When Jim Henson’s Muppets debuted on Sesame Street in 1969, it instantly enthralled kids the world over. Since then, the puppeteer’s colorful cast of critters have captivated countless generations. As iconic as his creations were, however, Henson had different plans for them entirely. And if the entertainer had his way, the Muppets would have appealed to a wholly different demographic.
Having worked in TV, film and advertising, Jim Henson had a wide and varied resume. But for most people, the puppeteer was synonymous with one thing, children’s entertainment. Indeed, as The New York Times noted upon the performer’s 1990 death, his work with the Muppets “won the hearts of a generation.”
Fittingly, Henson developed his interest in puppetry at a young age. Inspired as a child by TV personality Burr Tillstrom, the entertainer began hosting puppet shows for his Cub Scout friends. Before he’d even graduated from high school, the entertainer had already turned his hobby into a potential career through valuable experience on a local kids’ TV show.
After enrolling in college in 1955, Henson continued to develop his profession. While studying theater arts at Maryland University, the performer got the chance to air his own show on a Washington, D.C.-based network. The resulting show, Sam and Friends, certainly granted him valuable exposure. But it also led to the puppeteer forging two very important relationships.
The first relationship was with Jane Nebel, a classmate at Maryland University who agreed to help Henson with the show. In 1958, the pair progressed their working relationship by co-founding Muppets, Inc. – later named The Jim Henson Company – together. One year later, their partnership turned into marriage, with Nebel taking the entertainer’s name shortly after.
The second relationship would be with a character that has since become synonymous with Henson’s name – Kermit the Frog. Built from a coat the puppeteer’s mom threw away, Kermit made his debut appearance on Sam and Friends where his rapport was immediately obvious. “I think people realized that if you put Kermit’s face [on TV], it was powerful,” the entertainer’s wife told USA Today in 2010.
Nevertheless, Kermit’s appeal went further than his connection with the audience. Possessing both a dependable personality and a witty sense of humor, the puppet was something of a stand-in for Henson himself. “I suppose that he’s an alter ego,” the entertainer once stated. “But he’s a little snarkier than I am.”
Although Sam and Friends gave the performer a great start, Henson quickly grew tired of puppetry. While the series was financially rewarding, however, he nevertheless wanted to do something different with his medium. And inspired by the puppeteers he met while travelling in Europe, the entertainer soon developed more serious-minded ambitions for his characters.
After Sam and Friends finished in 1961, Henson found work outside of children’s entertainment. Besides appearing on variety programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show, the creator lent his puppets to commercials for adult-oriented products like coffee and computers. Moreover, he even directed an Oscar-nominated avant-garde short film called Time Piece in 1965.
Inevitably though, Henson found himself drawn back to kids’ TV. In 1969, the puppeteer was approached to work on a forthcoming educational series. And although he agreed to take part, he had some reservations at first. However, the entertainer’s hesitation would prove unfounded and the resulting series, Sesame Street, would make his work internationally recognizable.
Through beloved characters like Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster, Henson found an outlet that allowed him to inform as well as entertain. Yet at the same time, his work was seen as being just for kids. Indeed, many of the puppeteer’s subsequent ideas scared off financial backers due to their more experimental nature.
Undeterred, the performer pushed on with his artistic vision and began developing a show that packaged entertainment for everybody. Putting his most recognizable puppets front and center, Henson shot test episodes to pique investor interest. However, bizarre and racy titles such as Sex and Violence ultimately curtailed any financial backing.
But while these pilots left American backers cold, they had a much warmer reception across the Atlantic. In particular, ITV’s Lew Grade – who had previous experience producing ambitious puppet shows such as Thunderbirds – saw the potential the program had. And with the network’s backing, Henson finally got his series off the ground.
Broadcast simultaneously in the U.K. and the U.S., The Muppet Show solidified Henson’s faith in puppet-led family entertainment. Combining wit, slapstick and satire, the program – which paired Kermit alongside new creations like Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear – appealed to both kids and adults. Consequently, an audience of around 235 million tuned in to see the felt creations’ shenanigans every week.
Perhaps the biggest sign of The Muppet Show’s success, however, was how it breached the generational divide. Each week, celebrities including Elton John and Liza Minnelli queued up hoping to make an appearance. And when the show received its first Emmy award in 1977, it was in the Variety and Music category as opposed to Children’s Programming.
As the Muppets grew more and more popular, Kermit and Co. began branching out into new horizons. In 1979, the characters starred in their own feature length film, a financial hit that led to a further seven films being made. Moreover, an animated spin-off, Muppet Babies, envisioned the critters as cartoon infants.
With the success that The Muppet Show afforded, Henson had free reign to continue exploring puppetry’s possibilities. Yet his efforts led to mixed results. To wit, 1982’s foreboding fantasy The Dark Crystal left critics and audiences alike largely indifferent. His later film, Labyrinth, trod a lighter path, but received a similar response upon its 1986 release.
In the later years of his life, Henson returned to children’s programming where he found his talents most appreciated. In 1983, Fraggle Rock premiered, a show made to appeal more to kids than families. However, subsequent shows like The Storyteller and The Jim Henson Hour could still be enjoyed by more mature audiences.
Unfortunately, Henson’s life and career would come to a tragic and unexpectedly early end. Following completion of a 3D Muppets installation for Walt Disney World, the puppeteer was hospitalized due to an acute case of pneumonia in May 1990. Despite medical intervention, the entertainer passed away aged 53, leaving an important legacy behind.
In the years since their creator’s death, the Muppets have continued to be an internationally successful franchise. Backed by Henson’s son Brian, the characters launched their own chat show, Muppets Tonight, in 1995. Meanwhile, Jason Segel created a modern entry in the puppets’ film series with 2011’s The Muppets.
The latter film in particular was a surprising move for a series primarily aimed at kids. Indeed, with credits including R-rated comedies including Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Segel wasn’t an obvious choice to helm a children’s movie. It seemed like the franchise was perhaps making a greater effort to appeal to an older audience.
Four years after the premiere of Segel’s film, Kermit and friends appeared in their least-child friendly outing yet. Simply named The Muppets, the ABC production mimicked the mockumentary style of grown-up sitcoms like The Office as it followed the puppet troupe in their daily lives. But the series’ adult tone didn’t just stop with its production style.
In the show’s first episode alone, The Muppets featured many jokes designed to fly over kids’ heads. Of particular note, scenes showing Kermit and Fozzie Bear making covert references to sex and drugs startled some, including Bustle’s Kelly Schremph. “If you were expecting to find the fun and innocent Muppets you remember from childhood, then odds are the show’s grand debut left you shocked,” she noted.
But anyone truly au fait with Henson’s comedic style wouldn’t be so surprised by this change in tone. In fact, the Muppets’ past work was full of subtle adult humor that only parents got. For instance, examples of innuendo appear in 1979’s The Muppet Movie wherein a character is told, “Wash up, you’ll get warts” following a chat with Kermit.
It wasn’t just The Muppet Show that got treated to Henson’s more mature sensibilities, though. During his stint on Sesame Street, Kermit would often slip risqué humor into his lessons on the alphabet. In one instance, the amphibian quipped, “The letter ‘F’ starts a number of words which I can think of.”
According to Henson’s son Brian, these ribald jokes weren’t an accident. As he revealed to The Independent in 2018, this comedic sensibility was everywhere on set. “I particularly enjoyed what they would do when the cameras weren’t running,” the puppeteer’s son admitted. “[W]hen they were goofing around off-camera…It got quite blue and off-color.”
Nevertheless, it appears that Henson wasn’t happy just making adult jokes before the start of a take. Moreover, the performer’s dream of entertainment for everybody may have just been a compromise brought on by puppetry’s limitations. Indeed, it seems apparent that the entertainer’s vision for the Muppets had been strictly adults-only all along.
Certainly, Henson’s taste for more mature themes could be seen in his work prior to Sesame Street. Fully immersed in the counter-culture of the time, the puppeteer – as noted by biographer Brian Jay Jones – often found jobs based on his “edgy sensibility.” This sensibility was particularly prominent in his ads for Wilkins Coffee which featured puppet characters getting injured and maimed.
As a result, it wouldn’t be until Sesame Street that Henson became known primarily as a children’s entertainer. And as his son explained to Polygon in 2018, the puppeteer began to resent his new-found association with kids’ TV. “[It] really rankled my father,” the younger Henson lamented. “There is a naughty trouble maker that was at the center of my dad’s sense of humor and sensibility.”
After the success of Sesame Street, Henson fought back against his status as kids’ performer. To this end, he joined the then-burgeoning comedy series Saturday Night Live with a new adults-only sketch. Named The Land of Gorch, the segments featured grotesque Muppet characters joking about substance abuse and sex.
“Sesame Street was the first thing that [my father] did that was specifically for children,” Henson’s son told The Independent. “That was when he did Saturday Night Live, just to really reassert to the world that his work is not just for kids. And he always had an irreverent, subversive edge that works really nicely when you’re entertaining an adult audience.”
Unfortunately, few other people at Saturday Night Live were eager to give Henson his own spot. The show’s cast members especially took exception to giving over their screen time to non-human characters. Meanwhile, the series’ creative team looked at the segments with utter contempt and left the job of writing them to their less experienced staff members.
Ironically, working for a mature audience made the entertainer more frustrated than ever before. And as Jones documented in his 2013 biography, he was regularly left exasperated by his lack of creative input on the show. “Somehow what we were trying to do and what [the] writers could write for it never jelled,” Henson said.
It seems apparent that the Land of Gorch’s failure may have resigned Henson to embracing his role as children’s entertainer. And yet, the puppeteer still managed to weave adult themes into his subsequent work. In The Dark Crystal, for example, Henson introduced the Skeksis, hideous Muppet creatures that gave nightmares to any and all impressionable fans.
Additionally, Henson’s cinematic follow-up Labyrinth dealt implicitly with female sexuality. Indeed, speaking to Polygon, Henson’s son identified the relationship shared by David Bowie and a teenage Jennifer Connelly in the film as revolving around carnal desires. “You have a young teenage child…Going with some adult feelings and trying to maneuver the dangers of that,” he stated.
But where Henson failed in making adults-only Muppet material, others would go on to succeed. In 1989, future-Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson – yes, that Peter Jackson – created X-rated puppet comedy Meet the Feebles. Years later, playwright Jeff Whitty created the stage musical Avenue Q which featured Muppet-esque creations talking explicitly about adult matters.
While Henson never got to see his Muppet vision enacted in his lifetime, the puppeteer’s son has certainly brought his dream to life. In 2006, the younger Henson launched his own Muppet stage show Puppet Up! which featured decidedly adult content. And in doing so, he finally found an audience welcoming to mature themes performed by felt.
“What I realized is, [the audience] really delighted in very R-rated, raunchy content,” Henson Jr. told The Independent. “And we found a way to do it that we thought was really funny and really delightful. So, off of that show I decided that I wanted to do something scripted in this vain.”
Indeed, that scripted something would turn out to be 2018’s The Happytime Murders. And this movie dived head first into Henson’s adult-only ideals. Billed as “No Sesame, All Street” – a tagline that moved the series’ creators to legal action – the film put puppets in a depraved world of sex, drugs and violence. It also led to the creation of Henson Alternative, a company dedicated to further mature Muppet content.
Over 60 years since their first appearance on television, Henson’s Muppets finally got the R-rated treatment he always wanted. But even if the entertainer never saw his work appreciated the way he intended, he still managed to make kids the world over smile. Surely, there’s no greater consolation prize.