“These children aren’t French. They’re American.” If you were a child of the early 1990s, you probably remember this phrase and were possibly disturbed by what followed—a one-minute commercial for Muzzy, a green-tufted animated alien who endeavored to teach foreign languages to kids.
The VHS program promised to educate children on their parents’ choice of languages, including Italian, Spanish, French, and German. Kids would be enthralled by Muzzy’s adventures and idiosyncratic behavior—he ate clocks and other metal objects—all while learning new words and phrases. All viewers had to do was pay $28.17 a month for six months (plus shipping) and let Muzzy guide their offspring into becoming bilingual prodigies.
But that wasn’t Muzzy’s original objective.
Muzzy originated at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) back in 1986 as part of the broadcaster’s efforts to reach an international audience through educational tools. Thanks to his nonspecific appearance, Muzzy belonged to no particular ethnicity and could thus be utilized as a global language tutor. For about £75 (which would be £213.56, or about $272, today), consumers in other countries could order a 75-minute video along with six workbooks. Muzzy’s goal was to teach English to those speaking Spanish, Japanese, German, Arabic, and other languages.
The video was animated by Richard Taylor, who was known in British animation circles for having helmed a successful series of educational shorts known as “Charley Says.” (Charley might, for example, caution a child about playing with matches or talking to strangers.) Taylor developed Muzzy with producer Joe Hambrook. The writing was credited to Wendy Harris, who told The Guardian in 1986 that making a totally cross-cultural premise was hard to achieve.
“It is a bit difficult to be utterly international, probably impossible,” she said.
Still, the makers of Muzzy tried. Officially titled Muzzy in Gondoland, the plot sees the green alien Muzzy arrive from outer space and become embroiled in a convoluted love affair involving a royal princess named Sylvia, who is pursued by laborer Bob the Gardener as well as the king’s malevolent scientist, Corvax. Muzzy’s aptitude with technology is able to free the king after he's trapped inside a computer; he's also able to thwart Corvax, whose obsession with Sylvia prompts him to create clones of her. (She and Bob soon marry.) Throughout, the characters demonstrate (and repeat) common words and phrases, like big, small, and garden.
Muzzy is a lumbering but genial figure, a cross between Frosty the Snowman and the gremlin taunting William Shatner from the wing of the plane in the “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode of The Twilight Zone. For reasons unknown, Muzzy also exhibits pica, or the ingestion of non-edible objects, like clocks and parking meters. As all this unfolds, a human cartoon named Norman interrupts with repetitive language lessons. (“Good morning.” “Good morning.” “Good morning.” “Good afternoon…”) It's purposely tedious, and were it not for its language objectives, probably capable of provoking a migraine.
Muzzy’s success as an ambassador for the Queen’s English is difficult to assess. In 1990, it was reported Muzzy wound up on Russian television and had been exported to 20 countries. It also merited a sequel, 1989’s Muzzy Comes Back. In a 1990 Associated Press report, secondary English learning was said to be an $11 billion industry, with the UK taking a sixth of the market. How much of that wound up in the furry hands of Muzzy is unclear.
What was more obvious was the opportunity to invert Muzzy. Instead of teaching English, why not have him teach foreign languages to Americans? The idea was pitched by BBC sales agent Federico Mallo, who felt the North American market was untapped. This led to a direct-mail campaign in which Muzzy in Gondoland was edited into smaller episodes and for a variety of secondary learning. The resulting television and print ads are how most American kids came to know Muzzy in the 1990s.
The BBC’s overall pitch was that second and third languages would become increasingly important in the coming decades. Muzzy was a good way to give them a leg up on the competition.
“They’re going to watch TV anyway—four, maybe five hours a day—so why not put some of that time to good constructive use?” one ad read. “Muzzy, the BBC’s world-renowned audio-video language course, has already given thousands of 2- to 12-year-olds a huge head start over kids who waste their time watching mindless sitcoms, and worse.”
Muzzy, it went on, “teaches by repetition. Every time your children watch big friendly Muzzy rescue Princess Sylvia from the wily Corvax or help the king count the plums in his orchard, they’ll learn another word, another phrase. Soon they’ll be chattering away in Spanish or asking you questions in French.”
In a story published on Medium, Mallo said that marketing Muzzy in the U.S., Spain, and Italy was a success, with about 22 million copies of the program sold. Muzzy eventually became a touchstone of nostalgia for many kids, who went on to grow up with a memory of Muzzy only as a peculiar television ad that lacked context.
But he’s never really gone away. In 2005, the course came with a free plush Muzzy doll; the BBC gave him a computer animated makeover in 2013. He’s also been known to make costumed appearances, including one in 2018 at Indiana’s Duneland Family YMCA.
But Muzzy has not been totally without controversy. One Reddit user in the r/conspiracy subreddit presented a video culled from Muzzy footage in which an animation of the English alphabet appears to contain a series of subliminal images, including a castle made out of human flesh. (You can see the visuals in the above video when the letter h appears.) Perhaps kids were right to be suspicious of Muzzy. Or, peut-être que les enfants avaient raison de se méfier de Muzzy.