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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. In the fall of
1995, 14 years after Henson ended The Muppet Show to move
into films, Brian Henson's The New Muppet Show will begin
airing on ABC. With thirteen episodes ordered, the show will be
set in a fictitious TV station and will feature the same mix of
guest stars, music and backstage silliness. Kermit, Gonzo, Animal
and other favorites will be included; but Oz's characters, including
Miss Piggy and Fozzie, were expected to have reduced roles, as Oz
has established a career as a film director.
The Muppet Show (Jim Henson, creator)
Erin Ozker (1976-1977)
Louise Gold (1979-1981)
Kathryn Muller (1980-1981)
Steve Whitmire (1980-1981)
the Frog (Henson)
Miss Piggy (Oz)
Fozzie Bear (Oz)
Sam the Eagle (Oz)
The Swedish Chef (Henson & Oz)
Dr. Teeth (Henson) & the Electric MayhEm
Capt. Link Heartthrob (Henson)
Dr. Strangepork (Nelson)
Wayne & Wanda (1976-1977)
Statler & Waldorf (Hunt & Henson)
Beauregard (Goelz) (1980-1981)
Pops (Nelson) (1980-1981)
Lew Zealand (Nelson) (1980-1981)
Rizzo the Rat (Whitmire) (1980-1981)
Jim Henson, Jon Stone, Jack Burns
Syndicated only 30 minutes Released: September 1976
Produced: 1976-1981 (120 episodes)
Culhane, John. "Unforgettable Jim Henson." Reader's Digest
(Pleasantville, New York), November 1990.
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.
Jim. The Sesame Street Dictionary: Featuring Jim Henson's Sesame
Street Muppets. New York: Random House, 1980.
"Jim Henson: Miss Piggy Went to Market and $150 Million Came Home
(interview)." American Film (Washington, D.C.), November
and Television; Children's
Television Workshop; Cooney,
Joan Ganz; Henson,