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The Stories Behind 20 Muppet Favorites

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Like a lot of you, I grew up on Sesame Street and the Muppets. But did you ever stop to wonder where they came from? Some of the characters we know and love were recycled from other TV shows and commercials Jim Henson worked on, while others were invented by using whatever materials were around. Be prepared for a little nostalgia, and I hope I didn't leave out your favorite "“ not all of the characters have interesting background stories (sorry, Big Bird).

1. Cookie Monster

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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

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The way it's described by a Sesame Street writer, apparently this extra red puppet was just lying around. People would 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

Telly Monster was originally the Television Monster when he debuted in 1979. He was obsessed with TV 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

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

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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 Streetin 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

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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 TV 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

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Rowlf, 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

Oscar 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.

11. Gonzo.

What exactly is Gonzo? Nobody knows. Even Jim Henson had no particular species in mind. Over the course of The Muppet Show, Muppet Babies and various Muppet movies, Gonzo has been referred to as a "Whatever", a "Weirdo" and an alien. Whatever he is, he first appeared on the scene in 1970's The Great Santa Claus Switch. His name was Snarl the Cigar Box Frackle. In 1974, he showed up on a T.V. special for Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. He became Gonzo the Great by the first season of The Muppet Show and developed his thing for Camilla the Chicken almost accidentally: during one episode where chickens were auditioning for the show, puppeteer Dave Goelz ad-libbed, "Don't call us, we'll call you"¦ nice legs, though!" It was decided then and there that Gonzo would have a bizarre romantic interest in chickens.

12. Statler and Waldorf

I couldn't find much on their particular inspiration, but I can tell you that they've been around since the 1975 Muppet Show pilot. They are named after popular New York City hotels (the Statler Hotel was renamed the Hotel Pennsylvania in 1992.) Guess what Waldorf's wife name is? Yep"¦ Astoria (she looks startlingly like Statler.) FYI, Waldorf is the one with the mustache and white hair. Statler has the grey hair. Apparently Waldorf has had a pacemaker for more than 30 years.

13. Beaker

I always thought of Beaker and his buddy Bunsen Honeydew as characters that came along later in the Muppet timeline, but they have been around since the The Muppet Show. Although Beaker usually says things along the lines of, "Mee-mee-mee-mee!", he has had a few actual lines: "Sadly temporary," "Bye-Bye" and "Make-up ready!" Despite being word-challenged, he manages to do a pretty convincing Little Richard impression and, surprisingly, had mad beatbox skills. Beaker is one of the only Muppets that was never recycled from some other purpose "“ he was created solely for The Muppet Show.

14. Fozzie Bear

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Poor Fozzie. He's the perpetual target of Statler and Waldorf because of his horrible jokes and puns. It actually created a bit of a problem during the first season of The Muppet Show, because when Fozzie got heckled, he got very upset and sometimes cried. Viewers didn't feel sympathy; they felt embarrassed. The problem was solved by making Fozzie an optimist so that even when he got heckled he was good-natured about it. It's often thought that he was named after Frank Oz, who was his puppeteer, but Frank said it's just a variant of "fuzzy bear." Yet another story says he was named for his builder, Faz Fazakas. Wocka wocka!!

15. Bert and Ernie

They are the Muppet version of Felix and Oscar (the Odd Couple, for you young'uns). Lots of people think Bert and Ernie were named for some minor characters in It's A Wonderful Life, but according to the Henson company, that's just a rumor. Jim Henson always maintained that it was just a coincidence "“ the names just went well together and seemed to fit the characters. Jerry Juhl, one of the head writers, corroborated this and said that Jim Henson had no memory for details like that and would have never remembered the name of the cop and the taxi cab driver in the old Jimmy Stewart movie.

Other rumors to clear up: Bert and Ernie aren't gay and neither one of them are dead. Now that we've got that straightened out, here are a few more tidbits: the original Ernie used to have a gravelly voice similar to Rowlf the Dog's. Frank Oz was Bert's puppeteer and hated him at the beginning. He thought Bert was ridiculously boring, but then realized that he could have a lot of fun with being boring. Jim Henson once said, "I remember trying Bert and Frank tried Ernie for a while. I can't imagine doing Bert now, because Bert has become so much of a part of Frank."

16. Grover

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Everyone's favorite "cute, furry little monster" made his TV debut on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1967. At the time, he was known as "Gleep" and was a monster in Santa's Workshop. He then appeared on the first season of Sesame Street, but sported green fur and a reddish-orange nose. He didn't have a name then, but by the second season he transformed into the Grover we know today, more or less "“ electric blue fur and a pink nose. The original green Grover was reincarnated as Grover's Mommy for a few episodes. In Latin America and Puerto Rico Grover is known as Archibaldo, in Spain he is Coco, in Portugal he is Gualter and in Norway he is Gunnar.

17. Sweetums

Sweetums is one of a handful of full-body Muppets. He showed up in 1971 on the TV special The Frog Prince. This is where he got his name "“ when Sir Robin the Brave is about to defeat the ogre, a witch shows up and changes him into a frog (who later becomes Robin, Kermit's nephew). Apparently smitten with the ogre, the witch tells her darling "Sweetums" that he can have the frog for breakfast.

Bigger fame awaited Sweetums, though "“ in 1975, he appeared on Cher's variety show to do a duet with her to "That Old Black Magic". He officially joined The Muppet Show cast in 1976.

18. Rizzo the Rat

The name might sound familiar to you, especially if you've seen Midnight Cowboy, he is named for Dustin Hoffman's character, Ratso Rizzo. He was created after puppeteer Steve Whitmire was inspired by rat puppets made from bottles. He first showed up on The Muppet Show as one of a group of rats following Christopher Reeve around "“ he's easy to spot because he hams it up more than any of the other rats. He occasionally performs with Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.

19. Pepe the King Prawn

Pepe's full name is Pepino Rodrigo Serrano Gonzales. I heart Pepe. He was a chef in Madrid before going Hollywood on Muppets Tonight in 1996. He was paired with Seymour the Elephant (Pepe was originally going to be a mouse) on the show, but Seymour never developed quite the same following and was only in two episodes. He rarely gets names right "“ some of his mispronunciations include "muffins" instead of Muppets, "Kermin" instead of Kermit and "Scooper" instead of Scooter. He's quite full of himself "“ in addition to thinking that he's quite the ladies' man, he also fully expects to win several Oscars.

20. Herry Monster

Herry Monster from Sesame Street was the Big Bad Wolf in his original incarnation, which you can kind of tell by looking at his fur. It's pretty wolf-like (if wolves were blue, I mean). He became a Sesame monster in 1970 to replace the Beautiful Day Monster, who looked kind of like Sam the Eagle and existed to cause destruction wherever he went, thus ruining the beautiful day people had been having before he showed up. Herry used to have a furry nose but got upgraded to his non-furry, purple nose in 1971.

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The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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