During a recent visit to London, I wandered through Covent Garden on my way to watch a West End production of Avenue Q. While passing various shops and street performers I spotted a large plaque placed on the walls outside of St. Paul's church. It was here, said the sign, that the famous Punch and Judy Shows were performed during the 1600s. That's right, Shakespeare's plays had to compete with puppet shows.
In traditional Punch and Judy shows, the anti-hero Punch insults, pesters, and beats his fellow characters, much to the delight of the audience. The Punch and Judy shows were a glorious display of political incorrectness. Today, the tradition of puppets delivering obnoxiousness and social commentary continues with Avenue Q.
The Origin of Avenue Q
Avenue Q's music and lyrics were created by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. The two young composers met in the late 90s while involved in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop. Together they have written songs for Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel. However, they wanted to create a puppet-friendly show that was strictly for adults. With the help of playwright Jeff Whitty and director Jason Moore, Avenue Q was born - and has been a hit Broadway show since 2003.
Sesame Street for Grown Ups
Avenue Q could not exist without Sesame Street, the long running children's show that teaches kids letters, numbers, and practical life-lessons. The premise of Avenue Q is that adolescents grow up without learning the truth of adult life. Like the puppet protagonist Princeton, many new grown-ups experience anxiety and confusion when entering the "Real World."
Here are some of the lessons offered by Avenue Q:
School / College Does Not Prepare You for Real Life
With songs like "What Do You Do with a B. A. in English?" and "I Wish I Could Go Back to College," Avenue Q lyrics portray higher education as an extended stay in the carefree Land of Adolescence.
Princeton's main conflict is that he is drifting through life, trying to discover his true purpose. One would hope that college would establish this sense of purpose (or at least a sense of self-sufficiency), but the puppet croons to the contrary:
"I can't pay the bills yet / 'Cause I have no skills yet. / The world is a big scary place."
The ensemble of characters, both human and monster, wistfully recall the days when they lived in a dormitory with a meal plan, a time when if things got too difficult they could just drop a class or seek an academic advisor's guidance. This criticism of the education system is nothing new. Philosopher John Dewey believed that public education should proactively prepare students with useful critical thinking skills rather than just facts from books. Modern day critics such as John Taylor Gatto further explore the failures of compulsory learning; his book Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling explains why many people feel the same social / intellectual impotence expressed within Avenue Q's lyrics.
The Freedom to Find Our Own Purpose
Princeton decides that he should seek his purpose in life. At first his quest for meaning is guided by superstition. He finds a penny from the year he was born and considers it a supernatural sign.
However, after a couple a false-start relationships and a dead-end job or two, he realizes that discovering one's purpose and identity is a difficult, never-ending process (but an invigorating process if one chooses to make it so). Steering away from lucky pennies and mystical signs, he becomes more self-reliant by the musical's conclusion.
Princeton's resolution to find his own path would be smiled upon by existential philosophers. The main component of existentialism is the assumption that humans are free to determine their own sense of personal fulfillment. They are not bound by Gods, destiny, or biology. When Princeton laments, "I don't even know why I'm alive," his girlfriend Kate Monster replies, "Who does, really?" A rather existential response.
There Are No Selfless Deeds
Perhaps there are good deeds, according to Avenue Q, but there seem to be no purely selfless deeds. When Princeton decides to generate money for Kate's School for Monsters, he does so because it feels good to help others… and he also hopes to win her back, thereby rewarding himself.
The lyrics from Avenue Q's "Money Song" explain, "Every time you do good deeds / You're also serving your own needs. / When you help others / You can't help helping yourself."
This bit of wisdom would please Ayn Rand, author of controversial classics such as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Rand's concept of objectivism which specifies that one's purpose should be the pursuit of happiness and self-interest. Therefore, Princeton and the other characters are morally justified in performing good deeds, so long as they do so for their own benefit.
Schadenfreude: Happiness at the Misfortune of Others
If you've ever felt better about your life after watching the miserable guests on a Jerry Springer re-run, then you've probably experienced schadenfreude.
One of the Avenue Q characters is Gary Coleman, a real-life child star whose millions were squandered by his irresponsible family. In the show, Coleman explains that his personal tragedies make others feel good. Ironically, it becomes a virtue (or at least a public service) to be a wretched failure or a victim of calamity. (This by the way would would be frowned upon by Ayn Rand). Characters such as Coleman and the recently homeless puppet, Nicky, improve the self-esteem of the mediocre masses. Basically, these lyrics make you feel better about being a loser!