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The Long, Strange Journey of The Muppets

30 Mar, 2012 By: John Latchem

It’s easy to view 2011’s The Muppets, recently released on DVD and Blu-ray, as some sort of “return” for the popular characters. It’s not that they had really gone away in the past few years, but they haven’t been in the spotlight as much as they had been during the heyday years of “The Muppet Show” (1976-81) and the first few Muppet movies.

In fact, with $88.6 million domestically, The Muppets became the highest-grossing Muppets film, just 12 years after the previous theatrical release, Muppets From Space, earned just $16.6 million.

One of the charms of the new film is the way it reintroduces characters that haven’t been seen in years, or even decades. Like a blast of nostalgia taking us back to a simpler time in our lives, The Muppets reminds us that the things we love may not always be the priority in our lives, but they never really go away.

Even so, it’s not as if the Muppets we all know and love always existed. Jim Henson and his creative collaborators took years to craft the characters, seeing what worked and what didn’t, to create a brand that is now every bit as recognizable as Mickey Mouse and the Disney toons, or Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes.

As we see in the new documentary Being Elmo (on disc April 3 from Docurama), for example, Elmo wasn’t always the biggest star of “Sesame Street,” but had been a background puppet long before Kevin Clash took over the character and transformed him into an international sensation.

A lot of critics, many of whom may not have been paying attention to the Muppets the past few years, have noted with a tinge of regret that some of the character voices in The Muppets seem different, and it’s true that Kermit doesn’t seem as energetic as when Henson did it. But this Kermit voice isn’t exactly new; he’s been performed by Steve Whitmire since 1990, shortly after Henson died.

However, it should be noted that Henson’s own Kermit voice changed considerably as he was developing the character. Kermit debuted in 1955 on “Sam and Friends,” a sketch-based TV show Henson and his wife, Jane, put on for the Washington, D.C., area. Kermit, not classified as a frog yet, was more of a lizard-type creature and lacked his distinctive pointy collar and frog-like hands and toes. Henson created Kermit to experiment with the way hand movements could be used to manipulate the visual emotions of the character.

In the 1960s, however, the best-known Muppet was probably not Kermit, but Rowlf the Dog, thanks to a stint as a sidekick on Jimmy Dean’s show from 1963 to 1966. Rowlf got his start in a Purina Dog Chow commercial before that. (Henson, of course, gained a lot of exposure for the Muppets through his Wilkins Coffee ads in the late 1950s). Now, Rowlf is best known for being the troupe’s resident piano player.

As the Muppets rose to prominence in the 1960s, Kermit began to be referred to as a frog, such as when Johnny Carson introduced him as Kermit the Frog on the 1965 New Year’s Eve episode of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” The Kermit puppet was redesigned into its current look in 1968 for the TV special Hey Cinderella! (which didn’t air until 1969). This Kermit appeared on the “Sesame Street” pitch reel in 1969 (which also featured Rowlf, though only Kermit would become a regular on PBS’s new kiddie show; it's available on the Sesame Street: Old School Vol. One DVD).

According to Henson, Kermit’s frog status wasn’t set in stone until the 1971 TV special The Frog Prince, which also introduced Kermit’s nephew Robin and Sweetums, the big, hairy brutish-looking Muppet left behind at a used-car lot in The Muppet Movie and The Muppets (in the latter film, he’s the Muppet who answers the first pledge call for the telethon).

“Sesame Street” and TV specials such as The Frog Prince, which fell under the “Tales From Muppetland” banner, and others such as 1970's The Great Santa Claus Switch were the primary source of Muppet entertainment before “The Muppet Show” came along in 1976. (Many of these Muppets specials haven’t been released on home video, so a DVD compilation would make a nice addition to a Muppet fan’s collection).

In fact, Henson conceived of “The Muppet Show” as a more adult-friendly series, in response to the way “Sesame Street” had caused the Muppets to be associated with children’s fare.

The subsequent success of “The Muppet Show” would divide the Muppet world into the “Sesame Street” Muppets and the “Muppet Show” Muppets, with only Kermit hopping between them. Other side groups of Muppets would still pop up, such as those from “Fraggle Rock” in 1983, the adult-targeted “Land of Gorch” sketches from the first season of “Saturday Night Live,” and the characters from Henson’s 1980s films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, to name a few.

As “The Muppet Show” evolved, some characters carried over from the earlier specials, while most slipped into obscurity. For example, one of the prominent early-’70s Muppets was Thog, who first appeared in The Great Santa Claus Switch. He’s the big blue guy in the opening credits of “The Muppet Show,” and shares a dance with Mia Farrow in 1974’s The Muppets Valentine’s Show. Thog appeared in a handful of sketches during the five-year run of “The Muppet Show,” and popped up in the finale of 1979’s The Muppet Movie, but then disappeared for 33 years, finally showing up again in The Muppets.



The Muppets Valentine Show was one of two pilots for what eventually became “The Muppet Show,” with the other being 1975’s The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence. While Kermit would become the undisputed star of “The Muppet Show,” he is barely featured in either of these specials, gives a memorable turn in the “Froggy Went a Courtin’” sequence of The Muppets Valentine Show. In these days before Miss Piggy was created, Kermit’s love interest was Miss Mousey (probably because a mouse was whom the frog was courting in the old folk song). This sequence also features a great character named Big Mouse, who has never been used again. (Even the Kermit in this special doesn’t sound quite like “Muppet Show” Kermit yet).

Miss Piggy got her start as a generic pig puppet in the Sex and Violence special, but earned her name on the “Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass” show. She was meant to be called Piggy Lee, a takeoff on Peggy Lee, but it didn’t stick. Her early voice, performed by Jerry Nelson, was much different than the trademark sassiness provided by Frank Oz as the character fleshed out during the early years of “The Muppet Show.” (Even in early episodes, her eyes seem a lot rougher than what we’re used to today).

Another Muppet that grew from modest origins was Gonzo, who started as Snarl, from a group of monsters called frackles, in The Great Santa Claus Switch. In the hands of Dave Goelz, who still performs the character, the puppet became Gonzo the Great on “The Muppet Show,” the daredevil weirdo we all love today. Gonzo’s species became a running gag, and in 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper he was dubbed a “Whatever.” In 1999’s Muppets From Space, Gonzo is revealed to be an alien, which is alluded to in The Muppets when he reintroduces himself by saying “People of Earth!” (It’s interesting that Gonzo’s species would raise eyebrows since it seems most of the Muppets are some variety of unknown monster, as the Gonzo precursors had been).

Those Muppets that rose to prominence on “The Muppet Show” became the focus of The Muppet Movie and its follow-ups, which helped solidify their standing as the Muppets we know best today. The Muppets Take Manhattan, in 1984, included a sequence depicting several of the characters as children, inspiring the popular “Muppet Babies” cartoon that ran from 1984 to 1990. (Ironically, the most successful Muppet series outside of “The Muppet Show” used animation and not puppetry. I love Baby Rowlf's enthusiasm on the piano riff in the Muppets Take Manhattan version, though.) “Muppet Babies” probably solidified what is now considered the core group of Muppets: Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Rowlf, Animal and Scooter, although Bunsen, Beaker, Statler and Waldorf made appearances. (“Muppet Babies” introduced Scooter’s twin, Skeeter, as another female character, but she has never really appeared in grown-up form in any other Muppet project. And good luck finding “Muppet Babies” on DVD any time soon, with the obvious rights issues involving music and movie clips used on the show). When Walter symbolically joined the gang at the end of The Muppets, the five Muppets inviting him over were, fittingly, Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Rowlf and Scooter.

If you think about it, "Muppet Babies" kind of invalidates the idea in The Muppet Movie that Kermit assembled the group on a road trip to Hollywood. It's also the third different origin for Scooter, who started on "The Muppet Show" as the nephew of the theater owner, but in The Muppet Movie is retconned as the manager of the Electric Mayhem band. That's why it's best not to think too hard about it.

Other Muppet characters would flirt with bouts of popularity in the 1990s. The Rastafarian Clifford, performed by Kevin Clash, first appeared on 1989’s short-lived “The Jim Henson Hour” and became the host of “Muppets Tonight” (1996-98), but then largely disappeared after that. (Clash performed Clifford on a May 1990 episode of "The Arsenio Hall Show" that featured Jim Henson two weeks before he died.)

After Henson’s death, the Muppet movies took a page from the early days, sticking the characters into adaptations of famous works. These include 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island, and the 2005 TV movie The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz.

The most iconic 1990s Muppet is probably Pepe the King Prawn, who started on “Muppets Tonight” and had prominent roles in Muppets From Space and the 2002 telefilm It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. Pepe has a short scene in The Muppets practicing a dance routine with Miss Piggy. The lack of newer Muppets in The Muppets may stem from the filmmakers having grown up with “The Muppet Show,” which also explains the generous screen time afforded to great vintage characters such as Link Hogthrob. Another 1990s Muppet, Bobo the Bear, gets a bigger role in The Muppets, as one of Tex Richman's henchmen (joining another long-absent Muppet, Uncle Deadly).

Pepe the King Prawn

Link Hobthrob, best known from "Pigs in Space," and as seen in 2011's The Muppets.

(L-R): Chris Cooper as Tex Richman, with Uncle Deadly and Bobo in The Muppets.

Given the way the troupe has evolved, it will be interesting to see what becomes of Walter, the newest member introduced in The Muppets. (I for one, though, vote for more screen time for the Muppet hobos.)

The newest Muppet, Walter

Muppet hobos with Hobo Joe (Zach Galifianakis) in 2011's The Muppets

Speaking of It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, that movie is a fascinating artifact for a couple of reasons. First, it gives an It’s a Wonderful Life treatment to the Muppets, with Kermit witnessing an alternate reality in which he is never born, the Muppets never get together and Doc Hopper’s French Fried Frog Legs, the bad guy from The Muppet Movie, becomes a successful fast food chain. Second, a lot of its plot elements were revisited in The Muppets, with the group having to put on a big show to buy back their theater from a greedy developer.

On the left, the Muppet Theater as seen in It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. On the right, how it appears in 2011's The Muppets, as a redress of the El Capitan on Hollywood Boulevard.

But where the Christmas movie treated the material more as a personal conflict for Kermit, The Muppets smartly expands on the premise to explore the Muppets as a cultural phenomenon.

It’s kind of funny to think that many of the Muppet performers in these recent efforts re-creating “The Muppet Show” weren’t doing these characters in the 1970s and ’80s. Indeed, many of the characters are now on their second or third generation of performers, expertly keeping the spirit of the Muppets alive for generations to come.

Such change should not only be expected, but encouraged. The Muppets have their place in history, to be sure, but they also have their place in our hearts. And that’s a legacy that few entertainment franchises can ever hope to achieve.

Much of the information in this report was compiled from the Muppet Wiki, an invaluable resource for Muppets enthusiasts.

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