Catching the attention of New York-based television shows, such as The Jack Paar Show and Steve Allen’s Plymouth Show, Henson’s puppets gained national exposure once they hit The Ed Sullivan Show. Working with designer/builder Don Sahlin and puppeteer Frank Oz, the three developed the Muppet characters audiences have come to love.
The Muppets made their first ever appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on the September 18th 1966 episode. Audiences didn’t know what to expect as they saw a goofy green monster pop out from behind a wall and began playing guitar. The monster soon sprouted more heads, each playing other instruments, and made up a one-man rock band. After the song was played and done, the monster shrunk back to a tiny rock and was eaten by a nearby bird Muppet, leaving audiences rolling with laughter. This would be the first of twenty-five appearances The Muppets would make on Sullivan.
The fascinating thing about their early appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show is how the Muppets’ appearances, and even their personalities, evolved. During the Christmas Eve episode of 1967, Arthur Godfrey played Santa Claus and the Muppets appeared as scheming, fake elves who try to hijack the yearly gift delivery. Hidden among the thieves is an early version of Grover (going by Gleep then), with all of the same features except covered in green fur. When Big Bird made his debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, the Muppet was still controlled by a person in costume, though his head a lot smaller in comparison to the current version. Fan favorite Kermit the Frog appeared once as a girl sporting a blonde wig singing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face”, and once as a beatnik philosopher who waxed poetically about visual thinking. Such complex themes were not uncommon for Muppet sketches.
While The Muppets, like the loveable Ed Sullivan mouse Topo Gigio, were brought on as a family-friendly variety act to attract kids, that wasn’t to say they didn’t infuse a bit of adult themes into their works. Sketches such as the abstract “Business, Business” act or the “Monster Eating Machine” in which a Cookie Monster-esque Muppet devours an entire computer, provided social commentary of business and industry/consumerism overtaking society in the 1960s. While “The Glutton” Muppet ate everything in sight, including Ed’s hand, raising obesity awareness, Amanda the Ugly Muppet taught audiences that beauty really is only skin deep. They performed to adult music like The Beatles classics “Come Together” and “Octopus’s Garden” as well as “Java” and memorably, “Ma-Na-Ma-Na”.
Although the Muppets continued to grace the Sullivan stage until the show ended, Henson found a permanent home for his Muppets on Sesame Street. Over the years, the Muppets reached deeper depths of popularity through other outlets, including The Muppet Show, several feature films, a Muppet Babies animated series, several puppet spin-offs including the “Fraggle Rock” series, and popular films including “Labyrinth” (1986) and “The Dark Crystal” (1982) among others. While Henson passed in 1990, his art and legacy continue on and evolve, reaching children and adults and creating a lifetime of memories.