When NBC executives decided to take a chance on Lorne Michaels’s live sketch comedy show in 1975, they were a little wary about what the budding young producer might actually end up airing. So they worked some safe territory into the contract—namely, Jim Henson and the Muppets.
Henson and Michaels shared a manager (Bernie Brillstein), and the collaboration seemed promising at first. Henson was looking to broaden his work beyond Sesame Street; and Michaels, already a Henson fan, “wanted as many different styles of comedy as [he] could possibly have.”
For his weekly sketch, Henson dreamed up “the Land of Gorch,” a mystical, craggy kingdom populated with creatures that scholar Jennifer Stoessner later described as “scaly, bloated, and licentious.” Among them were: the bombastic King Ploobis; his simpering wife, Queen Peuta, and their ne’er-do-well son, Wisss; a mistress named Vazh; a bumbling henchman named Scred; and the Mighty Favog, an omnipotent god-like oracle. Together, they tackled sex, drugs, and other adult themes.
Inappropriate puppets were novel enough to have potential, but it soon became clear that Saturday Night Live wasn’t the right platform to pull it off. “They had their style, we had ours,” puppeteer Frank Oz said, according to Brian Jay Jones’s Jim Henson: The Biography. “I think our very explosive, more cartoony comedy didn’t jive with their kind of Second City, casual, laid-back comedy.”
Since the Writers Guild prohibited out-of-house writers from penning sketches, Henson’s team was forced to leave all the details to SNL’s reluctant writing staff. “Whoever drew the short straw that week had to write the Muppet sketch,” Alan Zweibel said in Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. “[Al] Franken and [Tom] Davis and I were the rookie writers, and the others always rigged it so we were the ones who wrote the Muppet sketches.”
“I don’t write for felt,” writer Michael O'Donoghue liked to say, and actor John Belushi often called them “mucking Fuppets.”
The one redeeming piece of the whole debacle was that everyone knew the relationship wasn’t working. The writers didn’t want to write for Muppets, the actors didn’t want to perform with them, Henson’s party was unhappy with the work, and the sketches themselves simply weren’t landing. After suffering through several months of episodes, Michaels posed a tough question to associate producer Craig Kellem: “How do you fire the Muppets?”
Luckily, he never had to. The season had premiered in October 1975; by the following spring, Henson was headed to less craggy pastures. UK network ATV had offered him a deal for his own program—which would become The Muppet Show—and Michaels was only too happy to free him from his contract at NBC.
It spelled a definitive end for the Land of Gorch, but not for the Muppets on SNL. Kermit, Cookie Monster, and plenty of other Henson creations have made appearances throughout its 45-year history. When Jason Segel performed a song with a whole gang of them in 2011 (while promoting his film The Muppets), Scooter even mentioned their role during SNL’s earliest days.
But bringing back Ploobis, Scred, and the rest of Gorch’s residents wasn’t on the table. “I think that that is a reference that is probably lost to time,” Segel told Moviefone. “You know what I mean? They weren't even famous then.”