A Short Look At The Muppet's Long History

I don’t know about you guys, but I have loved The Muppets since I was in diapers and I can’t wait to see the new Muppet movie that's coming out today. But as long as we’re celebrating The Muppets’ return to the big screen, we may as well celebrate their original rise to the small screen. So for all the fans out there, here’s a little history and general trivia info on the greatest puppet team ever created.

Inspiring the Classics

We’ve talked about Jim Henson’s show Sam and Friends, where Kermit originated, before, but that wasn’t Jim Henson’s first experience working with puppets. It actually started all the way back in 1954 when Henson was still attending high school. He was quite ambitious because before he graduated, he already was creating puppets for a Saturday morning kid’s show called The Junior Morning Show featured on WTOP-TV.

Interestingly, Jim didn’t really intend to work on puppets for a career. He actually originally went to the University of Maryland, College Park, to become a commercial artist. But when he was only a freshman, he was asked to create a five-minute long puppet show for WRC-TV named Sam and Friends. The show ended up playing a huge role in the inspiration for The Muppets and featured a prototype version of Kermit the Frog.

Image Via zhurnaly [Flickr]

So Who Was Sam and What's Up With His Friends?

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Well, Sam was a puppet that looked like a human and his friends were a variety of other human puppets, a few weird monstery creatures, a snake and a lizard that eventually morphed into the world’s most famous frog. The show started out just featuring the puppets lip-synching to popular songs, but as the show started gaining popularity, they started writing real sketches, many of which involved featured spoofs of popular TV shows.

One of the best-known sketches involved Kermit nibbling on something that looked like a worm, but eventually turned into the tongue or nose of the character Big V, a giant monster, who would eventually eat him. Near the end of the show’s run, Esskay Meats started showing ads at the end of the show, which would feature characters from Sam and Friends.

While the show was best known for introducing Kermit to the world, it also played a huge role in letting Henson perfect his puppetry techniques that would eventually change the way puppets were shown on television forever. One of his biggest innovations was setting up the camera shots so the people operating the puppets would not be seen on screen. He also made the puppets more flexible than puppets previously seen on television so they could express a wider array of emotions on screen.

Making It Big

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Humorously, after leaving school and the financially successful show, Henson still doubted that he would be able to make a career out of puppetry. Fortunately, like many recent graduates, he took a trip to Europe, where he could think about his future. While there, he spoke with a number of professional puppeteers who believed their work was a true art form. This sealed his interest in the field and ensured the success of the Muppets in the future.

Throughout the next decade, Jim focused all of his efforts on puppeteering. He appeared as a guest on a number of talk shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show, and created a number of commercials, a few of which led to the body styles and voices of future Muppet characters. He also made a number of short, experimental films, one of which was even nominated for an Oscar (that's it above).

In 1963, Jim and his new wife moved to New York City, where they formed Muppets, Inc. When his wife quit working on the puppets so she could raise their children, Henson hired Jerry Juhl and Frank Oz, who both played crucial roles in the development of The Muppets.

Henson’s first big break occurred in 1966, when he started working on Sesame Street for PBS, which would finally give his Muppets a national audience. While the show was a massive success and Jim loved the idea of an educational show for children that was actually fun to watch, he was determined that the Muppets shouldn’t be pigeonholed as children’s characters. In 1974, he left the show and headed to London to start working on his dream creation The Muppet Show.

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The first episode of The Muppet Show (above) premiered in September 1976. While kids enjoyed watching characters they recognized from Sesame Street, most of the jokes were written for adults, who enjoyed the slapstick plot lines and big name guest stars. Throughout the series’ six year-long run, over one hundred guest stars appeared on the show and no celebrity ever appeared twice on the show. In the beginning of the series, each star would receive a Muppet modeled after them as a parting gift, but because this practice was costly and time consuming, this policy was changed and characters based on stars were only created if they were intended to be used in the show.

Life After The Muppet Show

After the show finished its run, the characters went on to star in a number of popular movies featuring the characters interacting with humans in real life settings and an animated series called The Muppet Babies. In 1989, Henson made another TV show, called The Jim Henson Hour, which featured many of his most famous characters, but the show was cancelled after only one season due to low ratings. As it turned out, the show probably would have been cancelled soon after anyway, because Jim passed away in May of 1990. I know we’ve shown some videos of his memorial here before, but just in case you haven’t seen this touching, beautiful and depressing display, here it is (have some tissues handy):

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Fortunately, Jim’s legacy continued to thrive after his passing and The Muppet Show was revived as Muppets Tonight in 1996, bringing the characters a whole new generation of fans. New movies also continued to be created and the characters made a number of movie and television appearances throughout the years as well.

Disney bought the rights to The Muppets in 2004 (although they do not own the rights to Sesame Street characters or Fraggles) and helped push the characters back into the public eye, starting with a number of popular web shows, particularly the award winning series Statler and Waldorf: From the Balcony. The company also opened a new attraction at their California Adventure park titled Muppet*Vision 3D, which features many of the show’s favorite characters attempting to put on a big new show that keeps going terribly wrong.

The characters have only gone up in popularity since then, appearing on a postage stamp and earning their own wing at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta (set to open next year). Fox is also in talks with Disney about making a new Muppets show, and, of course, there is the new movie coming out today as well.

Image Via Express Monorail [Flickr]

Fun Character Trivia

The Muppets wouldn’t be The Muppets if it weren’t for the individual characters, of course. So now that you know all about the history of the show, it’s time to take a look at some of the characters themselves.

  • Kermit the Frog was the first Muppet, originally created in 1955 for Sam and Friends. He was first made from a turquoise woman’s coat that Jim’s mother had tossed in the trash. When he was adapted for Sesame Street, he was given his trademark collar to help hide the seam that attached his neck to his head. Kermit has reached #25 on the Billboard music charts with his hit song “The Rainbow Connection.

  • Miss Piggy was only supposed to be a minor character on The Muppet show, but her obsession with Kermit and delusional view of herself quickly made her one of the central characters in the show.

  • Animal has appeared in all of the Muppet movies and is undoubtedly the most famous member of the Electric Mayhem, making him the only one from the band to regularly appear on The Muppet Babies, where he was voiced by Howie Mandel. In 1998, he was named the official mascot of the U.S. Ski Team in that year’s Winter Olympics.

  • Fozzie Bear was named for Faz Fazakas, who created the mechanism that allowed him to wiggle his ears. Fozzie’s jokes often include Jewish humor because he was origianally performed by Frank Oz, who is Jewish.

  • Gonzo the Great was originally called a “whatever” or a “weirdo” when it came to his species, but in Muppets from Space, it was revealed that he is actually an alien from a distant planet. Of course, that doesn’t make his love for Camilla the Chicken any less strange.

  • Rowlf the Dog was originally created for a 1962 Purina commercial, but his career really took off when he started regularly performing on The Jimmy Dean Show. Because Jimmy Dean did so much to help promote The Muppets, Henson even offered him a cut of his profits, but Dean refused, explaining that Jim did all the work and thus, deserved all the credit. In a 1966 IBM film, Rowlf lists his full name as Rowlf Cameron Swayze.

Image Via cmpalmer [Flickr]

Obviously in the almost sixty years since Jim Henson started creating Muppets, a lot has happened, so I can’t cover it all here. That being said do any of you have any favorite Muppet stories I may have left out here? Also are you guys excited about the new movie?

Sources: Wikipedia #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, #10, #11

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It's a total bah humbug, I know, but I haven't been able to enjoy anything Muppet since Jim's death. It's just not the same and IMO it never can be. He was so much more than just the voice of the characters. Even if people are able to come close to mimicking, the life is just not there. I won't be watching the new movie. I appreciate those who have tried to continue Jim's work...I really do. It's just not for me.
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It was wonderful to see the Wilkins Coffee and Esskay ads again. I'm from Baltimore and have vague memories of them. My mother said that I used to watch Kermit do the weather segment on WTTG, an even vaguer memory.
It's hard to believe that I've been a Muppet fan for over 50 years.
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Actually, Gonzo was originally referred to as a vulture (thus the hooked nose), and the weirdo epithet evolved from his very eccentric interests.

After all, he does bear as much resemblance to a vulture as Sam does to an eagle, or Kermit to a frog for that matter...
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Few mention or even remember my favorite Muppet Movie and also my personal Christmas favorite. The Muppet's Christmas Carol with Michael Caine as Scrooge. Wonderful music!!! I wish I could share it with everyone.
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