The Muppets feel as interwoven with pop culture as Star Wars, Saturday Night Live, and The Simpsons. The legacy of The Muppet Show, Muppet Babies, Sesame Street, and the gang’s numerous movies—both classic and modern—continue to ripple throughout culture. What’s wild, however, is that the wide-ranging franchise would likely have never achieved its seismic success had creator Jim Henson stuck to his original vision.
In a new oral history on the Muppets from Slate—one that’s elaborated upon in its accompanying podcast—a group that includes Henson’s biographer Brian Jay Jones, Gonzo performer/puppeteer Dave Goelz, and CEO and president of The Jim Henson Company Lisa Henson (Jim’s daughter) gather to discuss the characters’ origins, Henson’s view of success, the advent of Gonzo, and much more. And one of the most notable takeaways from the piece is that Henson never saw the Muppets as a vehicle for children’s entertainment. It was Sesame Street that changed all of that.
“The creation of Sesame Street to me is one of the great absurdities ever,” says Michael Frith, former executive vice president and creative director for Jim Henson Productions. “Because at that point the Muppets were strictly adult entertainment. What they were doing was blowing each other up and biting each other’s heads off, and things like that. Very non-kid stuff.”
Narrator Sally Herships elaborates:
“If you didn’t try Wilkins coffee a floppy, early version of Kermit would threaten to shoot you or trample you with wild horses. (It was Henson himself who brought a piece of green felt and some ping pong balls as eyes to life, both voicing and operating Kermit.) Cookie Monster was originally created for General Foods. And Rowlf the dog became a pitchman for Purina. Henson worked his puppets. They made the rounds of variety shows like B-list actors trying to break into Hollywood. They did guest appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show with Steve Allen, and The Jimmy Dean Show.”
The best detail, though? The Muppet Show was, according to Herships, nearly called The Muppet Show: Sex And Violence. Maybe that would’ve worked better than that ill-fated 2015 reboot?
Listen to the oral history in full below.