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My Muppet History

My muppet history begins with Sesame Street, but my family's history with Jim Henson's creations go back much further than that.

I am of the original Sesame Street generation, as the show aired the same week that I turned 3 years old. I learned to read watching Sesame Street.

But let me set the scene. In 1969:

  • Television consisted of three networks + PBS

  • Children's television during the week was limited to two-and-a-half hours on PBS - Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers and Electric Company; and about four hours of cartoons on Saturday mornings. Only one of these was educational programming.

  • There was no internet; no videos on demand; no iPads. The only screens were about 18" in the corner of the living room.

  • Pre-school education was extremely limited. Kindergarten was not required. Most children started school at age six. Prior to 1969, the only pre-education children may have received was when their parents read to them.

A new public-television show that was devoted to toddler and pre-school education was groundbreaking. And I was just the target audience right from Episode 1.

Sesame Street opening & closing credits, 1969 - voiceover by Mr. Hooper:

Jim Henson was the epitome of cool, to children and adults alike. I remember segments featuring pop songs like Yellow Submarine; Up, Up & Away; and Feelin' Groovy. I didn't know at the time that they were pop songs; I was 3.

Here's the opening from the 70s, which I'm more familiar with. It's surprisingly less urban than S1.

I'm not sure where all these kids are coming from to find Sesame Street.

So one day my dad comes home from work and I'm watching Sesame Street and he comes in and says, "Hey! It's Kermit!"

And I was shocked. Shocked! Because in the time before cartoon networks and cross-marketing, parents didn't pay all that much attention to kids' TV characters. We couldn't ask for Fat Albert cereal and there were no Scooby Doo princess dresses.

So my reaction was naturally, "YOU KNOW KERMIT??"

Turns out Jim Henson honed the Muppets' act in the 1950s with ads for Wilkins coffee in the Washington, D.C., market (where my father lived his whole life). The catch for Henson was that the ads would only be 8 seconds long, but this limitation seems to have focused his creativity. Henson created the agreeable Wilkins, who will drink Wilkins coffee, and the grumpy Wontkins, who, when offered a cup,won’t.

Here's a Wilkens ad that I remember my dad retelling:

Now, I'm not entirely sure how my dad recognized Sesame Street Kermit from this. But those kind of details just take away the romance.

In 1976, Jim Henson aired his primetime program The Muppet Show. My dad, who was a terrific fan of Laugh-In, was equally entertained by the corny humor of the Muppets. He never failed to say at the end of each episode, "That show must be so much fun to do!"

But again, let me set the scene. In 1976:

  • Television still consisted of three networks + PBS

  • The first hour of prime-time television was considered "Family Hour." No sex, no violence, no double-entendres. Parents could watch television without having to explain where babies come from.

  • There was no social media or reality shows. If you wanted to see celebrities, you tuned in to weekly variety shows or late-night Johnny Carson.

We would watch The Muppet Show together as a family and just laugh and laugh. At some point, as the Muppets made movies and I became a teen, I realized that most of the Muppet jokes were over my head as a child. It's part of their appeal: the parents get the jokes; the kids just love the puppets.

All five seasons of The Muppet Show are now available on Disney+. (Warning: Some of the skits are a little cringey 45 years later.) I'm only a couple of episodes in but I've already seen several heart-warming moments, including Joel Grey singing "Willkommen" to a cabaret of muppets and Zoot playing an instrumental of the Love Story theme ("Where Do I Begin?") with Rowlf on the piano.

Mostly I just sit here with a giant smile on my face...remembering my dad.


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