The Muppets on TV: A Brief History

With Muppets Now headed to Disney+ next year, we celebrate Kermit and company’s small-screen history...

Between all the news about Ms. Marvel and Obi-Wan Kenobi, it feels like Muppets Now was one of the less-discussed Disney+ announcements from last month’s D23 convention. Described as an unscripted short-form series featuring Jim Henson’s loveable creations alongside celebrity guests, the new show is intended to premiere on the House of Mouse’s new streaming service in 2020.

The series will be the latest in a long line of small-screen reboots for the Kermit-led puppet troupe, who have bounced between TV, movies, and the web since they first enchanted viewers in the 1970s.

But it’s not easy being evergreen and there seems to be a persistent impulse to put the Muppets in modernised vehicles, which doesn’t always pay off. The 2011 big-screen reboot concluded that the Muppets don’t work on TV any more, except for a one-off telethon to save their theatre, and 2014’s criminally underappreciated sequel packs them off on a European tour instead.

Muppets Now represents yet another format change, and it’s unclear if this new series replaces the previously announced reboot, Muppets Live Another Day, a scripted series set directly after The Muppets Take Manhattan, which was being developed for Disney+ by Josh Gad, Edward Kitsis, and Adam Horowitz.

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While various Muppet movies are regular fixtures in broadcasting schedules (especially around December, when The Muppet Christmas Carol is essential viewing), their TV endeavours have been considerably more eclectic, ranging from variety shows to sitcoms, and even including the odd animated spin-off.

Focusing on Kermit and his chums specifically (rather than Sesame Street, the Netflix Dark Crystal series, or any of the other assorted Jim Henson Company shows), here’s a brief history of how the Muppets have fared on the small screen since their debut.

The Muppet Show (1976 – 81)

“It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights…”

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Jim Henson was trying to get puppeteering out of its pre-school pigeonhole. Having found success with Sesame Street, Henson struggled to convince network heads that a show with puppets could be as entertaining for adults as it was for children. Matters weren’t helped by a briefly recurring puppet-centric segment on the first season of Saturday Night Live, which proved unpopular both with viewers and in the show’s writers’ room.

In a conscious effort to do more adult comedy, two pilots were produced with more mature themes – The Muppets Valentine Show and The Muppet Show: Sex And Violence – but the three American networks of the time all passed on the show. It was based on these specials that ATV proprietor Lew Grade showed an interest. Bringing Kermit across the pond, Grade agreed to finance the Elstree Studios-based production of The Muppet Show and ATV, as part of the ITV network, put the show on the air across the UK with a worldwide syndication deal to follow.

Kermit the Frog was created by Henson for Sesame Street but became the master of ceremonies for a chaotic theatre show featuring a host of new characters, including Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzie Bear, and countless others. In the land where Punch and Judy shows still enjoyed widespread popularity, it’s no surprise that the show seemed more accessible to British audiences, but with a freer creative atmosphere than US networks were offering, the show’s trademark anarchy reigned.

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The result is a primetime show that almost plays like a more condensed and family-friendly version of SNL, complete with surreal skits and celebrity guest hosts. The show drew huge guest stars, including Julie Andrews, Steve Martin, and John Cleese, to name but a few.

On the geekier front, Mark Hamill appeared both as Luke Skywalker and as himself after Star Wars became a smash hit and Roger Moore sent up his portrayal of James Bond with a musical number that swiftly devolves into karate-chopping and laser-gunning felt attackers.

While you would think that the celebrities might date the show, there’s a timelessness to The Muppet Show’s brand of gateway comedy. Successfully smashing The Jim Henson Company out of the pre-school television bracket, it still represents the pinnacle of family-friendly light entertainment.

By the end of the show’s first series, it was drawing up to 14 million viewers to ITV on Sunday evenings, prompting massive demand from international broadcasters throughout the following years. The show was eventually broadcast in more than 100 countries around the world.

For his part in getting the series made, Grade was immortalised in the form of Lew Lord, a theatre producer played by Orson Welles at the end of 1979’s The Muppet Movie, an adventure which serves as an in-universe origin story for Kermit and the gang.

Muppet Babies (1984 – 91, 2018 – present)

“Just close your eyes and make believe and you can be anywhere…”

After three big-screen outings, the Muppets’ mid-1980s return to the small screen was directly influenced by one of the movies. Based on a highly acclaimed fantasy sequence from 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan, this animated series was co-produced with Marvel Productions and focused on infant versions of the characters, who grow up playing together in the same nursery.

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Pre-dating similarly infantilized cartoon spin-offs like Tiny Toon Adventures and Tom And Jerry Kids, Muppet Babies was positioned somewhere between the educational aspects of Sesame Street and the comic tone of The Muppet Show. First and foremost, the show specialized in flights of fancy.

Most episodes revolved around characters’ imaginary exploits in the gaps between Nanny (who is only ever seen from the shoulders down, in a visual homage to classic animations) visiting their playroom and bringing them back down to Earth. The show’s gentle brand of comedy usually relies on the infant-level misunderstanding of the world and how it works.

As part of these exploits, the series often incorporates the animated characters into live-action clips, ranging from stock footage to excerpts of TV shows and movies such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Ghostbusters, and the Indiana Jones movies. While Disney has bought the Muppets, LucasFilm, and Marvel in the years since the show was made, there are still too many clearance issues with these segments to allow an uncut home media release.

In addition to a core cast of baby Muppets, Scooter’s twin sister Skeeter was created for the show at the behest of CBS executives, who wanted another female character in the mix, but she’s never been seen in any live-action project since. Similarly, the currently running reboot series on Disney Junior adds a baby penguin called Summer to the more familiar ensemble.

Although both series mark a departure from puppetry, they’re true to the intended spirit of the characters. As the original series’ story editor Hank Saroyan put it in 1990: “[Henson] wanted children to believe that anything is possible. That’s the only thing that’s going to save this planet — the power of imagination.”

The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson (1990)

“Jim died? But we were just starting to get to know him!”

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Many Muppet TV specials were produced after the original run of The Muppet Show came to an end, but we have to pause to acknowledge The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, an extraordinary hour-long tribute to the creator, who tragically passed away in May 1990, at the age of 53.

The special starts with Fozzie having to assume Kermit’s duties and organize a production number paying tribute to his friend Jim. The Muppets are embarrassed to admit that they don’t know who that is and start learning about his life by watching archive footage and talking-head interviews with luminaries like Carol Burnett, Ray Charles, Frank Oz, and Steven Spielberg.

read more: Dave Goelz Talks Bringing Gonzo to Life

The framing device comes back around to the Muppets opening up a bag of fan mail and discovering the news that Henson has passed away. Initially doubtful that they can do justice to his memory, the entire cast, along with Muppets from Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock, come together to sing “Just One Person,” before rounding off the show with the typically bonkers production number that Fozzie has prepared.

Funny and unbelievably moving in equal measure, it’s a special that grapples with the collective grief about Henson’s death as only the Muppets can, which is the most fitting tribute imaginable.

And of course, the special ends with Steve Whitmire’s debut as Kermit, thanking the viewers for watching and affirming that the Muppets will keep on performing, because “that’s the way the boss would want it.” Sob.

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Muppets Tonight (1996 – 98)

“We got a show for you, guaranteed brand-new, here come the Muppets tonight…”

In the 1990s, Jim’s son Brian Henson continued to produce new material featuring the Muppets. The two movies he directed – 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol and 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island – were well-received by fans but not especially huge at the box office, which may be what prompted a return to primetime television.

In Muppets Tonight, the variety show format of the original series holds fast, but this time, the show within a show is made for local television station KMUP. Kermit and the old familiars are present and correct, but the show’s former MC now appears largely in a producing capacity, with Kevin Clash’s character Clifford promoted to the hosting role.

Henson intended for the show to work as a launchpad for new characters, and while Clifford wasn’t original to the show, Muppets like crooner-in-residence Johnny Fiama and his monkey bodyguard Sal Minella became more prominent in the weekly shenanigans. Most notably, Pepe the King Prawn made his debut on Muppets Tonight.

True to the original format, celebrity guests such as Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, and the then-current 007 Pierce Brosnan joined in with the anarchy. More pop culture jokes entered the mix too, as Pigs In Space got a Deep Space Nine-era upgrade and further recurring segments parodied Baywatch, Tales from the Crypt, and E.R. Similarly, the Sandra Bullock episode hinges on a Speed-inspired plot to blow up the studio if the show’s ratings drop below 50 viewers.

While ratings for Muppets Tonight weren’t quite that low, ABC dropped the Friday-night show after 10 of the 13 produced episodes had been aired. The Disney Channel broadcast the three remaining unaired episodes when they picked the show up for a second season, comprising eight new episodes and a clip-show compilation, in late 1997.

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In the UK, any slot where ITV might previously have put a Muppet show was already being dominated by Emmerdale or Coronation Street by 1996. Instead, BBC One broadcast the first run of 13 episodes on Friday nights at 7pm, as a lead-in for Top of the Pops, giving some of us our first look at the Muppets on TV.

Unfortunately, the show has never been given a full home video release, but it’s the sort of curio that might yet pop up on Disney+ as part of the new streaming service’s commitment to hosting the studio’s entire content library. Either way, it carried the torch for the Muppets on TV after they had been away for a while.

The TV movies

“I wish I had never been born!”

The big-screen outings of the 1990s showed the Muppets’ flexibility in slotting into certain stories pretty seamlessly. While these were both outliers next to the earlier movies (whose style was mimicked, badly, in 1999’s Muppets From Space), these adaptations provided a template for further TV outings, in the shape of 2002’s It’s A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie and 2005’s The Muppets’ Wizard Of Oz.

Taking inspiration from another iconic revision of A Christmas Carol, It’s A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie follows the beats of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. In the film, Kermit stands in for George Bailey as the Muppets struggle to stage a Christmas show to save their theatre from foreclosure. After failing to win over Joan Cusack’s ruthless banker, Kermit is pulled back from the brink by David Arquette’s angel, who shows him what the world would be like if he’d never been born.

Meanwhile, The Muppets’ Wizard Of Oz does what it says on the tin and represents the first outing after Disney outright bought the characters from The Jim Henson Company in 2004. Leaning more on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book than the iconic 1939 film version, Oz stars Ashanti, Queen Latifah, and David Alan Grier as Dorothy, Auntie Em, and Uncle Henry respectively, with the Muppets rounding out the rest of the ensemble.

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On the scale of Muppet adaptations, both TV movies fall closer to Treasure Island than to the timeless quality of Christmas Carol. The pop culture references become more intrusive, leading to both TV movies feeling quite dated.

The first, more festive film just about gets away with a funny skit where the cast of Scrubs contend with Miss Piggy being a diva of a guest star. However, the second film simply lacks common-sense cameo control, whether it’s having Quentin Tarantino (the actor, not the director) give Kermit notes on violently dispatching the Wicked Witch or magically making Ashanti’s Dorothy over to turn her into Kelly Osbourne.

These outings were largely panned by TV critics upon their original broadcast, leading the Muppets to go online for a while ahead of their big-screen comeback in 2011. James Bobin’s Muppets movies are more in the vein of the Henson and Oz movies, partly out of nostalgia but mostly because every subsequent adaptation shows why The Muppet Christmas Carol was the peak of this idea.

Again, the first is the better of the two, but there’s still nothing in it that precludes another run at It’s A Wonderful Life in a new movie. They could actually get it right this time, by casting Robert Downey Jr. as George Bailey, who begrudgingly safeguards the finances of a town full of Muppets against Mr. Potter and Mr. Potter (Statler and Waldorf) and encounters an angel (Gonzo) while at his lowest ebb. Call me, Disney.

The Muppets (2015-6)

“One-on-one interviews? What an over-used device.”

Following Muppets Most Wanted, former Fraggle Rock writer and The Big Bang Theory co-creator Bill Prady lobbied to bring the Muppets back to primetime TV. Working with writer Bob Kushell, his approach was to give the characters a single-camera sitcom, with the trimmings that The Office popularised in the States.

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Set in Los Angeles, the series is a mockumentary about the lives of the Muppets who work on the hit late-night talk show Up Late With Miss Piggy. Piggy is the star, Kermit is the executive producer, Fozzie is the warm-up act, and the writers’ room is populated by Gonzo and assorted other supporting players.

While The Muppets is by no means a bad show, it feels like a combo-breaker. Although it has other stylistic influences, its nearest neighbor on US TV is 30 Rock, another show about a mad bunch of characters making a TV show. Whatever 30 Rock owes to The Muppet Show (on top of Tina Fey’s experiences working on Saturday Night Live), it’s no expense to that show’s mad slapstick momentum, whereas The Muppets is like a low-energy version of 30 Rock’s homage to the original Muppet Show.

Although the show famously courted controversy from the American Family Association’s One Million Moms group for its depiction of adult themes, it’s the most anodyne version of its more mature sitcom stories too. It’s all borne out of formula from other sitcoms. If other shows have their characters go to a bar to unwind, then that’s what the Muppets have to do here. Frankly, the novelty of that approach for these characters wore off shortly after the series was first announced.

Even though some of it was quite fun (the finale of the karaoke night episode is a stunner), it was hard to muster much interest in some of the ongoing storylines, like Kermit dating network marketer Denise (another pig, because the frog has a type), Fozzie dating a human woman, and Sam the Eagle rather sweetly carrying a torch for Janice from the Electric Mayhem. The Muppets are ideally placed to reset at the end of each skit or episode, but the approach here feels like a misstep.

While it might have found its way back to basics given more time, the series had low ratings throughout and was further tangled by a late change of showrunner, as Kristen Newman replaced Kushell for a soft reboot of the show in its last 6 episodes. Given these creative difficulties, it hardly came as a surprise that the series wasn’t picked up for a second season.

It’s always nice to see the Muppets on TV, but ultimately, The Muppets often travelled too far from the variety show format that best suits the characters. You know something’s gone awry when you feel like you’d rather be watching Up Late With Miss Piggy, as a spoof of the talk-show format, than the show about making the show.

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