Abigail Maughan – Jimmy Dean and Rowlf. Doc and Sprocket. Cinderella and Rufus. The Storyteller and the, uh, dog of the Storyteller. Since the dawn of Muppets in the public consciousness, the dynamic of the human host and their Muppet dog partner has been a beloved and recurring motif in Muppet productions. It has been repeatedly utilized throughout Henson history to great effect, especially in fantasy contexts.
More often than not, they are the hosts or bookends of a project. By serving as the root in reality, they juxtapose the inevitable forthcoming absurdity, or actively engage in it to enhance it. They are a comforting place of stability for the story and for the audience, a home base, before things get wacky. By their own intrinsic mundanity, man’s (and a number of times, woman’s) best friend and their respective human partners are the perfect segue into wilder worlds.
The human tends to be generally amiable and tuned in to the wonder around them, and their dog, a universal symbol of loyalty and companionship, is supportive even if begrudgingly so. A common foil is one or the other being grandly ambitious, and tempered down by the other, either alternatingly or consistently. This are all general attributes, of course, as no two pairs are identical.
Among the many things The Jimmy Dean Show gave us, the first use of this dog-and-human dynamic was one of them. Dean was the straight man to Rowlf and his eccentricities, and their antics were enough to propel Rowlf to the level of national celebrity. Who would think that a country singer accepting a puppet dog as his regular co-star on his variety show would be such a hit? Because said country singer treats his conversations with said dog puppet like nothing out of the ordinary, the inherent absurdity is conciliated with a charming normalcy that represents the atmosphere of Muppets in whole. Rowlf would go on to generate superb chemistry with a number of Muppet Show guest stars and continue the trend, as would other dog puppets and their co-stars who took them seriously.
Dogs themselves are not a rarity in the creative worlds of Henson, certainly not, there’s a city full of them. Nor is it rare that a dog character is specifically created to be a companion—just look at Miss Piggy and Foo-foo, or Sir Didymus and Ambrosius. Those dogs serve their purpose for comedy and incredible visual effect, but have little of their own character beyond general dog attributes. Today’s dogs of focus do not lose their general dog attributes, but they additionally have more distinctive goals and atypical ambitions, and are skilled in either sarcasm or pantomime. But the verbality of the dog is no factor to the degree of their faithfulness or intelligence: enthusiastic fluffball Rufus, for example, converses with his owner Darryl in the pilot for The Land of Tinkerdee, but is perpetually addled, whereas Sprocket of Fraggle Rock does not talk but is a very capable and observant creature.
Rufus is an interesting case, having played the canine sidekick to three different humans in three different early Muppet productions. He served as the watchdog of blasé repairman Darryl in the aforementioned Tinkerdee in 1964, then became the trusty and diligent confidante of the title character in 1970’s Hey Cinderella!, in which he lost the power of speech. In 1974’s The Muppets Valentine Show, he endeared himself to and was adopted by Mia Farrow, who continues to prove that human women can have just as strong a relationship with their Muppet dogs as men do (even if it prevents this article from being titled “See a Man About a Dog.”) Rufus is loved and humored by all three of these humans, who are a “gatekeeper,” a resident, and a visitor to a fantasy world, respectively.
Sesame Street’s Linda had Barkley, a beloved, playful pet who understood her sign language commands. The latter half of The Jim Henson Hour and beyond occasionally belonged to the Storyteller and his dog and their place by the fire. The Storyteller, and his Greek Myths successor, with whom the dog was trapped wandering a labyrinth, would relay colorful folklore to the dog, who would voice his incredulity, approval, or distress at the unfolding events. Jim Henson himself was accompanied by a dog, Camille Bonora’s Jojo, when hosting “Secrets of the Muppets” for The Jim Henson Hour. Jojo’s earnest curiosity gives Jim and the members of the Muppet workshops an excuse to explain things out loud and gives the episode a framing device instead of leaving it up to typical documentary format.
Another human-and-dog pair who excel in their role as a framing device is Doc and Sprocket of Fraggle Rock. The two strikingly resurrect the conceit of Tinkerdee all those years ago, being a human tinkerer and his shaggy, friendly dog who are the last stop before entry to a magical world. Unlike Darryl and Rufus in the failed pilot, however, this fact is unbeknownst to Doc and Sprocket. Doc and Sprocket’s journey takes them from being outsiders of a magical world to being part of the “magic” themselves. While their own humble stories weave parallels around those of their whimsical neighbors’, every time those stories intertwine is an inspiring message that something special, something wonderful, could be anywhere just waiting to be discovered, even for a mere Silly Creature and their dog.
The formula of a Muppet dog and a non-Muppet human is the anchor in our world, but has the full potential to venture out into a more unbelievable one. Not only are they are the catalyst for the telling and exploring of many situations and stories in Muppet and Henson productions, they often serve as the reason that the audience is privy to this exploration in the first place.
“You know, Sprocket… meeting that Fraggle made me feel different. That little furry creatures could live behind the walls… why, that’s magical. And then, anything’s possible. Think of it. Maybe you’re magic. … Maybe I’m magic. Maybe Ned and Fluffinella are magic. Maybe the whole world! And think, Sprocket, if we wanted there to be a Fraggle hole behind that cardboard box… well, who knows?”