The Wizard of Id, Etc.

Today, once more we have a number of shorter Henson clips to look at before returning to the first season of Sesame Street the day after tomorrow. We begin with The Wizard of Id, a brief pilot based on the famous comic strip by Johnny Hart and Brant Parker, which was first launched in 1964 and continues to run to this very day. Although the show never came to be–apparently by the time the creators of Id started to demonstrate interest in the project, Jim already became too busy with Sesame Street and other projects–it’s significant as being the first time that Jim and his team ever designed puppets based on someone else’s work. Here, it was three puppets designed to look like characters from the strip.


One could also see why Jim might have been less interested in it because it wasn’t his own work. The script also isn’t as inspired as those written for his own characters and feels very much like short back-and-forth comic strip scenes brought to life in succession. It’s even entirely possible that they did just use lines from the original strips, but either way it has a rather choppy quality. Now, it’s also possible that that is because this was just a brief 5-minute pilot and they would have broken out of this format had they filmed a full episode or went to series. But as it is, this feels more like a curiosity than a truly intriguing what-might-have-been such as Tales of the Tinkerdee is. It does, however, end on a cute bit in which the Wizard blows up each of the characters, then himself, saying: “Yes, sir, it’s a standard Muppet finale. If you don’t know how to end it, go out with a–” BANG!



The second clip is from a half-hour special called The Muppets Make Puppets, which Jim filmed for PBS in 1969, as a companion to another special, Muppet Puppet Plays, both of which were meant as follow-ups to The Muppets on Puppets, the special that we took a look at last week. This 15-minute clip covers a lot of the same ground as The Muppets on Puppets (it even recreates the Rowlf-discovers-he’s-a-puppet gag, albeit an abridged version of it), particularly in regards in how it teaches how to use simple things you have at home to make your own puppets, but it’s always great to hear Jim talking about his craft, thanks both to his level of knowledge and warmth.


Although he’s an expert, he speaks to the presumably child audience without a trace of condescension, eager to show them how to do what he does, even if it isn’t with quite as sophisticated a set of tools. Don Sahlin is back too but this time doesn’t say a word. I have to wonder if it was the only way Jim could get him to agree to do it at all, given how uncomfortable he seemed on camera in the previous show!


There’s also a really interesting moment where Jim is demonstrating various puppets, including one by the famous puppet/stuffed animal company, Steiff, and he criticizes it for not being pliable enough for performance, while conceding that it might be due to the size of his hands vs. children’s hands, which it was ostensibly designed for. I was really impressed to see him take such a well-known producer of puppets to task–while also giving them the benefit of the doubt–especially since a lot of the puppets sold in stores may look beautiful but aren’t actually flexible enough to do what they are supposedly intended to do. At the same time, it shows children that handmade stuff you put together yourself can be superior to and more rewarding than higher-quality products in stores.


It also features an appearance by Rufus helping Jim and Don out and, near the end, has an absolutely magical moment in which Jim accidentally calls him “Rowlf” and then apologizes. The sincerity of his apology, as well as Rufus’ natural reaction are a perfect example of how these characters became real as soon as they were animated by puppeteers. Jim may have thought of them as props off-camera but as soon as they were brought to life, the illusion was clearly complete for him, as well, and as we’ll later see in Muppet outtakes, the Muppet puppeteers don’t break character when the camera stops or when bloopers occur, instead continuing to improv, so that the characters remain as alive as possible.



Next up, we have something very relevant to the impending Sesame Street, which is yet another commercial featuring Cookie-Monster-before-he-was-Cookie-Monster. Here, however, he’s much closer to the Cookie we know and love. For one, he has finally lost the sharp fangs, which instantly transforms his face into the softer, gentler one we know today. Now, he looks more funny than ferocious. Secondly, his voice, while still not exactly right, is also much more recognizable in tone to what it would become. The only other real difference is that here he’s gaga for Munchos chips, rather than…you know.



And here you can see a very similar variation on the same basic ad.


We end on a May 11, 1969 performance on The Ed Sullivan Show of a sketch called “Happy Girl Meets a Monster”. Now, this was neither the first nor the last time that the Muppets would perform this sketch. The first known version was on March 26, 1963 on the Today show, apparently based on an idea they’d originally worked out for the traffic safety ads that never aired. A revised version appeared on The Tonight Show on Oct 29, 1968, and then this Ed Sullivan appearance, with both voices done by Jim. It would even appear again in the second season of The Muppet Show, which is what a lot of people today might recognize it from, although there it was performed not with two hand puppets but the very human Madeline Kahn and the full-body Muppet, Doglion.


Beautiful Day and Little Girl Sue

Beautiful Day and Little Girl Sue


But basically, it’s about a sweet, optimistic little girl, called Little Girl Sue, reveling in what a beautiful day it is outside (which is why the monster in the sketch with her was dubbed “Beautiful Day”), and the grumpy, killjoy monster ruining it at every turn, at one point magically producing dark stormclouds and rain to block out the sun, at another devouring the flower she’s admiring. Finally, the little girl has her revenge by telling him he’s so perfectly awful that he’s actually beautiful, which makes him feel bad about his behavior, start to blush, and eventually shrink in shame, until he’s so small that Sue is able to surprise him and squash him flat with a fly-swatter: “You gotta talk your troubles down to a size where you can handle ’em,” she says, such a great twist on the typical Monster-eats-innocent-Muppet dynamic. Here the seeming victim beats him at his own game, proving she has a wicked streak herself. Unfortunately this clip is no longer available online.


And come back this evening for my review of tonight’s episode of The Muppets on ABC (airing at 8 pm eastern)!

« »