Michael Wermuth Jnr has been breaking down 60 Years of Henson / Muppets History bit by bit. You can read Part 1 here.
Written by Michael Wermuth Jnr
1969-1976: The Rest of the Pre-Muppet Show years
Sesame Street was perhaps Jim Henson’s biggest success at the time it started. When negotiating to be involved with the show, Henson agreed to not be paid for his services for a year in exchange for retaining the rights to all Muppet characters created for the show as well as a split in proceeds from Sesame Street merchandise featuring the characters (and there wasn’t much Sesame Street merchandise to not feature Muppets). While Kermit the Frog was a major character for over 21 years, the majority of characters on this show were created for the show, with the early years bringing the world such beloved characters as Big Bird, Ernie and Bert, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, The Count, Mr. Snuffleupagus, Herry Monster, Roosevelt Franklin, Prairie Dawn, Sherlock Hemlock, and many others.
Previously, Jim Henson usually had only one other performer working with him at a time, but the success of the show led to Henson hiring more performers. Before the shows premiere in 1969, Henson hired Caroll Spinney to perform Big Bird and Oscar, but following the first season, more performers were hired, most notably Jerry Nelson (who had performed with the Muppets on-and-off since 1965, but was now performing full-time), Fran Brill, and Richard Hunt, with Dave Goelz joining in 1974. Following the shows success, Henson also started to do more hour-long television specials, often with more impressive sets and puppetry techniques than what Sesame Street was capable of at the time. The 1968 special Hey Cinderella made its North American television debut a few months after Sesame Street premiered (leading to one critic accusing CTW – who had no involvement with the special – of using the shows success to make a special for commercial television) and was then followed by two Tales from Muppetland specials, The Frog Prince and The Muppet Musicians of Bremen. After many successful appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, Ed Sullivan co-produced a special with Henson, The Great Santa Claus Switch.
Sesame Street may have been Jim Henson’s biggest success at the time, but it was also perhaps his biggest disadvantage. Henson was reluctant to do the show, fearing he’d be typecast as a children’s entertainer, and the success of the show indeed made it difficult for Henson to get the networks interested in the show that he had really wanted to do – a prime-time Muppet show called – wait for it – The Muppet Show. The Muppets may have proven themselves in appearances on many shows for adults – including a Thanksgiving 1971 appearance onThe Dick Cavett Show, being part of Nancy Sinatra’s night club act (at the time Henson was also developing a Muppet Broadway show), and memorable appearances in two episodes of The Cher Show – but the networks thought that the Muppets were better as an act on a prime time show than as their own prime time show, although a pitch tape for CBS was taped and ABC aired two pilot specials for the show.
In 1975, the Muppets were a semi-regular feature during the first season of Saturday Night Live. A new group of characters were created, including King Ploobis, Scred, and The Mighty Favog, and the characters were the first Muppets to have taxidermy eyes instead if plastic ones, giving them a somewhat more realistic appearance than earlier characters. Being on late-night television, their segments, titled “Land of Gorch”, were perhaps the most adult the Muppets had been, humor-wise. Unfortunately, these segments weren’t popular with audiences, and they were hated by the majority of both the cast – who resented having screen time taken away because of the Muppets – and crew (to the point that the writers drew straws to determine who would write the next sketch).
Luckily, Jim Henson was soon given the opportunity to finally get his desired show on the air. Lord Lew Grade of the British company ATV was interested in producing The Muppet Show for first-run syndication, under the condition that the show be taped in England. This meant leaving Saturday Night Live (though Jim Henson noted in a 1982 interview that they would have probably been let go from the show anyway) and spending less time than before on Sesame Street, but the Muppets were now going to get their own show for people of all ages.
1976-1981:The Muppet Show Years
The Muppet Show was a success, running for five years. The show used the variety show format, with songs, sketches, vaudeville-type acts, and backstage plots. The show had such recurring sketches as Veterinarian’s Hospital, Muppet Labs, and of course Pigs in Space. In keeping with the variety show format, the show also featured a weekly celebrity guest star. In a reversal of how the Muppets were often the puppet act on shows that otherwise featured live actors, the guest star was the only human character appearing in each episode. Guest stars ranged from Rita Moreno, Carol Burnett, Elton John, and Harry Belafonte, to Shields and Yarnell, Bruce Forsyte, Chris Langham, and Edgar Bergan, and even an episode featuring the stars of Star Wars.
While practically all previous Muppet appearances and productions would bill the puppets as Muppets (and it would still apply for almost every Henson puppet until 2004), The Muppet Show established the Muppets as a specific character group, establishing Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, Rowlf, Scooter, Bunsen and Beaker, Statler and Waldorf, Robin, The Swedish Chef, and many others as THE Muppets. Most Muppet productions afterwards (particularly ones with the word “Muppet” in the title), including movies and specials, would star these characters.
Jim Henson’s team of Muppet performers were expanding with The Muppet Show. In addition to Henson, all five seasons featured Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, and Dave Goelz, with the first season including longtime puppet builder and background performer John Lovelady and newcomer Erin Ozker. More performers were added after the first season, most notably British-based Louise Gold, Steve Whitmire (who had initially been hired for Sesame Street), Kathy Mullen, and Karen Prell, while Michael Earl and Brian Meehl were hired primarily forSesame Street and, along with Caroll Spinney, were the only performers working a full-time schedule for the show.
Of course, Jim Henson wasn’t exclusively occupied with The Muppets during this era. The main performers would still be involved with Sesame Street, though they spent less time per year than before, and there were Sesame Street specials, most notably Christmas Eve on Sesame Street. In 1977 Jim Henson made the television special Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. This special, based on a Children’s book (and perhaps better-known than the book it’s based on), featured impressive puppetry techniques, had many platformed-up sets, and had many of the animal characters a little more like the real thing and a little less cartoony than the Muppets had been known for. After years of making industrial films for various companies, in 1975 Jim Henson had begun making his own industrial films, titled Muppet Meeting Films, which in contrast to earlier films (which were only screened to their respective employees), could be purchased or rented out to any company to screen during meeting breaks.
But the majority of focus this period was on the Muppets. The success of The Muppet Show led to an official Muppet Show Fan Club, which included a special 45 recording of the theme song and a four-times-a-month newsletter. Each year until 1984 also brought a Muppet annual, released once a year, primarily in England. Miss Piggy would become a superstar in her own right, headlining many calendars.
With all the success during this period, 1979 was a particularly special year for the Muppets. In fact, Jim Henson noted it in his journal as “a very major big year”. Besides Sesame Street celebrating its 10th anniversary, Kermit guest-hosted a memorable episode of The Tonight Show. Joining John Denver, the Muppets did a Christmas album and television special of the same name with John Denver, A Christmas Together. The Muppets also got another television special that year, The Muppets Go Hollywood, which was meant to promote what was most notable for the Muppets that year – their first feature film!
For The Muppet Movie, Jim Henson set out to have the Muppets do things that would have been complicated on a weekly TV show budget, like have Kermit ride a bicycle (which was the one thing people asked about upon seeing the film, though it wasn’t the first time Kermit rode a bike), sit on a log in swamp water, have the Muppets drive vehicles, have Gonzo fly in the air holding onto balloons, and have Animal grow into a giant. And the film was shot outdoors, putting the Muppets in our world. The film was a success, and many more followed.
The Muppet Show was still a success during the 1980-1981 television season, but Jim Henson decided to end the show then, while it was still a success. Also, Jim Henson was ready to move on to other projects. And we’ll learn what those projects are next time (though the most dedicated of fans already know what those are) when we look at Jim Henson’s busiest decade ever.