Since its 1958 birth, the iconic Muppet franchise has revolutionized the field of puppetry — and it’s not showing any signs of stopping. This fall, Jim Henson’s puppet crew returns to TV for the first time since 1998. Co-created by Bill Prady and Bob Kushell, the latest incarnation of the Muppet Show has already seen its share of controversy, with some deeming the show unsuitable for children.
“The puppet characters loved by kids in the 1970s and 1980s are now weighing in on inter-species relationships and promiscuity,” wrote Christian fundamentalist group One Million Moms in its campaign to have the show canceled.
These concerned moms add their voices to a Muppet-fearing population which has, over the last couple years, deemed the puppets everything from Das Kapital-wielding Communists to anti-oil lobby minions. The funny thing is, though, that Henson never intended his Muppets (a portmanteau Henson created which combined the words “marionette” and “puppet”) to be specifically for children. In fact, he almost turned down his career-making job at Sesame Street because he didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a children’s entertainer.
Bob Kushell keeps Henson’s intentions alive with this new series, stating, “It’s not just a behind-the-scenes look at a show, but it’s the relationship-driven, emotional stories that people go through in their personal lives. Everyone in this version of The Muppets wants to push them further in a way they’ve never been before.
“Rightfully or wrongfully,” Kushell added, “The Muppets became more of a kids’ product over the years. We want to bring them all the way back to what they were intended to be and then some. But never so much that anyone has to explain anything uncomfortable to their kids.”
From its inception, The Muppets was all about pushing boundaries in both a technical and political sense. In the 1950s almost all puppets were made of wood, most in the marionette style which used strings to move the puppet’s extremities and — if at all — mouth. Henson’s use of foam rubber and felt to create a softer, more emotive character gave birth to a style that would become uniquely his. He also popularized out-of-frame puppeteering, where the camera frame focused solely on the puppets, while the operators hid in a trench below.
Henson’s decision to enter into — and revolutionize — the world of puppetry was built on his childhood experiences. While in high school, Henson made puppets for a Saturday morning broadcast called The Junior Morning Show. Though the program only lasted for three weeks in 1954, the experience left enough of an impact on Henson that he would later take a puppetry class in college.
As a freshman at the University of Maryland, local news outfit WRC-TV recruited Henson to make a puppet show for their audience in Washington D.C. Henson’s product, Sam and Friends, was a five-minute sketch show featuring the early prototype of Kermit the Frog. Simple in premise, the show would remain on the air for six years.
In spite of this success, Henson was still unsure if he wanted to turn this hobby into a career. Ultimately, it was a trip to Europe — and observation of the work of European puppeteers, who considered the act of puppeteering a serious art form — that eventually pushed Henson to enter the field professionally.