ago I was watching The Muppets with my two young daughters when, to my surprise, I glanced up to see a shot of the famous Reno Arch, an unmistakable local landmark which spans the main street of our downtown and reads “Biggest Little City in the World.” “Look, girls!” I exclaimed, pointing at our town on the TV screen. “The Muppets have come to Reno!” It goes without saying that this was big news, because it suggested that our little city was going to get its fifteen minutes of fame—an outcome virtually assured by the fact that loving the Muppets is one of only four things all Americans have in common (the other three: hate taxes, think we sound great singing in the shower, can’t understand why Kim Kardashian is famous). Having your town appear in a Muppet movie is like receiving the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, with the important difference that nobody has subscribed to Good Housekeeping since 1959, while this Muppet flick opened in 3,500 theaters and grossed north of 90 million bucks.
Although I didn’t mention it to the girls, I was also thrilled that Reno, which is a lovely town but one with a bad reputation, might at last be associated with something wholesome. In fact, the nasty reputation of northern Nevada in the broader culture hasn’t changed appreciably since it was characterized by my patron saint, Mark Twain, back in 1862: “If the devil were set at liberty and told to confine himself to Nevada Territory, he would get homesick and go back to hell again.” Some might argue that we brought this dubious reputation on ourselves by cultivating the questionable economic strategy of making legal whatever is illegal elsewhere, which is what we did, by turns, with prizefighting, gambling, divorce, and prostitution (which begs the question of how we let anybody beat us to legalizing same-sex marriage and weed). But for that one brief and shining moment, sitting with my beautiful daughters and watching Kermit rolling into Reno in his Rolls-Royce Silver Spur, I indulged a fantasy of redemption. I was, for that breathless instant, another benighted Nevadan just waiting for that third seven to spin into place.
As so often happens in Reno, however, my fortunes changed rapidly, unexpectedly, and for the worse. The film cut suddenly to an even more familiar site: a small, run-down casino out on the edge of town, a place I drive by each day while taking the girls to school. This particular casino’s proximity to the local feed store, the rural liquor store, and a dilapidated taproom virtually ensured my familiarity with it—this is, after all, my own personal redneck strip mall—and though I haven’t yet had occasion to use the bail bondsman whose storefront is just across the gravel parking lot, I find it comforting to know that he’s close by in a pinch. The Muppets were now really on my home turf: they had fled the city proper for the broken down rural-urban edge that is my natural habitat.
To appreciate why the Muppets’ cinematic appearance at my local watering hole and poker parlor appeared so inauspicious, you need to understand the film’s basic plotline. The trip to northern Nevada is part of Kermit’s heroic quest to get the old Muppet crew back together again to put on one last show, the proceeds of which will save the Muppet studios in Hollywood from the clutches of an avaricious oil baron. The frog’s odyssey to reunite his troop leads him to my local casino because the Muppets’ stand-up comic, Fozzie Bear (the ursine humorist who, along with Twain, is my other patron saint), has fallen on hard times and has been driven to—of all the God-forsaken hell holes in the big West—Reno. Here, in the darkness on the edge of town, Fozzie has in desperation assembled the “Moopets,” a second-rate Muppet tribute band consisting of unconvincing Muppet impersonators, including Miss Poogy, Kermoot, and Animool, the latter a cheap knock off of the manic, hairy drummer Muppet who is here played with genuine panache by a real-life rock superstar, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.
The scene inside the casino is itself a tribute to vintage Reno despair—a despair so authentic and mundane as to be both hilarious and startlingly familiar. When Kermit and his pals enter the derelict casino Fozzie is already onstage with the flaccid Moopets, whose boredom is palpable. Surrounding the little stage are a few slumped-over, zoned-out patrons who are, if possible, even more jaded and inattentive than the half-assed tribute band itself. One may be a hooker. Several others are certainly drunks. Singing a lame casino advertisement to the tune of the Muppets’ celebrated anthem, “Rainbow Connection,” the stuffed bear croaks out a few uninspired lines:
“Why are there such great deals, on our hotel rooms?
Free parking for cars, not RVs” (“Not RVs,” chimes in the grunge rocker turned fake Muppet backup singer).
“Our wedding chapel is twenty four hours / No marriage certificate is needed . . .”
Miss Poogy, a brilliant send-up of the famous (and famously lascivious) Muppet lady pig, exaggerates Miss Piggy’s forceful personality, portraying her as a rough-mannered, baritone hog thug who appears to be a cross-dressing porker dude in a cheap wig. “I said ‘what are you looking at?’” we hear Miss Poogy say, through a coarse laugh, “So I punched him in the face.”
The Reno stereotypes pile up thick as alkali dust when Kermit and Fozzie retreat to the bear’s “dressing room,” which turns out to be nothing more than a huddling of crappy furniture in the open alley behind the casino. As the frog and bear speak awkwardly of what Fozzie’s life has come to, we hear in the background five pistol shots, followed by a police siren, squealing tires, and a cop on a bullhorn yelling “Step out of the vehicle!” When Kermit, who is now stammering self-consciously, like a green Woody Allen, expresses concern for his friend’s destitution, the bear responds “Look at me: I’m living the dream!” This ironic outburst is followed immediately by a flash of lightning, a peal of thunder, and a downpour—clearly metaphorical weather, since you’d sooner draw to an inside straight than see a thunderstorm around here. Grasping at a last scrap of pride despite his abysmal condition, Fozzie tries to console both himself and his amphibious friend: “It’s alright, Kermit, it’s not your fault. We had a good run.” And with this grim observation the now not-so-comic bear incisively encapsulates the Reno experience. The message is unmistakable: this town is the final whistle-stop on the route of a train that is headed in the wrong direction. Reno is depicted as the place where dreams—even sweet and innocent Muppet dreams—come to die.
My little daughters quickly recognize the familiar exterior of the casino, though of course they’ve never been inside. “Hey, isn’t that right across the street from where we get the baby chicks every spring?” asked Caroline, the seven-year-old.
Eleven-year-old Hannah had a harder question: “Dad, is it really like that in there? All smoky and dark with not very good music and everybody asleep at their tables?”
“No . . . not really,” I replied. “Well, kind of. Actually, ok, yeah, it’s exactly like that.”
“Hmmm,” said Hannah, processing. “That doesn’t look very fun.”
Little Caroline followed up excitedly: “So the Muppets are right about Reno after all!”
“Well . . . not really,” I said, a little defensively. “Ok, sort of. Well, ok, yes. Alright. I guess the Muppets are right about Reno.”
This exchange forced me to revisit the vexing question of how I should respond to the negative stereotypes that plague this town. One approach is to fight back with the facts: Reno has a vibrant arts community, a beautiful river corridor, incredible weather, and amazing access to desert and mountain wilderness. It is a town full of nice people—unpretentious people with plain common sense who don’t try to convert you to their religion. It’s a place where you can order a rye Manhattan without having to explain that you don’t want a damned maraschino cherry in it. Or I could take a different tack, by pointing out that folks who live here can take a joke, and for that reason we appreciate the brilliance of the Muppets’ parody of us. For example, we really are the town of the sorry tribute band. Off the top of my head, performances here have included Who’s Bad (Michael Jackson, though the name says it all), Live Wire (AC/DC, the “blunder from down under” resurrected), One Night of Queen (not a transvestite cabaret show, though we have those too), Voyage (a faux Journey, which was a band so bad that a knock-off has to be an improvement), and Eliminator (ZZ Top, complete with the mega-beards they made cool a generation before Duck Dynasty). We know how to laugh at ourselves, which explains why so many of us went into mourning when Comedy Central’s mockumentary series Reno 911! folded back in 2009.
Instead, though, I’d rather defend Reno within the terms of the stereotype itself.
I think again of the real place that is parodied in the Muppet movie. Some of the folks inside that old casino may be past their prime, but they’re still welcomed. There’s a unique kind of tolerance there, where the down but not quite out find a temporary home. You can’t tell a millionaire from a bum around here, which is fine by me (especially since I look like a bum and would just as soon have people wonder). Maybe some folks think that we can’t separate the wheat from the chaff—that we’re not smart enough to judge winners and losers. Then again, maybe we are and just don’t.
Remember this important point: Reno keeps Fozzie off the street until he is rediscovered. And that is the part of the Muppet send-up of our town that I treasure the most. It is here that Fozzie lands when he has no place to go, when he is utterly without prospects. This is precisely what allows Kermit to find the bear, whom he recruits to reenter a life of fame and fortune. Fozzie is no doubt back on Broadway now, but without our town, who knows? After all, nobody wants to contemplate a Muppet suicide or overdose. Besides, I’ve been sleepy over a beer once or twice myself, listening to a musician or comedian who hadn’t had their break yet, or who had it long ago and was trying for a long-odds comeback. Any town might have given Fozzie his first big break, but only Reno could give him something more precious by far: a second chance. Who in hell would want to live near a town like this? The lovers, the dreamers, and me.