Talking Felt, Talking Feels

Last week, ABC and Disney premiered their newest show, The Muppets. An adult-oriented behind the scenes look at the lives of the Muppets. It seemed to hit all the right notes and was met with generally positive reviews, but of course it did. Hey, it’s the Muppets. They may just be inanimate objects operated by hands and string, but they are people too, as real as you and Chuck Norris. However, it wasn’t always like that. In fact, the Muppets started from very humble beginnings and from what Jim Henson once called, “ridiculous optimism.

Jim and Friends
In 1954 Jim Henson started working with a partner at the University of Maryland creating puppets for children’s programming airing in the DC area. While working with Jane Nabel -who would later become Jane Henson- Jim created the Muppets, starting with the unforgettable frog himself, Kermit. It is said that Jim Henson coined the term “muppet” as a combination of marionette and puppet. Starting in 1955, Kermit and Rwolf, became regulars on the Sam and Friends show. Initially Rwolf was the more popular of the duo, going on to appear as a sidekick to Jimmy Dean on several episodes of the Jimmy Dean Show, starting in 1963. This was mostly due to Rwolf’s mastery of the piano.

It wasn’t until 1969 with the premiere of Sesame Street that Kermit really found his groove. Kermit was one of the original Muppets to appear on the children’s classic show, and ten years later when Jim Henson decided to create a Muppet television series that could be enjoyed my adults and children alike, it was Kermit the Frog who emerged as the heart and leader of the Muppet troupe. The Muppet Show, first aired on September 5, 1976. A sketch comedy that featured parodies, musical performances, and a flock of big name celebrities. The show was a hit and introduced the world at large to the Muppets including such new characters as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, The Great Gonzo and Animal.

After the success of The Muppet Show, the Muppets went on to make three movies, The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan. At nearly the same time, the Walt Disney Company entered into talks to buy the Muppets from Henson -because they have some sort of need to own the world- but the deal fell through with the death of Jim Henson in 1990. The company passed to his son and daughter Brian and Lisa Henson, who in association with Disney produced The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. Disney finally acquired the full rights to the Muppets in 2004, except for the Sesame Street characters, which were sold to Sesame Workshop, and the Fraggle Rock characters which were retained by the Henson Company. The mouse-run organization has since produced The Muppets, and Muppets Most Wanted, along with the new show simply titled The Muppets. They have also produced a slew of award winning YouTube videos -bet you didn’t know YouTube videos could be award winning?

As a result of the Disney purchase the name Muppet became trademarked, which means the NYRD is currently in serious violation of copyright laws, because we unabashedly use that term like forty times throughout this article. It also means that any other creatures created before or after the Disney acquisition could not be called Muppets. Thus creatures like Falkor from Never Ending Story or Pilot from Farscape, are not Muppets. They are just puppets created by the Jim Henson Creature Workshop. Sesame and Fraggle characters have a special exclusive licensing agreement with Disney, so they can still be called Muppets, but that is also why you don’t see Kermit the Frog appear anymore on Sesame Street. Also, please note that Yoda is and has never been a Muppet. He’s a Jedi and there is a difference.

The Wonderful Land of Oznowicz
However, we hardly need Disney’s corporate branding to tell us what is and isn’t a Muppet. There is something special about the lovable group of felt covered creations that just makes them different from other puppets. For example take Miss Piggy… please… Everyone’s favorite pig, was originally meant to be a background character, a generic female pig puppet, but a few months before the start of The Muppet Show, Jim Henson received a request to perform on a TV special with a “young starlet” character. So Piggy was done up, her eyelashes were extended, her hair was changed, and the puppet was given to a young man named, Richard Frank Oznowicz, known mostly by is stage name, Frank Oz. Much like Oz, Miss Piggy was originally born under a different name, Miss Piggy Lee, but she dropped the last name. In a sketch where it was scripted for her to fight with Kermit, Miss Piggy did an impromptu karate chop and the character was born, along with her long standing relationship with Kermit.

That seems to be how the Muppets are really created. They aren’t just made with foam and glue, they evolve. New Muppet characters are often passed around among Muppet performers until one human seems to click with the new creation, and then the character’s personality, voice, mannerism, and more develop from there.  By most accounts the personality of Kermit the Frog seems to be very much based off of Henson himself, as he was the original puppeteer. Maybe that is why each Muppet feels as if they have a unique personality, as if they are really alive. Functionality wise some Muppets are simple, requiring only one person to operate, but then there are others that require an army of humans and technology. Yet, each of them feels like a person. This is partly because Jim Henson was the first person to pioneer the idea that the Muppets were not just puppets controlled by people, but actual creatures.

The Muppets were the first puppet characters to use the TV camera as a framing device. Before that puppeteers were either hidden behind a visible stage on screen, or the puppets sat next to them, like a ventriloquist. With no human operator on screen and no indication of a human presence the Muppets became people unto themselves. It also helps that, unlike other puppets, the Muppets are very articulated. In other words, it is not the movement of the mouth, but the hands, feet, and other appendages that help create the illusion of reality. Humans operators work below the Muppets, using their right hand to operate the mouth and their free hand to operate the Muppet’s arms. As a result, many of the Muppet characters tend to be left handed. This illusion of reality is so strong that we don’t even like to think about humans playing a part in making the Muppets who they are. In fact even talking about their operation in this past paragraph as made us feel wrong inside, and there is a reason for that.

Getting Inside the Muppets
We want to believe that the Muppets are alive. They are our friends and people we grew up with. Did you know there is a concept that something can be real, even if it is imaginary? Dr. Jennifer Barnes has a great TED talk on this very subject. She talks about how we form relationships with fictional characters. We come to empathize with them. They are real to us even at the same time they are imaginary. It’s why we cry when George R. R. Martin works his sadistic magic or why we cheer when  Rocky wins the Cold War. In fact, it has been observed on Sesame Street and in other similar programs that children who interact with Muppets, treat them as living creatures, even if they can see the person who is operating and talking for that Muppet. It is a special kind of suspension of disbelief that our minds can entertain, especially when it comes to Kermit and his friends. It doesn’t matter who has their hand in it, we still identify them as distinct individuals from their controllers, and so does all of Hollywood.

The Muppets have appeared in a lot of things. The Muppets have a star on the Holylwood Walk of Fame, in addition to Kermit’s own individual star. The Muppets have presented at both the Oscars and Emmy’s. They’ve made cameos in various non-muppet movies, including Rocky III. They have had guest appearance on shows like The Cosby Show, and West Wing. They have been interviewed on late night and daytime TV. Kermit the Frog was one of the first guests Jon Stewart ever had during his early days on The Daily Show. They have guest hosted several TV shows including The Tonight Show, Extreme Makeover, and even Larry King Live. They have made numerous public appearances during the Rockefeller Tree Lighting, New Year’s Eve in Times Square, and Kermit even gave a TED talk. Kermit appeared on Hollywood Squares and as a commentator on VH1’s I Love documentary series. All of this contributes to how we see and think of the Muppets. They aren’t just creatures they are working actors and genuine celebrities.

When you watch The Muppet’s Christmas Carol, and you see Kermit the Frog acting as Bob Cratchit, you don’t think, “They made Bob Cratchit a green frog?” No, you think, “Oh Kermit is playing Bob Cratchit,” in the same way you think of Michael Cane as playing the part of Ebeneezer Scrooge. We instinctively see the Muppets as people, even as a part of our brain acknowledges that they aren’t. Maybe it helps that we were introduced to the Muppets as a character troupe on a variety show, but there is something more to it.

What is the difference between a real person and a puppet or a cartoon on TV? They both have personalities. You feel an emotion for both of them? You enjoy their company? Maybe a better question is, what is the difference between Jon of Arc and Miss Piggy? You have never met either of them, unless of course you met Miss Piggy. You probably know more about Miss Piggy than Joan of Arc. You probably feel more attachment for the Pig of the Muppets over the The Maid of Orléans. Yet, of those two it is Joan of Arc who was a real flesh and blood human. So maybe in some sense, Piggy, Fozzy, Gonzo, Rizzo, and Kermit are real in some way. They are obviously more real to us than people we acknowledge as having been actual famous humans. The Muppets are loved, they are respected, and they have a positive impact on the world. If only that could be said of every real person out there.

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