As summer draws to a close, a fascinatingly controversial box office flop must-see-to-believe is “The Happytime Murders.” The film, led by Melissa McCarthy as LAPD Detective Connie Edwards and voice actor Bill Barretta’s puppet PI Phil Phillips, has not exactly proved its worth in terms of monetary return. Since the film failed to cover its budget in its opening run, it has little potential to do so as time goes on. Yet it has been the subject of an ongoing lawsuit over one of the movie’s taglines, “No Sesame. All Street.”
Here’s the problem, “Sesame Street’s” showrunners do not want their kid-friendly show associated with this decidedly not kid-friendly movie. “The Happytime Murders” is film noir meets a depressive “Muppet Show” meets things you might hear and see around a ship full of sailors on leave. It is raunchy, violent and grittily comedic. In fact, it is centered around a series of murders of the cast of the movie’s in-universe kid’s puppet show: The Happytime Gang. All of these troubling facts led Sesame Workshop to mount a lawsuit against STX over claims of trademark infringement.
“They [STX] are distributing a trailer that deliberately confuses consumers into mistakenly believing that Sesame is associated with, has allowed, or has even endorsed or produced the movie and tarnishes Sesame’s brand,” said Sesame Workshop, the rights holder to “Sesame Street”.
This is certainly an interesting and not unfounded accusation. The movie tagline does reference the children’s show and the puppets used in the film are creations by Henson Alternative. Henson Alternative is a more adult-themed branch of the Jim Henson Company, which created such kid’s show hits as “The Muppet Show”, “Fraggle Rock” and “Alf”, to name a few. Most importantly, until 2001 when the company briefly changed hands, the Jim Henson Company had provided all of “Sesame Street’s” beloved puppet characters since the show began in 1969. Sesame Workshop, previously called the Children’s Television Workshop, has always owned the intellectual property of the show itself, which has, created a sort of tension between its Muppet actors and the other things that they might appear to be involved in. Certainly, the idea of any Sesame Street-esque puppets experiencing the same horrible things as the Happytime Gang would bring concern not only to parents but to the brand as well.
However, the film itself is rated R and makes that very plain from the previews. It makes no explicit or defamatory reference to any “Sesame Street” characters. Thus, the presiding District Court Judge, Vernon Broderick, denied Sesame Workshop’s request for a temporary restraining order on the use of the tag-line. He concluded that there was no trademark infringement, and in fact, the structure of the tagline was “a humorous, pithy way” of distinguishing the film from the show. Sesame Workshop has since dropped the lawsuit.
The case, though closed, is filled with important questions. How does one negotiate creating companion or parody pieces when the source material is still alive and well? When there are people— in this case, possibly children— to be affected by the negative consequences of such parodies? There likely isn’t a clear answer to this problem of trademark versus artistic license, but perhaps some readers can find comfort in the words of STX’s “representative” lawyer, puppet Fred, esq.
“We fluffing love Sesame Street and we’re obviously very pleased that the ruling reinforced what STX’s intention was from the very beginning — to honor the heritage of the Jim Henson Company’s previous award-winning creations while drawing a clear distinction between any “Muppets” or “Sesame Street” characters and the new world Brian Henson and team created,” puppet Fred said.
Cover photo courtesy of Mediastinger.