Jim Henson and his much-loved creations are best known for a TV empire that included The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, and Sesame Street. But it took Henson years of smaller TV appearances to build up the Muppets’ profile to a level where TV networks would take a chance on an all-Muppet production. One such appearance was this 1971 episode of The Dick Cavett Show, unearthed by the Classic Television Showbiz blog last week.
Cavett turned over the entire episode of his show to the Muppets, interviewing Henson at length (one of the first times he came out from behind the curtain and began his role as the public face of the Muppets), interacting with several characters, and showing several clips. To give an idea of how long a history the Muppets had on TV before Sesame Street gave them a regular outlet, Cavett shows a clip of Kermit, in drag, lip synching to Rosemary Clooney, which Henson says originally aired 16 years earlier on the Steve Allen-hosted Tonight Show. “Mahna Mahna” is best known as the opening number on The Muppet Show ’s debut episode in 1976, but Cavett showed it five years earlier (as did Sesame), and it had debuted at least a decade before that on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Sesame Street was only in its second season, and its characters are well-represented, as Bert and Ernie talk about making their act hipper for prime time, and Cookie Monster eats a boom mike, declaring, “The microphones on the Carson show? Bleech!”
Besides being an entertaining overview of the Muppets’ early days, we also see a few clips of two experimental short films Henson made—throughout his career he wanted to be known for more than puppeteering, and honed skills as a director that wouldn’t be fully put into use until 1982’s The Dark Crystal. The video (the episode is in six parts, the first of which is embedded below) also gives a glimpse into the TV world of 1971, as Cavett’s opening credits and some charmingly retro commercials are included.