The 12 Most Fascinating Muppets Of The '70s
Left: The Swedish Chef. Right: Beaker. Sources: Jay David Buchsbaum/The Muppets Studio/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images; IMDB
Jim Henson's puppet variety show, The Muppet Show, featured Kermit the Frog (a Sesame Street veteran), Miss Piggy, and Gonzo, yes. But it was Swedish Chef, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Beaker, Sam the Eagle, Animal the drummer, and others who made the show such a success. This rogues gallery of supporting characters, who didn't just look funny but also had distinct quirks and delusions, took puppetry to a new, more sophisticated level. The absurdity of an incomprehensible chef who tries to cook live chickens, a scientist who sets his assistant on fire, a pair of old grumps who attend every show just to complain about it, a dashing space pig who wears a toupee -- this wasn't just kids' stuff, it was humor in the vein of Monty Python (which preceded The Muppet Show) and Airplane! (which came after).
Running from 1976-1981, The Muppet Show won four Primetime Emmy Awards. The creator of the show, Jim Henson, began making television shows in the 1950s featuring his puppets. The early characters he created, such as Kermit and Fozzie Bear, appeared on variety shows aimed at adults, but the success of Sesame Street (which launched in 1969) led to them being perceived as entertainment for children. With The Muppet Show, Henson was getting back to his roots, providing sly humor that adults could dig while bringing the kids along with slapstick and broad punchlines. In the late '70s, The Muppet Show was truly a show for all ages, and the roster of big celebrities who made guest appearances is proof that grownups definitely got the joke.
But who was this supporting cast? How well did we really know Janice, Sweetums, Floyd Pepper, Statler & Waldorf, the pigs of "Pigs In Space?" Let's take a closer look at the characters who made the show such a timeless success.
The Swedish Chef: Bork Bork Bork
We don't know much about the Swedish Chef, probably because we can't understand a word he says. Fun fact: he annoys many actual Swedes, mainly because of the questions that non-Swedes ask about the character, including asking them to translate his gibberish. Swedes complain that the Chef's babble actually sounds closer to Norwegian. The singsong nature and rise and fall of his voice does seem to support this idea.
There is a Swedish chef who claims to be the inspiration for the character, but Henson may have been inspired simply by some Berlitz language tapes he had been listening to. The Chef is one of a few "live hand" Muppets (Rowlf, Fozzie Bear, Bunsen Honeydew, and Sam the Eagle were others) -- one puppeteer has a hand in the head of the puppet to do the mouth movements and wears a glove to be one of the Chef’s arms. A second puppeteer is the other arm of the puppet. This janky arrangement makes the Chef a bit uncoordinated -- all part of the comedy.
Statler and Waldorf: The Original Trolls
The two comedic curmudgeons in the balcony, who love to heckle and laugh at their own snide remarks, seem to have been named after New York City Hotels. (The Statler, which is on 7th Avenue across from Madison Square Garden, incidentally, was renamed the Hotel Pennsylvania in 1992.) How do you differentiate between these two characters who rely on their banter to create their humor? Waldorf, the character with the white hair and mustache has had a pacemaker for more than 30 years. Waldorf has a wife named Astoria, who looks a lot like Statler, who is distinguished by his gray hair.
Dr. Bunsen Honeydew: The Dangerous Professor
With his lab coat and his lensless glasses, Honeydew appears to be the stereotypical absentminded scientist. Honeydew graduated from Carnegie Melonhead University and performs experiments such as turning gold into cottage cheese. His inventions included a banana sharpener, a gorilla detector, and a robot politician. He worked solo during the first season, but his assistant, Beaker, was introduced in the second.
His first name came from Robert Bunsen, who was responsible for the Bunsen burner. His last name was a reference to the honeydew melon, which his head resembles, as well as Honeywell Labs. There was a rumor that Honeydew was based on Lew Grade, the man who owned ITC Entertainment, The Muppet Show's production company -- Henson denied it, but stated that he wished they had based Honeydew on Grade.
Beaker: Professional Guinea Pig
Beaker speaks, but always says the same thing -- it's basically a "mee-mee-mee" sound that denotes fear, surprise, and pain, all at the same time. Shaped like the laboratory equipment he is named for, he is the victim of Honeydew’s experiments and disastrous "demonstrations." Despite his very limited conversational skills, he has musical ability as well, singing with the Swedish Chef and Animal on one occasion, and performing “Feelings” as a solo act.
Beaker was one of the characters who was created specifically for the Muppet Show and not recycled from another source.
Sweetums: Larger Than Life
Sweetums was one of the only full body Muppets. He first appeared on tv in 1971 on a special, The Frog Prince. In the show, he was the ogre. The witch transforms Robin the Brave into a frog. The witch then calls the ogre Sweetums when she tells him that he can have the frog for breakfast. Sweetums later appeared in a duet with Cher on her variety show, singing “That Old Black Magic”. In 1976, he became a cast member on The Muppets.
Link Hogthrob: Heroic Pig
Link Hogthrob thinks he's a real ladies man and a gifted actor. Needless to say, the brainless character is neither. His vanity is also reflected in the fact that he wears a toupee.
Hogthrob was featured in the Pigs in Space sketches as the captain of the Swinetrek, a parody of Star Trek. Hmm, didn't William Shatner also wear a toupee...?
Sam The Eagle: You're All Weirdos
Sam the Eagle takes his role as a national symbol seriously and tries to maintain morality in the show, a job that takes all of his energy. Sam is disciplined and extremely patriotic, but often seems exhausted from policing the "weirdos" that surround him. Sam is quite self-important and is often caught lecturing about an ideal only to stop himself when he recognizes the hypocrisy in his lecture.
Sam the Eagle was created before the rise of contemporary conservative commentators, but there was a resurgence in conservativism during the years that The Muppet Show was broadcast -- coincidence? Who knows, maybe a few of today's Gen-X cable-news talking heads were inspired by Sam.
Janice: Like... Wow
Janice is the flower-child female guitarist in Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, the Mupper rock band. Janice was physically modeled after Mick Jagger and named for Janis Joplin. Her mother was named Daisy, and Janice speaks in a dippy drawl that morphed into Valley Girl-ese. She was originally performed by Eren Ozker during the first season, but has been performed by males ever since Ozker's departure.
Zoot: Aging Sax Machine
Zoot is the saxophone playing member of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, and the only thing we really know about him is that he is a “50-year old burnt-out musician,” according to Dave Goelz, his performer. Based on clues from the show, he may be Jewish, he may have been an alcoholic, and he doesn’t have a lot of money. (In the Great Muppet Caper, when Zoot has lost a pair of wax lips, Dr. Teeth wonders whether they might be in his other pants. "I don't have no other pants," Zoot replies.) Over the course of the show he had fewer lines and starts to rely on music to express himself. According to Bonnie Erickson, Zoot’s designer, she created him after seeing a picture of the tenor sax player, Gato Barbieri. Zoot played the final note in the show.
Floyd Pepper And Animal: A Dude And His... Whatever
Floyd Pepper is Animal’s caretaker and is sometimes in a relationship with Janice. Floyd’s performer, Jerry Nelson stated that he always thought of Pepper as a beatnik who got into music since he needed a job. His name and costume were inspired by the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (His name may have also been inspired by Pink Floyd, who took their name from bluesman Floyd Council.)
While certain members of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem were modeled after musicians, including Dr. Teeth himself, who was modeled on a combination of Dr. John and Elton John, there is no solid evidence to connect Animal to one specific drummer -- though he fits the stereotype of the drummer as wildman and party animal of a group. There has been speculation that he was based on Keith Moon or Mick Fleetwood. Unlike the other band members, Animal was created by Henson himself. Animal seems to be an embodiment of man unbridled, driven by his base desires: sleep, food, sex, and pain. He also loves his drums, though he sometimes thinks that he should eat the drums rather than beat the drums.
Tags: Beaker | Bunsen Honeydew | Cast Lists From Popular TV Shows | Popular Lists Of Everything From The Groovy Era | Remember This?... | Statler And Waldorf | Swedish Chef | The Muppets
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