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Muppet mania: Iconic puppets take center stage again

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Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011
 

Who would have thought when "The Muppet Show" debuted in 1976 that the fuzzy puppets would be storming back into theaters 35 years later.

While they haven't had a movie in the theaters since 1999, they've really never gone out of style.

Kermit has been flying over the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade every year since 1977. They've made multiple appearances over the years on morning news shows (in a takeover of NBC's "Today Show" in 2008, hecklers Statler and Waldorf had suggestions for the Obama cabinet and Miss Piggy threw herself at actor Christopher Meloni), and nighttime talk shows (they sang the "12 Days of Christmas" with Jimmy Fallon in 2009).

"Saturday Night Live" has welcomed several of the characters over the years, from regular appearances during the show's first season to Kermit singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" with guest host Robert DeNiro in 2004 to this past Saturday's show with Jason Segel hosting.

The Smithsonian Museums have two Kermit the Frog puppets -- the original from the 1950s Washington, D.C., TV show "Sam and Friends," and another from 1969.

The Muppets have been darlings of the Internet -- the YouTube video of their 2009 performance of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" quickly went viral, getting 10 million hits in its first two weeks.

Pop superstar Lady Gaga brought Kermit the Frog as her date to the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Earlier in the year, she showed up for an interview on a German TV show wearing a dress made from Kermit stuffed animals.

One of the Muppets' most iconic songs, "It's Not Easy Being Green" from 1979's "The Muppet Movie," popped up on "Glee" earlier this month, sung by an Irish exchange student played by Damian McGinty.

And, if you weren't convinced that the Muppets are everywhere, Steelers fans might recall the popular tribute song to Troy Polamalu in the run up to the 2006 Super Bowl, which used the tune from "Mahna Mahna," a song made famous by the Muppets. You can join the Never-Ending Mahna Mahna on the Muppets Facebook page, by adding your own video singing the "Mahna Mahna."

Even though they've never really gone away, the non-"Sesame Street" Muppets are not familiar to all children. We're here to help before you go to the new movie, "The Muppets," which opens today and stars Jason Segel and Amy Adams along with their fuzzy pals.

Cast of characters

Kermit the Frog: The undeniable leader of this motley crew, he's the oldest of the puppets and originally was voiced by Muppet creator Jim Henson.

Miss Piggy: She's a loud, well-dressed diva, who claims Kermit as her man, even if he doesn't really agree. Another puppeteering legend, Frank Oz, was her controller.

Fozzie Bear: A less-than-successful stand-up comic bear and Kermit's right-hand man.

Scooter: The theater stagehand, who got the job because his uncle owned the theater.

The Swedish Chef: He speaks in "mock Swedish," and, yet, his intent always is clear, particularly when he was chasing a chicken with a cleaver.

Rowlf the Dog: The piano-playing dog serves as a calming influence on the show.

Dr. Bunson Honeydew and Beaker: The head of Muppet labs has an unfortunate habit of blowing up his assistant, Beaker.

Gonzo: A stunt performer whose actual species was unknown until it was revealed in "Muppets from Space" that he was an extraterrestrial.

Sam the Eagle: A super patriot and stick-in-the-mud who spends a lot of time chastising the rest of the cast.

Statler and Waldorf: The show's resident hecklers sit in the box seats hurling insults at the cast.

Animal: The drummer for the Muppet Show band is a skirt-chasing, well, animal. He is said to have been based on The Who's drummer Keith Moon.

History

The Muppets were the brainchild of puppeteer Jim Henson. Muppet leader Kermit the Frog, along with some other puppets, got their start on Henson's "Sam and Friends," a five-minute live show that aired twice nightly from 1955 to 1962 on WRC-TV in Washington, D.C., according to the Museum of Broadcast Communication. The Muppets started popping up on NBC's "Today" show in 1961 and "The Ed Sullivan Show" from 1966 to 1971.

Henson's puppets became the core of "Sesame Street" when it began broadcasting in 1969. But, according to the museum, Henson wanted his puppets to appeal to more than just kids. So in 1976, "The Muppet Show" was launched. The variety show was hosted by Kermit and featured silly jokes and backstage mayhem. Guest performers regularly sang and danced (trickier than it sounds) alongside puppets. For instance, Elton John sang a duet of "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart" with the love-starved and over-sexed Miss Piggy. And, where else could you see opera diva Beverly Sills teach Gonzo how to balance a spoon on his nose• Aside from Kermit, all the characters were different from those that appeared on "Sesame Street." It ran for five seasons and was broadcast in more than 100 countries. The show won the 1978 Emmy award for Outstanding Comedy-Variety or Music Series.

"The Muppet Movie" premiered in 1979. It was followed with two more films -- "The Great Muppet Caper" (1981) and "The Muppets Take Manhattan" (1984) -- before Henson died suddenly in 1990 at age 54. Jim Henson Productions was taken over by his children, led by son Brian, who later produced the big-screen films "The Muppet Christmas Carol" (1992), "Muppet Treasure Island" (1996) and "Muppets from Space" (1999). There also have been some TV movies, including "The Muppets Wizard of Oz" (2005), with Ashanti as Dorothy, Kermit as the Scarecrow and Miss Piggy as the all the witches.

Jim Henson Productions was sold to a German company in 2000, then re-acquired by the Henson children in 2003. The rights to the Muppets were sold in 2004 to the Walt Disney Co., which had been trying to acquire the famous puppets since 1989, according to www.muppetcentral.com.

The new movie has been spearheaded by co-writer and star Jason Segel, who has been a Muppets fan since he was a child. The "How I Met Your Mother" star told the Los Angeles Times at last week's premiere that the time was right for a fresh take on the puppets, because comedy has become too cynical.

"People get a lot of laughs by making fun of people, and the Muppets never do that," he said. "I thought it was an important reminder just to be nice. That's the message of the Muppets."

The beauty of the Muppets lies in their simplicity, added co-star Amy Adams.

"I think we're a society that we've gotten overblown in all these special effects and all of that -- which I love, as well," said the actress, who soon will star as Lois Lane in the upcoming installment of the "Superman" franchise. "But I think it's nice to see these characters (with) their message of hope and belief."

The new movie focuses on three Muppet fans (Segel, Adams and new puppet character, Walter) trying to reunite the Muppets to save their old theater.

Priceless Parodies

In a unique approach to promoting the movie, the Muppets have appeared in several movie-trailer parodies based on other famous current or upcoming films.

"The Girl With the Froggy Tattoo" mimics the first teaser trailer for "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," but without the Led Zeppelin song.

"The Fuzzy Pack" is a take on "The Hangover: Part 2"

"Green With Envy" goes Bollywood.

"Being Green" parodies "The Green Lantern."

• The final trailer parodies "The Muppets" own parody trailer, really, and includes short clips of movies they wished they'd had time to parody, like "Abnormal Activity," "Fuss in Boots," "Happy Feet" and "Breaking Prawn."

Recent appearances

In the weeks leading to the release of the new Muppet movie, the characters have been seen just about everywhere:

• WWE "Raw," Oct 31. A group of Muppets visited the wrestling show, and Beaker helped Santino Marella win his match with a special potion.

• Country Music Awards, Nov. 9. Miss Piggy schmoozed with hosts Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley.

• "Ellen," Nov. 9. Kermit dished about his on- off-again relationship with Miss Piggy.

• ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," Nov. 15. The Muppet cast performed a song from the new movie, with Statler and Waldorf as guest judges.

• ESPN's "Mike and Mike," Nov. 17. Kermit and Gonzo discuss the new movie.

• ABC's "Good Morning America," Nov. 17. The cast took over the show, including singing "Mahna Mahna" out in Times Square and Miss Piggy ordering weatherman Sam Champion to help her with her bags.

• "Saturday Night Live," Nov 19. The Muppets gang take the spotlight from host Jason Segel in his monologue.

Merchandise

If you can't get enough of the Muppets, check out this gear:

Muppets Monopoly. The tokens are Miss Piggy, Kermit, Fozzie, Animal, Gonzo and the Swedish Chef. $34.99 at Amazon.com

"Muppets: The Green Album." Released this year with updated versions of Muppet classics like "Rainbow Connection" and "The Muppet Show Theme Song." $11.88 at Amazon.com

Superstar 2.0 Kermit shoes. Adidas is offering a green suede sneaker with a Kermit the Frog green felt collar over the tongue in men's sizes. $80, www.shopadidas.com

Muppet Whatnot Workshop. FAO Schwartz lets you create your own Muppet by picking the body color, eyes, hair, nose and outfit. $99.99, www.fao.com/whatnots/builder.jsp

Muppet Stars Wars Action Figures. Back in 1980, Mark Hamill, C-3PO, R2-D2 and Chewbacca appeared on "The Muppet Show" for a special "Star Wars" episode. Now the Muppet characters take over these famous roles, including Dr. Bunson Honeydew and Beaker as R2-D2 and C-3PO. These new Muppet action figures will be available soon, but only at Disney parks.

"Meet the Muppets." The large format comic by Roger Langridge was issued by Marvel in July. $5.99

Famous guests

"The Muppet Show" had a famous guest every week. Everyone from "Laugh-Ins" Ruth Buzzi, to scaremaster Vincent Price, dance legend Rudolph Nureyev, pop superstar Elton John, comedian John Cleese, "SNL" star Gilda Radner, Alice Cooper, Liberace, Dudley Moore, Diana Ross, Gene Kelly, Debbie Harry and Johnny Cash.

The new movie continues this tradition with actors Chris Cooper and Rashida Jones in supporting roles and a string of cameo appearances.

Keep your eyes open for these faces (according to www.imdb.com ): Jim Parsons, Emily Blunt, Neil Patrick Harris, Zach Galifianakis, John Krasinski, Ken Jeong, Rico Rodriguez, Whoopi Goldberg, Mickey Rooney, Alan Arkin, Sarah Silverman, Judd Hirsch, Wanda Sykes and James Carville.

 

 
 


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