Memory is a funny thing, mine especially. I can recall episodes of television shows I saw once over twenty years ago with remarkable clarity. Yet information like the current location of my cellphone remains elusive. One such memory taking up space that would otherwise contain the whereabouts of a pen I was holding five seconds ago was of a show called Little Muppet Monsters. I could recall a scene of an animated Fozzie and some puppet sequences. I knew that it had aired after Muppet Babies. But that was it. If it weren’t for an instrumental version of the theme song that played over the end credits of Muppet Babies reruns, I might have come to believe that I just dreamed the whole thing. It was decades later when I decided to see if Google could help with my murky memories. The internet was up to the task and I learned the story of a Jim Henson project that didn’t turn out as planned.
Little Muppet Monsters was created to run after the already successful Muppet Babies, creating an hour-long programming block. The stars of the show are three young monsters: Tug, Molly, and Boo. In the pilot episode, a bolt of lightning strikes a machine the monsters have built in their basement, allowing the monsters to create a TV show that the adult Muppets can watch on the television upstairs. The show consists of skits performed by the monsters, cartoons featuring the adult Muppet characters, live action stock footage, and guest appearances by the adult Muppets.
So Little Muppet Monsters did exist. But why did I only have vague recollections of the show? Why had it never been shown alongside the countless reruns of Muppet Babies? As it turns out, Little Muppet Monsters had a very short lifespan. Neither Henson Associates nor the show’s home network CBS felt like the series was working. Most of the blame was laid on the rush to get the show to production in time to air alongside the second season of Muppet Babies and the rather weak premise. At Jim Henson‘s own suggestion, the show was pulled from the CBS lineup. This could not have been an easy call for Henson to make. Even accounting for the short development time, Little Muppet Monsters must have represented months of work for the Henson team. On top of that, only three episodes had aired when the decision was made to drop the show, leaving most of a season’s worth of episodes in various stages of completion unaired. Still, Henson decided to abandon the series rather than argue for trying to fix it or airing the finished or close to finished episodes, suggesting that he did not think the show was salvageable.
That might have been the end of the story, but this is the Internet Age, where even a three episode, never rerun TV show is available on YouTube. Since a DVD release is unlikely, this is a great opportunity for Muppet fans to see a rare artifact of Muppets television history. All three episodes are available; I’m showing the first part of episode two only because the copy of episode one on YouTube has some quality issues.
There are certainly highlights to the surviving episodes of Little Muppet Monsters. Any footage of the original Muppet Show characters performed by their original puppeteers is something to get excited about, particularly when it’s footage most people haven’t seen before. Tug, the oldest of the three titular monsters, is played by the late, great Richard Hunt and youngest monster Boo gives us a glimpse of David Rudman‘s puppeteering prowess long before he became Baby Bear on Sesame Street or took over the role of Cookie Monster. The animated sequences are generally well drawn and retain much of the wit and charm of the series’ sister show Muppet Babies. Unfortunately, the Muppeteers don’t provide the voices for the animated versions of their characters and the quality of the substitute voices varies. But there are more good fits than bad ones and hearing Jim Henson’s Kermit side by side with Frank Welker‘s is fascinating.
At the same time, everything that led to the series’ early cancellation is also on display. The three monster kids just never develop enough personality to carry the show. Granted, three episodes is not a long time in which to judge whether a character will work or not. But none of the show’s leads demonstrates anything beyond the most basic sibling relations. The fact that these characters share the spotlight with the stars of The Muppet Show only highlights how underdeveloped they feel in comparison. This leads into another aspect of the show that hinders both its main characters and the series itself: the format. Because the show includes so many different segments – lectures on comedy with Fozzie, animated detective stories written by Kermit, comedic news reels narrated by Gonzo, animated Pigs in Space adventures, and sports features with an animated Animal – there’s hardly any time to spend on the monsters. Where The Muppet Show masterfully balanced the onstage entertainment and backstage storylines and Muppet Babies made the fantasy sequences crucial to the story while grounding each episode in the reality of the nursery, Little Muppet Monsters is never convincing as a cohesive whole. A viewer flipping channels and stumbling onto Little Muppet Monsters mid-episode would be hard pressed to guess what the show was about.
So that’s Little Muppet Monsters: a Henson show without enough of the Henson magic to avoid an early cancellation. With more time and a revised premise, it might have earned its place as a worthy companion to Muppet Babies and other classic Henson shows. As is, it’s a great story about Jim Henson’s willingness to pull the plug when something wasn’t working and an interesting curiosity for Muppet fans to track down and rediscover.
Images provided by Muppet Wiki – an excellent source of information on all things Muppet.