20 Gonzo Facts About The Muppet Show

Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

The namesake series starring Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, created by Jim Henson, debuted on American TV screens over 40 years ago. And the zany antics of Fozzy Bear, Gonzo, the Swedish Chef, and more haven’t left our pop culture consciousness since. It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights, it’s time for some facts about The Muppet Show!

1. THE MUPPET SHOW WASN’T THE FIRST MUPPET SHOW.

Jim Henson originally created the Muppets for a 1955 segment called Sam and Friends, a five-minute show that aired twice a day on NBC affiliate WRC-TV in Washington D.C. from May 1955 to December 1961.

The titular character was a humanoid muppet named Sam, with appearances by an Oscar the Grouch-type monster character named Muchmellon, and Henson’s earliest surviving puppet, Pierre the French Rat, among others. Kermit also made an appearance (he was created using an old coat that once belonged to Henson’s mother), but he wasn’t yet a frog. According to a 1982 interview he was simply known as “Kermit the thing.”

2. VIRTUALLY NONE OF THE EARLY EPISODES EXIST.

Most early local TV episodes like Sam and Friends were broadcast live, and recording them would involve using a kinescope (a specialized camera that recorded a show directly from a black and white monitor as it aired live). Some existing episodes were recorded because Henson wanted to try new puppetry techniques or review a specific performance.

The Muppets eventually made regular appearances on Today beginning in 1961, and would also appear on late-night shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Dick Cavett Show, and variety series like The Jimmy Dean Show, as well as on Sesame Street.

3. THEY GOT THEIR BIG TV BREAK ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, BUT IT WASN’T A GOOD FIT.

Muppets began appearing in sketches on Saturday Night Live’s debut season in 1975, most notably a recurring skit called “The Land of Gorch” which dealt with decidedly adult topics like alcohol abuse, adultery, and drugs. Only hired SNL writers, not Henson employees, were allowed to write the sketches, while puppeteers like Henson, Jerry Nelson, and Frank Oz performed them each week.

Of his experiences on SNL, Oz later said, “I think we didn't really belong on Saturday Night Live. I think our very explosive, more cartoony comedy didn't jive with the kind of Second City casual laid-back comedy, so the writers had a lot of trouble writing for us.”

4. THE MUPPET SHOW PILOT WAS ALL ABOUT "SEX AND VIOLENCE."

A Muppet pilot special, The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence, aired on ABC in 1975, and was supposed to be a parody of the proliferation of sex and violence on TV. The opening of the show featured guest Jaye P. Morgan looking toward the camera and saying, “This is not gonna be just another cute puppet show,” with the episode following the adventures of characters like Sam the Eagle and Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem bassist Floyd Pepper putting on a pageant based on the seven deadly sins.

5. JIM HENSON USED VALENTINE’S DAY AS A DRY RUN.

A 1974 ABC pilot special was a bit more tame. Titled The Muppets Valentine Show, it features special guest star Mia Farrow helping a character named Wally (in his first and last appearance) with his writer’s block for sketches on the show about the true meaning of love.

6. THE MUPPETS ARE BRITISH.

Both pilots failed to garner enough support for ABC or any other American networks to pick up The Muppet Show as a regular series in 1976, so Henson looked across the pond. British network Associated TeleVision (ATV) decided to pick up the series, and gave Henson a deal to produce each episode at their studios in Elstree, England and broadcast them on ITV stations across the UK.

Once The Muppet Show garnered a strong fan base, the show was sold to the U.S. and other networks across the world in syndication deals.

7. BRITISH AUDIENCES GOT MORE MUPPETS.

Broadcasting methods in the UK caused shorter commercial breaks, which forced Henson and company to film an extra two minutes for each UK episode. Each extra sketch was normally positioned after a middle break, and regularly featured musical numbers or other basic setups without the participation of that week’s guest star.

8. ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN WAS A BIG INFLUENCE ON THE SHOW.

Henson modeled part of the whip-smart sketch framework on the show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, a comedy variety series that aired from 1967 to 1973. Henson and his Muppet Show collaborators even poached a regular Laugh-In sketch called “The Cocktail Party,” for their show called "At the Dance." In both, different colorful characters met at a party to exchange one-liners.

"At the time, we were competing with cartoons, so we kept everything very short and varied, like Laugh-In,” Sesame Street executive producer and Henson colleague Lewis Bernstein said, “which was the best show on TV then.”

9. THE OPENING NUMBER HAD A LOT OF MUPPETS ... JUST NOT ALL AT ONCE.

The extravagant opening number to The Muppet Show featured the cast of Muppets singing and dancing, culminating in each character standing in five distinctive and lighted arches on stage. What seems like a single shot is actually a bit of camera trickery.

Each row was filmed individually, with puppeteers sporting one Muppet per hand, making it roughly seven puppeteers per row. Footage of each pass was then stuck together to make it look like a single performance.

10. THE MUPPETS' THEATER HAD A NAME.

The vaudeville house where the Muppets supposedly put on each performance is identified as “The Muppet Theatre” (notice the “re” spelling of theater given its London location) as seen in posters and backstage signs throughout the series.

But in the sixth episode of the first season, which aired on September 25, 1976, Kermit reveals the name of the structure as the “Benny Vandergast Memorial Theatre.”

“We owe everything to Benny,” Kermit says, “including three months back rent!” This is the only time that the theater isn’t referred to simply as “The Muppet Theatre."

11. THE THEATER IS OWNED BY SCOOTER’S UNCLE.

According to a 1991 Muppets children’s book called The Phantom of the Muppet Theater, the theater was built by a stage actor named John Stone in 1802. But in The Muppet Show, the owner of the theater is J. P. Grosse, a character first introduced in Episode 205 and Scooter’s uncle. The character only made a few appearances on the show, but a running gag with Kermit had the frog going along with whatever demands were being made in Grosse's name due to his fear of the theater’s owner.

12. HOSTING GIGS WERE EXCLUSIVE.

Out of 120 total hosts of The Muppet Show, no celebrity was allowed to host more than once during the show’s initial six-year run. (Although John Denver appeared both on the show and in two specials, John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together and John Denver & the Muppets: Rocky Mountain Holiday.)

Rita Moreno hosted the first episode (and would win an Emmy Award for her appearance), while some celebrities were allowed to be co-hosts. Singers Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge co-hosted in 1978 and singers Roy Rogers and Dale Evans co-hosted in May 1979.

Other hosts included eclectic stars like Johnny Cash, Julie Andrews, Peter Sellers, Harry Belafonte, Bob Hope, Liza Minnelli, Vincent Price, Ethel Merman, Diana Ross, Debbie Harry, and Alice Cooper.

13. THE MUPPETS WERE HAPPY TO LET GUEST HOSTS PLAY FAVORITES.

Since the guests wouldn’t make a repeat appearance, they could make their one and only shot count. Guests were allowed to make special requests to the writers to appear in a scene with their favorite Muppet. Miss Piggy was allegedly the most requested, with Animal as a close second.

14. FOR A VERY BRIEF TIME, GUESTS HOSTS WERE MUPPET-FIED.

Hosts were originally supposed to be given a Muppet version of themselves at the end of their appearance on the show, but the would-be tradition only lasted for the first two episodes. Only actress and singer Connie Stevens and Juliet Prowse were given their Muppet counterparts. The gifts were scrapped due to the unique Muppets being too expensive to create.

15. THE MUPPET SHOW MADE THE FOUNDING FATHERS PROUD.

The Mary Washington Colonial Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) gave The Muppet Show their Television Award of Merit in 1978. It was the first non-historical series to be honored with the award (Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers Neighborhood would win in subsequent years).

According to the DAR website, they are “dedicated to promoting patriotism, preserving American history, and securing America's future through better education for children,” which begs the question: Would George Washington like Kermit?

16. DON’T LET THE THEATER SETTING FOOL YOU.

Despite the vaudeville shtick, the show was not filmed in front of a full live studio audience.

"The way the show was taped, we would block and tape, which means that each piece of material would take anywhere from half an hour to several hours to tape, so it's a long, slow process,” Henson explained in an interview. “You can't really work in front of an audience that way. I mean, when we had Raquel Welch in the studio, we had a good 150 guys from neighboring studios, but it wasn't an official audience."

17. THERE WAS A LAUGH TRACK, BUT HENSON HATED IT.

To stay with the live act premise of the show, a laugh track was included early on. Henson was reluctant, but ultimately decided to keep it.

"As I look at some of the early shows, I'm really embarrassed by them,” he later said in an interview. “It's always a difficult thing to do well and to create the reality of the audience laughing. I did one special dry—without any laugh track—looked at it, and then tried it adding a laugh track to it, and it's unfortunate, but it makes the show funnier."

But Henson still managed to include some laughs at the laugh track’s expense. In episode 104, Kermit cracks a jokes that it is "up to the laugh track" whether the show is funny or not. At the end of episode 320, Kermit signs off saying, "You've been a wonderful laugh track!"

18. "MAHNA MAHNA" ORIGINATED FROM A DECIDEDLY NON-MUPPET-APPROVED MOVIE.

Most people know the distinctive four-syllable tune from a sketch that aired during The Muppet Show’s 1976 premiere, but the song came from a 1968 Italian soft-core movie called Sweden: Heaven and Hell.

Sesame Street producer Joan Ganz Cooney allegedly heard the track on the radio and asked Henson and Oz to perform it with the Muppets on the show in 1969 before the pair rehashed the music number for The Muppet Show.

19. GONZO’S CRAZY ACTS CAME OUT OF CRAZY WRITERS' ROOM IDEAS.

The Great Gonzo is best known for his weird and wacky stunts, but he started out as a completely different Muppet altogether. Henson allegedly had an unhinged character in mind, and simply chose the actual Gonzo puppet from a previous special called “The Great Santa Claus Switch,” where the puppet was a character called Snarl, the Cigar Box Frackle.

When thinking how to make the new character of Gonzo distinct, puppeteer Dave Hoelz suggested, “He might have been forgotten about during the early meetings, except that Jack Burns—who was head writer on the first season—said, ‘Yeah! Yeah! Like he does these crazy acts like eating a tire to 'Flight of the Bumblebee!'" I guess that sentence inspired the writers, so Gonzo ate his tire in the first episode and grew from there.”

Gonzo would go on to perform 20 stunts in The Muppet Show’s 120-episode run.

20. HENSON’S IDOL APPEARED IN THE SECOND SEASON.

The guest host for episode 207 was ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. The pair were Henson’s heroes, inspiring him at a young age to get into puppetry. Bergen and McCarthy would also appear in The Muppet Movie, which Henson dedicated to his idol after he passed away before the release of the film.

“My act and the Muppets are both sophisticated and adult, but children love them, too, because we give children a chance to use their imaginations,” Bergen said of his experience on The Muppet Show. “They complete the illusion that our characters start."

15 Fascinating Facts About Schindler’s List

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List brought to the screen a story that had gone untold since the tragic events of the Holocaust. Oskar Schindler, a Nazi party member, used his pull within the party to save the lives of more than 1000 Jewish individuals by recruiting them to work in his Polish factory. Here are some facts about Spielberg’s groundbreaking film on its 25th anniversary.

1. The story was relayed to author Thomas Keneally in a Beverly Hills leather goods shop.

In October 1980, Australian novelist Thomas Keneally had stopped into a leather goods shop off of Rodeo Drive after a book tour stopover from a film festival in Sorrento, Italy, where one of his books was adapted into a movie. When the owner of the shop, Leopold Page, learned that Keneally was a writer, he began telling him “the greatest story of humanity man to man.” That story was how Page, his wife, and thousands of other Jews were saved by a Nazi factory owner named Oskar Schindler during World War II.

Page gave Keneally photocopies of documents related to Schindler, including speeches, firsthand accounts, testimonies, and the actual list of names of the people he saved. It inspired Keneally to write the book Schindler’s Ark, on which the movie is based. Page (whose real name was Poldek Pfefferberg) ended up becoming a consultant on the film.

2. Keneally wasn't the first person Leopold Page told about Oskar Schindler.

The film rights to Page’s story were actually first purchased by MGM for $50,000 in the 1960s after Page had similarly ambushed the wife of film producer Marvin Gosch at his leather shop. Mrs. Gosch told the story to her husband, who agreed to produce a film version, even going so far as hiring Casablanca co-screenwriter Howard Koch to write the script. Koch and Gosch began interviewing Schindler Jews in and around the Los Angeles area, and even Schindler himself, before the project stalled, leaving the story unknown to the public at large.

3. Schindler made more than one list.

Liam Neeson, Agnieszka Krukówna, Krzysztof Luft, Friedrich von Thun, and Marta Bizon in Schindler's List (1993)
Universal Pictures

Seven lists in all were made by Oskar Schindler and his associates during the war, while four are known to still exist. Two are at the Yad Vashem in Israel, one is at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and one privately owned list was unsuccessfully auctioned off via eBay in 2013.

The movie refers to the first two lists created in 1944, otherwise known as “The Lists of Life.” The five subsequent lists were updates to the first two versions, which included the names of more than 1000 Jews who Schindler saved by recruiting them to work in his factory.

4. Steven Spielberg first learned of Schindler in the early 1980s.

Former MCA/Universal president Sid Sheinberg, a father figure to Spielberg, gave the director Keneally’s book when it was first published in 1982, to which Spielberg allegedly replied, “It’ll make a helluva story. Is it true?”

Eventually the studio bought the rights to the book, and when Page met with Spielberg to discuss the story, the director promised the Holocaust survivor that he would make the film adaptation within 10 years. The project languished for over a decade because Spielberg was reluctant to take on such serious subject matter. Spielberg’s hesitation actually stopped Hollywood veteran Billy Wilder from making Schindler’s List his final film. Wilder tried to buy the rights to Keneally’s book, but Spielberg and MCA/Universal scooped them up before he could.

5. Spielberg refused to accept a salary for making the movie.

Though Spielberg is already an extremely wealthy man as a result of the many big-budget movies that have made him one of Hollywood’s most successful directors, he decided that a story as important as Schindler’s List shouldn’t be made with an eye toward financial reward. The director relinquished his salary for the movie and any proceeds he would stand to make in perpetuity, calling any such personal gains “blood money.” Instead, Spielberg used the film’s profits to found the USC Shoah Foundation, which was established in 1994 to honor and remember the survivors of the Holocaust by collecting personal recollections and audio visual interviews.

6. Before Spielberg agreed to make the movie, he tried to get other directors to make it.

Part of Spielberg’s reluctance to make Schindler's List was that he didn’t feel that he was prepared or mature enough to tackle a film about the Holocaust. So he tried to recruit other directors to make the film. He first approached director Roman Polanski, a Holocaust survivor whose own mother was killed in Auschwitz. Polanski declined, but would go on to make his own film about the Holocaust, The Pianist, which earned him a Best Director Oscar in 2003. Spielberg then offered the movie to director Sydney Pollack, who also passed.

The job was then offered to legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who accepted. Scorsese was set to put the film into production when Spielberg had an epiphany on the set of the revisionist Peter Pan story Hook and realized that he was finally prepared to make Schindler’s List. To make up for the change of heart, Spielberg traded Scorsese the rights to a movie he’d been developing that Scorsese would make into his next film: the remake of Cape Fear.

7. The movie was a gamble for Universal, so they made Spielberg a dino-sized deal.

When Spielberg finally decided to make Schindler’s List, it had taken him so long that Sheinberg and Universal balked. The relatively low-budget $23 million three-hour black-and-white Holocaust movie was too much of a risk, so they asked Spielberg to make another project that had been brewing at the studio: Jurassic Park. Make the lucrative summer movie first, they said, and then he could go and make his passion project. Spielberg agreed, and both movies were released in 1993; Jurassic Park in June and Schindler’s List in December.

8. Spielberg didn't want a movie star with Hollywood clout to portray Schindler.

Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson auditioned for the role of Oskar Schindler, and actor Warren Beatty was far enough along in the process that he even made it as far as a script reading. But according to Spielberg, Beatty was dropped because, “Warren would have played it like Oskar Schindler through Warren Beatty.”

For the role, Spielberg cast then relatively unknown Irish actor Liam Neeson, whom the director had seen in a Broadway play called Anna Christie. “Liam was the closest in my experience of what Schindler was like,” Spielberg told The New York Times. “His charm, the way women love him, his strength. He actually looks a little bit like Schindler, the same height, although Schindler was a rotund man,” he said. “If I had made the movie in 1964, I would have cast Gert Frobe, the late German actor. That’s what he looked like.”

Besides having Neeson listen to recordings of Schindler, the director also told him to study the gestures of former Time Warner chairman Steven J. Ross, another of Spielberg’s mentors, and the man to whom he dedicated the film.

9. Spielberg did his own research.

In order to gain a more personal perspective on the film, Spielberg traveled to Poland before principal photography began to interview Holocaust survivors and visit the real-life locations that he planned to portray in the movie. While there, he visited the former Gestapo headquarters on Pomorska Street, Schindler’s actual apartment, and Amon Goeth’s villa.

Eventually the film shot on location for 92 days in Poland by recreating the Płaszów camp in a nearby abandoned rock quarry. The production was also allowed to shoot scenes outside the gates of Auschwitz.

10. The little girl in the red coat was real.

Promotional image for 25th anniversary rerelease of Schindler's List.
Universal Pictures

A symbol of innocence in the movie, the little girl in the red coat who appears during the liquidation of the ghetto in the movie was based on a real person. In the film, the little girl is played by actress Oliwia Dabrowska, who—at the age of three—promised Spielberg that she would not watch the film until she was 18 years old. She allegedly watched the movie when she was 11, breaking her promise, and spent years rejecting the experience. Later, she told the Daily Mail, “I realized I had been part of something I could be proud of. Spielberg was right: I had to grow up to watch the film.”

The actual girl in the red coat was named Roma Ligocka; a survivor of the Krakow ghetto, she was known amongst the Jews living there by her red winter coat. Ligocka, now a painter who lives in Germany, later wrote a biography about surviving the Holocaust called The Girl in the Red Coat.

11. The movie wasn't supposed to be in English.

For a better sense of reality, Spielberg originally wanted to shoot the movie completely in Polish and German using subtitles, but he eventually decided against it because he felt that it would take away from the urgency and importance of the images onscreen. According to Spielberg, “I wanted people to watch the images, not read the subtitles. There’s too much safety in reading. It would have been an excuse to take their eyes off the screen and watch something else.”

12. The studio didn't want the movie to be in black and white.

The only person at MCA/Universal who agreed with Spielberg and director of cinematography Janusz Kaminski’s decision to shoot the movie in black and white was Sheinberg. Everyone else lobbied against the idea, saying that it would stylize the Holocaust. Spielberg and Kaminski chose to shoot the film in a grimy, unstylish fashion and format inspired by German Expressionist and Italian Neorealist films. Also, according to Spielberg, “It’s entirely appropriate because I’ve only experienced the Holocaust through other people’s testimonies and through archival footage which is, of course, all in black and white.”

13. Spielberg's passion project paid off in Oscars.

Schindler’s List was the big winner at the 66th Academy Awards. The film won a total of seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director awards for Spielberg. Neeson and Ralph Fiennes were both nominated for their performances, and the film also received nods for Costume Design, Makeup, and Sound.

14. Schindler's List is technically a student film.

Steven Spielberg gives a speech
Nicholas Hunt, Getty Images

Thirty-three years after dropping out of college, Spielberg finally received a BA in Film and Video Production from his newly minted alma mater, Cal State Long Beach, in 2002. The director re-enrolled in secret, and gained his remaining credits by writing essays and submitting projects under a pseudonym. In order to pass a film course, he submitted Schindler’s List as his student project. Spielberg describes the time gap between leaving school and earning his degree as his “longest post-production schedule.”

15. Spielberg thinks the film may be even more important to watch today.

In honor of the film's 25th anniversary, it's currently back in theaters. But Spielberg believes that the film may be even more important for today's audiences to see. "I think this is maybe the most important time to re-release this film," the director said in a recent interview with Lester Holt on NBC Nightly News. Citing the spike in hate crimes targeting religious minorities since
2016, he said, "Hate's less parenthetical today, it's more a headline."

Additional Sources:
The Making of Schindler’s List: Behind the Scenes of an Epic Film, by Franciszek Palowski

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2015.

The Most-Searched Holiday Movie in Every State, Mapped

iStock.com/chrispecoraro
iStock.com/chrispecoraro

Do you live in a Gremlins state or a Home Alone state? StreamingObserver is here to tell you. The streaming-industry site recently used Rotten Tomatoes and other public data sources to figure out the most popular Christmas movies in each state. Spoiler: It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t quite the Christmas classic you thought it was.

The list takes some liberties with what might be considered a “Christmas” movie. Die Hard (a favorite in Missouri and Wisconsin) made the list, as did Batman Returns (California’s most-searched movie) and Edward Scissorhands (popular in Nevada and Arizona). They aren’t quite the traditional Hallmark holiday fare, but they each include at least some nod to the Christmas season.

Then there’s the more standard Yuletide entertainment, like A Christmas Carol (Tennessee’s favorite) and Frosty the Snowman (South Dakota's pick). Christmas in Connecticut, oddly enough, is Montana’s favorite (unclear whether that’s the 1945 film or the 1992 TV movie), while Connecticut’s favorite is the 1983 Eddie Murphy film Trading Places. The Apartment, The Snowman, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Best Man Holiday also make an appearance. Seven states list Gremlins as their favorite, while six chose Home Alone and three chose Scrooged.

The data is based on Google searches, rather than surveys, so it's possible that the movie at the top of each state's list isn't so much beloved as it is curiosity-inspiring. It's possible that all these people are Googling Gremlins, then deciding not to watch it. But we feel fairly confident saying a lot of people will be watching Die Hard this Christmas season. (Tip: You can't stream it on Netflix right now, but you can rent it on Amazon.)

The 2018 results are fairly different from StreamingObserver's 2016 data, which you can compare here. Do you agree with your state's preferences?

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