Thursday, February 18, 2010

Early Jim Henson: Muppets In Utero (1955 to 1961)

Everybody has to start somewhere. Good ideas and characters usually take a while to develop and it takes time for artists and creators to hone their skills. In 1955 Jim Henson was offered a five minute slot after the news to put on a puppet show. Using a lizard puppet he had created out of one of his mother's coats along with several other odd looking creations, he and his future wife, Jane Nebel, would entertain the kiddies in TV land while their parents napped on the couch. Of the early puppets, only the lizard would survive, later re-christened a frog.

Most of the early shows consisted of the puppets lip syncing to novelty songs:

And the odd jazz track:

Not a whole lot from this show survives. Only a few episodes remain and the clips I'm posting are all I could really find.
I wonder what Ms. Piggy would think of this:

One of the things I find interesting about these clips is that despite limited means and a very short time slot, they're still entertaining. They also show what a talented puppeteer Henson was. Re-watch that Black Magic clip again and study how Sam (the humanoid puppet) moves. There's a kind of life to it, even though you know it's a puppet you could almost believe it's living. It's all really subtle too. It's one thing I love about The Muppets, there was so much talent behind them that they became real characters, especially to little kids.

In 1957 while Henson was trying to make a name for himself in children's programming with a five minuet long show that was mostly commercials for meat, he was also producing a series of short ads for The Wilkin's Coffee Company. And holy Hell:

These ads were massively popular. And violent.

Henson and company produced 179 of these things. One thing they show is that Henson really loved blowing stuff up when he could get away with it:

Of course these would never fly today and it's interesting that they were so well received at the time. There was even a promo where kids could get vinyl puppets of the characters for a dollar! (Evil Kermit is named Willkins and the dumpy abuse victim is Wontkins, by the way.)

I think the genius of these lies in the fact that they're so short. Each one is just a set up and then a gag and they go by lightening quick but they're still damn funny.

I could watch these all day.

I'll have a few odds and ends to finish this sort of Henson-y week tomorrow, but tonight I'll finish by ruining your childhoods some more with this early cookie monster short, shown on the Ed Sullivan show in 1967 (A remake of an older IBM Ad): Click here for nightmares!

Most of the information contained here-in comes from the Muppet Wiki.

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