The Muppets were created by puppeteer Jim Henson in the 1950s, beginning with Kermit the Frog, who would become Henson's signature character. Originally conceived as characters aimed at an adult audience, Henson stated that the term "Muppet" had been created as an amalgamation of the words "marionette" and "puppet", but also claimed that it was actually a word he had coined. In 1955, the Muppets were introduced on Sam and Friends, a television program that aired on WRC-TV in Washington D.C. Conceptualized by Jim and eventual wife Jane Henson, the series was notable for the being the first form of puppet media to not include a physical proscenium arch within which the characters are presented. Instead, Henson utilized the natural four-sided frame of a television set that viewers would already be watching through as the program's theatre.
During the 1960s, the characters—notably Kermit and Rowlf the Dog—appeared on skits in several late-night talk shows and advertising commercials, including The Ed Sullivan Show. Rowlf became the first Muppet with a regular spot on network television when he began appearing as Jimmy Dean's sidekick on The Jimmy Dean Show. In 1966, Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett began developing an educational television program targeted towards children and approached Henson to design several Muppet characters for the program. Produced by the Children's Television Workshop, the show debuted as Sesame Street in 1969. Henson and his creative team performed and created several characters for the show in the years that followed; Henson waived his performance fee in exchange for retaining ownership rights to the Muppet characters created for the program. Sesame Street received critical acclaim, and the Muppets' involvement in the series was touted to be a vital component of the show's blossoming popularity, providing an "effective and pleasurable viewing" method of presentation for the series' educational curriculum.
By the early 1970s, the Muppets continued their presence in television, namely appearing in The Land of Gorch segments during the first season of Saturday Night Live. As his involvement with Sesame Street continued, Henson mused about the possibility of creating a network television series featuring the Muppets. However, unlike Sesame Street, which was geared towards a younger demographic and rooted in education, Henson pursued developing a series that would be focused purely on comedy and aimed more towards adults rather than children. Two pilot specials, The Muppets Valentine Show and The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence, aired on ABC in 1974 and 1975, respectively. After ABC passed on the pilots and no other major American network expressed interest in backing the project, Lew Grade approached Henson and agreed to produce the series for the British company Associated Television. Debuting in 1976, The Muppet Show introduced characters such as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo and Animal, as well as showcasing regulars Kermit and Rowlf. Through its syndication, The Muppet Show became increasingly popular due to its sketch comedy variety format, unique brand of humor, and prolific roster of guest stars. The show went on to receive twenty-one Primetime Emmy Award nominations during its run, and winning four awards, including Outstanding Comedy Series in 1978.
The success of The Muppet Show allowed Henson Associates to diversify into theatrical feature films based on the Muppets and went on to produce The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan, which followed in 1979, 1981 and 1984, respectively. Altogether, the three films received four Academy Award nominations. By 1983, Henson had introduced another television series, Fraggle Rock, which ran on HBO in the United States until 1987.
By the late 1980s, Henson entered discussions with Michael Eisner and The Walt Disney Company, in which the latter would acquire Jim Henson Productions and in turn, own the Muppets. Disney was interested in purchasing the company for $150 million. In addition to the company and Muppet characters, Eisner expressed a desire to include the Sesame Street characters as part of the acquisition. Henson, declined the proposal, however, consistently referring to such a motive as a "non-starter" for the deal. As discussions between the two companies continued, Henson and Walt Disney Imagineering preemptively began developing Muppet-themed attractions for the Disney-MGM Studios at Walt Disney World. However, negotiations broke off after Jim Henson's death in 1990. Nevertheless, Disney entered into a licensing agreement with Jim Henson Productions for permission to use the characters in the theme parks. The following year, Muppet*Vision 3D debuted at Disney-MGM Studios, the only attraction to come to fruition from the original Imagineering plans. Still interested in the franchise, Disney co-produced the fourth and fifth Muppet films, The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, with Jim Henson Productions in 1992 and 1996, respectively. Following that, the characters starred in Muppets Tonight which ran on ABC from 1996 to 1998 and a sixth film, Muppets from Space, released by Columbia Pictures in 1999.
In 2000, Henson Productions was sold to EM.TV & Merchandising AG for $680 million. Following the sale, EM.TV was plagued with financial problems and the Henson family purchased the company back in 2003, with the exception of the rights to the Sesame Street characters, which had been sold by EM.TV to Sesame Workshop.
Fourteen years after initial negotiations began, Disney purchased the Muppet intellectual properties from the Jim Henson Company for $75 million on February 17, 2004. The acquisition consisted of the rights and trademarks to the Muppets and Bear in the Big Blue House characters, as well as to the Muppet film and television library. Exceptions included the Sesame Street characters—as they were previously sold to Sesame Workshop—the Fraggle Rock characters, which were retained by Henson, and the distribution rights to The Muppets Take Manhattan, Muppets from Space, and Kermit's Swamp Years, which remained with Sony Pictures Entertainment. As part of the acquisition, Disney formed the Muppets Studio, a wholly owned subsidiary responsible for managing the characters and franchise. As a result, the term "Muppet" became a legal trademark owned by Disney, although Sesame Workshop continues to apply the term to their characters, and archival footage of Kermit, under an exclusive license from Disney.
The Jim Henson Company retains the rights to a number of productions featuring the Disney-owned Muppet characters, including Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, The Christmas Toy, Sesame Street: 20 and Still Counting, Henson's Place, Billy Bunny's Animal Songs, the original Dog City special, and Donna's Day. While some of these specials have since been released uncut, current releases of Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas and The Christmas Toy have removed the appearances by Kermit the Frog.
Disney began gradually reintroducing the franchise to the mainstream in 2008. As a method of regaining a wider audience, Disney began to produce and air their own comedy shorts on YouTube. After the "Muppets: Bohemian Rhapsody" was posted on the Muppet Studios' YouTube channel, it ultimately gained 50 million views and took home two Webby Awards. Videos are being posted on the site regularly. That same year, the Muppets starred in a web series with Cat Cora called The Muppets Kitchen With Cat Cora, where cooking demonstrations are shown. A television special, A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa, premiered on NBC on December 17, 2008. It was released on DVD on September 29, 2009. In 2010, Disney used the Muppets to promote their volunteerism program at the company's theme parks.That same year, a Halloween special featuring the Muppets was expected to air on ABC in October 2010 but was shelved.
In 2011, the Muppets were featured in an eponymously-titled seventh film, intended to serve as a "creative reboot" for the characters. Disney had been furthering development on a Muppet film since 2008 when it considered adapting an unused screenplay written by Jerry Juhl. Directed by James Bobin, written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, and starring Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper and Rashida Jones, the film was met with widespread critical acclaim, commercial success, and an Academy Award win for Best Original Song. During the film's publicity campaign, the Muppets appeared in promotional advertisements and in effusive marketing efforts by Disney and were also featured in a promotional video for Google+. In March of the following year, the Muppets received a collective star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. That same year, the Muppets hosted a Just for Laughs comedy gala in Montreal.
After the successful performance of The Muppets, Disney greenlit a sequel in March 2012, with Bobin and Stoller returning to direct and write, respectively. Muppets Most Wanted was released on in 2014 with Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell in supporting roles.
Disney Theatrical Productions revealed in 2013 that a live show based on the Muppets was in active development and that a 15-minute show had been conducted by Thomas Schumacher to see how the technical components would work out. Muppets Moments, a series of interstitial shorts, premiered on Disney Junior on April 3, 2015. The short-form series features conversations between the Muppets and young children.
After the release of Muppets Most Wanted, Disney was interested in expanding the Muppets' presence across various media platforms, particularly in television. Discussions for a new primetime series began internally within the Muppets Studio. By April 2015, Bill Prady was commissioned to write a script for a pilot with the working title, Muppets 2015. In May 2015, ABC announced that it had greenlit a new primetime television series titled, The Muppets, co-created by Prady and Bob Kushell, and directed by Randall Einhorn. The series premiered on September 22, 2015, in the United States, and ended on March 1, 2016.
Famous Muppets from The Muppet Show and related spin-offs include Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Rowlf the Dog, Scooter, Rizzo the Rat, Pepe the King Prawn, Bunsen Honeydew, Beaker, Statler and Waldorf, the Swedish Chef, Sam Eagle, Walter, and the band Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem featuring Dr. Teeth on keyboard, Animal on the drums, Floyd Pepper on bass, and Janice on lead guitar, Zoot on saxophone, and Lips on trumpet. Other notable Muppets include Sesame Street characters such as Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Grover, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Elmo, and the main characters of Fraggle Rock.
Television shows featuring Muppets have included The Jimmy Dean Show, Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, Bear in the Big Blue House, The Jim Henson Hour, Muppets Tonight, Statler and Waldorf: From the Balcony, and The Muppets. A recurring adult-oriented cast of Muppets (in a setting known as The Land of Gorch) were featured throughout the first season of Saturday Night Live. Guest stars on some of these programs have occasionally had Muppet versions of themselves. It was a regular practice for the first few episodes of The Muppet Show, and ZZ Top, among others, have appeared as Muppet versions of themselves on Sesame Street. Muppet versions of real people have also appeared in other shows, such as in 30 Rock.
The puppet characters of other Henson productions, such as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, are not considered Muppets, as they were made by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, rather than by Henson's Muppet Workshop. The puppet casts of Puppet Up! and Tinseltown are also not Muppets as they were made by the Jim Henson Company after the sale of the Muppets to Disney in 2004. The Star Wars character, Yoda, was performed and voiced by Frank Oz, one of Henson's regular performers, and is often genericized as a Muppet in media and reference works; he is not, however, and Henson's organization was not involved in the character's conception.
At the start of the Muppets' formation, Jim and Jane Henson were the group's only performers. In 1961, Jane retired to focus on raising their children. Seeking additional performers, Jim came into contact with Frank Oz that same year. Although interested, Oz declined participation due to his young age and commitment to high school, and instead suggested Jerry Juhl, a fellow puppeteer who worked alongside Oz at the Vagabond Puppet Theater in Oakland, California. Upon graduating, Oz subsequently joined in August 1963. When The Muppet Show began, the main cast of performers grew to include Henson, Oz, Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, and later Steve Whitmire, while Juhl became head writer for the series. From The Muppet Show onwards, Kevin Clash, Kathryn Mullen, Louise Gold, Karen Prell, Caroll Spinney, and Brian Henson performed several minor characters and often assisted the main performers with puppeteering. Nearly all of the aforementioned puppeteers performed characters across a variety of media, including The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and other Henson-related projects.
Jim Henson, Hunt, and Nelson continued performing until their deaths in 1990, 1992, and 2012, respectively. Whitmire and Bill Barretta, who became one of the group's main performers in the 1990s, adopted Henson's characters. Hunt's characters remained without a stable performer throughout the 1990s and 2000s, until David Rudman and Whitmire began performing such characters in the late 2000s. Oz continued performing until his retirement from puppeteering in 2000; Eric Jacobson took over his characters two years after. At Nelson's behest, Matt Vogel gradually assumed performing duties for his characters beginning in 2008. The Muppets are currently performed by a cast of seven principal puppeteers: Whitmire, Jacobson, Goelz, Barretta, Rudman, Vogel, and Peter Linz.
The majority of the Muppets are designed as a combination of rod puppets and hand puppets. A common facial design for a Muppet is a character with a very large mouth and big protruding eyes. Since Disney's acquisition of the Muppets, newer models of the characters are produced and maintained by Puppet Heap.
The puppets are often molded or carved out of various types of foam, and then covered with fleece, fur, or other felt-like material. Muppets may represent humans, anthropomorphic animals, realistic animals, robots, anthropomorphic objects, extraterrestrial creatures, mythical beings or other unidentified, newly imagined creatures, monsters, or abstract characters.
Muppets are distinguished from ventriloquist "dummies"/"puppets", which are typically animated only in the head and face, in that their arms or other features are also mobile and expressive. Muppets are typically made of softer materials. They are also presented as being independent of the puppeteer, who is usually not visible—hidden behind a set or outside of the camera frame. Using the camera frame as the "stage" was an innovation of the Muppets. Previously on television, there would typically be a stage hiding the performers, as if in a live presentation. Sometimes they are seen full-bodied. This is done by using invisible strings to move the characters' bodies and mouths, and then adding the voices later.
Since Disney's acquisition of the Muppets, newer models of the characters are produced and maintained by Puppet Heap.
The puppeteer, often dubbed as the "Muppet performer", holds the Muppet above his head or in front of his body, with one hand operating the head and mouth and the other manipulating the hands and arms, either with two separate control rods or by "wearing" the hands like gloves. One consequence of this design is that most Muppets are left-handed as the puppeteer uses his right hand to operate the head while operating the arm rod with his left hand. There are many other common designs and means of operation. In advanced Muppets, several puppeteers may control a single character; the performer who controls the mouth usually provides the voice for the character. As technology has evolved, the Jim Henson team and other puppeteers have developed an enormous variety of means to operate Muppets for film and television, including the use of suspended rigs, internal motors, remote radio control, and computer enhanced and superimposed images. Creative use of a mix of technologies has allowed for scenes in which Muppets appear to be riding a bicycle, rowing a boat, and even dancing on-stage with no puppeteer in sight.
Muppets tend to develop, as writer Michael Davis put it, "organically", meaning that the puppeteers take time, often up to a year, slowly developing their characters and voices. Muppets are also, as Davis said, "test-driven, passed around from one Henson troupe member to another in the hope of finding the perfect human-Muppet match". When interacting with Muppets, children tended to act as though the Muppets were living creatures, even when they could see the puppeteers.
On September 17, 2002, Rhino Records released The Muppet Show: Music, Mayhem, and More, a compilation album of music from The Muppet Show and subsequent film outings. The Muppets also released John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together, with John Denver in 1979.
Under Disney ownership, albums featuring the Muppets have been released by Walt Disney Records, including Best of the Muppets: The Muppets' Wizard of Oz (2005), The Muppets: A Green and Red Christmas (2006), Muppets: The Green Album (2011), The Muppets: Original Soundtrack (2011), and Muppets Most Wanted: Original Soundtrack (2014). Legal music publishing rights to Muppet-related songs such as "Rainbow Connection", are controlled by Fuzzy Muppet Songs and Mad Muppet Melodies, imprints of Disney Music Publishing.
The Muppets appear at the Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, having first made appearances at Walt Disney World in 1990. Their first featured attraction, Here Comes the Muppets, was a live stage show that opened shortly after Jim Henson's death and ran at Disney's Hollywood Studios (known then as Disney-MGM Studios) for a year. Muppet*Vision 3D, a 4D film attraction that uses audio-animatronic Muppets and 4D effects, then opened at Disney's Hollywood Studios on May 16, 1991. The attraction is notable for being the final Muppets project to be produced by Jim Henson. The attraction exists in Muppets Courtyard, a section of the park themed to the Muppets, which also features themed restaurants, gift shops, and restrooms. Muppet*Vision 3D had a subsequent opening at Disney California Adventure, on February 8, 2001, and remained there until its closure in 2014.
In addition to their main presence at Disney's Hollywood Studios, the Muppets also appear in Great Moments in American History, a live show at the Magic Kingdom and the Muppet Mobile Lab at Epcot. The latter attraction is a free-roving vehicle with audio-animatronics of Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker. As part of Disney's Living Character Initiative, it premiered in 2007 at Epcot and was later previewed at Disney California Adventure and Hong Kong Disneyland.
In 2010, the Muppets were the face of the "Give a Day, Get a Disney Day" charity campaign. Guests could register for a select service activity on the Disney website, and in return for completing the service work, participants could print a voucher for a free one-day admission ticket to Disneyland or Walt Disney World Resort. The Muppets appeared in television and print ads for the campaign and were featured prominently on the campaign's website.
Disney has released numerous collector pins featuring the Muppets since 2004. These include Limited Edition pins, Hidden Mickey pin collections, mystery pin sets, 2008 pin sets promoting The Muppets, cast lanyard pins, and assorted individual rack pins. Over 100 pins displaying the characters have been released overall.
Since the late 1970s, numerous Muppet-related comic books have been released over the years. The first comic strips based on the Muppets appeared on September 21, 1981, in over 500 daily newspapers, just months after The Muppet Show ended its five-year run. The Muppets Comic Strip was printed daily from 1981 to 1986. By the end of its initial run, the comic strip was seen in over 660 newspapers worldwide. Special strips were also created in color, exclusively for issues of Muppet Magazine.
The only film in the franchise to see a comic book adaptation was The Muppets Take Manhattan. The comic book series was adapted by Marvel Comics in 1984, as the 68-page story in Marvel Super Special No. 32, August. The adaptation was later re-printed into three limited series issues, released under Marvel's Star Comics imprint (November 1984 – January 1985).
In the wake of the success of the Muppet Babies television show, Star Comics began releasing the Muppet Babies comic book title on a bi-monthly basis. These were original stories, not adaptations of the show's episodes.
In the final Disney Adventures issue, with a cover date of November 2007, a one-page story single strip focusing on Fozzie Bear, Smedley, Statler, and Waldorf (with a cameo by Scooter) was released. Roger Langridge wrote and drew the comics intending it to be more long running.
In 2009, Boom! Studios began publishing The Muppet Show, a mini-series based on the eponymous television show and written and drawn by Roger Langridge. An ongoing series titled The Muppet Show: The Comic Book followed and ran for eleven issues. Additionally, Boom! Studios also published Muppet fairy-tale comic adaptations similar to The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. In 2012, Marvel Comics took over the publishing duties for the series.
A comic strip by Guy Gilchrist and Brad Gilchrist circulated in newspapers during the 1980s. Many of the strips were compiled in various book collections.
Muppet Magazine was published from 1983 to 1989. The magazine took on the format of being "by" the Muppets more than about them and had such features as celebrity interviews and comic stories.
The popularity of the Muppets has been so expansive that the characters have been viewed by the media as real celebrities in their own right. The Muppets have received their own collective star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, with Kermit having his own individual star as well. The characters have also presented at the Academy Awards and Emmy Awards; made cameo appearances in such feature films as Rocky III, An American Werewolf in London and Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium; and have been interviewed on the news magazine 60 Minutes. Kermit the Frog was interviewed early on in Jon Stewart's run on The Daily Show, guest hosted The Tonight Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, America's Funniest Home Videos and an April Fools' Day edition of Larry King Live; and has served as Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade. The characters also appeared in-character on such sitcoms and dramas as The Cosby Show, The West Wing, and The Torkelsons. The music video for the Weezer song "Keep Fishin'" is premised on the band performing on The Muppet Show and features appearances by several characters. On September 28, 2005, the United States Postal Service released a Jim Henson and the Muppets postage stamp series. The Muppets also appeared on Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve for the 2008 countdown on December 31, 2007. Kermit, Rizzo, and others welcomed in the new year with a series of messages to welcome viewers back from the advertising breaks. After one such segment, with Kermit in Times Square, co-host Ryan Seacrest thanked his pal "Kerms" for the help bringing in '08. Miss Piggy has appeared as a guest on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and Kermit the Frog appeared on Hollywood Squares and as one of the celebrity commentators on VH1's I Love documentary series.
On July 25, 2007, the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta announced the opening of a new Jim Henson Wing, which will house anywhere from 500 to 700 retired Muppets. The new wing will also include films, sketches, and other materials from the Jim Henson Company archives. The wing was originally slated to open in 2012 but has been delayed by a lack of funding and rescheduled for a possible 2014 or 2015 debut.
Muppet-like and Muppet-inspired puppets star in the 2004 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Avenue Q. Peter Jackson's film, Meet the Feebles is another parody of the Muppets. A vomit-spewing Kermit the Frog was a recurring character on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and the Muppets were frequently preempted at the beginning of episodes for the Canadian series You Can't Do That on Television. Seth Green's short-lived show Greg the Bunny was about sentient hand-puppets working in a Muppet-like children's show. Many other films and television shows such as The Simpsons, Family Guy, The West Wing and Robot Chicken have referenced the Muppets.