10:38 pm - 02/10/2009

Surprising stories behind 20 Muppet characters

Surprising stories behind 20 Muppet characters

Like a lot of people, I grew up on Sesame Street and the Muppets. But did you ever stop to wonder where they came from?

Some of the characters we know and love were recycled from other TV shows and commercials Jim Henson worked on, while others were invented by using whatever materials were around.

Be prepared for a little nostalgia, and I hope I didn't leave out your favorite -- not all of the characters have interesting background stories (sorry, Big Bird).

1. Cookie Monster: Jim Henson drew some monsters eating various snacks for a General Foods commercial in 1966. The commercial was never used, but Henson recycled one of the monsters (the "Wheel-Stealer") for an IBM training video in 1967 and again for a Fritos commercial in 1969. By that time, he had started working on Sesame Street and decided this monster would have a home there.

2. Elmo: The way it's described by a Sesame Street writer, apparently this extra red puppet was just lying around. People would try to do something with him, but nothing really panned out. In 1984, puppeteer Kevin Clash picked up the red puppet and started doing the voice and the personality and it clicked -- thus, Elmo was born.

3. Telly Monster was originally the Television Monster when he debuted in 1979. He was obsessed with TV and his eves would whirl around as if hypnotized whenever he was in front of a set. After a while, producers started worrying about his influence on youngsters, so they changed him to make him the chronic worrier he is now.

4. Count von Count made his first appearance in 1972 and was made out of an Anything Muppet pattern -- a blank Muppet head that could have features added to it to make various characters. He used to be more sinister -- he was able to hypnotize and stun people and he laughed in typical scary-villain-type fashion after completing a count of something and thunder and lightning would occur.

He was quickly made more appealing to little kids, though. He is apparently quite the ladies' man -- he has been linked to Countess von Backward, who loves to count backward; Countess Dahling von Dahling and Lady Two.

5. Kermit was "born" in 1955 and first showed up on "Sam and Friends," a five-minute puppet show by Jim Henson. The first Kermit was made out of Henson's mom's coat and some ping pong balls. At the time, he was more lizard-like than frog-like. By the time he showed up on Sesame Street in 1969, though, he had made the transition to frog. There are rumors that he got the name Kermit from a childhood friend of Henson's or a puppeteer from the early days of the Muppets, but Henson always refuted both of those rumors. Mental Floss: 15 reasons Mr. Rogers was the best neighbor ever

6. Real Swedish Chef Lars "Kuprik" Bäckman claims he was the inspiration for the Swedish Chef. He was on "Good Morning America," he says, and caught Jim Henson's eye. Henson supposedly bought the rights to the show's recording and created the Swedish Chef (who DOES have a real name, but it's not understandable). One of the Muppet writers, Jerry Juhl, says that in all of the years of working with Jim Henson on the Swedish Chef, he never heard that the character was based on a real person.

7. Animal: The Who's Keith Moon may have inspired everyone's favorite member of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. This is speculation, but people who support the theory will point out that Jim Henson named one of the Fraggle Rock characters "Wembley," which is the town where Moon was born.

8. Miss Piggy is apparently from Iowa. She started as a minor character on "The Muppet Show," but anyone who knows Miss Piggy can see that she wouldn't settle for anything "minor." Her first TV appearance was actually on an Herb Alpert special. It wasn't until 1976, when "The Muppet Show" premiered, that she became the glamorous blonde with a penchant for frog that we know and love today. Frank Oz once said that Miss Piggy grew up in Iowa; her dad died when she was young and her mother was mean. She had to enter beauty contests to make money.

(ecctv note: he is one of my favorites)
9. Rowlf the Dog, surprise, surprise, was first made in 1962 for a series of Purina Dog Chow commercials. He went on to claim fame as Jimmy Dean's sidekick on The Jimmy Dean Show and was on every single episode from 1963 to 1966. Jimmy Dean said Rowlf got about 2,000 letters from fans every week. He was considered for Sesame Street but ended up becoming a regular on "The Muppet Show" in 1976. Mental Floss: Commercials from a late-80s airing of 'A Muppet Family Christmas'

10. Oscar the Grouch is performed by the same guy who does Big Bird, Carroll Spinney. Spinney said he based Oscar's cranky voice on a particular New York cab driver he once had the pleasure of riding with. He was originally an alarming shade of orange. In Pakistan, his name is Akhtar and he lives in an oil barrel. In Turkey, he is Kirpik and lives in a basket. And in Israel, it's not Oscar at all -- it's his cousin, Moishe Oofnik, who lives in an old car.

11. Gonzo: What exactly is Gonzo? Nobody knows. Even Jim Henson had no particular species in mind. Over the course of "The Muppet Show," "Muppet Babies" and various Muppet movies, Gonzo has been referred to as a "Whatever", a "Weirdo" and an alien. Whatever he is, he first appeared on the scene in 1970's The Great Santa Claus Switch. His name was Snarl the Cigar Box Frackle. In 1974, he showed up on a TV special for Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. He became Gonzo the Great by the first season of The Muppet Show and developed his thing for Camilla the Chicken almost accidentally: During one episode where chickens were auditioning for the show, puppeteer Dave Goelz ad-libbed, "Don't call us, we'll call you... nice legs, though!" It was decided then and there that Gonzo would have a bizarre romantic interest in chickens.

12. You have to love Statler and Waldorf. I couldn't find much on their particular inspiration, but I can tell you that they've been around since the 1975 "Muppet Show" pilot. They are named after popular New York City hotels (the Statler Hotel was renamed the Hotel Pennsylvania in 1992.) Guess what Waldorf's wife name is? Yep... Astoria (she looks startlingly like Statler.) FYI, Waldorf is the one with the mustache and white hair. Statler has the grey hair. Apparently Waldorf has had a pacemaker for more than 30 years.

13. Beaker: I always thought of Beaker and his buddy Bunsen Honeydew as characters that came along later in the Muppet timeline, but they have been around since the "The Muppet Show." Although Beaker usually says things along the lines of, "Mee-mee-mee-mee!", he has had a few actual lines: "Sadly temporary," "Bye-Bye" and "Make-up ready!" Despite being word-challenged, he manages to do a pretty convincing Little Richard impression and, surprisingly, had mad beatbox skills. Beaker is one of the only Muppets that was never recycled from some other purpose -- he was created solely for "The Muppet Show."

14. Fozzie Bear. Poor Fozzie. He's the perpetual target of Statler and Waldorf because of his horrible jokes and puns. It actually created a bit of a problem during the first season of The Muppet Show, because when Fozzie got heckled, he got very upset and sometimes cried. Viewers didn't feel sympathy; they felt embarrassed. The problem was solved by making Fozzie an optimist so that even when he got heckled he was good-natured about it. It's often thought that he was named after Frank Oz, who was his puppeteer, but Frank said it's just a variant of "fuzzy bear." Yet another story says he was named for his builder, Faz Fazakas. Wocka wocka!!

15. Bert and Ernie are the Muppet version of Felix and Oscar ("The Odd Couple," for you young'uns). Lots of people think Bert and Ernie were named for some minor characters in It's A Wonderful Life, but according to the Henson company, that's just a rumor. Jim Henson always maintained that it was just a coincidence -- the names just went well together and seemed to fit the characters. Jerry Juhl, one of the head writers, corroborated this and said that Jim Henson had no memory for details like that and would have never remembered the name of the cop and the taxi cab driver in the old Jimmy Stewart movie.

Other rumors to clear up: Bert and Ernie aren't gay and neither one of them are dead. Now that we've got that straightened out, here are a few more tidbits: the original Ernie used to have a gravelly voice similar to Rowlf the Dog's. Frank Oz was Bert's puppeteer and hated him at the beginning. He thought Bert was ridiculously boring, but then realized that he could have a lot of fun with being boring. Jim Henson once said, "I remember trying Bert and Frank tried Ernie for a while. I can't imagine doing Bert now, because Bert has become so much of a part of Frank."

16. Grover: Everyone's favorite "cute, furry little monster" made his TV debut on the "Ed Sullivan Show" in 1967. At the time, he was known as "Gleep" and was a monster in Santa's Workshop. He then appeared on the first season of Sesame Street, but sported green fur and a reddish-orange nose. He didn't have a name then, but by the second season he transformed into the Grover we know today, more or less -- electric blue fur and a pink nose. The original green Grover was reincarnated as Grover's Mommy for a few episodes. In Latin America and Puerto Rico Grover is known as Archibaldo, in Spain he is Coco, in Portugal he is Gualter and in Norway he is Gunnar.

17. Sweetums is one of a handful of full-body Muppets. He showed up in 1971 on the TV special "The Frog Prince." This is where he got his name -- when Sir Robin the Brave is about to defeat the ogre, a witch shows up and changes him into a frog (who later becomes Robin, Kermit's nephew). Apparently smitten with the ogre, the witch tells her darling "Sweetums" that he can have the frog for breakfast.

Bigger fame awaited Sweetums, though -- in 1975, he appeared on Cher's variety show to do a duet with her to "That Old Black Magic". He officially joined "The Muppet Show" cast in 1976.

18. Rizzo the Rat might sound familiar to you, especially if you've seen "Midnight Cowboy" -- he is named for Dustin Hoffman's character, Ratso Rizzo. He was created after puppeteer Steve Whitmire was inspired by rat puppets made from bottles. He first showed up on "The Muppet Show" as one of a group of rats following Christopher Reeve around -- he's easy to spot because he hams it up more than any of the other rats. He occasionally performs with Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.

19. Pepe the King Prawn's full name is Pepino Rodrigo Serrano Gonzales. I heart Pepe. He was a chef in Madrid before going Hollywood on "Muppets Tonight" in 1996. He was paired with Seymour the Elephant (Pepe was originally going to be a mouse) on the show, but Seymour never developed quite the same following and was only in two episodes. He rarely gets names right -- some of his mispronunciations include "muffins" instead of Muppets, "Kermin" instead of Kermit and "Scooper" instead of Scooter. He's quite full of himself -- in addition to thinking that he's quite the ladies' man, he also fully expects to win several Oscars.

20. Herry Monster from Sesame Street was the Big Bad Wolf in his original incarnation, which you can kind of tell by looking at his fur. It's pretty wolf-like (if wolves were blue, I mean). He became a Sesame monster in 1970 to replace the Beautiful Day Monster, who looked kind of like Sam the Eagle and existed to cause destruction wherever he went, thus ruining the beautiful day people had been having before he showed up. Herry used to have a furry nose but got upgraded to his non-furry, purple nose in 1971.


(Lyrics here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Na-xvlYMGck )
(Another Great Jim Henson video from his memorial service: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Zzfdlxjx4Y )
pauldiddy27 11th-Feb-2009 04:53 am (UTC)

ilovesalot 11th-Feb-2009 06:30 am (UTC)
The bear in the front is thisclose to speaking in tongues.
xpirate_queenx 11th-Feb-2009 06:45 am (UTC)
Laughing my ass off imagining that XD
nappy___happy 11th-Feb-2009 09:15 am (UTC)
lol! all he needed was a fan and a church hat.
tx5mym5 12th-Feb-2009 04:04 am (UTC)
That little bear was gettin' the spirit!
likegunfire 11th-Feb-2009 04:54 am (UTC)

used to be my favorite show. that and eureka's castle
crazy_kiya_re 11th-Feb-2009 04:56 am (UTC)
I used to loooooooooooooooove the Muppet Babies. AW!
hockeygrl125 11th-Feb-2009 02:59 pm (UTC)
i miss that show.
erraticxemotion 11th-Feb-2009 04:56 am (UTC)
YES. To this day I will still watch the muppet babies.
Oh man, now I want to watch.

Edited at 2009-02-11 05:02 am (UTC)
gingerslam2 11th-Feb-2009 04:57 am (UTC)

i have this really vivid memory of BB Kermit dressed as Jon Bon Jovi performing on that show but i can't find any evidence that i didn't make it up
guinea82 11th-Feb-2009 04:58 am (UTC)
Loved that show sfm.
tracktwo 11th-Feb-2009 05:00 am (UTC)
omg i totally have the valentines special of that show on vhs.

shit i know what i am doing now this weekend.
alexandra_spy 11th-Feb-2009 05:00 am (UTC)
As a kid I was always SO upset that we could never see beyond Nanny's legs.
orange_tide 11th-Feb-2009 05:00 am (UTC)
oh my gosh, same! I miss those sooo much! :(
colfer 11th-Feb-2009 05:02 am (UTC)
the star wars episode is my favorite.
livinadaydream 11th-Feb-2009 05:03 am (UTC)
omg I remember that, drove my grandma crazy one day when a marathon was on :P
insaynejayne 11th-Feb-2009 05:04 am (UTC)
Eureka's Castle <3
smashered 11th-Feb-2009 05:05 am (UTC)
Eureka's castle was my favorite when I was little. I wish they would still play all of these shows.
skky95 11th-Feb-2009 05:07 am (UTC)
loved that show when i was little, look how cute they are
germli 11th-Feb-2009 05:12 am (UTC)
quidditchkiss 11th-Feb-2009 05:16 am (UTC)
That was pretty much my childhood. Those 2 shows.
heythatsmybike 11th-Feb-2009 05:18 am (UTC)
omg i LOVED muppet babies and eureeka's castle. david the gnome too.
caityjadore 11th-Feb-2009 05:23 am (UTC)
omg eureka's castle
inflixion 11th-Feb-2009 05:28 am (UTC)
me too!
zoaster_toaster 11th-Feb-2009 05:42 am (UTC)
Muppet Babies was hella awesome. :)
misscrystal Muuupet Baaybiiess! We'll their dreams come troo-ooo!11th-Feb-2009 06:04 am (UTC)
Muppet Babies, We'll do the same for yooo-ooo!
When your world looks kind a weird
And you wish that you weren't thay-err
Just close your eyes and make-believe
And you can be anyway-err!!



I'm 24 years old LOL. I can't believe I remember all the words.
diapergenie 11th-Feb-2009 06:17 am (UTC)
Muppet Babies! I used to love that show! I still have a video tape full of episodes!
alquilaunhombre 11th-Feb-2009 06:18 am (UTC)
treatyoself 11th-Feb-2009 06:22 am (UTC)


wait, it's not, right?
thecomfychair 11th-Feb-2009 06:33 am (UTC)
ready ready ready! ♥ eureka's castle.
deja_vu822 11th-Feb-2009 06:51 am (UTC)
Oh God, I loved this show so much. I wish I could catch reruns anywhere.
lovely_tunes 11th-Feb-2009 08:07 am (UTC)
still my favorite children's show! especially the first seasons.

i hope DVDs will come out, my future kids need to grow up with that just like me. i believe it shaped me and made me be imaginative.
boku_no_hanabi 11th-Feb-2009 09:12 am (UTC)

Muppet babies was just awesome.
invisible_cunt 11th-Feb-2009 03:42 pm (UTC)
uhh yes!
i remember muppet babies.

and i fucking loved eureka's castle
krestin 11th-Feb-2009 04:55 pm (UTC)
OMG childhood memories. That was without a doubt my favorite cartoon ever.
celtic_thistle 11th-Feb-2009 06:16 pm (UTC)
Holy shit, Eureka's Castle.
superstar5622 12th-Feb-2009 12:26 am (UTC)
I rememeber that! We watched it every week growing up!
sogoodornogood 12th-Feb-2009 02:50 am (UTC)
naiivete 11th-Feb-2009 04:54 am (UTC)
the rat always freaked me out
riotangelstar 11th-Feb-2009 05:50 am (UTC)
aww I love rizzo
primary_sources 11th-Feb-2009 06:52 am (UTC)
schrutebucks 11th-Feb-2009 06:39 am (UTC)
landon! :]
arcadiaego 11th-Feb-2009 02:45 pm (UTC)
Rizzo is one of the only Muppets that *doesn't* freak me out.
likegunfire 11th-Feb-2009 04:54 am (UTC)
i think pepe is gay :\
ecctv 11th-Feb-2009 04:55 am (UTC)
i disagree. he is just spanish
yay_4_me 11th-Feb-2009 05:01 am (UTC)
tree_pretty 11th-Feb-2009 12:40 pm (UTC)
I concur with the above mentioned LOL.
captainamerica 11th-Feb-2009 05:00 am (UTC)
your icon is smexy.
evett 11th-Feb-2009 08:37 am (UTC)
pepe is a straight pervert
de_wood meep11th-Feb-2009 04:54 am (UTC)
I was very disappointed when I found out the entire Swedish language wasn't made up of "bork bork bork"

snuffleupagus - heroin
animal - crack or meth
cookie monster - cookies
kermit - weed
swedish chef - ecstasy
beaker - acid

Edited at 2009-02-11 05:07 am (UTC)
xgirldc Re: meep11th-Feb-2009 05:12 am (UTC)
nappy___happy Re: meep11th-Feb-2009 09:28 am (UTC)
miss piggy - violent when drunk
nappy___happy Re: meep11th-Feb-2009 09:26 am (UTC)
hahaha! THIS!

and very accurate, my friend.
celtic_thistle Re: meep11th-Feb-2009 06:17 pm (UTC)
omfg lol I knew I always liked Kermit for a reason.
nicolaroberts 11th-Feb-2009 04:55 am (UTC)
Beaker and Pepe are my all time favs.
vanouria 11th-Feb-2009 05:43 am (UTC)
omg i know. i fucking love pepe
shesasuperhero 11th-Feb-2009 06:02 am (UTC)
Pepe is my favorite. I always thought he was a spider, and then I thought he was a lobster haha
angelakinsey 11th-Feb-2009 04:55 am (UTC)
God, I love the Muppets! And I am thoroughly convinced that Animal came from Keith Moon. I mean really, it just makes so much sense.
velvetunicorn 11th-Feb-2009 02:43 pm (UTC)
it's the brows!
rissa_rose 11th-Feb-2009 04:55 am (UTC)
Beaker is my favorite muppet.
isntdaveone 11th-Feb-2009 04:55 am (UTC)
I love Fraggle Rock more!!!
apresmoi 11th-Feb-2009 05:57 am (UTC)
i just got the first season (only season?) of it on dvd, and i am so ridiculously excited to watch them all again.
babylon_burning 11th-Feb-2009 08:24 pm (UTC)
Fraggle Rock had 4 seasons. there is a box set out there for sale.
diapergenie 11th-Feb-2009 06:18 am (UTC)
Omg, I can't decide between the two!
dee_aun_dra 11th-Feb-2009 04:56 am (UTC)
the jim henson funeral always makes me cry.
worb 11th-Feb-2009 06:12 am (UTC)
oh man now i just looked the memorial service up on youtube. sad :(
bussineskitty 11th-Feb-2009 04:18 pm (UTC)
my mom bawls just thinking about it!
__susan 11th-Feb-2009 09:58 pm (UTC)
I'd never seen it before, so watching it just now made me start bawling. That one and Graham Chapman's service made me sob so hard. Chapman's service was genuinely funny, but it's still so sad because he was so young.
gingerslam2 11th-Feb-2009 04:56 am (UTC)
cookies are a sometime snack....siiiiigh
apresmoi 11th-Feb-2009 05:58 am (UTC)
that :/

they had a captain vegetable for promoting the healthy foods. i say just bring him back.
rissa_rose 11th-Feb-2009 04:56 am (UTC)
fancifull 11th-Feb-2009 04:56 am (UTC)
my college totes has a kermit and jim henson statue right in front of the student union, kermit ftw
angelakinsey 11th-Feb-2009 04:59 am (UTC)
I'm jealous. We just have statues of Catholic priests.
celtic_thistle 11th-Feb-2009 06:20 pm (UTC)
Same at my school. :/
9thandash 11th-Feb-2009 05:04 am (UTC)
bearsbeets 11th-Feb-2009 05:10 am (UTC)
anterogradenova 11th-Feb-2009 05:18 am (UTC)
Hey I go to the same school you do. :D
lorelei_7 11th-Feb-2009 05:50 am (UTC)
nappy___happy 11th-Feb-2009 09:30 am (UTC)
my icon speaks for itself.
jaddedkitten 11th-Feb-2009 04:56 am (UTC)
Huh I just thought someone smoked some great shit
ktpoo86 11th-Feb-2009 05:18 am (UTC)
i was just going to say that jim henson had to be the biggest pothead ever.
stevie_moore 11th-Feb-2009 06:54 pm (UTC)
lumaria 11th-Feb-2009 04:56 am (UTC)
xgirldc 11th-Feb-2009 05:12 am (UTC)
bohemianstorm86 11th-Feb-2009 05:22 am (UTC)
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