The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
When the late Jerry Nelson, the puppeteer who performed as Robin the frog, Sgt. Floyd Pepper of the Electric Mayhem, and Snuffleupagus, was asked a difficult question at the Paley Center about the loss of the human form in the digital landscape, he replied: “I would say first off, that art is an expression of life and life is an expression of art. It can go in both directions at the same time and probably will.” He then revealed that he had no idea what that meant.
I imagine that when you think of The Muppets, you think of the movies, the show, or possibly even Sesame Street. While there is humor throughout all of these examples, it’s easy to categorize it all as “kids’ stuff.” However, there’s a deep, rich history to Jim Henson’s Muppets that extends far beyond these classic kids shows. And through them all there is a thread of comedy that is purely adult, sophisticated, and frequently irreverent: which is exactly the kind of thing I want these articles to preserve.
On October 15, 2003 a celebration was held at The Paley Center to pay respects to the life and creativity of Jim Henson. Muppet writer and historian Craig Shemin was present; as was Jane Henson, the widow of the Muppet’s creator and founder of the Henson Foundation; original performer Jerry Nelson; Henson historian Karen Faulk; and member of the puppet design team, Bonnie Erickson. However, the main event comes with Craig Shermin’s presentation of some rare Muppet artifacts from the early days of television.
The various clips come from early appearances on variety shows, original pilot presentations, commercials, and cut-ins done for local and national news programs, spanning their first TV appearances in 1961 to later appearances in 1973. An interesting thing that starts to happen when one watches these clips in context: you can actually see talent and creativity develop right in front of your eyes.
Take for example an early appearance on The Today Show in 1964. At this point, The Muppet performers are comprised solely of Jim and Jane Henson. The pair had been doing their first television show Sam and Friends twice daily on the NBC affiliate in Washington, DC, the five minutes before Steve Allen’s Tonight Show, and the five minutes on the news before Huntley and Brinkley’s national news. It was from this show that the Muppets garnered national attention and were invited to appear on Dave Garroway’s Today Show. The segment presented at the Paley Center features Kermit and another proto-Muppet I don’t recognize, “lip synching” to the song “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” Kermit plays the banjo and the other Muppet stands at a fruit cart. I’m no expert on the history of puppetry, but if I had to guess I would say that the expressiveness and acting of Jim and Jane’s performance was probably rather advanced for the time. What I do know is comedy and I can say that besides what’s already present in the recording of the song, there really isn’t any. They kind of just perform a live music video.
However, let’s jump forward a few years to 1966 when the Muppets, now performed by Jim, Jerry Nelson, and Frank Oz, are co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show, a daily afternoon variety show. One of the many routines performed during this run of shows features three ostrich feathers, outfitted with eyes and circular mouths that can be opened and closed, lip synching to “Good Lovin’” by The Young Rascals. The three features are joined by a small feather who dances erratically before being chased away. The piece ends with the small feather getting his revenge by bringing out a small fan and blowing the larger feathers away. For this sketch we have the same basic idea: puppets dancing and singing to a record, but now there are two additional components. Now there’s an actual narrative to the piece, a heightening, and to a lesser extent, characterization. Additionally there’s an evolution of creativity here. Rather than the same puppets as in the “Yes, We Have No Bananas” piece, we have a set of unusual and visually striking puppets unlike any that the audience had seen before. Oh, what a difference two years can make.
But let’s jump ahead again. In 1978 Jim Henson was working on the third season of The Muppet Show after many attempted pilots and presentations over the years. In the twelfth episode of the season, just as an example, the Beatles song “Octopus’ Garden” is performed, but this time it’s actually sung by Robin the frog and his uncle Kermit. As they do so, an elaborate aquatic band is introduced, we see Miss Piggy as a mermaid, and Animal is chased by a large stingray throughout. Granted it was with a larger budget, but now there’s a whole lot more going on, and it’s no longer a lip-synching, but a performance.
One major source of income for Jim Henson’s troupe of performers during this time came in the form of creating commercials, and here again we can see their style evolve over time. An early one in 1965 for Aurora Bath Tissue features Jane Henson as a glove hand dancer of sorts, skating over unrolling toilet paper, and nuzzling it, as the announcer touts its “delicate scent.” Here it is in full:
The next set shown at the Paley Center featured a Southern Colonel puppet touting the wonders of Southern Bread in short 8-second bursts. My favorite begins with the Colonel telling the audience that’d he do anything for Southern Bread; he’d even “go to Yankees Stadium.” Cut to a fan in the audience yelling “Let’s moider the Yankees!” The Southern Colonel realizes that he might like it here after all. These all go by in the blink of an eye, but are all charming, and each relies on a different form of humor, including sight gags, surprises, and the classic pun (he jumps off the Empire State Building for Southern Bread, only to float right back up, because “Southern Bread never lets you down.”).
Though Jim and Co. would do many more commercials (including a particularly famous one featuring a fire-breathing dragon puppet), the last one shown at the Paley Center was a film done just for the sales force at Wilson’s Meat. This would be shown one time, at a meeting, to a very limited number of people, and as our historian and guide points out, it’s surprising to see how much time and effort Henson seems to have put into it. The piece begins with Scoop and Skip, two puppets that share an Ernie and Bert dynamic, who apologize for the last film that seemed to imply that the people behind the Muppets did nothing but party and drink beer all day. We are given a look behind the scenes at their process for making the Wilson Meat commercials. Throughout the eight-minute film we get to see the Henson sense of humor, perhaps at it’s most untethered since he knew he was creating this for such a limited audience. We also get to see a number of techniques and styles that were being implemented and experimented with at this time, including the super-artistic approach, a more conservative approach, and even an avant-garde stop-motion animation. The piece is very entertaining, and it’s great that it’s finally being seen outside of the Wilson Meats boardroom.
The points at which I believe the Muppets are at their most relevant are the productions in which their creativity and their humor are in balance. If it leans too much towards the humor you get a droll play performed by puppets, and if you lean too much on the creativity you get The Floating Face: a pair of eyes and a large mouth that rests on top of a primitive blue screen and recites a prose poem about loneliness. For example, one short piece that perfectly encapsulates this balance comes from one of the few surviving episodes of Sam and Friends in which an earlier, more backwoods-sounding version of Kermit interviews broadcasters Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Henson does the voice of Kermit, and Huntley and Brinkley are pre-recorded by the actual men, in the form of their news sign-offs, lifted from the actual show. It’s clever and creative and my favorite clip shown at the Paley Center during this presentation.
The Muppets have gone through a number of different periods, both with Jim Henson and without, but the entire time the undercurrent of irreverent humor has been engrained below the surface. While Muppets retrospective may seem like an odd choice for a comedy blog that usually trains its sights on the more alternative branch of comedy, there is much to be learned from Henson’s vast oeuvre, even today. And it’s a pretty charming way to learn it.