Jim and Jane Henson rolled out the first Muppets in 1955, and the ensuing 65 years have given the franchise time to expand into virtually every medium, from film and TV to music and theater, and on to internet memes, Vines, and an AR app. There’s an awful lot of Muppet history to sort through, but inevitably, we all have our favorite Muppet moments. As the newest Muppet TV series, Muppets Now, heads to Disney Plus on July 31, Polygon’s entertainment writers are spending the week looking back on the Muppet creations that have meant the most to us over the years.
When Polygon decided to name its favorite Muppet moments, I knew it would be terribly difficult to pick only two. Fortunately, I was given permission to go hog wild and round out the week. It’s nice to have an editor who knows you are very powerful and cannot be stopped, like a karate chop from an angry pig.
Without further ado here are my three favorite official things the Muppets have ever done, and five favorite unofficial things.
The Star Wars episode of The Muppet Show
The Star Wars episode of The Muppet Show is a twist on the show’s usual format, but it’s also a secret bit of Star Wars history. The conceit of the episode is that, for the only time in the show’s run, the guest performer is a muppet — the memorably named Angus MacGonagle, the Gargling Argyle Gargoyle. Within moments of the opening, however, Luke Skywalker, C-3PO, and R2-D2 literally burst through a wall into the theater. They followed the trail of a kidnapped Chewbacca to this “comedy variety show planet.”
Recognizing a good opportunity when he sees one, Kermit presses these obviously more famous figures into appearing as the show’s guests. Luke firmly demurs, however, passing the role of performer off to his “cousin” a guy named Mark Hamill. He dips off screen and comes back in civilian clothes as himself, and that, folks, is why I thought that Mark Hamill had an identical cousin until I was well into my teens.
From there it’s all Mark Hamill being a wonderfully goofy sport as himself, and a running subplot of an in-character Luke Skywalker searching the muppet theater for an entire wookie. This weird mashup of flavors was not merely facilitated by Frank Oz’s work on Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, but by geography: The Muppet Show’s Eldon Avenue Studios were just one town over from Star Wars’ Elstree Studios. Filming on Empire was well underway, so the Lucasfilm folks just hopped over with the props and costumes — making this episode of The Muppet Show, of all things, the first time that Mark Hamill appeared on film in his Empire Strikes Back costume.
The Jim Henson Hour episode about how puppets work
Borrowing a concept from Walt Disney himself, The Jim Henson hour was a short-lived primetime series in which Henson and the Muppet workshop would show off whatever weird thing they’d been working on lately, like a short detective noir film set in a world of all dogs. But if there’s one episode of TJH that’s worth watching it’s the tenth, in which — as most of the Muppets’ scream of horror — Jim proceeds to divulge all the weird camera tricks and animatronic marvels that allow Muppets to do what muppets do.
You get to see what it took for Kermit to ride a bike, how blue screens work, and to meet the real dog that stands in for a muppet dog in wide shots. The fact that Henson knew that kids could hold “belief in the muppets” and “knowing how puppets work” in their heads at the same time shows great perception and confidence.
The finale of the posthumous Jim Henson special
Did you know that six months after Jim Henson’s sudden death, Muppet performers decided to film a tribute in which the Muppet characters themselves found out that Jim Henson died on camera?
I hate it. I love it. The television special The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson was a star-studded affair of clips and celebrity remembrance, framed by the idea that Kermit was away from the theater and it was up to all the other Muppet Show players to put together a tribute to Jim Henson — a guy they’ve never heard of.
The finale of the episode has everything: Real letters from mournful fans writing in to comfort Kermit. A beautiful chorus number from all the Muppet and Sesame Street players. A helping of The Show Must Go On and the Power of Silliness. And, of course, the lingering absence of Kermit, Jim Henson’s most famous character, who finally appears in the hands of Steve Whitmire, the first post-Henson performer to take on the frog.
The Wilkins Coffee commercials
Before the Muppets took off, Henson and his collaborators made their bread and butter in commercial advertising, and of those projects the standout is the absolutely cursed Wilkins Coffee campaign.
These commercials have a shockingly threatening vibe, like a 3 a.m. sketch comedy show from 2003, or a multimillion dollar ad campaign designed by geniuses to specifically reach weird Tumblr and only weird Tumblr. If you don’t drink Wilkins Coffee, these ads say, you will die — and it might be this jumped up sock puppet that pulls the trigger.
“Things just seem to happen to people who don’t drink Wilkins,” is a real thing it says about a minute and a half into this compilation reel. What the fuck.
The Muppet Show pitch reel
The Muppet Show was not at all an easy sell, as Henson and Co. found when they had to go all the way to England to find a network to fund it. Perhaps that struggle explains the manic energy of the finale of the Muppet Show pitch reel, in which a generic muppet commentator slowly devolves into a Brian David Gilbert-like madness until, finally, he’s standing in front of a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling with Kermit in the place of Adam and declaring that god himself will smile down upon the executives who bankroll the program.
But this video also reminds us of a something very important: That underneath his kind-Kermit-y exterior, Jim Henson was every inch the freaky, long-haired, dirty, cynical hippie.
The Green Album
I was initially going to list a number of obscure original Muppet songs here.
Sure, “Rainbow Connection” and “It’s Not Easy Being Green” are legit classics, but there’s room in everyone’s hearts for original tracks like “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday,” about the calm struggle of knowing there’s a place where you belong and resolving to find it. Or “Wishing Song,” about accepting yourself exactly as you are. Or the peace anthem “Our World” from Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, or the lovely arraignment of A.A. Milne’s poem “Halfway Down the Stars,” about feeling like you are, fundamentally, neither here nor there, and being happy with it.
Then I realized that I could just talk about The Green Album, a 2011 compilation of contemporary covers of original Muppet songs, because it has every one of those lovely deep cuts in it. As a survey of Muppet music it paints a clear picture of one of the larger tacit themes in all of Henson’s work: Embracing difference in others, and embracing the self.
In 2011, the cartoonist Caanan Grall tried his hand at a 24-hour comic. The result, Muppet Thor, took him longer than 24 hours, but I’ll forgive him, because it is genuinely one of my favorite Muppet stories. And to be clear, Grall is not officially affiliated with the Muppets in any way.
This story begins with a very movies-in-2011 premise: What if the Muppets found Thor’s hammer in the desert? Frogs have been Thor before, and Thor has been a frog, but this quick tale of Kermit being worthy takes some unexpected turns. It starts out with pitch perfect Muppet humor, and then uses the limitless possibilities of comic book logic to land an emotional sucker punch.
Grall’s cartoon versions of the Muppets are also some of the best I’ve ever seen in the medium. They work because of his decision to not make them look exactly like the puppets, and instead capture a certain essence of shape and personality. It’s frightfully compelling.
Muppet History on Twitter
“All eyes in the studio were on the frog, waiting to see what Jim would do.”— Muppet History (@HistoryMuppet) October 9, 2019
What came next would become an iconic moment in Muppet history. pic.twitter.com/aTIWqGtSe2
This last one’s a short and sweet follow Friday: Muppet History on Twitter is a much needed dose of joy. The young guy who runs it has an encyclopedic knowledge of the diverse world of Jim Henson productions, and uses it to make relentlessly positive and supportive reminders of a lot of very cool, heartwarming, or just plain interesting stuff.