Muppets 101

The Original A. Birch Steens

The Original A. Birch Steen Muppets

Back when the Muppets were huge (and they really were huge) everyone had their favorite character: the one they identified with completely and forever. For the average 70’s teenager, Henson offered the psychedelic, totally out-of-it Muppet on shrooms who wore sequins and stared at goldfish tanks all day long. And the grandpa in your family could find commiseration with the the old men in the balcony. 

There were, of course, also plenty of fantastical, bizarre puppets in the early days of the Muppets, like the puppets of Planet Koozbane who mated by running towards each other and exploding in a plumb of smoke, and the slinky-like puppets made of plastic tubing who were there to “just dance,” as the song goes. But even these puppets were meant to appeal to a select niche of the audience: the eggheads like you and me who just want to watch things to try to understand the symbolism of everything. Too much wacky, too much egghead, too much satire, and the family wouldn’t be able to watch the whole show together gathered ’round the sole television. 

Jim Henson didn’t initially get in the game of puppeteering to ‘comment on society’. He just wanted to get on the teevee. His advantage as a puppeteer was that he didn’t know the rules, and didn’t know how many of them he was breaking. He cut the fabric for Kermit from an old coat his mom used to wear and it just so happened that Kermit’s head was the ideal shape for exploring hand movements; Henson could fiddle his fingers to make Kermit look perplexed, and he could also scrunch ’em up to make Kermit’s grimace like he was sucking on sour grapes (Kermit often sucked on sour grapes as he was always ‘ever the diplomat’, picking up the mess of those around him). 

The Muppets ‘101’ lecture at EMP/SFM was a lot of fun, and not just because all of this Muppet history has been downloaded into my ‘noggin forever (Craig Shemin, staff writer for the Muppets since 1988, is a charming and memorable speaker with the familiar, guttural voice of a Muppet ). No, no, no: the reason why it was so exceptionally, incredibly fun was because the crowd was in such a Muppet luvy-duvy mood that I found myself watching old clips with a renewed interest, like I was the psychedelic Muppet staring at a goldfish tank and thinking “wow…fish”. I started thinking all these academic thoughts, trying to figure out why it was I was so drawn to Muppets and why puppets allow us to criticize culture while wearing a mask and what does parody mean and what does satire mean and what do all the puppets symbolize??? (I’ve since erased that portion of this essay due to…uhm…space constraints). But seriously: there was/ is something about that show that’s totally beguiling. 

You know what? Let’s just let the pictures do the ‘splainin. 





Angry / Happy

Angry / Happy




The Q/A portion of the show was equally entertaining. Question: “What is the official Henson stance on ‘Avenue Q’?” Answer: “We’re trying to distance ourselves from the character of Trekkie Monster, since we, well, we also produce Sesame Street. Henson doesn’t want to damage its goodwill with parents.” 

(Trekkie Monster, for those of you who despise / ignore / don’t care about musical theatre, sings a song in the Broadway musical Avenue Q about how he spends all night hugging his horn to “porn! porn! porn!” Trekkie Monster was created by the Henson company, along with the rest of the cast of Avenue Q. In fact, the creators of Avenue Q initially intended on creating a Muppet movie called “Kermit: Prince of Denmark.” Then they created Avenue Q instead. Which was probably a good call.)

Question: “How do y’all feel about Elmo hogging the spotlight?” Answer: “We’re happy for him, but we hope other puppets get their time in the spotlight, too.”

Then there were some boring technical questions I didn’t understand. Let’s skip to the last one, the one on everyone’s mind: “What’s next?” Aren’t the Muppets a dying franchise? Yes and no. They’re still getting gigs. For one, there’s an internet-only Muppet Cooking Show coming soon that will star everyone’s favorite Swedish chef and “an English speaking chef.” Also: Henson Alternative (“HA!”) is busy creating puppets for shows like Avenue Q…puppets who show their puppet boobs and talk about puppet porn. If you go to the ‘Henson Alternative’ page on the website, you can find a description of an upcoming show called “Tinseltown” about a gay puppet couple (one’s a pig, the other’s a bull). It looks bizarre and not funny.

Then there’s the contract with Disney, and Miss Piggy’s contract with places like “Anne Curry’s lap”, and, oh, yeah, Sesame Street…always and forever.  But here’s hoping the Hensons can find a way to entertain us the way the Muppets once did. Maybe it’ll involve more Muppet boobs, or songs about porn, maybe it won’t. Personally, I could watch old Youtubes of the balcony guys all day long and be perfectly content without Muppet boob. But that’s just me. 

There are 8 more Muppet-themed events at EMP/ SFM (through August 15th) and really, it sounds weird, but you should totally go. It was a lot of fun. Check out for dates and times and all that good stuff. 

1 Comment so far

  1. jhjanuary on June 1st, 2009 @ 2:09 pm

    Did they mention anything about this?

    The Greatest Muppet Movie of All Time

    I’m hoping this project gets produced!

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