The Philosophy of "Avenue Q"

Or: How To Really Over-Analyze a Puppet Show

Some "Avenue Q" puppets celebrate World Puppetry Day by reading "Avenue Q" magazine

Walter McBride / Getty Images


In traditional Punch and Judy shows, the anti-hero Punch insults, pesters, and beats his fellow characters, much to the delight of the audience. Punch and Judy shows were a glorious display of political incorrectness. London's Covent Garden features a large plaque on the walls outside of St. Paul's church announcing it as the location of the the famous Punch and Judy Shows performed during the 1600s. That's right, Shakespeare's plays competed with puppet shows. Today, the tradition of puppets delivering obnoxiousness and social commentary continues with "Avenue Q."

The Origin of "Avenue Q"

The music and lyrics of "Avenue Q" 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." "Avenue Q" offers many practical life-lessons, too.

School / College Doesn't 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 lyrically expressed in "Avenue Q."

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 dead-end jobs, 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. But he also hopes to win her back, thereby rewarding himself. The lyrics from "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 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" rerun, then you've probably experienced schadenfreude. One of the "Avenue Q" characters is Gary Coleman, a real-life child star whose irresponsible family squandered his millions. 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. (By the way, this 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! Heterosexual puppet Nicky tries to help the sexually repressed puppet Rod come out of the closet. He sings:

If you were queer
I’d still be here
Year after year
Because you’re dear to me.

A bit more devious (in a good way) is the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” During this number, the characters proclaim that “everyone makes judgments based on race,” and that if we accepted this “sad but true” premise society could “live in harmony.” The song’s argument might be specious, but the audience’s self-deprecating laughter throughout the musical number is very telling.

Everything in Life Is Only For Now

“Spiritual” books such as Eckhart Tolle’s have been asking readers to focus on the present, to embrace “The Power of Now.” Does this message anger historians? Either way, this seemingly modern concept stems from ancient times. Long ago, Buddhists described the impermanence of existence. "Avenue Q" follows the Buddhist path in its final song, “For Now.” These cheerful "Avenue Q" lyrics remind the audience that all things must pass:

Each time you smile
It’ll only last a while.
Life may be scary
But it’s only temporary.

In the end, despite its zaniness and crude jokes, "Avenue Q" delivers a sincere philosophy: We must appreciate joy and endure any sadness we currently experience while acknowledging that all is fleeting. Learning this lesson can makes life seem all the more precious.

Why Puppets?

Why use puppets to deliver the message? As Lopez explained in a New York Times interview, “There's something about our generation that resists actors bursting into song on the stage. But when puppets do it, we believe it.”

Whether it’s Punch and Judy, Kermit the Frog, the cast of "Avenue Q," puppets make us laugh. And while we are laughing, we usually wind up learning at the same time. If a regular human were on stage singing a preachy song, many folks would probably ignore the message.

The creators of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" once explained, “You can say things as a puppet that you can’t get away with as a human.” That was as true for MST3K as it was for the Muppets. It was true for the bombastically cruel Punch, and it is eloquently true for the ever-insightful show "Avenue Q."