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'The Muppet Show' Goes On

It was on the air for only five seasons. But a quarter-century after its debut, the influence of The Muppet Show, starring Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and an assorted cast of characters, endures.

"In 1976, Jim Henson transformed foam rubber, felt and feathers into an unforgettable cast of characters, including Fozzy Bear, the Swedish Chef, the hecklers in the balcony, Statler and Waldorf, and a few, pigs, rats, monsters and singing chickens," NPR's Bob Edwards reports in a Morning Edition retrospective on the television show.

Though it became wildly popular, The Muppet Show almost didn't get on the air. "The word was that puppetry just wasn't suitable for prime time television," says Jerry Juhl, the head writer for the Muppets. In other words, the networks thought puppets were for kids. Henson also created the characters on Sesame Street, including Bert, Ernie and Big Bird. Henson "was the king of children's entertainment and he loved that, -- but he immediately wanted to go on and do something for adults." Juhl says.

In one attempt to reach an adult audience, Henson brought the Muppets to Saturday Night Live during its first season in 1975. But John Belushi hated the puppets; and Lorne Michaels, SNL's producer, provided little support, according to puppeteer Jerry Nelson, who performed Floyd the guitar player on The Muppet Show. The Muppets left NBC's late-night comedy show after about a dozen episodes.

But Henson convinced a British entrepreneur, Lord Lew Grade, to bankroll The Muppet Show, and "in 1976, Henson and company moved to London to begin production of the first season of Muppet madness," Edwards reports.

As puppeteer Steve Whitmire, who played Rizzo the Rat, remembers, "The atmosphere was amazing. It was this explosive time where Jim had been trying to get the show on the air for years. He always had this idea for a prime time show, and suddenly it was happening and it was successful and he had enormous creative freedom. All these ideas that had been stuffed in there for all those years were just bursting out."

The Muppet Show ended in 1980. After five seasons, Henson felt it was time to try something new. A long list of movies and television shows followed before Henson died of pneumonia in 1990.

It's been more than 20 years since Kermit, Missy Piggy and company have appeared regularly on TV. But that's about to change. A new special, "It's A Very Muppet Christmas," is scheduled to air on NBC the day after Thanksgiving; and there are plans for a new Muppet show on Fox.

Puppeteer Dave Goelz, who performed Gonzo the Great, says the Muppets have endured "because they're about the truth. They really present human foibles and also they express the connection between us, too. This is a group of characters you wouldn't expect to coexist normally." But Kermit -- and Jim Henson -- held them together, Goelz says.

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