The Secret History of the Muppets

When you take a step back and really consider the legacy of the Muppets, it’s absurd. Yet somehow, Jim Henson and his creative collaborators have invented a world where the idea of puppets sounds mundane, but the idea of Muppets — with a capital “M” — is hysterical and touching and crazy and educational and at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

They’ve survived decades of pop culture comings-and-goings in a society that loves to ironically tear down any artistic contribution older than five years. And today, on the precipice of their eighth theatrical release, the Academy Award-winning Muppets are poised to star alongside Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais, Zach Galifianakis, Lady Gaga, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and a slew of other hyper-topical celebrities in what’s sure to be another profitable film. But, the question remains: “…how the hell?”

And the answer, obviously, begins with Willard Scott.

First Appearances

In 1955, Jim Henson was a freshman at the University of Maryland in College Park. Here, he began working on a number of local television spots, which would be the world’s first introduction to the Muppets. Most sources will tell you that Sam and Friends was the true launching point for Henson, but this is skipping ahead. The actual first appearance of the Muppets was on a local Washington, D.C. television show called Afternoon (later, Afternoon with Inga).

The original poster for Afternoon featured the Muppets in the top-left corner, with no explanation of what the hell a Muppet was. You can also see a picture of a young Willard Scott in the lower right (this is before his days on The Today Show, as well as before his stints as Bozo the Clown and as the first ever televised performer of Ronald McDonald. Looking for the joke in that last sentence? Nuh uh. That all actually happened.) Willard Scott has actually held this common origin story close to his heart, and was always known to beam when covering the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade when Kermit would round the corner.

Also, a quick side note–purists here might complain that Henson actually worked on a show before Afternoon called The Junior Morning Show, BUT! Those weren’t Muppets. Those were regular old puppets.

The Muppets, as we know them, started to take shape two months after the premier of Afternoon. Henson, still in college, was asked to create Sam and Friends, a five-minute show that ran twice a day about a humanoid-looking fella named Sam and his costars, including Harry the Hipster, who wore white glasses and obsessed over Jazz music (whoa.) The show also included a somewhat-shapeless lizard looking puppet that happened to go by the name “Kermit.”

As an interesting side note, that original Kermit was made out of a turquoise jacket that Jim’s mother threw out. When he was adapted for Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, he was given his trademark collar to help hide the stitches between his head and his neck.

The surprise success of Sam and Friends led to several advertising opportunities, including a notable run with Wilkins Coffee, where two Muppets–Wilkins, with Kermit’s voice, beats the living hell out of Wontkins, who has Rowlf’s voice–in a series of 7-second ads that would make Itchy and Scratchy blush. Notable quote:

“What happened to my car??”
“Bad things seem to happen to people who don’t drink Wilkins Coffee.”

Although the Muppets were increasing in popularity, Henson was unsure that he wanted to keep working with them for life. And rightfully so. No man in his right mind would have bet the house on puppets. But, interestingly, after a soul-searching trip to Europe, in which he studied with marionnette masters and began appreciating the history of the art form–Henson was a changed man. He returned to the United States rededicated to the Muppets. And that’s when things got interesting.

None of You Appreciate Rowlf Enough!

In many ways, my personal favorite Muppet Rowlf (full name: Rowlf Cameron Swayze), the scruffy, gruff-voiced piano-playing dog, is overlooked. This is an affront to society as a whole, because his contributions to the Muppet universe are significant.

Rowlf was first created in 1962 for a Purina Dog Chow ad (note the identical tone of slapstick used for Wilkins, just for different puppets). Interestingly, he was one of the first live-hand Muppets (think hand-in-mouth) as well as one of the first Muppets whose species is readily discernible. These made him something of a Muppet pioneer. You could also argue that Rowlf (who was almost Barkley, Woofington, Baskerville, Barkus, Howlington, Waggington and Beowolf) was the first nationally famous Muppet. See, it wasn’t just the Purina dog chow that helped put Rowlf and the Muppets on the map. It was Jimmy Dean. No need to look it up–it’s that Jimmy Dean.

In one of my favorite stories in the history of ever, it turns out that Rowlf was Jimmy Dean’s sidekick in his pre-sausage country music days on the Jimmy Dean Show. From 1963 to 1966, Rowlf appeared as “Jimmy’s Little Buddy” and performed a series of skits with him, both on Dean’s show and later on Ed Sullivan (where Henson would later appear sans-Dean, and was introduced as “Jim Newsom and his Puppets.”)

Ring ring ring went our heartsrings! And also the opening bell.

Ring ring ring went our heartsrings! And also the opening bell.

This raised the country’s interest and awareness in Muppets enough that a grateful Jim Henson offered Dean a 40% ownership stake in Muppets, Inc. But Dean turned it down, saying that Henson deserved every penny from all his hard work. So there you have it. Jimmy Dean: patron saint of country music, sausage, and the Muppets.

Sunny Day, Sweepin’ The Clouds Away

In 1969, three years after The Jimmy Dean show went off the air, national television came knocking again. The folks at the Children’s Television Workshop approached Jim Henson to collaborate on Sesame Street. We’ll spare you most of the details, because the history of Sesame Street is rich enough to take up several dozen articles worth of material, and also because Henson always shied away for accepting credit for the show, despite creating its most memorable stars. Although he did admit relief and gratitude that Sesame Street allowed him to leave advertising, saying “it was a pleasure to get out of that world.”

The short version of why Sesame Street was so integral to the history of the Muppets: not only did it continue to ingrain these characters into the national attention span, but it helped define what made the interplay of Muppet characters so interesting. Unlike the early Muppet commercials that featured quick, one-dimensional slapstick, the Sesame Street muppets had another layer of depth to them. Grover had both ambition and angst. Cookie Monster (originally the “Wheel-Stealer” in an IBM training video, and a monster in a Frito-Lay commercial for “Munchos“) was a hysterical, well, addict. Big Bird was sincere and enthusiastic–if a little childlike (but who better to lead the ensemble of a children’s show?).

The Muppets didn't always bang the NYSE bell and then party with the White House.

The Muppets didn’t always bang the NYSE bell and then party with the White House.

Another interesting outcome was that the original show never had Muppets interact with humans. There was the human portion. And there was the Muppet portion. And never the twain did meet. But, this format tested horribly. The world where Muppets and humans freely interacted (i.e. the world I would like to live in) tested much better, and likely paved the way for the positive, consistent Muppo-Human relations that carry on to this day.

Perhaps the most interesting development was the increasing interplay between Henson and puppeteer Frank Oz, who joined Henson’s company in 1963. Henson tended to be more quiet in his voice acting (think Kermit or Ernie) and Oz tended to be, well, more of the Cookie Monster and Animal type. Their personal friendship, and the loudness and softness of their personalities, helped create some of the most memorable Muppet dynamics out there, such as Bert and Ernie, and Kermit and Miss Piggy. Bert and Ernie, in particular, are frequently cited as a slightly exaggerated caricature of the pair’s actual friendship–current relationship theories of Bert and Ernie notwithstanding. In other words, not only did the Sesame Street Muppets begin to add character depth–they now interacted and played off of each other.

Featuring the Not-Ready-for-Primetime Players…and the Muppets

Grateful as they were for the help in jumping from commercials to mainstream television, Henson and his ilk were wary of being typecast as children’s performers (remember, Henson had a big thing for dark fantasy stories, and worked on terrifying films like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal.) But, in an attempt to get involved in more adult-themed comedy, the Muppets actually spent some time working on Saturday Night Live.

Sort of.

If you’re picturing Kermit, Rowlf, and Cookie Monster hanging out with John Belushi, you’re off the mark. Instead, Henson and his team created whole new Muppets who could “stay up all night.” This included (ahem) King Ploobis, Queen Peuta, Skred, Vazh, Wisss, and the Mighty Fovah, who lived in the Land of Gorch, and who dealt with heavy-handed topics like substance abuse, adultery, and extinction. Even worse–Henson’s writers weren’t allowed to touch the scripts. It was all Lorne Michael’s staff. And considering the SNL offices literally featured Big Bird with a noose around his neck, it’s clear that the relationship was contentious at best.

They parted ways after one season. Henson remained affable, and continued to admire Saturday Night Live. The two types of comedy simply couldn’t co-exist together.

21 Years Later, It’s Time to Meet the Muppets

Undeterred, in 1976, Henson and company pitched what would ultimately become The Muppet Show. The original pitch video, seen here, hinted at the kind of contagious, frenetic energy the show could come to encapsulate once picked up. As a clear example the the Muppets were still trying to navigate where on the “mature” spectrum they landed, they created two pilots: The Muppets Valentine Show, and The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence. They seem to have landed somewhere in the middle.

Henson’s creations were always at their best when they reflected his actual life. And by all accounts The Muppet Show was a perfect example.

There's no one in this photo we don't want to hug.

There’s no one in this photo we don’t want to hug.

Kermit was the ideal avatar for Henson–kind, positive, and doing his best to calm the chaos of a popular television show. According to co-stars, Henson never said he disliked anything, he just looked perplexed and said “Hmmm” (much like Kermit). Many cast members also compared the actual backstage of The Muppet Show to the on-screen backstage of The Muppet Show. The ever-gentle Henson seemed to recognize the relationship as well, saying “”[Kermit] can say things I hold back,” which, if your heart is anything like mine, is both unbelievably sweet and also kind of crushing. In a wonderful world featuring characters like Fozzie, Scooter, Gonzo, Pepe, Rizzo, Sweetums, Robin, the Swedish Chef, and Lew Zealand, among others, it was always Kermit who best connected with Jim Henson. And it’s Kermit that carries on his legacy today.

Yadda Yadda Yadda

I know it feels odd to end the story 38 years ago. But you know the rest from here. The Muppet Show became a household institution. They made a few hysterical movies. Jim Henson passed away. The Muppets were acquired by Disney. A few, perhaps less memorable movies were made. Then Jason Segel and Bret McKenzie breathed new life into them, helped them get an Academy Award and a star on the Walk of Fame. Today, they’re regularly uploading Webby Award-winning videos featuring celebrities like Cat Cora.

Think about what they’ve accomplished for a moment. To many, The Simpsons had a golden era of about 10 years. Even though The Muppets have taken a few hiatuses over the years, they’ve remained consistently hilarious for almost 60 years. That’s remarkable! And since they’re continuing to work with comedy’s best and brightest, it’s my hope that they keep it going for another 60.

No matter what Statler and Waldorf say.

Brian Cullen really, really enjoys robots but doesn’t understand how they work. He also enjoys drinking beers, and has a pretty solid understanding of how that works. You can read about his musings about both on Twitter @BucketCullen.

More from Brian Cullen

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