The Muppets return to TV, trailer released
25 years after the death of Jim Henson, ABC picks up 'The Muppets' as a series
In a week that's seen dozens of TV series abruptly cancelled, US network ABC, home of Modern Family and Nashville and an organisation so confident that it hires a comedian to poke fun at itself at marketing events, has announced that this autumn it'll unveil a new Muppets TV series. The announcement coincides with the 25th anniversary of the untimely death of Muppet creator Jim Henson, whose single-minded belief in the potential of puppets as entertainment drove the Muppets from a brief spot on a tiny regional TV show to global fame.
The new Muppets show is created by Bill Prady, co-creator of The Big Bang Theory, himself a former Muppets writer under Henson, and one of the few people to have had a Muppet designed after him (Chip) who appears in the new series trailer, describing himself as 'some incredibly obscure Muppet that no-one remembers.' The show is intended for 'kids of all ages' and casts the Muppets in a mockumentary about the making of itself, focusing on the backstage ego-tripping and confessional asides of the characters. Check out the trailer below:
The Muppets are so embedded in the popular imagination that it's easy to forget how innovative they were. Henson started making puppets as a teenager, but as a college student in Maryland in the mid-1950s he was invited by a local network to make a five-minute puppet show, Sam and Friends. It was then that he devised the technique of building puppets out of cloth-covered foam rubber instead of wood, making them capable of expression and perfectly suiting the intimacy of TV. Sam and Friends featured the earliest versions of Kermit and Rowlf, but over the following years Henson's puppets mostly appeared in commercials. His big break came in 1969, when the Children's Television Workshop invited him to bring his staff to work on Sesame Street.
The huge success of Sesame Street freed Henson from commercial work, but he still wanted the Muppets to be more than just kids' entertainment. American networks rejected the original Muppets pilots, and it was Lew Grade of ITV who eventually gave the Muppets their own show. The fact that The Muppet Show was shot in England contributed to its variety-show flavour, and effectively disguised the level of slapstick insanity that it could reach. It lasted only five series, but its runaway popularity quickly attracted a stream of ever-more famous guest stars willing to revel in the public humiliation of being beaten up by Muppets: Elton John was thrown into a pond, Sandy Duncan was pied in the face and John Cleese was tortured with singing. One notable exception was Christopher Reeve; when Miss Piggy gave the Man of Steel one of her signature karate chops, she immediately regretted it.
The Muppets went into movies, and Henson explored other ways of making puppetry essential. The Dark Crystal was an imaginative and very successful fantasy; its follow-up Labyrinth was less popular but has become a cult favourite, and the UK TV show The Storyteller won an Emmy. During the production of The Empire Strikes Back he made vital contributions to the character of Yoda, persuading George Lucas to hire his old colleague and friend Frank Oz as Yoda's puppeteer and voice; thanks in large part to Oz's quirky performance, Yoda became one of Star Wars' most beloved characters.
Henson died in 1990 aged only 53, but after faltering in the 1990s, the Muppet franchise was given a new start with 2011's exuberantly daft The Muppets. History has shown that the small screen is the true home of the Muppets; they thrive on confinement and claustrophobia, not in the wide open spaces of the movies. While we wait for the new show to deliver on the promise of its trailer, here are a few classic Muppet moments to remind you of the demented genius of Henson & Co:
1. The Wilkins Coffee Commercials
In the 1960s, Henson was hired to make a series of commercials for Wilkins Instant Coffee. The result were highly successful, bite-sized pieces of comic sociopathy, with Henson intuiting that, contrary to what Mad Men tells us, you don't need to sell a lifestyle to sell product, you just need to make people laugh.
2. Fozzie and Rowlf play a duet
Fozzie and Rowlf's duet on Percy Grainger's 'Country Gardens' is two minutes of pure happiness, displaying the Henson/Oz comic rapport at its finest.
3. The Swedish Chef makes Chicken in a Basket
The Swedish Chef has penetrated the culture to the extent that you can set Google to conduct searches in 'Bork, Bork, Bork!' (Go to 'Settings/Search settings/Languages/Show more' if you don't believe us.) Here he brings a welcome note of basketball to 70s cuisine.
4. Miss Piggy attempts to marry Kermit
Kermit is normally the Muppets' straight man, but in Wedding Sketch, under the looming recognition that he's about to be married for real, he finally snaps in full arm-waving, hysterically-yelling glory.
5. John Cleese
With his height, irascible persona and willingness to commit to being the fall guy, John Cleese was the perfect guest star for the Muppets. It all came to a head when they tried to enlist him in their customary singalong finale.
The Muppets will open on ABC in the USA from Autumn 2015.