I, like a lot of you, grew up on Sesame Street and the Muppets. But do you ever stop to wonder where they came from? Some of the characters we know and love today were recycled from other T.V. shows and commercials Jim Henson worked on and others were invented by using whatever materials were around. Be prepared for a little nostalgia for today’s Q10. And don’t be offended if I left out some of your favorites (I know, Big Bird?!) – not all of the characters have interesting background stories. But if you know the story behind one that I left out, share with us in the comments!
The Origins of 10 of Your Favorite Muppets
1. Cookie Monster. Jim Henson drew some monsters eating various snacks for a General Foods commercial in 1966. The commercial was never used, but Henson recycled one of the monsters (the “Wheel-Stealer”) for an IBM training video in 1967 and again for a Fritos commercial in 1969. By this time, he started working on Sesame Street and decided this monster would have a home there.
2. Elmo. The way it’s described by a Sesame Street writer, apparently this extra red puppet was just lying around. People would pick him up and try to do something with him, but nothing really panned out. In 1984, puppeteer Kevin Clash picked up the red puppet and started doing the voice and the personality and it clicked – thus, Elmo was born.
3. Telly Monster was originally the Television Monster when he debuted in 1979. He was obsessed with T.V. and his eves would whirl around as if hypnotized whenever he was in front of a set. After a while, producers started worrying about his influence on youngsters, so they changed him to make him the chronic worrier he is now.
4. Count von Count made his first appearance in 1972 and was made out of an Anything Muppet pattern – a blank Muppet head that could have features added to it to make various characters. He used to be more sinister – he was able to hypnotize and stun people and he laughed in typical scary-villain-type fashion after completing a count of something and thunder and lightning would occur. He was quickly made more appealing to little kids, though. He is apparently quite the ladies’ man – he has been linked to Countess von Backward, who loves to count backward; Countess Dahling von Dahling and Lady Two.
5. Kermit was “born” in 1955 and first showed up on Sam and Friends, a five-minute puppet show by Jim Henson. The first Kermit was made out of Henson’s mom’s coat and some ping pong balls. At the time, he was more lizard-like than frog-like. By the time he showed up on Sesame Street in 1969, though, he had made the transition to frog. There are rumors that he got the name Kermit from a childhood friend of Henson’s or a puppeteer from the early days of the Muppets, but Henson always refuted both of those rumors.
6. Real Swedish Chef Lars “Kuprik” Bäckman claims he was the inspiration for the Swedish Chef. He was on Good Morning America, he says, and caught Jim Henson’s eye. Henson supposedly bought the rights to the Good Morning America recording and created the Swedish Chef (who DOES have a real name, but it’s not understandable). One of the Muppet writers, Jerry Juhl, says that in all of the years of working with Jim Henson on the Swedish Chef, he never heard that the character was based on a real person.
7. Animal - Everyone’s favorite member of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem may have been inspired by Keith Moon of The Who. This is speculation, but people who support this theory will point out that Jim Henson named one of the Fraggle Rock characters “Wembley”, which is the town Moon was born in.
8. Miss Piggy is apparently from Iowa. Makes sense. Anyway, she started as a minor character on The Muppet Show, but anyone who knows Miss Piggy can see that she wouldn’t settle for anything “minor”. Her first T.V. appearance was actually on an Herb Alpert special. It wasn’t until 1976, when The Muppet Show premiered, that she became the glamorous blonde with a penchant for frog that we know and love today. Frank Oz once said that Miss Piggy grew up in Iowa; her dad died when she was young and her mother was mean. She had to enter beauty contests to make money.
9. Rowlf the dog, surprise, surprise, was first made in 1962 for a series of Purina Dog Chow commercials. He went on to claim fame as Jimmy Dean’s sidekick on The Jimmy Dean Show and was on every single episode from 1963 to 1966. Jimmy Dean said Rowlf got about 2,000 letters from fans every week. He was considered for Sesame Street but ended up becoming a regular on The Muppet Show in 1976.
10. Oscar the Grouch is performed by the same guy who does Big Bird, Carroll Spinney. Spinney said he based Oscar’s cranky voice on a particular NYC cab driver he once had the pleasure of riding with. He was originally an alarming shade of orange. In Pakistan, his name is Akhtar and he lives in an oil barrel. In Turkey, he is Kirpik and lives in a basket. And in Israel, it’s not Oscar at all – it’s his cousin, Moishe Oofnik, who lives in an old car.