11 of the Greatest Class Pranks in History

Any group of subversive students can cover campus trees with toilet paper or make a series of prank calls. These 11 school pranks went above and beyond, and that's what makes them the stuff of mischief legend.

1. Lady Liberty Takes a Soaking

In the spring of 1978, two students at the University of Wisconsin ran for student government as candidates of the facetious Pail and Shovel Party. To their astonishment, they got elected. Like all good leaders, the pair vowed to make good on their campaign promise, which was to move the Statue of Liberty from New York City to Lake Mendota near campus. No one took them seriously until…one day in February, rising up out of the frozen lake was Lady Liberty herself. Her gigantic green head and glowing torch floated above the icy surface. The two pranksters told everyone that they’d had the statue flown in by helicopter, but the cable holding it had broken and Lady Liberty crashed through the ice. The real story: They had the statue built out of wire, papier maché, and plywood and then hauled it onto the lake.

2. Card Trick

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As far as we know, you can’t actually major in pranks at college. But if you attend the California Institute of Technology, you can come close. The school is famous for its brilliantly engineered pranks, and the Rose Bowl Hoax of 1961 is perhaps the crème de la crème.

As usual, the Caltech football team did not stand a chance of actually playing in the storied Rose Bowl game in 1961. But a group of students decided to get Caltech in on the action anyway. They learned that the Washington Huskies cheerleaders were planning a halftime stunt where their fans would hold up colored cards in prearranged patterns to spell out a series of pro-Husky messages. A Caltech student managed to liberate the master plan for the stunt while the Huskies were visiting Disneyland the day before the big game. CalTech pranksters then replaced the plan with their own, revised version.

The next day at halftime, the Washington fans started performing the card stunts. The first 11 stunts were just as the Huskies had planned. Then things went awry: The 12th stunt was supposed to be the team’s dog mascot. Instead, the cards formed the unmistakable silhouette of a beaver, the Caltech mascot. Stunt 13 spelled out HUSKIES, only backwards. In the final stunt, gigantic letters filled the stands—and TV screens across America—with, you guessed it: CALTECH.

3. A Tough Parking Spot

Like Caltech, MIT is famous for its audacious, tech-savvy pranksters. Over the years, students have placed many objects on top of the campus’s 15-story Great Dome, including a fake cow, a piano, a small house, and a giant nipple. In 1994, they managed to park a campus police car, complete with a dummy officer in the driver’s seat, on the curved roof. To do it, they took the car apart, hauled the pieces up the side of the building using a system of rollers, then reassembled the vehicle and even got the lights on the roof to flash. Then they placed a ticket on the windshield, since after all, the car was in a no-parking zone.

4. Politicians Are Animals

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Most college pranks have relatively trivial consequences, but in 1959, a group of students in Sao Paolo, Brazil, managed to swing an election when they got a five-year-old rhinoceros named Cacareco elected to city council. The four-legged candidate won by a landslide, garnering 100,000 votes—one of the highest totals for a local candidate in Brazil’s history to that point. The students had ballots printed up with Cacareco’s name on them and then got thousands of voters to send them in. “Better to elect a rhino than an ass,” commented one voter.

After Cacareco won, the head of the zoo where she lived demanded that the rhino receive a councilman’s salary, but the election was nullified before any paychecks were cut. Today Cacareco’s memory lives on in the expression “Voto Cacareco,” which is used in some parts of Brazil to mean “protest vote.”

5. Flaming Undies

As the Olympic Torch neared the end of its 1,695 mile-journey to Melbourne, Australia in the summer of 1956, it had already faced several challenges, including torrential rains and temperatures so high that the runners carrying it nearly collapsed. But nothing beat what happened when the Olympic flame arrived in the city of Sydney. A champion runner named Harry Dillon was scheduled to carry the torch into the city and present it to Mayor Pat Hills. Some 30,000 people lined the streets, waiting for Dillon’s arrival. At last, a runner came sprinting into the city. The crowd cheered as he made his way to the podium and handed the torch over to the mayor. The mayor quickly launched into his speech without giving the torch a second glance until someone whispered in his ear, “That’s not the torch.” The mayor looked down and realized that he was holding a fake torch, constructed from a wooden chair leg painted silver and a can stuffed with a pair of kerosene-soaked underwear.

By then, the man who had delivered the fraudulent torch had disappeared. He was Barry Larkin, a student at the University of Sydney, who along with eight other students felt that people were overly reverent about the torch and that the tradition was ripe for ridicule. The mayor took the prank in good humor, and minutes later the official torchbearer arrived. Larkin received a standing ovation when he returned to his college along with a “Good job, son!” from the headmaster.

6. Gotcha, Captcha!

When your college’s mascot is a concrete brick with arms and legs named Wally the Wart, it is imperative that you win the Victoria’s Secret “Pink Collegiate Collection” contest so Wally’s image can grace some fashionable lingerie. Or at least that’s what students at Harvey Mudd College thought when they heard about the contest in 2009. The contest website was set up so that people could cast only one vote a day, which put colleges with large student bodies at an advantage. But the site’s flawed security put colleges with a high quotient of tech wizards who like to pull pranks at an even greater advantage. A group of Mudders went to work and wrote a computer program that bypassed the CAPTCHA and automatically cast a vote every 2 or 3 seconds. Suddenly HMC, with fewer than 800 students, was at the top of the list, with over a million votes. That wasn’t enough for the HMC pranksters. They rigged the voting so that the schools in second through fifth places spelled out the acronym WIBSTR, which stands for “West Is Best, Screw the Rest,” the motto of a famously wild dorm at HMC. Not surprisingly, HMC was disqualified from the contest, and Wally is still waiting for his underwear op.

7. All America Hoaxers

When Steve Noll was a junior at the College of William and Mary in 1972, he and his friends loved college basketball, but they hated the fact that the top honor for players involved being named to All America teams by national sports journalists. The students were just as unhappy that their own school’s top player, guard Mike Arizin, would never make one of those teams. Noll and three friends decided to correct the situation themselves. They formed the Association of Collegiate Basketball Writers (even though none of them had ever penned a word about sports) and they invented the Leo G. Hershberger Award, which they named for a cigar-smoking New York City sportswriter who never existed. The four spent hours poring over player stats to select their team of honorees, which included, of course, Mike Arizin. They designed an official-looking certificate, and stationery bearing the slogan “Serving the Sport.” When every detail was perfect, they told the Associated Press about the award, and soon the news was in every major paper in the country. Then the pranksters shut their mouths. For forty years. They didn’t reveal the award was a hoax until 2013, on the eve of the Final Four tournament. Most of the winners said they were surprised but amused to learn that the award was a fake—and Mike Arzin decided he was “sort of flattered.”

8. Tetris on Steroids

Some pranks make you laugh out loud while others make you grin in quiet awe. The gigantic, playable Tetris game that lit up one side of the 21-story Green building on the MIT campus one April night in 2012 is one of the latter. MIT pranksters had dreamed about achieving this “Holy Grail” of hacks since at least 1993. It took a large team of students more than four years of work to finally pull it off. They installed custom color-changing LED lights in 153 of the building’s windows and connected them wirelessly to a podium where players controlled the game. This game was not for the timid: Upon losing, all the blocks would fall to the bottom of the building and all of Boston could watch the player's failure from across the Charles River.

9. A Pregnant Pause

Aquinas College economics professor Stephan Barrows did not like his students answering their cell phones during class, so he had a rule: If your phone rings, you must answer it on speakerphone. He should have had another rule: No prank calls. On April 1, 2014, students arranged to have a friend call a female student named Taylor Nefcy during class. As required, Nefcy put the call on speakerphone.

“Hi, this is Kevin from the Pregnancy Resource Center,” the voice on the other end said, as Nefcy’s friends switched on their hidden recorders. “Per your request, I am calling to inform you that the test results have come back positive. Congratulations!”

Professor Barrows, who had been smiling until then, suddenly became anxious and suggested that Nefcy might want to “shut that down.” But Nefcy let the call continue and Kevin explained that with the father “no longer in the picture,” the center would provide Nefcy with counseling and maternity services at no charge.

At this point, Barrows attempted to interrupt, and Nefcy politely told the caller, “Thank you, I’ll call back later.” Barrows then launched into a sober apology, but before he could get very far, Nefcy brushed him off: “That’s okay, I’ve been expecting this call,” she said, adding sweetly, “I already know what I’m going to name the baby. The first name will be April, and the middle name will be Fools.” Barrows lost it, along with the rest of the class, and the video promptly went viral.

10. Veterans of Future Wars

In 1936, Congress passed a controversial bill allowing veterans of World War I to receive their war bonuses 10 years early due to the economic hardships of the Great Depression. With another war brewing in Europe, two Princeton University students formed an impromptu group called Veterans of Future Wars. They demanded that draft-eligible men receive $1,000 payments in advance. They reasoned that they would likely be called into the military soon, and they might as well get the money when they could still enjoy it. The idea hit a nerve, and soon there were 500 chapters on campuses across the country. They adopted the group’s satirical salute: an arm outstretched, palm up, towards Washington. Eleanor Roosevelt admired the hoax, calling it a “grand pricking of a lot of bubbles.” But many real veterans did not see the humor. “They’re too yellow to go to war,” scoffed VFW Commander James E. Van Zandt. He misjudged the pranksters, however. The two founders and nearly all members of the Princeton chapter ended up serving in World War II.

11. A Traffic-Stopping Prank

In 2006, students at Austin High School in Austin, Minnesota engineered a prank that capitalized on the unusual architecture of their school. A busy street separates two buildings on the school’s campus. Students can use the crosswalk or an underground tunnel to get from one building to the other. At an appointed time on the day of the prank, 94 students began filing across the street, using the crosswalk. Then they circled back through the underground tunnel and crossed the street again—and again, and again—creating an endless stream of pedestrians. Traffic was tied up for nearly 10 minutes as cars lined up waiting for the students (including one dressed as a cow and another as a chicken) to finish crossing.

11 Great Gifts for Retro Gaming Fans

No Starch Press/Amazon
No Starch Press/Amazon

Video games are more realistic, expansive, and ambitious than ever, but there’s one thing that most modern titles can’t offer: a hit of nostalgia. If you’re shopping for the retro gaming enthusiast in your life, check out these 11 gift suggestions that promise to level up their holiday season.

1. Pac-Man Ghost Light Table Lamp; $30

The Pac-Man Ghost Light Table Lamp is pictured
Paladone/Amazon

Liven up a stagnant work area or nightstand with this cool LED lamp in the likeness of Pac-Man’s ghost nemesis. It can flash in a variety of different colors, and at a compact 8 inches tall, you can buy more than one to haunt your living space.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Street Fighter II Home Arcade; $245

Street Fighter II Arcade Cabinet.
ARCADE1UP/Amazon

Relive the sweaty palms and raw fingertips of your youth with this Street Fighter II arcade cabinet from Arcade1Up. The entire package is true to its classic arcade roots, with era-appropriate artwork adorning the outside and buttons and joysticks that look like they were transported right out of a '90s Pizza Hut. But this cabinet comes with a bonus: Instead of just getting Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, it also plays Street Fighter ll: The New Challengers and Street Fighter ll Turbo. If you're not in the mood for competitive play, the company also offers a retro Star Wars arcade cabinet, featuring games based on A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.

Buy It: Amazon

3. Level One Donkey Kong T-Shirt; $41

A Level One 'Donkey Kong' T-shirt is pictured
80sTees.com

Show off your love of arcade gaming with this cool design that depicts Mario’s earliest challenge: navigating the barrel-tossing rage of a giant ape.

Buy It: 80sTees.com

4. Playstation Coasters; $12

A set of four Playstation coasters is pictured
Paladone/Amazon

Keep beverage stains off your gaming-adjacent furniture with this set of four coasters depicting classic Playstation controller buttons.

Buy It: Amazon

5. SEGA Genesis Mini-Console: $79

Sega Mini Classic System.
Sega/Amazon

Flash back to the Genesis era with this retro console that features over 40 games from SEGA’s heyday, including Sonic the Hedgehog, Earthworm Jim, and Virtua Fighter. The system also features a port of the arcade version of Tetris, which never actually made its way to the original Genesis.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Sock It to Me Retro Gaming Socks; $11

Sock It to Me Retro Gaming Socks are pictured
Sock It To Me/Amazon

Keep it professional in a suit but game on underneath with these dress socks featuring iconic game controllers from Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony.

Buy It: Amazon

7. The Game Console: A Photographic History from Atari to Xbox; $19


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Take in a photographic history of gaming consoles, from the vintage devices of the ‘70s like the Magnavox Odyssey on through Nintendo’s reign and the emergence of Sony and Microsoft. In all, 86 consoles are on display, ending with the era of the PS4 and Wii U.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Nintendo Super Mario Bowser Vs. Mario 3-Pack Diorama; $26

A Nintendo Super Mario and Bowser diorama is pictured
World of Nintendo/Amazon

Let other people display fine art. You can show off this diorama depicting the biggest rivalry in retro gaming between Mario and Bowser. You'll also get a Bob-Omb figurine, just in case you want to recreate one of the duo's video game battles.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Playstation Wallet; $25

A Playstation wallet is pictured
SONY PlayStation/Amazon

Keep your cards and cash in one place with this Playstation-shaped wallet. There's even a button-snap opening in the shape of the system's disc tray.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Pong Shirt; $38

A 'Pong' T-shirt is pictured
80sTees.com

Go so retro that Millennials won’t even know what you’re referencing with this nod to the popular game Pong.

Buy It: 80sTees.com

11. The Legend of Zelda Ugly Christmas Sweater; $39

Legend of Zelda Ugly Christmas Sweater
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It may call itself ugly, but those pixelated images of Link from Legend of Zelda are nothing but gorgeous to retro gamers. There's also a Mario version, if the portly Italian plumber is more your style.

Buy It: Amazon

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15 Secrets of Sesame Street Puppeteers

Abby Cadabby, Suki Lopez, and Elmo (L-R) on Sesame Street
Abby Cadabby, Suki Lopez, and Elmo (L-R) on Sesame Street
HBO

For 50 years and more than 4500 episodes, Sesame Street has been imparting valuable moral, ethical, and social lessons to young audiences using a sprawling cast of puppets. The Sesame characters—Big Bird, Elmo, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, the Count, and others—have become instantly recognizable to generations of viewers. But behind every memorable character is a human performer, one tasked with juggling the technical demands of puppet operation without losing the humor and heart that makes their furry counterpart so memorable.

To get a better sense of what goes into this unique skill set, Mental Floss spoke with three veteran Sesame Street performers during the show’s semicentennial celebration. Here’s what they had to say about crossed puppet eyes, grooming habits, and enjoying a long career finessing felt.

1. Sesame Street puppeteers usually get started lending a (right) hand.

Though there’s no definitive set of directions for puppeteers to get to Sesame Street, a number of performers selected to work on the show begin as apprentices with one specific task: operating the right hand of characters alongside the veteran cast members. “A lot of performers will almost only do right hands for a very long time,” Ryan Dillon, the puppeteer behind Elmo, tells Mental Floss. “Some characters, like Cookie Monster, require two performers with two practical hands.”

Dillon started working on Sesame Street in 2005 at the age of 17. He performed as a right hand and as supporting characters for years before scoring the Elmo role in 2013. Throughout that training, he accompanied the main puppeteer, who uses their dominant (usually right) hand to control the mouth and the other to control the left hand. The newcomer will manipulate the right, a duty informally known as right handing. “It’s a great training ground,” Dillon says. “You’re working directly next to a performer with years of experience. You become one character together.”

2. Sesame Street puppeteers have tricks for making their characters emote.

Abby Cadabby, Elmo, and Big Bird (L-R) appear in a scene from 'Sesame Street'
(L-R) Abby Cadabby, Elmo, and Big Bird delve into fine art.
HBO

Peter Linz, who portrays Ernie (among other characters) on the series, tells Mental Floss that getting a puppet to exhibit a personality takes some finessing. “You have to show the entire range of human emotion through something that doesn’t have an expression,” he says. Linz, who also teaches classes on puppeteering, says that there are some techniques to get puppets to show off their mood, however. “You can make them look sad by having them look down. You can get them to smile by opening their mouth. If they’re angry, maybe you close their mouth and then shake their arms ever so slightly. There are degrees of subtlety in all of that.”

Linz says the audience does part of that work themselves, projecting their own feelings onto a puppet. The ultimate proof might be in the example of Miss Piggy. While not a Sesame Street cast member, Linz says it’s telling that people often seem to believe the vivacious and flirtatious porcine character bats her eyes. “She can’t,” he says. The puppet doesn’t have that ability.

3. Not all Sesame Street puppets can perform the same tasks.

Sesame Street utilizes three major varieties of character. There’s the full-body puppet, like Big Bird and Snuffleupagus; “bag” puppets with two articulated hands, like Cookie Monster; and hand-and-rod puppets that have arms controlled by thin rods. “Elmo is a hand-and-rod puppet,” Dillon says. “[The difference means] some puppets can do things others can’t. Cookie Monster can pick things up. Elmo can, but it takes longer. You need to stop [filming] and attach something to his hands with tape or a pin.”

4. Sesame Street puppeteers rely on a key design element to connect to their audience.

Grover, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo from 'Sesame Street' are pictured
Grover, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo.
Zack Hyman/HBO

It can be difficult to communicate that a puppet is able to focus a pair of fixed eyes on something, whether it’s another character, an object, or the audience. But Linz says that the Sesame Street crew and the rest of the Muppets were designed by Henson with that in mind. “The eyes are just two black dots against a white background,” he says. “But all the characters are ever so slightly cross-eyed. There’s a triangle between the eyes and nose and a point where it looks like they’re looking right into the camera.” It’s a sensitive illusion. Turning the puppet even slightly, he says, and they will wind up looking at something else.

5. Sesame Street puppeteers can spend their entire day crouched on the floor.

Being a Sesame Street puppeteer requires more than just having performing chops. On set, characters that may be at waist level with their human co-stars are operated by performers crouched below frame, often on wheeled boards called rollies. “The first day or two, your back and everything else is sore,” Dillon says. “It engages your whole body. Your arm is up in the air performing.” Some actors, Dillon says, have developed knee issues as a result of a career bent over. Fortunately, not every scene requires contortions. Some sets are built raised so performers can stand up straight. Other times, they’ll have to situate themselves horizontally. Scenes set on a stoop usually mean the performer is lying down behind the steps.

6. Sesame Street puppeteers have input into character design.

Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and Rosita (L-R) pose with fans of 'Sesame Street'
(L-R) Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and Rosita pose with fans.
Zack Hyman/HBO

Lurking in the offices of Sesame Workshop is a puppet factory that, according to Dillon, houses a number of "Anything Muppets"—blank designs that may one day be used as the template for a brand-new character. In 1991, performer Carmen Osbahr got an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of conceptualizing a character when she helped originate Rosita (top right), the first regular bilingual Muppet on the series. “They had a meeting and asked what I had in mind,” Osbahr tells Mental Floss. “I was able to tell them I wanted a monster and I wanted live hands because I wanted to be able to play a musical instrument. I wanted her to be active and colorful. I didn’t want a petite, tiny little monster.” Both Osahr and Rosita have been a presence on the show ever since.

7. Sesame Street puppeteers have material for a blooper reel, but you’ll probably never see it.

Puppet manipulation takes concentration and effort. Occasionally, the cast of Sesame Street can find themselves flubbing a take. According to Osbahr, that’s often due to trying to coordinate left and right hands. “The main thing is props,” she says. “Grabbing stuff is easy, but if you want to pour something into a cup or write a letter, that’s hard. You think you’ll have a glass but just miss it.” Performers can also fall off their rollies, sending their counterparts tumbling out of the frame.

8. Each Sesame Street character has a dedicated puppeteer—with a couple of exceptions.

Actress Amanda Seyfried (L) appears on 'Sesame Street' with Abby Cadabby
Actress Amanda Seyfried with Abby Cadabby.
Richard Termine/HBO

When it comes to Sesame Street characters, there is one sacrosanct rule—aside from right handing, no puppet will have more than one puppeteer. “We feel strongly each Muppet has a dedicated performer,” Dillon says. “If there were two or three Elmos, you would see a copy of a copy.” However, illnesses or personal appearances can make that rule difficult to follow every time. If Dillon can’t make a shoot, a performer will step in to operate the puppet, with Dillon going in to provide the voice later.

The cast can also cover for one another if a scene requires two characters who are normally operated by the same actor. Both Bert and Grover, for example, are played by actor Eric Jacobson. If the two share screen time, Dillon might step in to perform one of them, with Jacobson recording his lines later.

9. Sesame Street puppeteers have a specific way of handling their puppets to keep them clean.

Day after day of manipulating puppets can lead to issues with cleanliness. Performer sweat can dampen the foam insides, while body oils and other contaminants can affect their fur coats. To avoid being dirtied, Linz says performers and production members try to pick up the puppets by the scruff of their necks. “We don’t want to put our oily hands on their faces,” Linz says. Puppets are also usually delivered to and from the set by a team of “Muppet wranglers,” and stored in the workshop where they’re built and maintained. To dry out a puppet, they’re sometimes placed on a wooden stand. A hair dryer set on low might also be used to dry a sweaty interior.

10. Sesame Street puppeteers work very, very closely together.

The characters from 'Sesame Street' are pictured
The puppet cast of Sesame Street.
HBO

Owing to the frequent proximity of puppets in frame, Sesame Street puppeteers are usually working near or virtually over other performers. “We try to be very aware and conscious of the people around us,” Dillon says. “Mistakes happen. Elmo has big feet, and Abby Cadabby has big feet, so you’ll often hit the other person with a foot. It doesn’t hurt.”

11. Guest stars will talk directly to Sesame Street characters—not just the puppeteers.

Sesame Street has played host to many guest stars over the decades, from actors to First Lady Michelle Obama. According to Osbahr, their human guests will often address the character even off-camera. “Most everybody who visits us talks to the character like they’re alive,” she says. “The moment we bring a character down [to rest], we have a conversation, but it’s great to have a relationship with a character and a celebrity. They’ll talk to Elmo, Rosita, Cookie Monster, and we’re talking to them right back.”

12. Sesame Street puppeteers can take years to get fully comfortable with a character.

Actress Blake Lively (L) poses with Cookie Monster on the set of 'Sesame Street'
Actress Blake Lively (L) poses with Cookie Monster.
Zack Hyman/HBO

For many performers, it can take years before they feel like they’re fully inhabiting their character. “You can be so focused on doing something right, you forget to have fun with the character,” Osbahr says. “By the fourth season, that’s when I started letting go, taking risks, having fun. You stop having to think about it.”

Fortunately, it’s not uncommon for performers on Sesame Street to spend decades on the show, which means there's plenty of time to adjust. Carol Spinney, who portrayed Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, retired in 2018 after 49 years as a cast member. Osbahr says the familial atmosphere encourages longevity. “I’ve been with this group of people for 30 years,” she says. “We’ve shared a lot of incredible memories together.”

13. Sesame Street puppeteers can sometimes mourn a puppet who is declared “toast.”

Made of foam and other delicate materials, Sesame Street puppets have a shelf life. Depending on use, wear, and handling, they might last a few years before needing to be replaced. Linz says two new Ernies have recently been made after one began sloughing off foam inside, a symptom the production calls “toast” because the foam resembles toast crumbs.

Even with replacements, the legacy of characters can still live on. Linz uses an Ernie with the same mouth plate that was used by Jim Henson as far back as 1982.

14. Sesame Street puppeteers have to work backward.

Actor Anthony Mackie appears on 'Sesame Street' with Cookie Monster
Actor Anthony Mackie with Cookie Monster.
Jesse Grant/HBO

The most surprising aspect of working as a Sesame Street puppeteer? According to Linz, it’s the fact that performers often have to essentially work backwards. Because they’re crouched below the camera frame, puppeteers need to watch a monitor placed low to the ground to see what the camera sees. “When you move your arm to the right, the arm on the monitor moves to the left,” he says. “You’re seeing the image the audience sees.”

15. Yes, Sesame Street puppets are technically Muppets.

Sometimes there's confusion over whether the puppets that appear on Sesame Street actually constitute Muppets, or whether that term is reserved for non-Sesame projects like The Muppet Show or other endeavors featuring Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the others. According to Dillon, any Henson-birthed or -inspired puppet is a Muppet. “It’s become a catch-all term for puppets,” he says. “It’s a brand name, like Kleenex. Jim Henson came up with the name. A Muppet is used for characters that he came up with."

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