James Arness’s Gunsmoke marshal, Matt Dillon, made his first appearance on television in 1955.
So did Hugh O’Brien’s dandified Wyatt Earp, Phil Silvers’ fast-talking Sgt. Ernie Bilko, and Alfred Hitchcock, as his droll, rotund self.
But only one of these iconic TV characters’ chronological contemporaries is still with us and, amazingly, still getting work. That would be Kermit the Frog.
Kermit will be the front man – or should we say front amphibian? – of The Muppets, an update/revival of The Muppet Show, a weekly series that was in first-run syndication for five seasons (1976-81). The new ABC edition is scheduled to premiere on Tuesday, September 22, at 8 p.m. ET.
A beloved Muppet song informed us years ago that being green isn’t easy. Being evergreen may be more difficult still. Forget about Kermit’s frail human counterparts. Not even his puppet peers fared as well. When did you last see Howdy Doody, Ollie the dragon or Lamb Chop on your flat screen?
Kermit is the primordial Muppet, first glimpsed 60 years ago as a character on Sam and Friends (right), a children’s TV show that innovative puppeteer Jim Henson created for a local station in Washington, D.C. Within a year, Kermit and other Muppets from Henson’s stable were doing prime-time guest shots with the likes of Arthur Godfrey and Steve Allen. By 1960, Kermit and his fuzzy, felt friends were showing up regularly on NBC’s Today Show by way of live cut-ins from Sam and Friends’ home at WRC-TV in Washington.
For a time in the early 1960s, Kermit’s stardom was eclipsed by that of Rowlf, a shaggy-dog Muppet who was bred for a Purina commercial and ended up bantering with country music star Jimmy Dean on his prime-time ABC variety show for five seasons in the mid-1960s.
Kermit regained the spotlight when he and a gaggle of Muppets (e.g., Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, Count von Count) became mainstays of a public-television children’s show, Sesame Street, which won a Peabody in its first year, 1969, and a second in 1989.
The widespread recognition and affection that accrued from Kermit and company’s Sesame Street roles made possible The Muppet Show, though it wasn’t as easy a sell as one might assume. Two pilot shows were produced but the networks passed on both. Henson ended up accepting an offer to work with Sir Lew Grade’s organization in England to produce a show for worldwide syndication – an homage/parody of vaudeville-style variety shows with human celebrities interacting with a veritable herd of Muppets.
The rest is, of course, history: Muppet movies, Muppet record albums, animated series for kids, TV specials. Kermit even got to guest host The Tonight Show in 1979, the only frog ever to sit in for Johnny Carson.
The Muppet Show was awarded a Peabody in 1978, the board of jurors praising the “gentle satire, the clever characters, the fantasy and the genuine good humor” that made it “entertainment for all members of the family.”
In 1986, a second Peabody was bestowed the Muppets and their creator for their entire body of work. The citation noted that, “In honoring Jim Henson, the Peabody Board also honors Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog and a myriad cast of others, all of whom document that America is still a nation where ‘rags to riches’ dreams do come true and where even pigs and frogs don’t have to present an American Express card to be instantly recognizable. A personal Peabody to Jim Henson and the Muppets for 30 years of good, clean fun and outstanding entertainment!”
ABC’s rebooted Muppet series is going to be a bit more “adult” than the old one, a spoof that will take viewers behind the scenes of a talk show, Up Late with Miss Piggy. ABC is making comparisons to The Office, but The Larry Sanders Show (another Peabody winner!) may be a more apt analogy. Piggy is the temperamental on-air talent and Kermit her harried executive producer. Press materials indicate that the long-time twosome have ended their romantic relationship and that Kermit is dating another pig, a brunette named Denise.
It’s time to get things started….
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