I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Muppet Matters: Why We Still Watch the Muppets

by Anissa M. Graham
March 17, 2012

A frog, a bear, a pig, and a whatever make for a strange mix of characters to serve as the core group of a popular prime-time series; yet this group -- Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, and Gonzo -- along with their felt, fur, and feather-covered cohorts brought a mix of workplace and vaudevillian comedy to television screens from 1976 to 1981.  Thirty years later fans still watch the old shows, buy DVD compilations, and eagerly await another big screen appearance by the Muppets.  What is it about the Muppets that keeps fans coming back for more?  The answer is as diverse as the Muppets themselves, and it begins with one man’s fascination with television.

Jim Henson’s fascination with television has been chronicled in a number of books including Christopher Finch’s Jim Henson: The Works - The Art, the Magic, the Imagination and Of Muppets and Men: The Making of the Muppet Show. These books explore Henson's early forays into the possibilities of using puppets on television.  In 1955 Henson produced and performed in a 5-minute series called Sam and Friends.  The series became a way for him to work out skits and perfect puppets as well as explore the new medium of television.  What will become a staple of his later series, the lip sync -- or the Muppet cover tune -- begins on Sam and Friends.  Henson also used his puppet creations in a series of commercials during this period for Esskay Meats and Wilkins Coffee, among others.  His also Muppets appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, earning him a nationwide audience.  In 1969 Henson’s Muppets became the focal characters for a television series on the National Educational Television network, which would later become the Public Broadcasting Service.  That series, Sesame Street, combined live actors with a series of animal, human, and other Muppets to teach children basic literacy skills in addition to offering socialization instruction.  The success of Sesame Street allowed Henson to return to commercial television and a more adult audience.  The result is The Muppet Show, which combined elements like mixing live actors with puppets and sending-up popular culture, lessons that Henson took from Sam and Friends and Sesame Street.  

One major reason for show’s popularity is the chemistry between the core characters. The cast often refer to themselves as a family with each character supporting and encouraging the others.  Kermit and Rowlf the Dog are the oldest of the Muppets to appear on The Muppet Show. Rowlf appeared in commercials for Purina Dog Chow and was a series regular on The Jimmy Dean Show in the early 1960s.  Kermit was a featured character on Sam and Friends and the only Sesame Streetcharacter to crossover into primetime.  Voiced by Jim Henson himself, Kermit mirrored his creator’s role as the center of The Muppet Show’s magic.  Kermit provided the voice of reason and was the audience’s surrogate within the cast, responding to the antics onstage and off in much the same way as the audience might.  The other members of the cast appeal to various other aspects of our personalities -- Fozzie the perpetual optimist, Miss Piggy the narcissist, and Gonzo the adventurer -- and each allow the audience to reflect on hopes and dreams left forgotten or pushed to the side.  Identifying with the Muppets is just a part of the answer to their continuing popularity.

Another key component is the Muppets’ ability to recreate and reinvent themselves and the world around them.  In their original series, the Muppets moved away from the lip syncing of their early career and began to cover songs on their own.  Like the Osmonds and Sonny and Cher, the Muppets’ performances would dramatize the songs they sang.  Sometimes those dramatizations were simple reenactments of the stories in the songs -- as in episode 11 of season 2 when Miss Piggy sang a British dance hall tune, “My Old Man” (also known as “Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way”) or in episode 12 of season 3 when Robin (Kermit’s nephew), Kermit, and Miss Piggy sing the Beatles’ hit “Octopus’ Garden.”  Other times the Muppets take a song and turn it on its ear, creating a new meaning for the song.  For instance in season 2, the Muppets rework Buffalo Springfield’s 1967 hit “For What It’s Worth” featuring woodland creatures in the place of human singers.  Buffalo Springfield’s tune was a song used in protests against the Vietnam War.  The Muppets turn the song into an anti-hunting tune where the animals are looking out for hunters.  In season 3, they take a staple show tune, “Lullaby of Broadway,” set it in the Great White North, and have it sung by pigs, walruses, penguins, and fish.   

When the series ended in 1981, it might have been the end of the Muppet cast, but with the success of The Muppet Movie in 1979, the Muppets had a whole new medium to conquer.  In the years following the series’ end, The Muppet Show's cast appears in five more theatrically released films with one more to come in November of this year.  In their films the Muppets rework some standard film genres -- The Muppet Movie is a Road picture, The Great Muppet Caper takes on classic detective films, The Muppets Take Manhattan looks at Broadway, and Muppets from Space reexamines science fiction films.  Then, of course, there are the literary adaptations: The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, and The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz are surprisingly faithful to their source material if the audience ignores the fact that the supporting cast is composed of Muppets. The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz alters the original in terms of casting and in motivation (Dorothy goes to Oz to launch an American Idol style career).  However, it retains the original color of Dorothy’s shoes (silver, not ruby) and the fact that the Wizard appears to each friend in a different guise.  Taking the familiar and rejuvenating it is yet another reason why the Muppets remain popular.

In the age of CGI, IMAX and 3D, it might seem that old school puppets like the Muppets would no longer be relevant, but the Muppets thrive in this environment too.  When it opened in 1991 at Walt Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Muppet*Vision 3D combined typical Muppet antics with computer generated characters, 3D effects, and animatronic and full-body puppets to bring the audience into the Muppet action.  The attraction continues to be a popular stop for visitors.  While reboots of The Muppet Show like Muppets Tonight and Studio DC: Almost Live have not been particularly successful, the Muppets have embraced the Internet as a way to share early appearances as well as a way to create new content.  Gonzo, Sam the Eagle, Statler and Waldorf, Rizzo the Rat, Bunsen and Beaker, the Swedish Chef, and Fozzie Bear all have their own YouTube channels on which new video content is posted.  In 2009, Beaker’s “Ode to Joy” video was nominated for a Webby Award and won the People’s Voice award.  The Muppets version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” has earned over 21 million views.  Combining the zany with the familiar, the innocent with the ironic will no doubt keep us watching the Muppets into the future.

Anissa M. Graham