20 Gonzo Facts About The Muppet Show
The namesake series starring Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, created by Jim Henson, debuted on American TV screens over 40 years ago. And the zany antics of Fozzy Bear, Gonzo, the Swedish Chef, and more haven’t left our pop culture consciousness since. It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights, it’s time for some facts about The Muppet Show!
1. THE MUPPET SHOW WASN’T THE FIRST MUPPET SHOW.
Jim Henson originally created the Muppets for a 1955 segment called Sam and Friends, a five-minute show that aired twice a day on NBC affiliate WRC-TV in Washington D.C. from May 1955 to December 1961.
The titular character was a humanoid muppet named Sam, with appearances by an Oscar the Grouch-type monster character named Muchmellon, and Henson’s earliest surviving puppet, Pierre the French Rat, among others. Kermit also made an appearance (he was created using an old coat that once belonged to Henson’s mother), but he wasn’t yet a frog. According to a 1982 interview he was simply known as “Kermit the thing.”
2. VIRTUALLY NONE OF THE EARLY EPISODES EXIST.
Most early local TV episodes like Sam and Friends were broadcast live, and recording them would involve using a kinescope (a specialized camera that recorded a show directly from a black and white monitor as it aired live). Some existing episodes were recorded because Henson wanted to try new puppetry techniques or review a specific performance.
The Muppets eventually made regular appearances on Today beginning in 1961, and would also appear on late-night shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Dick Cavett Show, and variety series like The Jimmy Dean Show, as well as on Sesame Street.
3. THEY GOT THEIR BIG TV BREAK ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, BUT IT WASN’T A GOOD FIT.
Muppets began appearing in sketches on Saturday Night Live’s debut season in 1975, most notably a recurring skit called “The Land of Gorch” which dealt with decidedly adult topics like alcohol abuse, adultery, and drugs. Only hired SNL writers, not Henson employees, were allowed to write the sketches, while puppeteers like Henson, Jerry Nelson, and Frank Oz performed them each week.
Of his experiences on SNL, Oz later said, “I think we didn't really belong on Saturday Night Live. I think our very explosive, more cartoony comedy didn't jive with the kind of Second City casual laid-back comedy, so the writers had a lot of trouble writing for us.”
4. THE MUPPET SHOW PILOT WAS ALL ABOUT "SEX AND VIOLENCE."
A Muppet pilot special, The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence, aired on ABC in 1975, and was supposed to be a parody of the proliferation of sex and violence on TV. The opening of the show featured guest Jaye P. Morgan looking toward the camera and saying, “This is not gonna be just another cute puppet show,” with the episode following the adventures of characters like Sam the Eagle and Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem bassist Floyd Pepper putting on a pageant based on the seven deadly sins.
5. JIM HENSON USED VALENTINE’S DAY AS A DRY RUN.
A 1974 ABC pilot special was a bit more tame. Titled The Muppets Valentine Show, it features special guest star Mia Farrow helping a character named Wally (in his first and last appearance) with his writer’s block for sketches on the show about the true meaning of love.
6. THE MUPPETS ARE BRITISH.
Both pilots failed to garner enough support for ABC or any other American networks to pick up The Muppet Show as a regular series in 1976, so Henson looked across the pond. British network Associated TeleVision (ATV) decided to pick up the series, and gave Henson a deal to produce each episode at their studios in Elstree, England and broadcast them on ITV stations across the UK.
Once The Muppet Show garnered a strong fan base, the show was sold to the U.S. and other networks across the world in syndication deals.
7. BRITISH AUDIENCES GOT MORE MUPPETS.
Broadcasting methods in the UK caused shorter commercial breaks, which forced Henson and company to film an extra two minutes for each UK episode. Each extra sketch was normally positioned after a middle break, and regularly featured musical numbers or other basic setups without the participation of that week’s guest star.
8. ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN WAS A BIG INFLUENCE ON THE SHOW.
Henson modeled part of the whip-smart sketch framework on the show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, a comedy variety series that aired from 1967 to 1973. Henson and his Muppet Show collaborators even poached a regular Laugh-In sketch called “The Cocktail Party,” for their show called "At the Dance." In both, different colorful characters met at a party to exchange one-liners.
"At the time, we were competing with cartoons, so we kept everything very short and varied, like Laugh-In,” Sesame Street executive producer and Henson colleague Lewis Bernstein said, “which was the best show on TV then.”
9. THE OPENING NUMBER HAD A LOT OF MUPPETS ... JUST NOT ALL AT ONCE.
The extravagant opening number to The Muppet Show featured the cast of Muppets singing and dancing, culminating in each character standing in five distinctive and lighted arches on stage. What seems like a single shot is actually a bit of camera trickery.
Each row was filmed individually, with puppeteers sporting one Muppet per hand, making it roughly seven puppeteers per row. Footage of each pass was then stuck together to make it look like a single performance.
10. THE MUPPETS' THEATER HAD A NAME.
The vaudeville house where the Muppets supposedly put on each performance is identified as “The Muppet Theatre” (notice the “re” spelling of theater given its London location) as seen in posters and backstage signs throughout the series.
But in the sixth episode of the first season, which aired on September 25, 1976, Kermit reveals the name of the structure as the “Benny Vandergast Memorial Theatre.”
“We owe everything to Benny,” Kermit says, “including three months back rent!” This is the only time that the theater isn’t referred to simply as “The Muppet Theatre."
11. THE THEATER IS OWNED BY SCOOTER’S UNCLE.
According to a 1991 Muppets children’s book called The Phantom of the Muppet Theater, the theater was built by a stage actor named John Stone in 1802. But in The Muppet Show, the owner of the theater is J. P. Grosse, a character first introduced in Episode 205 and Scooter’s uncle. The character only made a few appearances on the show, but a running gag with Kermit had the frog going along with whatever demands were being made in Grosse's name due to his fear of the theater’s owner.
12. HOSTING GIGS WERE EXCLUSIVE.
Out of 120 total hosts of The Muppet Show, no celebrity was allowed to host more than once during the show’s initial six-year run. (Although John Denver appeared both on the show and in two specials, John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together and John Denver & the Muppets: Rocky Mountain Holiday.)
Rita Moreno hosted the first episode (and would win an Emmy Award for her appearance), while some celebrities were allowed to be co-hosts. Singers Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge co-hosted in 1978 and singers Roy Rogers and Dale Evans co-hosted in May 1979.
Other hosts included eclectic stars like Johnny Cash, Julie Andrews, Peter Sellers, Harry Belafonte, Bob Hope, Liza Minnelli, Vincent Price, Ethel Merman, Diana Ross, Debbie Harry, and Alice Cooper.
13. THE MUPPETS WERE HAPPY TO LET GUEST HOSTS PLAY FAVORITES.
Since the guests wouldn’t make a repeat appearance, they could make their one and only shot count. Guests were allowed to make special requests to the writers to appear in a scene with their favorite Muppet. Miss Piggy was allegedly the most requested, with Animal as a close second.
14. FOR A VERY BRIEF TIME, GUESTS HOSTS WERE MUPPET-FIED.
Hosts were originally supposed to be given a Muppet version of themselves at the end of their appearance on the show, but the would-be tradition only lasted for the first two episodes. Only actress and singer Connie Stevens and Juliet Prowse were given their Muppet counterparts. The gifts were scrapped due to the unique Muppets being too expensive to create.
15. THE MUPPET SHOW MADE THE FOUNDING FATHERS PROUD.
The Mary Washington Colonial Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) gave The Muppet Show their Television Award of Merit in 1978. It was the first non-historical series to be honored with the award (Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers Neighborhood would win in subsequent years).
According to the DAR website, they are “dedicated to promoting patriotism, preserving American history, and securing America's future through better education for children,” which begs the question: Would George Washington like Kermit?
16. DON’T LET THE THEATER SETTING FOOL YOU.
Despite the vaudeville shtick, the show was not filmed in front of a full live studio audience.
"The way the show was taped, we would block and tape, which means that each piece of material would take anywhere from half an hour to several hours to tape, so it's a long, slow process,” Henson explained in an interview. “You can't really work in front of an audience that way. I mean, when we had Raquel Welch in the studio, we had a good 150 guys from neighboring studios, but it wasn't an official audience."
17. THERE WAS A LAUGH TRACK, BUT HENSON HATED IT.
To stay with the live act premise of the show, a laugh track was included early on. Henson was reluctant, but ultimately decided to keep it.
"As I look at some of the early shows, I'm really embarrassed by them,” he later said in an interview. “It's always a difficult thing to do well and to create the reality of the audience laughing. I did one special dry—without any laugh track—looked at it, and then tried it adding a laugh track to it, and it's unfortunate, but it makes the show funnier."
But Henson still managed to include some laughs at the laugh track’s expense. In episode 104, Kermit cracks a jokes that it is "up to the laugh track" whether the show is funny or not. At the end of episode 320, Kermit signs off saying, "You've been a wonderful laugh track!"
18. "MAHNA MAHNA" ORIGINATED FROM A DECIDEDLY NON-MUPPET-APPROVED MOVIE.
Most people know the distinctive four-syllable tune from a sketch that aired during The Muppet Show’s 1976 premiere, but the song came from a 1968 Italian soft-core movie called Sweden: Heaven and Hell.
Sesame Street producer Joan Ganz Cooney allegedly heard the track on the radio and asked Henson and Oz to perform it with the Muppets on the show in 1969 before the pair rehashed the music number for The Muppet Show.
19. GONZO’S CRAZY ACTS CAME OUT OF CRAZY WRITERS' ROOM IDEAS.
The Great Gonzo is best known for his weird and wacky stunts, but he started out as a completely different Muppet altogether. Henson allegedly had an unhinged character in mind, and simply chose the actual Gonzo puppet from a previous special called “The Great Santa Claus Switch,” where the puppet was a character called Snarl, the Cigar Box Frackle.
When thinking how to make the new character of Gonzo distinct, puppeteer Dave Hoelz suggested, “He might have been forgotten about during the early meetings, except that Jack Burns—who was head writer on the first season—said, ‘Yeah! Yeah! Like he does these crazy acts like eating a tire to 'Flight of the Bumblebee!'" I guess that sentence inspired the writers, so Gonzo ate his tire in the first episode and grew from there.”
Gonzo would go on to perform 20 stunts in The Muppet Show’s 120-episode run.
20. HENSON’S IDOL APPEARED IN THE SECOND SEASON.
The guest host for episode 207 was ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. The pair were Henson’s heroes, inspiring him at a young age to get into puppetry. Bergen and McCarthy would also appear in The Muppet Movie, which Henson dedicated to his idol after he passed away before the release of the film.
“My act and the Muppets are both sophisticated and adult, but children love them, too, because we give children a chance to use their imaginations,” Bergen said of his experience on The Muppet Show. “They complete the illusion that our characters start."