Pop Culture Syllabus: Muppets
A course in pop culture isn’t complete without a well-considered curriculum. Here are the sights, sounds and texts you need to become a master of the arts at mental_floss university.
1. UNDER THE FEATHERS
For 46 years, Caroll Spinney has played Big Bird (and Oscar the Grouch) on Sesame Street, one year longer than Muppet creator Jim Henson performed as Kermit the Frog. At 80, Spinney is still going strong. He’d have to be: His bird suit weighs 14 pounds, and he must hold up the 4-pound head with his right hand while navigating the set via a monitor strapped to his chest. In a new documentary, Spinney shares some of the most incredible stories from his decades as America’s favorite flightless bird, like the time he almost joined the doomed Challenger mission to boost interest in space travel. Fortunately for kids everywhere, NASA changed its mind at the last minute—and Big Bird stayed earthbound.
WATCH: I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (on demand: iTunes, Amazon, Google Play)
2. THEN AND NOW
At just 18, Jim Henson got his first TV show. Featuring an early version of Kermit the Frog, Sam and Friends ran for six years and launched the puppet juggernaut that would become the Muppets (contrary to popular belief, their name isn’t a portmanteau of “marionette” and “puppet”—Henson said he just liked the way it sounded). After 60 years, nine feature films, and 10 television series, the Muppets are being honored in a brand-new museum exhibit. With a massive donation of more than 500 items from Henson’s estate, including iconic Muppets like Kermit, the Swedish Chef, and Bert and Ernie (as well as storyboards, sketches, and costumes), this is the largest collection of Muppetry available to the public.
3. MAD MAN
Jim Henson was more than a puppeteer, he was also a savvy ad man (and an experimental filmmaker—his short film Time Piece, in which he also starred, was nominated for an Oscar in 1966). In 1957, while still in college, he created a pair of proto-Muppets to star in a series of 10-second commercials for a local D.C. coffee brand called Wilkins. The warring characters, named Wilkins and Wontkins, became such a hit he was asked to reuse them for other campaigns across the country—not just for other coffee brands, but for Taystee Bread, Sohio gas stations, and Detroit’s favorite soda, Faygo. A full reel of Henson’s ad work is available on the Henson Company’s YouTube channel, along with that trippy Oscar film.
WATCH: Red Book Playlist on the Jim Henson Company’s YouTube channel