Muppets for IBM

"Coffee Break Machine"

“Coffee Break Machine”

In 1965, IBM hired Jim Henson to make a number of short “industrial” films for their company, which were effectively intended as comedic shorts to break the tedium of long meetings. Later on, Jim would produce similar short pieces called the Muppet Meeting Films which could be used for any corporate client, and some of which were actually remakes of these early bits for IBM. I wasn’t able to get exact dates for all of these films, and some of them I know are from 1965, so I’ll be jumping backwards in the chronology a bit here, but it seemed like it would make most sense in this case to combine them all in one place.


What is likely the earliest of the set is a 4-part film starring Rowlf in which he writes home to his mom, documenting his first year as a salesdog for IBM, most of the humor coming from the fact that he thinks that he’s doing a fantastic job, completely oblivious to the signs that the head of IBM thinks he’s terrible and that his actual job performance is lousy. To be honest, I found this one a bit tedious overall. The idea is solid, there are some good laughs, and it’s an awesome, classic find–yet another from the era in which Rowlf was the central Muppet–but at least from today’s perspective, the pacing is very slow and the jokes don’t quite land well enough to fully justify how long they take to get to the punchlines. But I can imagine that, compared to the speeches given at whatever meetings where this was shown, it was probably a breath of fresh air and possibly even sidesplittingly hilarious. Even “lesser” Muppet material is better than hours of sitting through business executives trying to crack jokes to liven up their monotonous speeches! And you can experience Rowlf’s series of letters home yourself here.


Now, the next batch of films are much more entertaining. Compared to the Rowlf film, they’re blissfully brief and fast-paced, delivering sharp punchlines and satirizing the boredom of a business meeting, turning a meta, snarky, self-deprecating eye upon the meeting itself much as Jim would do for the television commercial format in his television commercials. The first seems to be one that would air at one of the same meetings as one of the Rowlf films (though I’m not sure if it would’ve been the one I saw, as I was only able to find one of the three), as it directly references the “dumb” film with the “dog with the long ears”. In this one, the camera is facing an auditorium full of businessmen Muppets, representing the POV of the men at the meeting. One cheerful one, played by the same puppet as Tinkerdee‘s Prime Minister, asks a grumpy one how he’s enjoying himself, and the man lays into the meeting, basically calling it endless and awful, and when the happy-go-lucky one optimistically tells him that there’ll be a coffee break soon, the man preemptively complains about how awful said coffee is going to be. “I think you’ll get a charge out of this,” the other one says, and naturally, because it’s the early Muppets, he blows Grumpy up! Which must have been a fantastic wake-up call to the poor guys drifting in their seats!


Kermit and Beautiful Day

Kermit and Beautiful Day

The second one, however, is even funnier because it actually takes a typical Muppet set-up and cleverly spins it on its ear. As it starts, Kermit is at the podium, delivering a speech. Interestingly, he introduces himself as Kermit the Frog, even though technically Kermit didn’t officially become a frog until 1968’s Hey Cinderella, when he was finally redesigned with his famous collar and flippers. Despite the fact that many people just assumed Kermit was a frog and so started thinking of him that way, Jim was resistant to turn his abstract figure into a particular animal. It seems from here, however, that he himself waffled a bit on the subject. And so, a bit confusingly, although Kermit does call himself a frog here, Jim hadn’t necessarily 100% made up his mind yet at this point. At least as far as I can tell. It is possible that this film is from later on, but given where it’s situated on the video I watched and the film quality itself, it seems older.


But anyway, returning to the film, in it, Kermit plans on giving a long speech about his list of the 97 basic approaches to selling that he’s learned over the years as a successful businessman. But suddenly a huge monster appears–his name is actually Beautiful Day, thanks to his role in a famous sketch we’ll be watching eventually–practically frightening the pants off Kermit, assuming he has any on underneath the podium. And said monster does not seem happy in his role of captive audience to this sales speech. Kermit, being an intelligent…frog (?) suddenly starts skipping ahead and abridging his speech, in a desperate attempt to survive. But given earlier sketches, we as viewers are convinced that these efforts will be in vain, and, remember, the Muppet sketches were pretty well known as this point, so audience members would have likely had the same reaction, just waiting for him to be gobbled up. But then our resourceful amphibian decides to cut off the rest of the speech all together and just announce a coffee break and…a grateful Beautiful Day gives him a sweet kiss on the cheek in tender gratitude.


The third in this set is probably the most relatively well-known. At the time, it was so well-received that Jim would recreate it for an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show as well as on The Muppet Show, years later. It stars the early version of Cookie Monster, looking very much as he did as the Wheel Stealer, therefore still with a full set of fangs, however his voice is now much closer to what it is today, although it’s not quite fully there yet. In this terrific bit, Fanged Cookie enters a room to discover an automated, talking coffee machine that looks like an old-fashioned–though, at the time, high-tech–computer, and which describes itself as being an extremely complex, top-of-the-line machine, a fantastic sci-fi gag on what people back then considered to be the future. This would likely have been particularly funny to IBM workers in particular. Well, what does our ever-hungry blue monster do upon finding it but begin to devour it, expensive piece by expensive piece, the computer voice all the while describing the very bits that Cookie is tearing off and eating? Probably the best part is when the monster picks off a piece that the gradually-winding-down computer describes as being the cheapest component, and in response, he tosses it away, apparently unwilling to consume any inferior electronics!




The ending twist comes when the computer gets to the bit about its having a vandal deterrent program, which turns out to be a self-destruct device that finally goes off, exploding proto-Cookie presumably to bits. Which besides being yet another great Muppet-sketch-ending kaboom is a really clever dig at fancy technology that’s either unnecessary, faulty, or both, because yes, the program does its job but it only does it once the machine’s been completely devoured anyway, and that’s before we get to the more ridiculous aspect which is that it wards off vandals by destroying itself completely, thus doing their job (so to speak) for them! You can watch all three of these films here.


And then there’s another one I found, in which a very excitable business executive Muppet who seems like a personality mash-up between the Muppet Newsman and Guy Smiley, in that he begins in a quite sedate, sincere fashion and then grows increasingly crazier, bursting to the rafters with passion and an utter lack of composure. He starts off compassionately telling his employees that he understands that at times there might seem like there is a great chasm between management and the average worker, who might feel snowed under by their unfair expectations, but he would like this to change! He’d like to make “your” problems, his problems! And while at the start, you might question his sincerity, as his speech continues, he gets more and more excited, offering to do whatever his employees need–watch their kids, walk their dog, whatever it is, HE WANTS TO HELP!!! As he goes on and on, lovely Christmas music starts playing gently in the background and snow begins to fall, heavier and heavier, finally covering him completely, while he continues to rave in full-on Muppet mode! And here it is!


And the final film I watched is entirely Muppet-free. Called The Paperwork Explosion, it was meant to introduce IBM’s new Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter and is mostly fascinating today to see the repeated imagery of an office full of people–at IBM, no less–working on typewriters and producing tons upon tons of paperwork, rather than simply typing on word processing programs at personal desktop computers, which would likely have seemed an unattainable dream back then. Typical of his artsy work at the time, Jim uses lots of strong visual imagery, such as showing piles of paperwork actually exploding repeatedly, sending countless reams of white sheets of paper flying through the air, and manages to bring even more humor to the piece by counterpointing talking head “interviews” of office workers discussing all of the paperwork they have to deal with an interview with an old farmer, also pontificating on “life today”:



And come back on Thursday for my look at Tale of Sand, a recent graphic novel based on a bizarre, stream-of-consciouness screenplay that Jim and Jerry Juhl collaborated on in the late 60s!


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