From its first broadcast in 1976 to its 1981 finale, The Muppet Show was groundbreaking television. A syndicated variety show starring a troupe of puppets, it became more popular than anyone but its creator, Jim Henson, could have imagined. During its five seasons of inspired insanity, it was broadcast in more than 100 countries.
The wonderful children's show Sesame Street, also starring Henson's Muppets, had been broadcast since late 1969. For Henson, its success was a mixed blessing, as network executives began to see the Muppets strictly as children's entertainment.
The Muppet Show proved Henson's innovative puppets could appeal equally to children and adults. Its setting, Muppet Theater, allowed on-stage sketches and songs as well as backstage antics. Except for Kermit the Frog, a Sesame Street favorite, The Muppet Show featured an entirely new cast of Muppets: Fozzie Bear, the lovably inept comic and Kermit's second banana; Miss Piggy, a glamorous, Rubenesque starlet and Kermit's would-be love interest; Gonzo the Great, a buzzard-like creature with a chicken fetish; Rowlf, the imperturbable piano-playing dog; Statler and Waldorf, two geriatric hecklers; The Electric Mayhem, the ultra- cool house band; and Scooter, hired as Kermit's gofer because his uncle owned the theater. The show also featured countless other Muppets, from a 12-inch rat named Rizzo to a seven-foot monster named Sweetums.
But Kermit was undeniably the glue that held these lunatics together. As producer/host of Muppet Theater, Kermit had the considerable task of keeping guests and Muppets happy, fending off Miss Piggy's advances, bolstering Fozzie's confidence after another joke falls flat, and tolerating Gonzo's bizarre stunts. As performed by Henson Kermit is the lone sane creature in the asylum, the viewers' bridge to world of The Muppet Show, a small, green Everyman (Everyfrog) just trying to do his job in the midst of gleeful craziness.
The partnership between Henson and Frank Oz produced such puppet pairs as Miss Piggy and Kermit, Sesame Street's Ernie and Bert, and Kermit and Fozzie Bear. The two also teamed up for the Swedish Chef, a Muppet with Henson's voice and Oz's hands, with hilarious results. Oz's nasal boom was a perfect counterpoint to Henson's gentle voice, and the two performers complemented each other well. Other Muppet Show puppeteers include Richard Hunt (Sweetums, Scooter, Statler, Beaker), Dave Goelz (Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew), Jerry Nelson (Floyd Pepper, Lew Zealand) and Steve Whitmire (Rizzo the Rat).
Both backstage and on-stage, lunacy ruled at Muppet Theater. Memorable sketches included pig Vikings pillaging towns while singing the Village People's In the Navy; one creature devouring another while singing "I've Got You Under My Skin"; and the great ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev in a pas de deux with a human-sized lady pig.
Often, the guest stars were the perfect catalyst for Muppet nuttiness. The frequently star-struck Miss Piggy swoons at guest Christopher Reeve's every move; in another episode, she locks Kermit in a trunk because guest Linda Ronstadt showed too much interest in the little green host. Guest Gene Kelly thought he had been invited just to watch the show; he stays backstage chatting with the rats until Kermit finally convinces him to do Singing in the Rain on a near-perfect replica of the film's street set. Victor Borge and Rowlf the Dog play a piano duet. Diva Beverly Sills gives Gonzo a lesson in the fine art of balancing a spoon on one's nose.
During the first season, writes Christopher Finch in his book Jim Henson: The Works, guest stars were mostly personal friends of Henson or his manager, Bernie Brillstein. But by the third season, popular performers were practically lining up to appear with the beloved puppets. The Muppet Show's guest roster reads like a "Who's Who" of late-1970s performers, most notably Roger Moore, John Cleese, Harry Belafonte, Dizzy Gillespie, Lynn Redgrave, Diana Ross, Alice Cooper, Julie Andrews, George Burns, Joel Grey, Steve Martin, Ruth Buzzi, both Candice and Edgar Bergen.
The Muppets' TV history starts long before Sesame Street. From 1955 to 1961, Henson's Sam and Friends, a five-minute live show, aired twice nightly on WRC-TV, Washington, D.C. Sam and Friends afforded Kermit's debut; it also featured several Muppets that didn't make the cut for The Muppet Show. In 1961 the Muppets began making regular guest appearances on NBC's Today. The following year, Rowlf made his debut in a Purina dog food commercial; in 1963, the affable canine began regular appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show. The Muppets also made regular appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show from 1966 to 1971. In 1975, the year Henson formed an agreement with Lord Lew Grade to produce 24 episodes of The Muppet Show, he also created an entirely new set of Muppets who were featured on Saturday Night Live in its first season.
During The Muppet Show's heyday in 1979, The Muppet Movie was released in the United States, beginning the Muppets' transition from TV to film. Three more movies featured The Muppet Show cast: The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppets Take Manhattan and The Muppets' Christmas Carol. A fourth, The Muppets' Treasure Island, was released in February, 1996. Henson also produced several other TV shows featuring the Muppets after The Muppet Show ended: Fraggle Rock, focusing on an underground community of fun-loving Fraggles, hardworking Doozers and odious Gorgs; The Storyteller, which aired only in England; Muppet Babies, a children's cartoon featuring baby versions of The Muppet Show's cast; and several other short- lived productions.
On 16 May 1990, Jim Henson died suddenly after a short illness. He was 54. Jim Henson Productions is a family business, however, and son Brian Henson was named president soon afterward. He directed The Muppets' Christmas Carol, the first Muppet film made after Henson's death, with Whitmire performing Kermit.
Dr. Teeth (Henson) & the Electric Mayhem
Capt. Link Heartthrob (Henson)
Dr. Strangepork (Nelson)
Dr. Bunsen Honeydew (Goelz)
Culhane, John. "Unforgettable Jim Henson." Reader's Digest (Pleasantville, New York), November 1990.
Finch, Christopher. Of Muppets & Men: The Making of The Muppet Show. New York: Alfred A. Knopf: 1981.
_______________. Jim Henson: The Works: The Art, the Magic, the Imagination. New York: Random House, 1993.
Henson, Jim. The Sesame Street Dictionary: Featuring Jim Henson's Sesame Street Muppets. New York: Random House, 1980.