Whether you’re a fan of the diva Miss Piggy, Gonzo the Great, or wise-cracking Statler and Waldorf, The Muppet Show and Sesame Street are touchstones of the youth of millions who grew up in the 70s, 80s, and beyond. With reboots in recent years like The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted, the furry monsters are enchanting a whole new generation of kids and adults alike. But what’s behind the fun fur and googly eyes? Stay tuned to learn all about your favorite furry friends, the Muppets!
42. What’s A Muppet?
As Homer Simpson once said, “It’s not quite a mop, it’s not quite a puppet”…well, actually, Jim Henson told reporters that “Muppet” was a portmanteau of “puppet” and “marionette,” but that wasn’t exactly the truth either. He thought that sounded more professional and legitimate than the real story. In reality, he named his creations “Muppets” because he liked the sound of the word.
41. The First Muppet
The first Muppet is also the most famous—Kermit the Frog. Henson originally created Kermit in 1955 for Sam and Friends, a children’s’ TV show on WRC-TV, a station based in Washington, D.C.
40. Runaway Success
Henson’s creations were an instant hit. Henson and his Muppets appeared in numerous commercials and talk shows during the 1960s, including The Jack Paar Program, The Steve Allen Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show. During this time, Henson created many of the characters that would make up the casts of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, including Bert and Ernie, Miss Piggy, and Fozzie Bear.
39. Muppet Movement
Muppets are all hand-controlled and held over performers’ heads. The Muppet Show and Sesame Street’s sets were often built up to a height of five feet to form trenches for puppeteers to move around while performing. Each of the puppeteers could watch their movements on TV monitors beneath the stage, so they could see what their Muppet looked like from the front.
38. Right Hand Man
Have you ever noticed that most Muppets are left-handed? Well, that isn’t a coincidence. Most performers are right-handed and use their right hand to work the Muppet’s mouth from inside. They control the muppet’s left hand with a rod, and an additional puppeteer is required to work the Muppet’s right hand. This is known as “right-handing,” and many aspiring Muppet performers get their start right-handing.
37. Don’t Call Me That!
The actors and puppeteers who controlled Muppets were often referred to as Muppeteers—a term which Henson reportedly despised. He preferred “Muppet performer.” Legendary, Muppetee…ahem, “Muppet performer” Frank Oz hated it too, saying it made them sound like “little elves.”
36. New Muppets On The Block
In 1969, Henson’s Muppets got their very own show with the Children’s Television Workshop called Sesame Street. The show introduced America to now-iconic characters like Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, Grover, Bert and Ernie, and Big Bird. Henson himself performed as Ernie, game show host Guy Smiley, and Kermit, while Frank Oz performed Bert, Grover, and Cookie Monster. The show also featured a live-action cast including Maria, Luiz, and shopkeeper Mr. Hooper.
35. A New Endeavour
In 1976, Henson wanted to create a show that would appeal to adults just as much as children. The Muppet Show was born, showcasing the stories of a rag-tag group of Muppet vaudevillians as they put on a live variety show each week, with a human host. The show was a combination of on-stage and behind-the-scenes sequences, replete with recognizable showbiz stereotypes like Statler and Waldorf, the hecklers, Fozzie, the comedian, Miss Piggy, the diva, and Kermit, the long-suffering showrunner.
34. Special Guests
The Muppet Show featured an impressive cast of human guest stars and musical guests. Early in the show’s run, famed ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev offered to appear as a host on the show—a move which brought great publicity and made The Muppet Show a sought-after gig for celebrities. Stars like actors Steve Martin, Mark Hamill, and Roger Moore, and musicians Elton John, Diana Ross, Linda Ronstadt, and John Denver all appeared on the show.
33. Hair Flair
Many of the Muppets’ appearances have remained the same since their creation, but Miss Piggy’s look has changed with the times. At the time of her debut in 1975, Piggy wore long blonde locks with soft Hollywood curls. In the ’80s, she didn’t escape the craze for perms and bangs, while in 2010 she sported a straight Anna Wintour-like bob. She even traded her signature blonde look in for brown hair at the premiere of The Muppets: Wizard of Oz in 2005.
32. Fashionable Pig
Miss Piggy has always displayed a love of high-glitz fashion, often dressing in sparkly sequin gowns or frilly dresses. She appeared in a more demure, classy number in 2009 when she wore a dress by Marc Jacobs, from his 2009 ready-to-wear collection. Designer Zac Posen also had the honor of clothing Miss Piggy in 2011’s The Muppets.
31. Across The Pond
Despite Muppets being an American phenomenon, The Muppet Show was technically British. The show was filmed in Borehamwood, a small town outside London, at BBC’s Elstree Studios in partnership with ATV. This is contrary to the in-Muppet-universe lore, wherein the original Muppet Theatre exists in New York.
30. Commercial Origins
Rowlf the Dog was one of the first muppets designed with two working hands, or “live hand” Muppets, which allowed him to tickle the ivory keys of his piano. Rowlf was created in 1962, during the period when Jim Henson was mainly working in commercials, to appear in an ad for Purina Dog Chow. He also appeared regularly on The Jimmy Dean Show from 1963-1966.
Rowlf joined the cast of The Muppet Show in 1976, where he was known for his off-kilter piano bar-style covers of songs like Groucho Marx’s “Show Me A Rose,” Randy Newman’s “Simon Smith & His Amazing Dancing Bear,” and “You and I and George.” Rowlf has always been a fan favorite—even on The Jimmy Dean Show, he reportedly received more fan mail than the host!
29. A Chef Divided
Another Muppet with two working hands was the Swedish Chef, not that the extra dexterity made his cooking any more precise. The Swedish Chef—who couldn’t actually be said to be speaking Swedish—was controlled by the two Muppet Show powerhouses, Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Henson worked the head and provided the voice, while Oz performed the hands (with his own natural hands).
28. Muppet Inspiration
Many Muppets were based on real people. The Swedish Chef was said to have been based on Lars Baeckmann, a chef who only made one disastrous TV appearance in which he fumbled with his ingredients and mumbled in an unintelligible mix of English and Swedish. Animal, the drummer of The Electic Mayhem, was based on The Who drummer Keith Moon, while Dr. Teeth was based on jazz legend Dr. John.
27. Star Power
The Muppets earned a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6834 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California on March 20, 2012. Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, and Gonzo all attended the ceremony. Alongside them were humans Lisa and Brian Henson, the son and daughter of the late Jim Henson, who passed away in 1990.
26. Moral Authority
Sam Eagle, known for his patriotism and his strong moral concerns, functioned as the moral censor of The Muppet Show. He vocally disapproved of hijinx and low-brow culture, taking potshots at Liberace and Alice Cooper, while praising the “high brow” performances of Wayne and Wanda, a singing duo on The Muppet Show who were tragically never quite able to get through a whole song.
In one memorable episode from the show’s second season, Sam delivers a rant about the indecency of people walking around naked (under their clothes), only to realize with horror that birds are technically naked under their feathers.
25. Anything Goes
In addition to regular Muppet Show cast members, the show required a number of background extras and one-time characters to fill out the cast. A series of multi-purpose blank Muppet heads in various colors were created, dubbed “Whatnots” or “Anything Muppets,” that could be adapted with different hair, facial features, and clothing into characters suitable for any type of scene.
24. Muppet Yourself!
Lucky Muppet fans who desired their own Muppet version of themselves could have one made at the Whatnot Workshop at FAO Schwartz. From 2008-2015, the New York City-based toy store offered customers the ability to mix and match different body, nose, eye, hair, and clothing options to customize their very own Whatnot Muppet. A Whatnot likeness of Tina Fey can be seen in an episode of 30 Rock.
23. The “It” Toy
The hottest toy of 2006 was Tickle Me Elmo, based on the beloved Sesame Street character. The plush toy, which giggled and shook when squeezed, sold over one million units in the Christmas season of 2006, provoking a shopping frenzy as parents scrambled to get their hands on the increasingly rare doll. One toy sold for a whopping $7,100 in Denver, while in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, a Walmart employee sustained a broken rib and a concussion when 3,500 stampeding shoppers trampled him as they scrambled for the store’s Tickle Me Elmo supply.
22. All Grown Up
Not all Muppet endeavors have been child-friendly. Henson had a short-lived segment on the first season of Saturday Night Live in 1975, called The Land of Gorch. The Gorch characters often behaved in a manner unbecoming of the Muppets we know and love, making reference to alcohol, drug use, and adult relations. Critical reception to Gorch was overwhelmingly negative, and the partnership didn’t last beyond one season.
21. From Small to Big Screen
The Muppets graduated to the silver screen in 1979 in The Muppet Movie. The film was a success, and was followed up by two more live-action movies, The Great Muppet Caper (1981), and Muppets Take Manhattan (1984). Three more films followed in the 1990s: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) (which co-starred Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge), Muppet Treasure Island (1996), and Muppets From Space (1999).
22. Oscar Takes Notice
The Muppet Movie (1979) opened with Kermit singing “Rainbow Connection,” a song now beloved by many. The song earned the film an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song, and spent seven weeks on the Billboard Top 40 charts. “Rainbow Connection” remains popular to this day—so popular that in 1996, a 21-year-old man in Whanganui, New Zealand, took a radio station hostage until his demand that the song be played was met.
21. Call Him Dr. Frog
Of the Muppets, the only one to hold a postgraduate degree is Kermit. Wait, what? It’s true, Southampton College in New York awarded Kermit an honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters for his work promoting environmental awareness. The acclaimed amphibian received the doctorate after giving the college’s commencement address in 1996.
20. Un-Original Song
With the exception of the opening theme, many of the songs used in The Muppet Show’s musical numbers were covers, though many were little-known and so were assumed to be original to The Muppet Show. One of the most famous was “Mahna Mahna,” performed by a scatting Animal-like Muppet with a trio of fuzzy backup singers. The beloved tune has surprisingly…adult origins. Originally called “Mah Nà Mah Nà,” it first appeared in a smutty Italian film titled Sweden: Heaven and Hell.
19. All In The Family
The Muppet Show exploited many well-trodden stereotypes of show business in its behind-the-scenes sequences, in which a beleaguered Kermit tries to wrangle performers and keep the theatre lights on in order to keep the show going. Scooter, the orange-haired gofer, got his job (mostly pestering Kermit) because of show-biz nepotism: his uncle J.P. Grosse owned the Muppet Show Theatre.
Several Muppets have branched out from their acting careers over the years. Rowlf the Dog has an album of his greatest hits, titled Ol’ Brown Ears is Back, which was recorded in 1983 and released in 1994. Pepe the King Prawn, who first appeared in the 1990s revival series Muppets Tonight, released a biography of sorts, called It’s Hard Out Here For a Shrimp: Life, Love & Living Large. Pepe’s wasn’t the first Muppet foray into the self-help industry, however: Miss Piggy’s book Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life was a New York Times bestseller in 1981 and 1982.
17. Larger Than Life
Muppets range in size from the tiny (Slimy, the inchworm friend of Oscar the Grouch) to the huge (Big Bird, who stands an impressive 8 foot 2 inches). Several other full-body Muppets are worn as suits by performers, including Snuffleupagus and Sweetums, but the distinction of Largest Muppet goes to the furry blue monster Thog: he stands over 9 1/2 feet tall and is four feet wide.
16. On The Record
Kermit, the unofficial leader of the Muppets, is the only Muppet to have appeared before Congress. The spokes Muppet advocated on behalf of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums and endangered amphibians everywhere—after all, know knows better than Kermit that it ain’t easy being green?
15. Special Specials
The Muppets have appeared in many holiday-themed TV specials. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas was produced in 1977 for HBO and Canada’s CBC. John Denver, who appeared on The Muppet Show, also appeared in John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together and John Denver & The Muppets: Rocky Mountain Holiday. The Fraggles, another Jim Henson creation, joined the Muppets for A Muppet Family Christmas in 1987.
14. Get The Look
Cosmetics company MAC produced a limited-run line of cosmetics inspired by Miss Piggy in Winter 2011. Fans could recreate her signature look with Rapidblack eyeliner, lush fake eyelashes, and eyeshadow in Miss Piggy Pink.
13. How To Make A Muppet
Henson’s Muppets are easily recognizable due to their distinct appearance and movement. Muppets are made of soft, molded foam often covered in fleece or fake fur, giving them a cuddly quality unlike many ventriloquist-type dummies or puppets from the time of their creation. Beneath the cushy exterior, Muppets are a combination of rod puppets and hand puppets, meaning their mouths and faces are more expressive, and their limbs also move.
12. Muppet Revival
The Muppets enjoyed several years of rest out of the public eye until reuniting for another film, 2011’s The Muppets. We can thank longtime Muppet fan Jason Segal (who dabbled with his own puppets in 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall) for the reboot, after Segal and director Nicholas Stoller pitched an idea for a new Muppet movie. The film told the story of Walter, the Muppet son of a human family, coming to terms with his Muppet-hood. Not only was the movie a huge hit, but even more importantly, Jim Henson Productions loved it!
11. Second Time’s Charm
Just like the first Muppet film, The Muppets was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song —“Man or Muppet,” penned by Bret McKenzie (of Flight of The Conchords fame). This time, the Muppets took home the prized statuette.
The Muppets was the first film in Muppet history to give top billing to its human actors, instead of the Muppets themselves and/or their Muppet performers. However, in one scene, due to limited space, stars Amy Adams and Jason Segal were asked to operate Muppets on either side of them, making them at least temporary Muppeteers.
9. An Empire Divided
Before Jim Henson’s death in 1990, Jim Henson Productions retained the rights to both the Muppets and Sesame Street characters. However, Sesame Street and its characters were eventually sold to Sesame Productions, formerly known as the Children’s Television Workshop, while Disney purchased the Muppets characters in 2004. While previously the difference between The Muppets and Sesame Street was a bit fuzzy, as characters (like Kermit) often appeared on both shows, after the sale to Disney this would open up murky legal quandaries.
8. Life Imitates Art
The original script for The Muppets (2011) featured a cameo by beloved Sesame Street character Elmo, in which he is invited to host the Muppets’ show only to have the appearance nixed by lawyers. In real life, the whole cameo was scrapped due to legal issues between the real-life lawyers of Sesame Productions and Disney, who own Sesame Street and the Muppets’ intellectual property, respectively.
7. The Muppets Continue
Another film, Muppets Most Wanted, followed in 2014, starring Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey. A return to television, titled The Muppets, debuted in 2015. The show, which featured humor perhaps more “grown-up” than many Muppets fans were used to, ended in 2016 after one season.
6. Matrimonial Muppets
Three married couples appeared together on The Muppet Show: Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and Robert Shields and Lorene Yarnell Jansson. One couple conspicuously absent from that list? Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog! Since The Muppet Movie (1979), Miss Piggy’s romantic sights were firmly set on Kermit, and there was a wedding sequence in Muppets Take Manhattan, but whether the two were in fact married remained a bit of a mystery.
Piggy/Kermit weddings have been depicted in many Muppet works, but the official line was that during those scenes, the pair have been acting. The pair released an official statement in 2015 saying they had parted ways and were pursuing relationships with other pigs and frogs, respectively.
5. Muppet or Not?
The Muppets aren’t the only creatures created by Jim Henson: he is also known for the Fraggles of Fraggle Rock, which was another popular children’s show between 1983-1987. Muppets and Fraggles occasionally crossed over on each other’s shows, so the taxonomy isn’t quite clear—if someone asks who your favorite Muppet is, you might get some pushback if you tell them it’s Boober or Uncle Traveling Matt.
4. Literary Connection
Like The Muppet Show, later seasons of Fraggle Rock were filmed at BBC Elstree Studios. However, early seasons of the show were filmed in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The famed Canadian avant-garde poet bpNichol was a staff writer on the show.
3. International Amphibian
The Muppet Show was broadcast all over the world, translated into local languages, and some of the characters’ names were changed. Kermit the Frog is known as “
” in France, “Kermit der Frosch” in Germany, and “Kermit il ranocchio” in Italy. Other international aliases include “La Rana René” in Mexico, “La Rana Gustavo” in Spain, and “Caco o Sapo” in Brazil. In Hungary, he is known as “Breki,” which is the sound that frogs make.
2. Saying Goodbye
Jim Henson passed away suddenly in 1990, at the age of 53. Henson’s colleagues and collaborators, as well as fans of all ages, mourned and paid tribute to the beloved figure at two public memorials, in Manhattan and London. At his London funeral, the Muppet performer of Big Bird sang a moving rendition of Kermit the Frog’s signature song, “Bein’ Green.” In accordance with his wishes, no one at the funeral wore black. LIFE magazine called the event “epic and almost unbearably moving.”
1. Rags To Riches
Kermit the Frog has reached the pinnacle of fame—he’s famous and beloved worldwide—but he came from humble origins: he was originally fashioned in 1955 from an old coat belonging to Henson’s mother. And if his eyes resemble two ping pong ball halves…well, it’s because they are. That first Kermit prototype seen on Sam and Friends now resides in the Smithsonian Museum.