The Story of The Muppet Show: SNL for Puppets?

It’s time to get things started, it’s time to light the lights, it’s time to read all about the Muppet Show on my blog. OK, that didn’t rhyme as well, but we’re here to discuss one of the most successful shows in the history of television.

The Muppet Show was a variety musical show that aired from 1976-1981. It featured the Muppet characters and various guest stars in sketches and musical performances. The Muppet Show would be seen in over 106 countries and was one of the most successful shows ever. 

What’s a muppet you ask? Well, it’s part mop, part puppet, but oh boy…so to answer your question: I don’t know. Those were the great words spoken by Homer Simpson to Bart and it’s pretty relevant as there are chunks of generations that don’t know about the Muppets.

The Muppets have lasted a good 50 years and they seem to never go away. Even up to now, There is new content being put out by Disney+.  “Muppets Now” is a modern internet/zoom version of the Muppets. I’m not sure if it’s as relevant to kids as they didn’t grow up with them the same way we did in the 80s.

But as I said: the Muppets have always been there. It’s impossible not to know about them and The Muppet Show is their crown jewel. With its recent release of all five seasons on Disney+, it’s worth taking a look back at what made this iconic show come to life.

The Muppet show has connections to Saturday Night Live, England, and even sex and violence.

That last one will make sense in a moment.

But this is a look back on the story behind the Muppet Show. 

Setting the Stage For The Muppet Show

The entire story of the Muppets could take days to tell, so we’ll do a brief look at what got us to the Muppet Show as we know it. Most of us associate the Muppets with Sesame Street in the late 60s and early 70s–but the Muppets go a bit further back. 

Muppets were first used in TV commercials with Rowlf being one of the very first ones used to sell dog food. But the concept of a muppet goes back to 1955 when Jim Henson first created them for a show called “Sam and Friends.” (You can watch it here on YouTube.)

They made more appearances in commercials, on TV shows like Ed Sullivan, and then were a major part of what made Sesame Street so popular. But Henson didn’t always want to be associated with “kiddie shows.”

One way to break away from this was being connected to an early show called Saturday Night Live. 

Saturday Night Live was still finding its way, and the Muppets would be used in a segment called “the Land of Gorch.” This didn’t last long, but the time on SNL would set in motion what would become the Muppet Show.

Henson noted that his time at Saturday Night Live showed him how to put together an entire show in just 7 days. It also gave him a lot of celebrity connections that would be put to use in The Muppet Show.

Side Note: If you ever get a chance to go to New York and tour 30 Rock, you will know about the secret Muppet closest. During some downtime on set, Henson and some other Muppeters took Muppet material and decorated a hot water cupboard. Using felt, eyes, and accessories, they turned all the pipes in the closet into Muppets. They thought that no one would ever find it, but it was discovered a few years later.

I got to do this tour and see this closet for myself. It hasn’t been touched since they first created it and it remains as a great tribute to Jim Henson.

The Early Pilots of the Muppet Show

If you’ve ever watched the Muppet Show on DVD, or now on Disney+ you will notice that there isn’t a specific pilot like most shows have. But there are–they just took place years before. 

The very first Muppet Show–and essentially the true original plot–was called “The Muppets Valentine Show” and it was released on January 30th, 1974. Henson was trying to put in place what the Muppet Show would become–but it just wasn’t there yet.

You can watch the pilot here on YouTube.

There are many characters you will never see again, and Kermit is just a supporting Muppet. Nigel is the real host of the show and Henson believed he would be the cornerstone of the Muppet Show. By making “The Muppet Valentines Show,” he was essentially auditioning for American networks. 

The Muppets Valentine Show won’t look anything like the Muppet Show as you know it–but they were experimenting with what could work. One thing that did was the inclusion of a guest star: in this case, Mia Farrow.

But it was thought that the show was too heavy on premise and didn’t have enough sketches. And that would lead to the second Muppet pilot…

Muppets: Sex and Violence

This seems absurd, and the first time I heard about this show, I wondered what the hell it was all about. But it was named that for a few reasons. The first, is that it was a reminder that this wasn’t the Sesame Street muppets for kids. It’s not that there is anything bad in it, but the name was also used as Henson believed it was enticing.

Like Mr. Burns using sex appeal and a flashy name to name his casino…

This time, they went super heavy on the sketches and didn’t have much in the way of story. But in Muppets: Sex and Violence, we get to meet some more familiar characters such as Miss Piggy. 

What these two pilots taught Henson and co., was the ideal format for their show. They would combine sketch comedy, and some running stories–essentially combining what they had in these two pilots. They would also use guest stars as it was a way for the Muppets to play off something and would be more appealing to networks and sponsors.

The last piece of the puzzle was the most important: the premise of the show would be all about putting on a show. The “show within a show” theme was the one constant between both pilots. The idea for the Muppet Show would be that the Muppets would be putting on a Vaudeville-style show in an old run-down theatre. 

Side note: This premise has been done quite a few times including the Gary Shandling Show, and 30 Rock. A 30 Rock fan theory is that it’s a real-life version of the Muppet Show. Both are putting on a variety show, and we see the backstage antics.

There are even similarities in the characters. Liz Lemon is Kermit, Jenna is Miss Piggy, Kenneth is Scooter, Jack is Sam the Eagle, and Tracey is Gonzo. Pay attention to this the next time you watch 30 Rock–and you’ll also notice their use of puppets/Muppets over the seasons.

So everything looked good. But no networks wanted anything to do with it.

Taking The Muppet Show to England

pic via

The concept of the show clearly works, but it wasn’t exactly groundbreaking–especially to the networks. So Henson packed up everything and went to England.

Producer Lew Grade (who Lew Zealand would be named after–he’s the boomerang fish guy) wanted to produce the Muppet Show. It would be filmed at the now famous Elstree Studios which would go on to be used for a small space movie called Star Wars, and a snow and ax movie called The Shining. (check out my article all about The Shining here.)

Henson knew he had the talent including a young guy named Frank Oz who he had worked with creating Ernie and Bert on Sesame Street. They had great chemistry, but weren’t finding that yet with their new project.

The other problem was that they couldn’t get any celebrities on board. Not only did they not have a lot of money to pay them, but they had to convince them to fly to England to film. They were able to convince dancer Juliet Prowse and singer Connie Stevens to film what would be the first two pilot episodes of the new Muppet Show.

The idea is that they would try to sell the show for syndication, even though this approach had never been done before. 

The Early Days of the Muppet Show

If it’s been a while since you’ve seen the Muppet Show, it’s astonishing how raw and underdeveloped the first season is compared to what we now know. If you are watching on Disney+, the episodes are all out of order. Syndication screwed up how they would be seen in the future and the order of the shows is as much about when they were released–not when they were produced. 

But the show was finding its footing. You may notice that Rowlf and Kermit are the only ones that seem familiar. Miss Piggy is unrecognizable and it turns out that she was being voiced by two different people. Frank Oz is the voice we now know, but he shared duties with Richard Hunt. 

I noticed in those first few episodes that her voice would change within individual shows. You may not even realize it is Miss Piggy, at first. 

Fozzie is not where we know him as Frank Oz had a much deeper, and rougher voice for him. Janice has a completely different voice, too.

Gonzo is one of the biggest changes. Ih the first season of the Muppet Show he is more like a baby caveman. The look of the puppet is different and it turns out that he was just chosen at random from a bunch of muppets used in the background of past specials. Performer Dave Gohlz would be the one to bring the Great Gonzo to life. 

Stadler and Waldorf are up the balcony heckling, but they also aren’t developed to where we now know them. In Muppets: Sex and Violence they make their first appearnce, but they are at home in their living room heckling the TV. 

They would also bring back some characters from the first two pilots including George the Janitor, Mildred, and the Swedish Chef (performed by Frank Oz, with the hands of Jim Henson.)

The difference from the Muppets Valentine Show, and Muppets: Sex and Violence was the change of show host. Instead of Nigel, they needed someone more recognizable. Two of the more well-known muppets were Rowlf and Kermit the Frog. Rowlf had been used on TV many times, and they believed Kermit would be perfect to host the variety show. 

With those first two episodes shot, they started to shop them around for syndication. 

The Muppet Show Slowly Evolves

We love the Muppet Show, and a lot of what we love is still there in those first two episodes–but again, everyone said no. The networks didn’t like how it seemed too British, the opening was too long, and they just didn’t think people would be into watching puppets.

It was also a little too meta. The show would constantly break the fourth wall with Kermit talking to the viewers at home. This is pretty normal now–and something done in all the Muppet movies–but it seemed pretty foreign at the time. 

And they still had 22 more episodes to film.

Henson and company just shook off the rejection and focused on creating the best shows they could–while tinkering with them where needed. This included replacing some of the puppets (Fozzie for example, and giving him a lighter voice) and adding in new ones. Henson would act just like Kermit and was in charge of keeping everything running smoothly.

Joel Grey would be the host of the first new episode. They would also include more musical segments. Some of the early segments of the first season also included:

  • Talking houses
  • The ballroom dancing scenes (came from the “Sex and Violence” pilot)
  • The panel discussion

The show slowly started to find its feet, and we got to meet new characters like Scooter. If you ever wonder how he became part of the Muppets, it’s because his uncle owned the theatre. 

Another big thing was happening: the celebrities loved being on the show. And they were spreading the word about how much fun it was to do. Since they were the only human, they got center stage. And they were allowed to do whatever they wanted and use other talents that may have gone to waste. 

Getting the Muppet Show Out to the World

Since everything was filmed out of order, everyone believed the episode with actress Rita Moreno was the first show that should be sent for distribution. The show would air in the UK, but also in the States.

It went over ok–but not amazing.

The Muppet Show would continue to be shown in the UK and in the States, but it was in the UK where it made its first big impact. It didn’t take long for the popularity of the Muppet Show to skyrocket through the UK.

Children and adults across the country all loved the show. It had something for everyone and I think that’s what led to its early success there. It was then time to film the second season.

The show had a new head writer in Jerry Juhl and the format of the show changed significantly to what you may be more familiar with. The Muppet Show would now start with a cold open where we would meet the guest for that week being introduced by Scooter. They also filmed a whole new opening.

The characters would now all look how we now know them with Gonzo and Miss Piggy getting a whole new design. Frank Oz would now be the only one performing Piggy and the character had evolved into the scene-stealing prima donna we now know and love.

Gonzo would also find his love for chickens and become the death-defying stunt performer we’re now familiar with. 

The use of pigs would also grow including the introduction of one of the most famous sketches: Pigs in Space. 

More people would be tuning into the shows as the list of guest stars became even more impressive including:

  • John Cleese
  • Peter Sellers
  • Steve Martin
  • Elton John
  • Julie Andrews

Finally, American audiences would catch on, and by late 1977 The Muppet Show became an established hit. The Muppet Show hit its stride and would receive multiple Emmy nominations and was embraced by critics. 

All those networks that passed on the show were now eating their words. The begged to get Henson on board back in America, but he stayed loyal to the UK for the entire run of the series.

The Future of the Muppet Show

The Muppet Show would run from 1976-1981 and become a worldwide phenomenon being seen in over 100 countries. Some 230 million people would watch the show each week which is astounding. It was considered to be the most popular TV show in the world. 

Henson would strike while the iron was hot and put out the Muppet Movie in 1979.

If you haven’t seen this thing in a while, please make sure to watch it again to see how brilliant it really is. It took many concepts from the Muppet Show such as breaking the fourth wall–and seeing how something is made–and put it on film. It serves as an origin story for the Muppets so there’s no continuity between it and the Muppet Show. 

The Muppet Movie exists as a biography of sorts that is sharing the story of how Henson and his team reach fame and success. 

The third season would feature a new opening and new set. The Muppets had now become so famous that the shows could be based around them as opposed to the celebrity guest. 

In 1979, Season four would include another new opening and some more character designs that would look more like they did in the upcoming Muppet Movie. A writer’s strike would delay things but they would finish things up including a pretty iconic crossover with a space movie that has also been filming at Elstree Studios and using Frank Oz for a new creature named Yoda. 

The craziest thing is that the show ends with the Muppets, and the Star Wars characters, singing the Disney classic “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Insanely ironic since Disney would end up owning both properties. 

The fifth season would also be the last. The show had crossed the 100 episode mark meaning it was able to be syndicated. The thing is, the show was also immune to cancelation and could have run for 20+ seasons similar to shows like the Simpsons.

Henson wanted to go out on a high note and was already envisioning future projects. 

Final Thoughts on the Muppet Show

We could be here all day discussing the Muppets (which doesn’t sound like a bad thing at all) but a few more things to note were how Henson stayed loyal to working in England. He would create a more experimental movie called the Dark Crystal, and then Labyrinth. Both of these would be filmed in the UK.

If you haven’t watched the incredible new “Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” series on Netflix, check that out, and you can read all about it in my review here

If you can’t tell already, I love the Muppets. And I think the Muppet Show is one of the most groundbreaking and iconic television shows in history. I think that everything that made the Muppet Show great is perfectly captured–and enhanced–in the Great Muppet Caper.

I believe that this is Jim Henson’s best work (which is saying something) and I’ve got a blog all about that here

But with the Muppet Show now being available on Disney+, it’s the first time in decades–or ever–that audiences get to relive and appreciate how special this show really is.