If you were born in the 1970s or later, it’s likely that The Muppets star in at least a couple of your fondest childhood memories. But the cultural impact of The Muppets reaches well beyond their prominence in kids’ entertainment. Decades later, they’re still socially relevant, clever, and even snarky at times.
Most recently, The Muppets are starring in a mockumentary-style TV series airing on ABC. When it was revealed that Kermit had broken up with Miss Piggy and found himself a new girlfriend ahead of the series premiere, it created a flurry of publicity that proved the Muppets can still make the world notice any time they please.
Here are 13 Times The Muppets Ruled Pop Culture.
13 Their appearances on the first season of SNL
While Sesame Street premiered in 1969, Jim Henson’s creations enjoyed a big break with adult audiences on their appearances on the first season of Saturday Night Live, in 1975-76. The characters were created specifically for SNL, and appeared in The Land of Gorch sketches. TLOG takes place on a swampy alien planet ruled by the oafish King Plubis, who favors his female servant Vazh over his wife, Queen Peuta. His son is basically the alien version of a pothead, and his “guy Friday” is a brown-nosing yes-man. SNL stipulated that only their writers would be allowed to pen TLOG sketches, not Henson employees. Accordingly, a number of the sketches were written by Chevy Chase, Al Franken, and others.
Frank Oz, voice of Miss Piggy, among others, would go on to enjoy years of work on Muppet productions, and was one of the featured Muppeteers, although he has since commented that perhaps the “more cartoony comedy” of The Muppets “didn’t jive with the kind of Second City, casual, laid-back comedy” of SNL.
12 Cookie Monster 2.0
For those of us who grew up before 2006, Cookie Monster’s unabashed gluttony was probably viewed as an endearing character trait. But in that year, as a response to concerns about childhood obesity, Sesame Street revamped Cookie Monster’s approach to indulging in sweets. The show launched a new segment called Healthy Habits for Life, in which the characters talk about healthy lifestyle choices like exercising and eating nutritious foods. This set off internet rumors that Cookie Monster would either be renamed Veggie Monster or dropped from the show altogether. While neither scenario came to pass, Cookie Monster did appear on Martha Stewart’s show in 2007 to explain his new found belief that “cookies are a sometimes food.” And in 2008, he went on The Colbert Report and announced that he had “abandoned the pro-cookie agenda.”
Whether this move can rightfully be considered an example of “ruling” pop culture is up for debate, as some have noted that it was the character’s very obsession with cookies that made him so popular. Regardless, the decision certainly garnered significant media attention.
11 Miss Piggy as feminist icon
In June of this year, Miss Piggy received an award from Brooklyn’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art. In previous years, the award has gone to notable recipients like Sandra Day O’Connor, Toni Morrison, Connie Chung, and Anita Hill. Elizabeth Sackler, the organization’s founder, said, “She has inspired children to be who you are and this squares very directly with feminism.” In an “interview” with Time, the beloved pig described herself as an “ardent feminist and champion of women’s rights” and asserted that “any woman who refuses to accept society’s preconceived notions of who or what they can be is a feminist.”
Of course, the decision to grant the award to Miss Piggy was not without controversy, with detractors suggesting that as a fictional character, her cultural impact doesn’t match that of Morrison, O’Connor, and others. But supporters of the decision point to her continued influence on children over the decades.
10 Tickle Me Elmo
No list of notable Muppet moments would be complete without a mention of the plush doll that was rabidly fought over by parents nationwide. Tickle Me Elmo was introduced by Tyco in 1996 with a supply of 400,000 units. The supply began to dwindle around Thanksgiving of that year, due to unexpected demand, which was spurred on partly by Rosie O’Donnell, who had featured the doll on her show in October. With the holiday shopping season reaching its zenith, it was a perfect storm that led to a now legendary (or infamous) buying frenzy.
In Chicago, two women were arrested for fighting over the doll, and shoppers in New York were reportedly seen chasing after delivery trucks carrying the dolls to stores. A secondary market quickly arose, with desperate parents allegedly paying thousands of dollars for a doll that originally retailed for $28.99 – reminding families everywhere of the true meaning of the holiday season.
9 Covering Bohemian Rhapsody
The Muppets have run the gamut in terms of songs they’ve performed over the years, with covers of tunes ranging from Nirvana’s "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (Ode to Joy)." But they really outdid themselves with their 2009 cover of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. We highly recommend watching the epic video – which won a People’s Voice/Webby Award for viral online film & video.
A few of the most memorable moments include the backup singing by Grover’s chicken friends, and Animal’s rendition the song’s second verse, which consists of him rather halfheartedly drumming and repeating the word “mama” over and over with varying inflections, while Rowlf plays piano. And Janice’s guitar solo later in the song is pretty awesome, as well. To date, the video, which is posted on The Muppets’ YouTube channel, has over 48 million views.
8 It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie
Of course, this isn’t the first Muppet holiday movie. Another favorite is A Muppet Christmas Carol. But when it comes to pop culture relevance, 2002’s It’s A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie stands out, largely for its casting of Whoopi Goldberg as The Boss, the Creator of the Universe (aka God), which is undeniably amazing.
The film aired on NBC, and also starred A-listers David Arquette, Joan Cusack, William H. Macy, and Mel Brooks. And it featured cameos by Snoop Dogg, Zach Braff, Kelly Ripa, Molly Shannon, and others. It was intended to be an homage to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and has a similar plot, with Kermit working to save the Muppet Theater from financial ruin. It was the first Muppet film produced without the involvement of Frank Oz.
7 Kami is revealed to have HIV
In 2002, the Sesame Street character Kami was introduced to South African viewers, and was portrayed as having been born with HIV. Some conservative detractors claimed that Kami promoted a “gay-friendly agenda,” with some Republican congressmen publicly “reminding” PBS, the public network on which the U.S. version of the show is aired, that Congress could withhold funding if similar characters were introduced to American audiences.
However, many praised the show’s decision to address the difficult topic with young viewers in an area where AIDS was seen as an epidemic. President Clinton even filmed an HIV public service announcement with the character. Kami has appeared at the United Nations and the World Bank. She was interviewed by Katie Couric, and has appeared on segments alongside Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. In 2003, she was named UNICEF’s Champion for Children.
6 Sesame Street disses Fox News
In 2009, a Sesame Street sketch that originally aired two years earlier was re-aired, and it ruffled some feathers among conservatives. The sketch features an irritated female viewer calling in to Oscar the Grouch’s show and criticizing it. She goes on to say, “That is it, I’m changing the channel. From now on, I’m watching Pox News – now there’s a trashy news show.” The very thinly veiled reference to “Pox News” sparked conservative writer Andrew Breitbart to say, "The message is clear, I can’t even sit my kids in front of Sesame Street without having to worry about the Left attempting to undermine my authority."
PBS’s ombudsman Michael Getler commented that the producers possibly should have “resisted” the temptation to include the joke. But Ellen Lewis, VP of communication at Sesame Workshop, the non-profit behind Sesame Street programming worldwide, brushed off what some may have seen as rather affected outrage. She said the sketch was “just one of the many parodies that Sesame Street has done over the years.”
5 Mahboub is introduced to Israeli audiences
Diversity and inclusion have long been themes of Sesame Street, and the same is true for the show’s Israeli counterpart, Rechov Sumsum. In 2006, the show introduced Mahboub, a 5-year-old Arab Israeli character who speaks both Arabic and Hebrew. Gary Knell, president of Sesame Workshop, said “It’s really about respect and tolerance…We know that television teaches. The question is, ‘What does it teach?’”
Israel’s minister of education, Yuli Tamir, commented that, “It opens up a new way to deal with issues of conflict.” As was the case with Kami, the introduction of Mahboub demonstrates the willingness of the show’s producers to address difficult issues, and their desire to positively influence children in a way that goes beyond entertainment. However, the character was not without his critics.
4 The Muppets 2011 movie
The 2011 film The Muppets is fun and relevant largely because of its self-awareness. For example, its musical numbers are, in a sense, parodies of the somewhat more earnest musical numbers that have appeared in earlier Muppets movies. Similarly, the movie introduces Walter, a lower-case m muppet character who is a huge Muppet fanboy, and ultimately becomes a Muppet himself. Walter is a great character because he mirrors many of the film’s adult audience members, who themselves grew up with the Muppets and have been fans for decades.
This approach allows for a film that appeals to contemporary viewers – both children and adults – who may be a little more nuanced when it comes to their taste in entertainment. And, as we’ve come to expect from Muppet movies, it features a great cast, including Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Rashida Jones, and more.
3 Mahna Mahna sketches
These sketches have become fairly iconic over the years, despite (or because of) their minimalism and simplicity. While many of us may associate the song with The Muppet Show, the first Henson characters to perform it were actually a trio of then-nameless “anything Muppets” on Sesame Street in 1969. The song was shortly thereafter performed on The Ed Sullivan Show by the more recognizable Snowths (pink, alien-looking Muppets) and their orange-haired singing partner. The song made appearances on a number of additional shows before its most famous incarnation on The Muppet Show in 1977.
Remarkably, the song was written by Piero Umiliani for an Italian film about sex in Sweden. The 1968 film, Svezia, Inferno e Paradiso (translated as Sweden, Hell and Heaven) uses the song in a scene where a bunch of young Swedish women visit a sauna -- and it’s now unintentionally hilarious. You can watch it here (don’t worry, the girls stay fully covered).
2 The New Yorker cover featuring Bert and Ernie
In 2013, The New Yorker ran a cover of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie cuddling on a sofa, watching on TV the nine Supreme Court justices, who are presumably discussing their then-recent decision to strike down key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act. It was a ruling that extended a number of federal health, tax, and social security rights (among more) to same-sex couples married in states where same-sex unions had been deemed legal. The ruling also left in place a lower court’s decision stating that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. Jack Hunter, the artist of the piece, titled Bert and Ernie’s Moment of Joy, remarked that, “This is great for our kids, a moment we can all celebrate.”
As was to be expected, the cover stirred quite a controversy. Over the years, the Sesame Workshop has repeatedly denied popular suspicions that Bert and Ernie are romantically involved, saying in 2011, for example, that “Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits…they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”
1 The death of Mr. Hooper
Mr. Hooper, the human shopkeeper on Sesame Street, was played by actor Will Lee, who died suddenly in 1982. The producers of the show were presented with the decision of either recasting the role, explaining Mr. Hooper’s death by saying he retired, or having him die on the show. They went with the latter, showing Big Bird grappling with the loss of his friend. While some parents felt this decision presented kids with the idea of death too early, others felt it was relevant and beneficial for children who might be experiencing similar losses.
In order to craft a message that would be beneficial to children rather than harmful, the writers and producers conducted research and were advised by experts in the fields of child psychology, child development, and religion. The episode, written by head writer Norman Stiles, aired on Thanksgiving Day of 1983. The cast and crew have reported that filming the episode was both emotional and touching.
Which of these Muppet moments have stood out the most for you? Are there any others? Let us know in the comments below.