For over sixty years, Jim Henson’s Muppets have been bringing joy to millions with their unique brand of puppetry, humor, and variety show style entertainment. What started as a handful of crude puppets made of papier-mâché and old coats evolved into a multimedia empire with dozens of recognizable characters, memorable songs, and heartfelt moments. Henson believed puppetry was for everyone, creating characters for everything from children’s shows like Sesame Street to late night comedy like Saturday Night Live. Unfortunately, their latest TV incarnation, The Muppets, only aired for one season before being canceled by ABC amid a slew of controversy for its adult themes and language.
How quickly people forget that the very first pilot episode of The Muppet Show was entitled, “The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence”. In fact, The Muppets and associated Henson characters were never completely immune to controversy, tragedy, or touchy topics, despite their family-friendly exterior. After all, muppets are essentially just a bunch of guys with their hands up the butts of various animal and human-like creations. What kind of dark secrets could we possibly uncover about them? Read on, all you puppet-loving weirdos and take a gander at 15 Dark Secrets About The Muppets.
15. Frank Oz never wanted to be a puppeteer
Amazing as it may seem, one of the most famous muppet voices, aside from Jim Henson himself, never wanted a career in puppetry. Frank Oz was the son of Belgian immigrants who were both puppeteers themselves. While his siblings never took much of an interest in it, Oz performed puppet shows to make extra money as a teenager, saving up for a trip to Europe. As he explained in an interview with IGN, “it was something that I latched on to because it was a way to please them (his parents) and it was a means of expression for a shy, self-effacing boy.”
Oz had actually planned to study journalism in college, but dropped out after a year when Jim Henson offered him a job. The two had met at a puppeteering conference a few years earlier when Oz was only seventeen. Oz went on to voice Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, and Sam the Eagle on The Muppet Show, as well as Bert, Grover, and Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. After Henson’s death in 1990, Oz began pursuing his dream of becoming a film director, and has amassed over thirteen non-Muppets credits to his name, including Little Shop of Horrors, What About Bob?, and The Score.
14. Telly Monster used to have a hardcore television addiction
Fans of Sesame Street may be familiar with the neurotic monster, Telly, who’s fond of playing the triangle and bouncing around on his pogo stick. While he’s known as an anxiety prone worrywart these days, when he first debuted, he had a much more serious problem going on. His name, Telly, actually refers to the British slang word for television. Telly (pictured above on the right) was originally created as a cautionary tale for children to warn them of the dangers of watching too much TV.
When Telly debuted, he had television antennas sticking out of his head and eyes that swirled hypnotically from watching too much TV. Aside from sitting too close to the set, Telly was completely plugged in and actually lived in front of his TV on the street. “My set’s here, I’m here, what else do I need,” he mused in his first episode. Like some couch potatoes we all undoubtedly know, Telly preferred his television set to actual human interaction, unable to pull himself away from his programs. His addictive personality must not have resonated well with parents, because his character was later changed to leave out the addiction, with his name remaining as the only indication of his questionable past.
13. Miss Piggy had a somewhat tragic upbringing
Miss Piggy’s narcissism and aggression are well-known aspects of her personality, but like all great characters, she actually has an incredibly sad backstory that explains a lot. A 1979 New York Times article on The Muppets included interviews with Jim Henson, Jerry Juhl (The Muppet Show’s head writer), and Frank Oz. In it, Oz revealed the moment when Piggy became a fully-realized character to him.
During a rehearsal, Piggy was supposed to slap Kermit, but Oz made her do a karate chop instead. To him, it represented “— the coyness hiding the aggression; the conflict of that love with her desire for a career; her hunger for a glamor image; her tremendous out-and-out ego.” In fact, he created an entire analysis of Miss Piggy’s life and all the hardships she went through. “She grew up in a small town; her father died when she was young; her mother wasn’t that nice to her. She had to enter beauty contests to survive,” he explained to interviewer John Culhane. “She has a lot of aggressiveness, but she needs a lot to survive — as many single women do. She has a lot of vulnerability, which she has to hide, because of her need to be a superstar.” Apparently, even anthropomorphic pigs have issues.
12. Big Bird was nearly on the doomed Challenger Shuttle
For those of us that were alive during the late 1980s, it’s impossible to forget the tragic fate of the space shuttle Challenger. Five astronauts, an aerospace engineer, and a teacher all lost their lives on the morning of January 28, 1986, when the Challenger broke apart a little over a minute after it launched. Initially, however, someone else had been in talks to take the flight instead of Sharon McAuliffe, the designated Teacher-in-Space. As part of NASA’s Space Flight Participant Program, a number of creative types had been tapped for inclusion to provide their unique perspective of the experience. One such individual was the man who played Big Bird on Sesame Street, Caroll Spinney.
In a 2015 “Experience” essay from The Guardian, Spinney shared his secret with the world. “I once got a letter from Nasa, asking if I would be willing to join a mission to orbit the Earth as Big Bird, to encourage kids to get interested in space,” he explained. “There wasn’t enough room for the puppet in the end, and I was replaced by a teacher.” Guess that officially makes Big Bird the luckiest muppet on Sesame Street.
11. Jim Henson was planning his funeral four years before he died
On May 16, 1990, the world lost one of the most creative entertainers alive in Jim Henson. Millions mourned his passing, and public memorial services were held in both New York and London, where the majority of his work was done. At the New York service, his son Brian read a letter Henson left for his children, which was written four years prior to his death. Although he had only just turned fifty during that time, his own mortality weighed heavily on his mind.
Excerpts from his letters show Henson believed in some sort of an afterlife and that he’d be reunited with his fellow departed loved ones in death. He also briefly outlined plans for his funeral, which included the necessary stipulation that no one wear black and for a Dixieland band to play “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Rumors at the time swirled that Henson had AIDS, but there was never any proof of that diagnosis. In reality, he had contracted an extreme strep infection that caused pneumonia, toxic shock, and eventually, multiple organ failures. If he had only gone to the doctor when he first started having flu-like symptoms, he probably would have survived. Perhaps he didn’t want to.
10. Frank Oz has described Animal in 5 words “drums, sleep, food, sex, and pain”
Aside from the likes of Miss Piggy and Kermit, Animal has to be one of the most popular Muppets around. Unlike the formerly mentioned characters, however, Animal isn’t three-dimensional with complex emotions and issues. According to an interview originally included in the 1984 PBS documentary, Henson’s Place, and recently included again in the new Muppet Guys Talking documentary, Animal only concerns himself with what he deems as basic needs. Frank Oz, the voice of Animal, described him in five simple words, “drums, sleep, food, sex, and pain,” which sometimes seem to consume his mind at the same time (such as when Animal calls his drums food.)
Animal has also been known to run after females while yelling “Wo-man! Wo-man!” over and over again, but there has never been a blatant admission of his sexuality. For the most part, muppet sexuality has been glossed over or denied since Sesame Workshop’s president and CEO, Gary Knell has repeatedly said, “they do not exist below the waist.” It seems that Animal was the exception to the rule, at least until the latest TV incarnation of The Muppets, which awkwardly alludes to muppet sex without actually coming out and saying it.
9. David from Sesame Street gradually went insane
During the early years of Sesame Street, a human character named David, played by Northern Calloway, was introduced. He was the approachable, cool older brother type, the guy you couldn’t help but like. For eighteen years, Calloway appeared on Sesame Street in the role, quickly becoming a fan favorite, but the actor plagued with monsters of a different sort in his personal life.
Midway through his Sesame Street career, Calloway began having psychotic breaks, which led to both his arrest and eventual institutionalization. In 1980, he went on a manic rampage, beating a woman with a clothing iron, stealing from a child, and breaking into someone’s home. He claimed to have no memory of the incident, but was nevertheless evaluated at a mental hospital in Tennessee. Despite some news coverage of his psychosis, Sesame Street producers kept him around for another seven years until he was allegedly dismissed for biting their music coordinator.
Sadly, he died shortly after, the same year as Jim Henson. There are still conflicting reports about his actual cause of death, with some sources reporting he died of stomach cancer, and others from seizure-induced cardiac arrest (possibly due to antipsychotic drugs).
8. In the “Land of Gorch” SNL skits, characters regularly talked about their sex lives
Most people don’t remember the short-lived muppet sketches on Saturday Night Live, which only lasted for sixteen episodes during the 1975-76 season. Entitled “The Land of Gorch,” they featured a group of ugly, prehistoric-type creatures who had some very adult problems. Sex became a regular topic during the sketches, which often involved some of the human cast members getting hit on by the creatures.
The wife of the leader of the Gorch inhabitants was also having an affair with her husband’s best friend, which often led to some racy storylines. One such episode involved the two adulterous monsters reading The Joy of Sex together with references to both BDSM and masturbation. A later episode even revolved around a sex toy that they ordered from Japan, which activated when placed near the chest of the female monster.
Despite their kooky antics, neither the SNL writers or Jim Henson were pleased with the segments. “I saw what he (Lorne Michaels) was going for and I really liked it and wanted to be a part of it, but somehow what we were trying to do and what his writers could write for it never jelled,” Henson later explained in an interview.
7. Snuffleupagus became real to support child abuse victims
Here’s a shocking revelation for you: pre-1985 Snuffleupagus was regarded as Big Bird’s imaginary friend and couldn’t be seen by the other characters on Sesame Street. Snuffy always seemed to narrowly avoid running into them, which led to the adults never quite believing in his existence. Then, in 1985, the writers, producers, and even some of the performers of Sesame Street decided that Snuffy could no longer remain imaginary.
Stories kept coming out in the news about child abuse occurring at home and in daycare centers. Parents, psychologists, and members of the Sesame Workshop began expressing concerns that children who watched the show might get the wrong idea about whether or not they should tell someone what was happening to them. To Big Bird, Snuffy was very real, but to others, he was just a made up story, since they had never seen any proof of his existence. Kids who were experiencing abuse needed to feel like they could both tell a trusted adult what happened to them and know that someone would believe them. So, Snuffy finally had his big reveal in Season 17, and no one ever doubted Big Bird again.
6. A man threatened to blow up a radio station unless they played “The Rainbow Connection” for 12 hours straight
An archived Associated Press article from 1996 tells the story of a man who was a little too obsessed with “The Rainbow Connection,” a song sung by Kermit from The Muppet Movie. It’s a wacky news story that sounds like it should have come from Florida rather than New Zealand. Nevertheless, the twenty-one-year-old New Zealand man held the manager of a radio station hostage and threatened to blow it up unless the song was played. This guy didn’t just want to hear it once, though, he demanded they play it for twelve hours straight to “tell people how he felt.”
What’s most amazing about this story is not that some crazy guy wanted to hear it played over and over, but that a song from The Muppets actually reached the number 25 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Granted, it hit its peak during the week of Thanksgiving in 1979 when families were gathered together for the holiday, but still. A muppet beat out Cheap Trick and Blondie!
5. “Mahna Mahna” comes from a Swedish sex documentary
Most Muppet fans are familiar with the catchy tune “Mahna Mahna,” seen in the first episode of The Muppet Show back in 1976. Prior to that memorable occurrence, Jim Henson had also previously performed a simpler version on both Sesame Street and The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969. Even if you weren’t aware of it then, The Muppets film, which came out in 2011, also featured the song during the end credits.
“Mahna Mahna” has been synonymous with The Muppets for good reason, but Jim Henson & Co. did not come up with the song. It was actually written by an Italian film composer, Piero Umiliani, for the 1968 sexploitation documentary, Sweden: Heaven and Hell. The song appears during a sauna sequence, with a large group of Swedish girls who go from sitting in their towels to running half-naked through the snow to bathe in some natural hot springs.
As you can imagine, the nonsense lyrics paired with that imagery is pure free-spirited European weirdness. Also featured during the documentary is a very graphic birth scene, a swingers party, and pornographic movies. It’s good times, but not exactly the kind of wholesome family fun the Muppets are normally associated with.
4. If Kermit had never been born, the Twin Towers would still be standing
A muppet Christmas special aired at the end of November in 2002 that was basically a spoof of the classic Christmas film, It’s a Wonderful Life. Just like in the Jimmy Stewart version, the main character—in this case, Kermit—wishes he was never born. An angel then shows him what the world would have been like without him in it, and it’s pretty damn bleak for a family film (spoilers ahead!).
Each muppet is shown in various stages of desperation; Scooter is a cage dancer, Beaker is a buff bouncer at a nightclub, and Fozzie’s a thief. Their lives depress Kermit so much that he has to see how Miss Piggy’s doing. While in her crappy apartment filled with cats and broken dreams, the Twin Towers are seen out one of the windows. Following the logic of the film, since it’s part of the alternate timeline, somehow, Kermit’s existence contributed to the events of September 11th.
Even though the director, Kirk Thatcher, insists that the background used was over a year old and the only one available, the fact remains that NBC and The Jim Henson Company chose to keep the Twin Towers in there. Maybe Kermit shouldn’t ever have been born after all.
3. Neo-Nazis were using Cookie Monster to recruit children
Believe it or not, there are still pockets of neo-Nazis in Germany, particularly near Berlin, where Adolf Hitler planned to make his world capital if the Axis powers had won World War II. Only a few years ago, neo-Nazis near Berlin, in the town of Brandenburg, made headlines for their off-kilter tactics used to recruit young children. In one particular instance, a man was arrested for showing up at a primary school dressed as Cookie Monster and handing out far-right literature. The pamphlets promoting their cause also featured Cookie Monster along with Hitler and the slogan, “Who ate my biscuit?”
According to a police spokesman, the recruiting campaign was meant “to make it seem harmless and every day and perhaps something a bit fun and a bit rebellious.” The stunt was likely a viral marketing ploy by the Neo-Nazi movement, many of whom now identify as “nipsters,” a.k.a. Nazi hipsters, who utilize mainstream, Western pop culture imagery to appeal to the younger generations. Like the Hitler Youth before them, who were indoctrinated with magazines and mandatory weekly meetings, neo-Nazis are using the internet to spread their message of hate and discrimination.
2. Elmo’s best-known puppeteer was involved in an underage sex scandal
Keeping with the theme of Sesame Street related scandals, this one involves Kevin Clash, Elmo’s voice and puppeteer since 1984. In 2012, he was the target of a lawsuit involving sex with a minor, namely, a teenage boy. The accuser claimed Clash carried on a sexual relationship with him when he was sixteen years old. Because the allegations involved one of their actual performers, Sesame Workshop issued a statement regarding the accusations and named the actions they took in response.
But, as was the case with Northern Calloway, who played “David” on Sesame Street, Clash was not let go. Instead, he was encouraged to take a leave of absence until the drama died down. Unfortunately for him, it never did, as a second accuser came forward with even more scandalous claims, including Clash’s use of a gay-sex phone line. As is often the case with public figures enveloped in scandal, he was eventually forced to resign, as the lawsuits had become a distraction from all the good that Sesame Street, and the hyper-popular Elmo in particular, was actually doing for kids. While it’s unfortunate that Sesame Street received a lot of negative press in response to Clash’s lawsuits, they might want to reexamine their hiring (and firing) practices.
1. An unaired Sesame Street episode on divorce traumatized pre-schoolers
Over the years, Sesame Street has tackled a number of sticky subjects some would argue are too complex for children to fully understand. When Mr. Hooper died, Big Bird had to face the true meaning of death and the fact that his friend was never coming back. On the South African version of the show, there’s an HIV positive child muppet, and recently, an autistic muppet was announced in the US to teach children about the disorder.
While kids had no problem connecting to these taboo subjects, they did have a problem when the show tried to talk about divorce. A 1992 episode was set to show Snuffleupagus’ parents getting a divorce, but was never aired due to the response from an initial test group. Preschoolers who saw the episode automatically assumed the worse when presented with the concept of parents splitting up. “The kids misunderstood arguments,” lamented executive producer Dulcy Singer. “They said arguments did mean divorce. Some thought Snuffy’s parents were moving away even though we said just the opposite. A number said the parents would no longer love them.” At least they only traumatized a handful of kids instead of a couple million. Yikes.
What other dark skeletons do the Muppets have hidden away in their closet? Let us know in the comments!