The Muppet Case

In the mid 1950’s, a young man obsessed with television was about to get a degree in set design,  when he saw an ad in a newspaper. It was from the local TV station, looking for performers for a new show. They were looking specifically for puppeteers, and although he knew nothing about that, he got a couple books from the library and created his own puppets for the audition. The man was Jim Henson, and even though the show he auditioned for was short-lived, it set him on the path of changing the puppet medium, and television, forever. 

But this episode isn’t about Jim Henson (don’t worry, we’ll get there). Today, we’re taking a specific look at one of his most well-known and beloved creations: The Muppet Show. The Muppet show aired from 1976 to 1981, five seasons of perfect insanity and uninhibited joy. It followed Kermit, a hapless producer and host of a weekly variety show, and the rest of the Muppets as they put together a live performance with a special guest. The show followed back-stage hijinks, and even included commentary from Statler and Waldorf, grumpy critics from the upper balcony. 

The show became more popular than anyone could have imagined, and the appeal of The Muppets continues today. So, it’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights, it’s time to learn about the Muppets on the BCD tonight!The Muppet Case 

JIM HENSON’S EARLIER WORK

  • Back in the 1950’s, an 18-year-old Jim Henson put together an old felt coat and two halves of a ping-pong ball. Placing his hand inside, he brought his creation to life: a charismatic monster named Kermit. He would use the puppet on a local TV station’s 5-minute time slot between the evening news and the Tonight Show. It was called, “Sam and Friends.” 
  • Along with his future wife, Jane Nebel, Jim had been working on various shows on the local TV station in the Washington, DC area. His creations, that he started to call Muppets, essentially changed the game for puppeteering, and he was given his own program with more freedom. 
    • Up to this point, puppets weren’t considered a versatile medium. They were often rigid, made of wood or plastic, and while they appeared on various children’s programming, they were not commonly used in adult entertainment.
      • Jim Henson changed this by building new types of puppets with various materials. They were more flexible, and easy to manipulate. They also had a lot of character, as he constantly used new technology to give his creations movable features and expressions
    • While working on the show, Jim hired Jerry Juhl, a puppeteer and friend of future Muppet performer Frank Oz. Juhl was Henson’s first employee, and he even filled in for Jane on the final season of Sam and Friends.
  • Juhl moved to New York with Jim and Jane to help them put together their team of puppeteers, and he began to work as a freelance writer in the late 1960’s. He also followed Jim to Sesame street in 1969 as a performer and writer.
  • Eventually Juhl moved to California to pursue writing further, and would help with Jim Henson’s projects from afar. 
  • This relationship is incredibly important, as Juhl was vital to the creation of the Muppet show and the signature humor of the Muppet characters.

THE MAKING OF THE MUPPET SHOW

One of the pseudo pilots- The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence
  • In 1969, audiences everywhere met the lovable and unique Muppet Characters through the widely distributed Sesame Street. Although the show gave his characters exposure, Henson was afraid that he was becoming typecast as a children’s entertainer. 
    • Although the content that Jim and Jane created wasn’t inherently for children, the public eye saw puppets as a means of entertaining children. Popular children’s shows like Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Doody often used puppets, which cemented this mentality. 
    • The creatures Henson created were brightly colored, and had a friendly look that attracted younger audiences. But, he believed his Muppets were for all ages, as the characters themselves have a wide range of ages.
  • To attempt to get out of this, he began to play with the concept of a more adult oriented program. Two television specials were produced for ABC and are pseudo pilots for The Muppet Show. They were The Muppets Valentine Show (1974) and The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence (1975). At the time, neither of the two specials were ordered to series. 
    • The Valentine Show was written by Jerry Juhl, while Sex and Violence was not. Juhl’s writing voice was now a signature part of Jim Henson’s work, and the Muppets were not as successful without it. 
    • One great thing that came from Sex and Violence was the introduction of Statler and Waldorf, who became staples on The Muppet Show.
  • After the prime-time access rule was enacted, networks were able to shift their 7:30-8pm time slot to their affiliates. This helped convince CBS to consider airing some of Jim Henson’s show proposals, though he would have to go across the pond in order for him to get a green-lit series.
  • Luckily for Henson, British TV station ATV was interested in having his creations appear in a weekly show. He would have to move production to London, and Henson called his best writer Jerry Juhl to come on and develop the show. The station allowed Henson to hire Juhl, but they would not give him the head writer role, as they were looking for a more established comedian, and they hired Jack Burns.
    • The team met to develop the concept of the show, and they would pull elements from both specials. One of these ideas was the “show within a show” format, with a human guest that the characters can play off of.
    • This meant that Jim Henson’s manager Bernie Brillstein would have to find celebrities willing to travel to the UK and appear on the show. This was difficult in the beginning, but once the show became popular, celebrities were calling him!
      • With his team in the UK, Jim filmed two pilot episodes that they attempted to sell to US networks.
  • Meanwhile, the Muppets were featured during the first 1975-76 season of Saturday Night Live. Although they lasted for only that one season on Saturday Night Live, Henson and his team learned a great deal from being involved in the show’s production. They gained knowledge about adapting the current affairs of the world as well as quickly creating a television episode within a seven-day period. Henson also gained friendships with many celebrities through his work on SNL that were later able to be guests on The Muppet Show. 
    • This experience also helped Henson and his team to figure out the personalities of the Muppet characters and how they could be used on their own show.
  • Because Jim had been using the characters for TV appearances for almost 20 years already, he had well-set ideas for them and knew where they could fit in the show. All of the pieces were coming together.
    • Jim Henson chose one of his most well-known puppets, Kermit, to be the host of The Muppet Show. Kermit was originally a character that had trouble finding his footing. He seemed rough and a little rude, often criticizing other characters and frequently yelling. Placing the character as a frustrated stage manager really changed the context of his personality and made him a much more relatable character–someone who just wants things to go right. 
  • After leaving SNL, the creators were able to focus more on the show. They made huge improvements on the characters, based on the notes from the networks that did not want to buy The Muppet Show. The team went back to London and set up a studio to make the endless amounts of puppets needed. 
    • The next episode was far more successful, and the actors started to understand their characters. It also introduced Scooter! 
    • Each episode improved on the last, an incredible feat. Being able to adapt is what made Jim Henson and the Muppet performers so special, and it’s how the show lasted as long as it did.
    • There were cases of violence on the show, but Jim Henson was generally against any kind of TV violence, but the beauty of using puppets meant that viewers always knew that no one was getting hurt.
  • The Muppet Show first aired in September of 1976. By Christmas of the same year, the series saw around 14 million viewers on Sunday evenings in the UK. In January 1977, over 100 countries had either acquired the series or were making offers. 

SHOW PRODUCTION

  • The show had multiple writers. Jerry Juhl, who was appointed head writer for season 2, conveyed that there is a lot of freedom in writing a show like this. He said you can write down any insane fantasy you can think of on paper and there are people standing by to make it happen. 
  • Episodes were typically written a couple months before recording.
    • The other writers included: 
      • Don Hinkley
      • David Odell who began working with them first in the Muppet Movie.
      • Chris Langham
        • He was the only English writer and Jim Henson said  that he had an off the wall sense of humor.
  • The crew would start building sets about 5-6 weeks before they were needed on the show.
  • The Workshop was where the puppets were created and oftentimes they would spring ideas on the builders at the last minute.
    • In order to have multiple puppets throughout the series with different personalities they created The Whatnots. These puppets had blank faces that you could add features like eyes, noses, mouths and wigs in order to give character and personality. They had a variety of sizes, colors, etc for the features and they were typically attached via tape or pins.
    • Most, if not almost all, of the characters did not exist below the waist meaning they didn’t have legs. The trick was convincing the audience that there was a whole world for them and that they have their own reality. 
  • Stages of events leading up to a show
    • The first day was a script read-through and music rehearsal for vocals.
    • The Second day they would record the band and vocals.
    • Next they were in the studio rehearsing and videotaping the action.
    • Each episode of course had its own set of problems or hurdles to jump over.
    • They typically spent about three days shooting everything for the week’s episode. Sometimes a seemingly small number like, The Viking number (In the Navy), can take an entire day to perfect for an episode.
  • Philip Casson and Peter Harris were television directors that switched back and forth between weeks and would control the final product of what the audience sees on the television. They acted as regular television directors, but also dealt with the special problems that arise with working with puppets.
    • Richard Holloway would be the in-between for these two directors and those that were controlling the puppets. 
    • In order for the actors to see what the audience would see, there were monitors all around on the ground. They needed to make sure that every actor was looking at a monitor in order for them to fully understand the world that they were creating.

THE MUPPET PERFORMERS

  • The stars of the Muppets were of course those that controlled the Muppets. These performers became known as a Muppeteer. This term simply means a puppeteer for the Muppets. They each manipulate the puppets, provide voices, and bring a life, attitude, and character to the diverse characters.
    • The term Muppeteer derives from a portmanteau of “Muppet” and “Puppeteer”. This term has been used as early as the 1960’s in order to help promote Muppet projects. 
    • However, according to Brian Jay Jones, author of 2013’s Jim Henson: The Biography, Henson was not a big fan of the term. His entry reads:
      • “There was one term that Jim expressly would not allow to be used to describe his performers—and that was the word Muppeteer. While the media and others would use the term freely to describe Jim’s occupation, Jim thought it was just a bit too gimmicky. In 1984, when the Apple computer company sent Jim a mock-up of a page from its annual report proudly hailing Jim as an Apple user and listing his occupation as “Muppeteer,” Jim scratched darkly through the term and wrote “Muppet performer” beneath it. He was a performer or a puppeteer, not a Muppeteer.”
  • Many of the performers acted as many characters throughout the show. 
    • The men behind the Muppets had pros and cons of not being the seen stars. On one hand they weren’t recognized, so they could shop in peace. On the other hand they were not recognized, so they were not seen as famous. 
    • Jim Henson himself performed as the voices of Kermit, Rowlf, Waldorf, and even the “Mahna Mahna” singer.
      • Mahna Mahna originally appeared on Sesame Street! 
      • Jim Henson saw himself as Kermit. They were both trying to hold together a bunch of crazies.
    • Frank Oz voiced Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Snowths, and T.R Rooster.
      • Jim Henson said that he credits Frank Oz with one of the reasons that the Muppet Show is so funny. 
        • Frank Oz was such a big part of the show.
        • He was such a great performer, which was his absolute best attribute.
    • Richard Hunt voiced Scooter, Statler, Wayne, and in some cases, Miss Piggy, as well as Miss Piggy’s Dancing Partner.
    • Dave Goelz voiced Gonzo, Muppy, Miss Kitty, and Zoot
      • He was encouraged to perform by Jim Henson, and didn’t necessarily believe in his own ability. This made Gonzo seem a little quiet and childish, as Goelz was a shy performer. 
      • Gonzo developed to be a complex character that has a sensitive quality to him that other Muppets lack.
    • All of these performers would also voice many more minor or one off characters, along with additional voices from Jerry Nelson, Louise Gold, Steve Whitmire, and Kathryn Mullen.

GUEST STARS

  • After 5 seasons and 120 episodes, The Muppet Show never repeated a guest. According to manager Bernie Brillstein, celebrities contacted the show and asked to come on!
  • The initial contact with a guest is a phone call, where they find out information about the guest and figure out how to play to their strengths.
  • David Lazer the Executive Producer would be the one to guide each guest star through the week. 
  • Some of their most popular guests were: 
    • Julie Andrews 
    • John Denver
    • Gene Kelley
    • Elton John
    • Dom Deluise
    • Bob Hope
    • Steve Martin
    • Carol Burnett
    • John Cleese

RECEPTION

  • The Muppet Show was an unprecedented piece of television, because no other prime-time show had attempted to make its main characters puppets. It allowed both adults and children to come together and was more popular that anyone could have imagined. 
    • Jim Henson was thrilled with the success, but he couldn’t shake the fear that audiences saw the Muppets as children’s characters.
      • Network executives were seemingly the only ones who saw it this way.
    • It left such an impact that there have been several movies and shows since. Some classics are: The Muppet Movie, A Muppet Christmas Carol, and Muppet Treasure Island.
  • The show was well received and was given awards, even early on!
    • 1977 the British Academy Television Award for Best Entertainment Programme
    • 1978 British Academy Television Award for Most Original Programme/Series
    • 1978 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy-Variety Or Music Program
    • 1979 The Peabody Award
    • 1979/1980 WGA Award for Best Variety Series or Special: Musical or Comedy – Television
    • 1980 The Raven Award
    • 1981 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing – Variety Series- to Jerry Juhl

It has been 44 years now since The Muppet Show first aired and we are still seeing its influence and characters today. On the Disney+ streaming service they have even put out a new series titled Muppets Now which is labeled as an improvisational comedy based on the franchise.

SOURCES:

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