Culture Re-View: 47 years of Muppet supremacy

Jim Henson, creator of the Muppet Show, poses in September 1977 with some of the characters he personally operated
Jim Henson, creator of the Muppet Show, poses in September 1977 with some of the characters he personally operated Copyright AP/AP
By Saskia O'Donoghue
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On this day in 1976, The Muppet Show premiered, bringing the likes of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy to a worldwide audience.

If you’re anything like us, The Muppet Christmas Carol will be essential viewing during the festive season.

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But 16 years before that cinematic masterpiece came out, The Muppet Show was launched, changing the entertainment world forever.

On 5 September, 1976, the first iteration of the puppet-focused show premiered, with guest star, Cabaret actor Joel Grey.

Over the next 5 years, The Muppet Show was shown in more than 100 countries and was regarded at the time as the most popular television entertainment on Earth.

Its run featured 120 episodes, cementing the colourful characters into worldwide fame - but it almost didn’t happen.

Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Jim Henson poses with the beloved Muppet Kermit the FrogFrank Edwards/Fotos International/Archive Photos/Getty Images

While creator Jim Henson's puppet characters had been on television for a number of years pre-1976, appearing in the likes of Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live, The Muppet Show wasn’t immediately greenlit.

Henson also put out some Muppet television specials for a more mature audience - The Muppets Valentine Show in 1974 and The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence the year after.

Both were considered as pilots for The Muppet Show but neither of them were ordered to series.

Henson persevered with his belief in the Muppets, despite rejections by American networks.

In the UK, though, producer Lew Grade saw the potential in the creation and agreed to co-produce the televisual extravaganza for the British channel ATV.

AP/AP1977
Julie Andrews meets Kermit the Frog during a recording of The Muppet Show in 1977AP/AP1977

It was a great success from the off and was soon sold to international audiences.

Presented as a variety show, the assembled cast of Muppets and guest stars - including the likes of Steve Martin, Liza Minnelli, Elton John and Julie Andrews - performed sketches and musical numbers, interspersed with plotlines taking place backstage and away from the main action.

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The iconic Kermit the Frog, who was played by Henson, acted as showrunner and host, trying to keep the guest stars happy while keeping his Muppet co-stars’ hijinks in check.

As The Muppet Show became popular, celebrities were lining up to perform with the Muppets on television - and in subsequent films.

AP/AP1993
Celebrity fans: President-elect Bill Clinton and wife Hillary meet Kermit at the Kennedy Center in 1993, a day before Clinton's inaugurationAP/AP1993

By 1981, though, the Show had reportedly run out of steam, with Henson choosing to focus on longform Muppet films.

In 1979, he’d released the hugely popular The Muppet Movie, which remained as the the highest-grossing puppet film until the release of The Muppets in 2011.

On 23 May 1981, The Muppet Show went out with a bang. The penultimate episode featured the then-James Bond, actor Roger Moore and the final show featured legendary actor and dancer Gene Kelly.

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Burnett/AP1985
Jim Henson poses with a Muppet backdrop in his 69th Street office in New York City in 1985Burnett/AP1985

Following the success of The Muppet Movie, Henson released film favourites like The Great Muppet Caper in 1981 and The Muppets Take Manhattan in 1984.

He was also partially responsible for the more adult puppet movies The Dark Crystal (1982) and David Bowie vehicle Labyrinth in 1986.

Henson died at the age of 53 in May 1990. Despite his sad passing, the Muppets are still as popular as ever.

Brian Henson, Jim’s son, took over the directing and producing of cult classic Christmas Carol in 1992 and the ever popular Muppet Treasure Island in 1996.

Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Brian Henson attends the premiere of 'The Muppet Christmas Carol' in December 1992 in New York CityRon Galella Collection via Getty Images

Kermit and friends are still making waves in the entertainment industry. Off the back of 2021’s Muppets Haunted Mansion, Disney+ is currently streaming The Muppets Mayhem, a musical comedy featuring the Muppet musical group Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.

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A staggering 47 years after The Muppet Show made our lives a little more colourful, it seems as though Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Rizzo et al are going nowhere fast!

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