The Musical Impact of The Muppets

Today we take our favorite artists for granted. They're expected to have Facebook photos, a website with galleries and performance videos, professional head shots, a Twitter account, the works. We expect them to be plugged-in and easily accessible. But in 1978, it was entirely possible to own somebody's album and still have no clear idea what the band's members actually looked like. MTV changed that forever, of course, but before there was MTV, we had The Muppet Show.
The Muppet Show was unique among variety shows — for one thing, with fuzzy puppets instead of live actors, the act could get away with brutal slapstick comedy. And The Muppet Show was a true variety show, never featuring the same artist on any two broadcasts. Over a hundred artists gained wide exposure in the UK by appearing on the show: Johnny Cash, Linda Ronstadt, Elton John, Liberace, and Steve Martin among them. Muppets creator Jim Henson loved music, and The Muppet Show reflected his eclecticism. Meanwhile, behind the scenes of Sesame Street and the Muppet films, some of the world's greatest living songwriters were penning ballads that would amass enormous royalties and merit entry into the Great American Songbook.

Not only could you see great artists on The Muppet Show - just seeing them was a kind of novelty back then - but you could also see them goofing around and laughing at themselves. Where else could you see Johnny Cash sing a medley of "Orange Blossom Special" and "Jackson" with Miss Piggy? Or how about the time Steve Martin played "Dueling Banjos" with the Muppet jug band, accompanied by a choir of singing fruits and vegetables? Or the time Elton John zippered himself into a hot pink jumpsuit and joined Miss Piggy onstage to sing "Don't Go Breaking My Heart"? Eat your heart out, Kiki Dee.

Aside from human guests, The Muppet Show also featured The Electric Mayhem, an all-Muppet band. Several members of this ensemble were modeled after famous musicians; Dr. Teeth was a cross between Elton John and Dr. John. Bassist Sgt. Floyd Pepper played his instrument left-handed, just like Paul McCartney. And though Animal supposedly wasn't based on any particular drummer, I think we can agree he's a dead ringer for any given rock drummer.
Who Knew the Muse Would be Fuzzy and Green?
Some of the greatest Muppet songs examined the world from a Muppet's point of view, exploring the personality of, say, Oscar the Grouch or Gonzo.

For Sesame Street's first season in 1969, songwriter Joe Raposo wrote themes for several characters. "C is for Cookie" was a riot — and we're all waiting for Tom Waits to seal its place in the canon by covering it — but Kermit the Frog is the Muppet best immortalized in song. The universal themes of diversity and self-esteem at the heart of Joe Raposo's froggy ballad "Bein' Green" will remain relevant for generations to come. Frank Sinatra covered the song in 1971 on his album Sinatra and Company, giving it prestigious treatment, and indie artist Andrew Bird gave the tune his own unique spin on The Green Album in 2011.
Lena Horne's Season 1 appearance helped legitimize the show and make it more appealing to high-profile guests. The first rock star to appear was Elton John in Season 2.
Watch and Listen
Music was essential for holding the attention of children for the entirety of Sesame Street. In song, Sesame Street Muppets taught preschoolers the rudiments of addition, subtraction, geometry, English, Spanish, Roman numerals... but most importantly, it also explored some of life's central themes and questions. And because some of the best songwriters wrote the show's soundtrack, we who grew up on Sesame Street never outgrew its classic songs.

1979 brought us The Muppet Movie. Paul Williams — perhaps the most influential songwriter of the 1970s — and jazz pianist Kenny Ascher wrote the soundtrack. Some of the songs from The Muppet Movie, like "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday," stand on their own as truly brilliant entries to the Great American Songbook, standing among the likes of Gershwin and Cole Porter.
"Rainbow Connection was the first number in The Muppet Movie. It's the one that establishes the lead character. We find Kermit sitting in the middle of the swamp. Kenny Ascher and I sat down to write these songs, and we thought... Kermit is like 'every frog.' He's the Jimmy Stewart of frogs. So how do we show that he's a thinking frog, and that he has an introspective soul, and all that good stuff? We looked at his environment, and his environment is water and air… and light. And it just seemed like it would be a place where he would see a rainbow. But we also wanted to show that he would be on this spiritual path, examining life, and the meaning of life." ~from the Songfacts interview with Paul Williams
Entertainment for Everyone
Jim Henson had originally pitched The Muppet Show because he was worried that the resounding success of Sesame Street was pigeonholing him as a children's entertainer. But by booking acts that parents would tune in to see, Henson was also introducing their children to the likes of Paul Simon, Gladys Knight, and John Denver. In an age when mass media was the way most people discovered music, the Muppets brought these now-classic artists to a new generation.

And of course we can't forget the 1986 film Labyrinth, which brought us glam rock pioneer David Bowie as the great goblin king Jareth, lord of myriad Muppet henchmen (also of silver eyeshadow). Bowie wrote six original songs for the film's soundtrack, including the opening theme and the ballad "As the World Falls Down." As a shadowy, handsome, reality-bending villain, Bowie made a dramatic first impression on the film's young audience.
Modern Muppets
The Muppets remain a cultural phenomenon. Despite Jim Henson's abrupt and tragic death in 1990, the Jim Henson Company and its Creature Shop are still carrying on under the guidance of his children Brian and Lisa. The Green Album, a collection of classic Muppet songs, was released in August 2011 to critical acclaim. And on November 23rd, a new feature-length film hit the theaters with the appropriate title The Muppets. And more than forty years after its initial airing, Sesame Street is still in production on PBS: teaching children to read, count, and sing. Jim Henson created something far larger than himself: the Muppets are still entertaining, still doing social good, and still green.

~Nicholas Tozier
November 16, 2011

More Song Writing

Comments: 11

  • Emily from PennsylvaniaThe Muppets did a version of Bohemian Rhapsody.
  • Karen from Manchester, NhI remember seeing the very first episode of "Sesame Street" when it first aired, have been through the joy of "The Muppet Show" and the Muppet movies. My children now watch them all. After all this time, why am I still shocked, surprised and pleased to see who-all shows up on Sesame Street, like REM, Faith Hill & Tim McGraw, and others?
  • Trenton from Oklahoma City, OkAnyone else catch that Floyd is pink?
  • Traci from Minneapolis, MnThe best thing I ever saw on the Muppet show was in the '90s: A Muppet-ized version of Prince performing "Starfish and Coffee". Adorable, and really the most down-to-earth, and positively endearing thing I've ever seen Prince do.
  • Racegirl from Washington StateThe one I remember the most from the origianal airing was the you make me feel like dancing with the big dog.
  • Sam from Brighton,, MiI never got to see the Muppet's with any regularity, too old and no kids. Neither being an advantage. I have been writing on some sites that before Madonna or any of the Rap artist should had been allowed into the Rock Hall of Shame, they should have inducted the Muppet's. No other artist has performed with more rock groups and/or artist. They have had a very long satisfying run, and can say they have out lived many other artist. I once read that they have to induct newer acts so they can sell tickets. Also, they want musicians that have influenced the younger generation. Well at least the Muppet's were much closer to Rock 'n' Roll than a lot of the people in the hall are.

    I say hurray for what they have accomplished and what they are still doing. I have always been a big fan of the Muppet's but never got to watch them, except if I was at a friends house that had kids. For the few times I watched, I always enjoyed the show. Animal was my favorite, no doubt. He reminded me of the Tasmanian Devil.
    Keep music in the schools!
  • Dave from Kamloops, BcJay: there was a rumor that Animal was based off of Keith Moon, but Jim Henson never said it himself and there was never anything in his notes to suggest it, so it's probably not true.
  • David from Melbourne, AustraliaWhat about Rita Moreno trying to sing "Fever" over Animal's drumming. Classic!!! Check it out on YouTube.
  • Jay from Centereach, Long Island, NyI thought that Animal was supposed to have been based on Keith Moon. Of course, Animal's behavior is far saner and more socially acceptable than Keith Moon's.
    I cannot hear Elton John singing 'Crocodile Rock' without picturing the Muppet crocodiles singing the "Laaa la-la-la-la-la" refrain. I also remember the truly poignant performances like Kenny Rogers' 'The Gambler', a Muppet scientist singing Jim Croce's 'Time in a Bottle', and Floyd playing The Beatles' 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' (You can find all of them on YouTube.) The best thing about the Muppets was that they could do silly skits and intelligent skits equally well.
  • Jennifer Harris from Grand Blanc, MiI loved the muppet show and the great muppet caper.they are really plugging the muppets movie.
  • Nemesis from Underworld, MissouriI was fond of the original Muppet Show, it really was a unique variety show that had some great musical guests. I saw the show when it was rerun in the 90s. I don't know about the modern muppet movies that have come out, but the original show was good. I also love David Bowie, and now I think I want to check out Labyrinth.
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