The Muppets A-Z: 26 Facts About the Muppets, Their Creators, and Their History
I was born a Muppets fan. I am still a Muppets fan. I will die a Muppets fan. Even as a kid, I was curious as to how the Muppet performers brought these characters to life. I learned how to count stairs in Spanish thanks to Sesame Street. I made my dad tape every Muppets special that came on TV. I couldn’t leave Washington, DC until I took a picture with Kermit at the Smithsonian. I still watch their movies, listen to their songs, and watch reruns of Fraggle Rock. It's impossible to squeeze 60 years of history into one article. So, below are 26 facts about the Muppet characters, their performers, and their famous appearances in alphabetical order.
A - Anything Muppet
An "Anything Muppet" is a character constructed from a blank face. Like Mr. Potato head, puppeteers can create several characters from the one body shape using stick-on eyes, noses, ears, mouths, and hair. Human Muppets typically have non-human colored skin (such as pink, blue, and green) to maintain racial ambiguity. The Anything Muppets were prominent cast members on the first few seasons of Sesame Street. They were strictly human characters until the 80’s when animals were added as Anything Muppets, and their facial features would change throughout a scene. (source: Muppet Wiki)
B - “Bein’ Green”
One of the most famous hit songs sung by a Muppet is “Bein’ Green," sung by Kermit The Frog. The song was written by Joe Rasposo in 1971 and earned him one of five Grammy Awards. The other Grammy Award winning Muppet songs written by Rasposo include: “Sing,” “You Will Be My Music,” There Used to be a Ball Park,” and “Somebody Come and Play”. He also wrote the musical, You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.
“Bein’ Green” became a way to encourage children of all races to be comfortable in their own skin, regardless of color. If Kermit is green and everyone loves Kermit, why not love those of any color? (Source: Sesame Street: A Celebration – 40 Years of Life on the Street)
C - Caroll Spinney
This is the guy behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Spinney started in television as a puppeteer in 1955. In 1969, he was hired by Jim Henson to join the cast of Sesame Street and has been playing these two iconic characters ever since.
To operate Big Bird, Spinney holds his right arm above his head to work the beak and uses a TV monitor inside the costume to see what’s going on around him. Big Bird is, and always has been, six years old and sees the world from a kid’s perspective, just a little older than most of his fans but still naïve about the world around him. He often relies on kids to help him through new learning experiences.
Oscar, on the other hand, was inspired by a New York City cab driver who gave Spinney a ride to his Sesame Street audition. He was originally orange but became his trademark green color after a few episodes. Spinney doesn’t like the children to see him partially out of costume and prefers to maintain the illusion that he is not operating the characters he plays. (Sources: npr.org; carollspinney.com; Sesame Street: A Celebration – 40 Years of Life on the Street)
"Movin' Right Along"
D - Driving
The Muppets are not the first puppets in history, but they are known for being innovators in their genre of entertainment. Some of the tricks and stunts that you see on screen are performed with a high level of difficulty. One of those feats is their ability to drive cars. In 1979's, The Muppet Movie, Fozzie is the designated driver who gets the gang across country in two different vehicles using shots that unmistakenly prove that the characters are playing out certain scenes in a moving car. The puppeteers were able to pull this off by sticking a steering wheel and monitor inside the trunk and having someone drive the car from inside the trunk while the characters sat up front and "pretended" to drive. This allowed them to capture wide shots and side views of the characters in motion to make the scene more believable and, ultimately, fun.
E - Elmo
Elmo is one of the most popular Muppets of Sesame Street. He’s a three-year-old monster who always refers to himself in the third person. His popularity skyrocketed in 1996 with the release of the “Tickle Me Elmo” toy which was the most sought after toy of the Christmas season. Invented by Ron Dubren, he set out to create a toy that laughed when you “tickled” it. His original idea was to place his technology in a monkey, but his idea was not well received until Sesame Street bought it from him. The $30 dolls were selling for up to $2,500 at the height of the Christmas season that year, and Elmo is still one of the most popular characters on Sesame Street. (sources: time.com; cnn.com)
F - Fran Brill
Fran Brill is the first major female puppeteer on Sesame Street. She was an actress who had to learn puppetry during a June 1970 workshop in order to join the cast of the show. She made the cut and went on to voice many of the female characters on the show including: Prairie Dawn, Betty Lou, and Zoe. Being so much shorter than the men in the cast, she has to wear special elevated shoes that put her at an even height with her co-stars. (source: Sesame Street: A Celebration – 40 Years of Life on the Street)
G - Goodbye
On May 16, 1990, the world lost the creator and one of the stars of the Muppets, Jim Henson, to a bacterial infection called Group A streptococcus. On November 21, 1990, CBS aired a one hour special in tribute titled, The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson. In the special, Kermit writes to the gang to put together a tribute to Jim Henson. The preparations are interspersed with clips and interviews with Jim Henson. By the end of the special, the Muppets learn that Henson has died and read letters from children to their beloved creator. Then, Robin leads the gang in singing the song, “One Person”. The script won the Writer’s Guild of America Award for best script in 1992. For the first time, Kermit was performed by another Muppeteer, Steve Whitmire, who went on to voice many of Henson's popular characters after his death. (source: Muppet Wiki)
H - Hecklers
Statler and Waldorf are two famous Muppets that love to loath the gang. They pop up in the movies, TV shows, and TV specials and are named after two famous hotels in New York City. Statler is the taller of the two with a longer face, and Waldorf has a wide face and mustache. They were originally performed by Jim Henson and Jerry Nelson before Richard Hunt took over for Nelson shortly thereafter. The two old guys still love to heckle the other Muppets as they perform, especially Fozzie Bear, always keeping them grounded and put in their place. (source: Muppet Wiki)
I Don't Want to Live On The Moon
I - “I Don’t Want To Live On the Moon”
In 1978, Ernie sang a quiet little song in a Sesame Street segment where he talked about wanting to visit several places (including the moon) but not wanting to stay for more than a day. The song was written by Jeff Moss who won 15 Emmys for his songs and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Music, Original Song Score for The Muppets Take Manhattan. It took three puppeteers to work Ernie for this song: one to work the head and left hand, one to work the right hand, and one to work the feet. The song shows Ernie floating on the moon and swimming in the sea before ending up back in his bedroom with his best friend, Bert, asleep in the next bed. (source: Muppet Wiki)
J - Jim Henson
The creator of the Muppets was born in Greenville, MS in 1936. He started in television in 1955, creating a puppet show on a local Washington, D.C. where he had lived since the fifth grade. He and his future wife, Jane, worked together to put on puppet shows created specifically for TV. He started Muppets, Inc. in the 60’s and helped produce Sesame Street in 1969 and The Muppet Show in 1975. The Jim Henson Company is based in Los Angeles but also has offices in New York and London. It is run by Henson’s five children, Brian, Lisa, Cheryl, Heather, and John. (sources: Henson.com; Muppet Wiki)
K - Kermits
There are actually two Kermit's associated with the Muppets. Kermit Love was a Muppet builder who specialized in building the full-bodied Muppets, such as Big Bird. Contrary to popular belief, he did not inspire Kermit the Frog’s name.
Kermit the Frog was constructed in March 1955 out of Jim Henson’s mother’s old coat with ping pong balls for the eyes. At first, he wasn’t called a frog but referred to as a lizard-like creature. That officially changed when he starred in, The Frog Prince Special 1971. A Kermit the Frog statue resides in on the grounds of the University of MD, College Park where Henson went to school. Kermit got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2002. (source: Muppet Wiki)
L - Labyrinth
In 1986, Jim Henson directed a feature film that didn’t star any of the regular Muppet characters but did use the regular Muppet performers to tell a story about a teenage girl who wishes for her baby brother to disappear into her made up Goblin City, and when he does, she must rescue him from The Goblin King by finding her way to the center of a giant labyrinth. Henson had previously attempted a dark and innovative movie like this with, The Dark Crystal (1982), which did not do well at the box office. He hoped that a darker version of the beloved Muppet humor would boost interest in the film, but this film did not do well in theaters either. However, the film has become a cult classic, gaining interest with home video sales and TV viewings throughout the years. (source: Muppet Wiki).
M - Memorial
After his death, a Memorial Service was held for Jim Henson on May 21, 1990. His wishes were that no one wear black. So, the mourners all wore brightly colored suits and dresses. Many eulogies were given that day, and the Muppet performers sang their hit songs such as “Bein’ Green” and “One Person”. His friends also sang Jim Henson’s personal favorite songs such as, “When the Saints Go Marching In”. Hundreds of foam butterfly puppets were made for the children to wave from the seats. The entire service is available to watch on YouTube, filled with both happy and sad moments that still hit a nerve for Muppet fans to this day. (source: Sesame Street: A Celebration – 40 Years of Life on the Street)
N - Nelson, Jerry
Jerry Nelson joined the Muppets gang in 1965, operating Rowlf’s right hand (see the letter "R" for an explanation). He joined Sesame Street in Season 2 playing Count von Count, Sherlock Hemlock, and Herry Monster. He also helped to create and perform half of the Two-Headed Monster. As his health deteriorated in the 2000’s, he cut back to non-speaking roles. He died of COPD in 2012. (source: Muppet Wiki).
O - Oz, Frank
Frank Oz is literally the Fozzie to Jim Henson's Kermit and the Bert to his Ernie. Born Frank Oznowicz in Hereford, England in 1944, he studied to become a journalist but joined the Muppets while still in college. In 1969, he joined the cast of Sesame Street and was one of the creators of The Muppet Show. In 1984, he directed his first film, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and he has been directing ever since. His film credits include: Little Shop of Horrors, The Stepford Wives, and The Score. He also provided the voice of Yoda in the Star Wars movies. As a Muppet performer, he has played Miss Piggy, Grover, Animal, and many others. Oz rarely performs his Muppet characters anymore, but his work is cemented in the Muppets legacy as one of the greats. (source: biography.com)
P - PBS
This public broadcasting channel is where, for decades, fans would tune in to watch new episodes of Sesame Street each day. Sesame Street was created by Joan Ganz Cooney, an education major who had studied acting. She was living in New York and had begun working in TV when she decided to produce an educational program for children. She raised $8 million to start up production and created the Children’s Television Workshop. There, she teamed up with Jim Henson along with producer and writer Jon Stone to create Sesame Street.
The show was heavily researched to create fun and educational programming for preschoolers. Entire episodes were tested to measure the effectiveness of both the learning and entertainment aspects of the show. The first season aired on WNET Channel 13. PBS then picked it up in Season 2 where it played until 2016 when HBO took over showing the new episodes. However, reruns still play on PBS. (source: Sesame Street: A Celebration – 40 Years of Life on the Street)
Q - Queen Cover
In 2009, a music video featuring the Muppets covering Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” went viral. The original remaining band members helped to supply stems of backing track so that the Muppets could sing to the original recording of the song. The video was shot in one day in North Hollywood with a team of 20 and was released on December 15th in the United States. It became a big hit that year and still pops up as an iconic Muppets moment. (source: Muppet Wiki)
R - Right-handing
Not all Muppets can be operated by just one performer. With many Muppets, such as Ernie, Rowlf, or Fozzie Bear, the principal Muppet performer operates the head and left hand while another, less-experienced performer operates the right hand. It’s a choreographed series of movements that makes the Muppet's hands and head move in unison. Most Muppet performers start out as a Muppet’s right hand, being mentored by a more experienced performer before graduating to more difficult characters or creating their own.
(source: Sesame Street: A Celebration – 40 Years of Life on the Street)
S - Saturday Night Live
Saturday Night Live producer, Lorne Michaels, added The Muppets as regular performers during its first season to add a unique, yet still comical, element to the variety show. Their first sketch was titled "The Land of Gorch" and was edgier than the Sesame Street and Muppet Show humor for which they are known, something that Jim Henson had been looking to explore with his characters for some time. However, the cast didn’t like their airtime being taken away by the Muppet sketches, and the Muppet performers were not happy with the show's writing. So, after the first season, the Muppets and SNL parted ways. They left on good terms, however, and the Muppets have made occasional appearances on Saturday Night Live since its first season, appearing often in their annual Christmas shows.
(sources: Muppet Wiki, salon.com)
Teeny Little Super Guy
T - Teeny Little Super Guy
Sesame Street is known for its shorts which are interlaced throughout the show. One of the first memorable shorts was titled, Teeny Little Super Guy. This experimental stop-motion animated short was developed in 1982 by Paul Fierlinger. The episodes featured a cartoon guy painted onto a plastic cup who went on little adventures and helped the people he encountered along the way. The first episode took two weeks to shoot, and there are a total of 13 installments in the series.
(source: Sesame Street: A Celebration – 40 Years of Life on the Street)
U - Underwater
The beginning of The Muppet Movie features the famous song, “The Rainbow Connection” which Kermit performs on his banjo while hanging out in his swamp. The simple-looking scene actually took five days to shoot. A special tank had to be constructed using a metal container that Jim Henson had to sit in and stick his hand up through the water in order to work Kermit sitting on the surface. Though difficult, the shot is pulled off flawlessly, and it is now one of Kermit's most iconic scenes.
V - Variety Shows
An older generation of Muppets fans will be most familiar with the variety shows that the Jim Henson Company produced, including The Muppet Show (1976-1981) and Muppets Tonight (1996-1998). Here, the Muppet characters would sing songs, put on sketches, and perform with celebrities. The shows were pre-recorded but featured a laugh track to give off the variety show feel. Some of the most memorable Muppets moments were born from these sketches including the “Manamana” song and “Pigs in Space."
(source: Muppets Wiki)
W - Walt Disney
The Walt Disney company acquired the rights to the Muppets and Bear in the Big Blue House in 2004. They first considered a partnership in 1984, but Disney passed after little was done with the Muppets after The Muppet Show ended. In 1990, the two companies paired up to release The Muppets at Walt Disney World, one of the last Muppets projects in which Jim Henson participated. Disney also helped to produce and release the Muppet movies of the 90’s including The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. The Disney Channel ran episodes of Fraggle Rock and helped develop the TV show, Dinosaurs, which ran on FOX in the 90’s. Since then, several holiday specials featuring the Muppets have run on ABC, and in recent years, they have released two new Muppet movies, The Muppets (2011) and Muppets Most Wanted (2014).
(source: Muppet Wiki)
X - X Generation
In an article on salon.com titled “Millenials Just Don’t Get it: How the Muppets Created Generation X,” Elizabeth Hyde Stevens, writes about why the film, Muppets Most Wanted was not successful. Though who fits into Generation X is widely argued, it’s clear that there is a definite gap between those fans and today’s Muppets fans. The Muppets were immersed into the culture of that generation, popping up often and helping kids to understand the world around them. Today, there are more popular shows and characters for kids to latch onto. The Muppets are still familiar and lovable, but they aren't the hit with kids the way they were back in the day. However, a reboot of The Muppet Babies cartoon may be changing all of that as parents and their children can both connect to these revamped characters. (source: salon.com)
Y - "Yes I Can"
The original Muppet Babies was an animated show that ran from 1984-1991. “Yes I Can” was one of many songs featured on the show. The Muppet Babies were first introduced in a musical number in the movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan, before appearing in their animated form during the Saturday morning cartoon lineup. The show originally ran for 30 minutes and then increased to an hour after The Garbage Pail Kids was cancelled in 1987. The show incorporated clips from numerous movies and shorts. Because of this, there have been many problems with royalties and licensing, making home video distribution difficult and unlikely for future release.
Z - Zwoltopia
Zwoltopia is an artist from Belguim who started a Muppet-themed collaboration asking fans to illustrate their favorite Muppets in celebration of the release of Muppets Most Wanted. Illustrations can be submitted on the artist’s Tumblr site. The project only allows for standard Muppet characters to be featured, no Labyrinth characters or Fraggles allowed.
(source: Huffington Post Article: “How Artists are Banding Together to Celebrate The Muppets”)
What are your favorite Muppets moments, movies, characters, etc? Leave your answers in the comments below!