Though there’s no shortage of obscure Muppets in the world, there are also Muppets who just about everyone knows. But even these most famous of our felted friends didn’t start off as household names. Here’s a look at the early careers of some of the Muppet stars.
Kermit the Frog
One of the earliest Muppet characters, Kermit got his start on Jim Henson’s very first TV show Sam and Friends. Each episode was five minutes long and usually consisted of characters lip-synching to a popular song or short scenes like “Visual Thinking” above. Kermit – who was not yet identified as a frog – was the breakout star of the show. He continued to appear in various Henson specials and short segments on other shows after Sam and Friends ended, slowly gaining a more frog-like appearance. Kermit’s thirteen point collar – one of his most recognizable features – evolved from a minstrel collar he wore in an unaired pilot that may have stuck around because it helped to hide the division between Kermit’s neck and body.
Kermit’s personality also went through an evolution. Early on, he was more of a smart-aleck. But in his appearances on Sesame Street – the show that made Kermit a true celebrity – he developed into a calmer and more sincere character with a flustered streak. The Muppet Show cemented Kermit’s stardom and introduced the frequently frazzled frog-in-chief we know today.
Rowlf the Dog
Though Kermit appeared on the small screen before him, Rowlf was actually the first Muppet star. His unassuming debut was in a series of Canadian commercials for Purina Dog Chow. Post Purina, Rowlf became a regular on The Jimmy Dean Show, a role that gained him national attention. He showed up in a number of other variety shows, specials and corporate meeting films. Rowlf also appeared alongside Kermit in the pitch reel for Sesame Street, though he only had a brief cameo in the show’s first season. The pitch reel has Rowlf in the role of the show’s main proponent who is trying to get Kermit on board. But by the time The Muppet Show rolled around, Rowlf had ceded the leadership position to the frog and become more of a philosophical artist who occasionally barks at cats.
If you take The Muppet Movie as an accurate account of the Muppets early days, then Piggy’s story is fairly simple. After winning first place in a beauty contest at the Bogen County Fair, she met the frog of her dreams and the rest is history. It’s a tale that seems to fit with the backstory puppeteer Frank Oz invented for her, in which Piggy escaped a small town, a broken home, and an abundance of siblings by supporting herself with beauty pageant wins and some morally questionable ads for bacon products. But if you look at her appearances on and prior to The Muppet Show or you take a more Doylist view of Muppet history, things get a bit more complicated.
(We are not going to discuss The Varying and Conflicting Theories of Muppet Canon and Continuity at this time. It’s too big a subject to tackle in the middle of another article. Some other day, perhaps.)
A character identified as “Piggy Lee” first appeared in a segment on a 1974 episode of The Tonight Show. The lady pig made a few more appearances and lost her last name as the already tenuous connection to singer Peggy Lee became less clear and more potential lawsuit material. She was never a big star until The Muppet Show, where she lived out one of the oldest stories in show business. Literally a chorus girl in the show’s first episode, she quickly went from just another member of the Muppet Glee Club to one of the show’s biggest stars. Her violent jealousy and position as the show’s resident diva developed quickly, but he affections for the frog were there from the start.
Whether you love him or loathe him, it’s impossible to deny the impact that Elmo has had on the Street side of the Muppet world. Given his current popularity, Elmo’s origins as The Little Monster that Nobody Wanted are all the more surprising.
Back when he was just a minor background character known as “baby monster,” the little red Muppet didn’t even have a set performer. In 1980, Elmo gained both his name and his first steady puppeteer: Brian Muehl. Muhl stuck with Elmo until he left the Muppets four years later. Elmo was then handed off to Richard Hunt, but their partnership was short lived. Hunt was not happy with his take on the character and barely spent a season with him before literally tossing Elmo at a young puppeteer named Kevin Clash. Clash gave Elmo his now famous falsetto voice (previous puppeteers gave him voice ranging from deep to nasal) and a young child’s enthusiasm and love, taking the puppet from a repeatedly abandoned bit player to the new face of Sesame Street.
The monster who became Cookie began life as a pointy-toothed creature called the “Wheel Stealer.” Rather than cookies, he was obsessed with a cheese flavored snack food called Wheels. The commercial never aired, but the monster went on to star in an IBM training film and a series of ads for Frito-Lay, by which time he had lost his pointy teeth. He gained blue fur when he first showed up on Sesame Street as a generic monster. After just a few encounters with cookies – including one where he wins a game show and takes a cookie in place of various pricier prizes, his primary character trait became clear and the formerly nameless creature was henceforth known as “Cookie Monster.”
Seven-foot-tall Talking Carrot
Despite a major role in the Gilda Radner episode of The Muppet Show, Seven-foot-tall Talking Carrot has inexplicably not yet risen to the upper echelons of Muppet stardom. Hang in there, Seven-foot-tall Talking Carrot! Your big break’s coming and we’re all rooting for you!
Got your own favorite Muppet origin story, or a Muppet whose backstory you’re dying to know? Tell us in the comments!