What’s My Line, Etc.

Kermit and Jim on "What's My Line?"

Kermit and Jim on “What’s My Line?”

And now, for the first time in a very long time–given how much footage I found for Sesame Street season 6 and my unexpectedly extended hiatus–we have another assemblage of miscellaneous Jim Henson-related clips, all of which range from late 1974 to early 1975.


The most interesting is probably the first one, an appearance that Jim and Kermit made on What’s My Line?, which aired on November 16th, 1974. What’s My Line? was a game show that began in 1950 and ran all the way through 1975 in which a panel consisting of 4 celebrity guests would at first try to guess a contestant’s occupation through yes or no questions, and then, in the second round, be blindfolded in order to guess the identity of a mystery guest. In this particular episode, the panel was made up of actress Arlene Francis, famous psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers, singer and actor Jack Cassidy, and comedian Soupy Sales (perhaps best known for controversially encouraging kids to steal money from their parents and send it to him, which many did!), and the celebrity guests were Jim Henson and Kermit!


The clip (which you can watch for yourself here) is fascinating for a number of reasons, firstly because, by this point, What’s My Line?, nearing the end of its run, was in many ways a relic of the early days of television that had still managed to hang on all of this time and as such was a show that Jim would have been very familiar with. In fact, having premiered 5 years before Sam and Friends, it would have very likely been one of the shows that played a part in inspiring a young Jim to make a career in television entertainment, and now, all of these years later, Jim actually got the chance to be a celebrity guest on it. Since Jim aspired to work in TV but not necessarily to have been a star himself, the younger him probably never would have imagined this sort of thing happening.


Kermit in a wig.

Kermit in a wig.

Another thing that’s unusual about this appearance is that, although Jim is speaking through Kermit throughout the questions and answers, he actually creates entirely new voices so that the panel won’t recognize his voice, making it almost seem like an even older clip from the Sam and Friends era, before Jim had settled on a specific Kermit voice and therefore he wouldn’t always have a consistent sound from sketch to sketch. At various points here, Kermit has three distinct voices, one that’s deep and nasal, one that sounds like a cowboy–Jim puts a cowboy hat on Kermit’s head to complement it–and one that sounds like a high-pitched little girl, with accompanying blonde, braided wig, the cross-dressing another echo of the Sam and Friends days.


As with Jim’s earlier on-camera TV appearances, he’s clearly more comfortable when speaking through Kermit than as himself, which might be why he elected to have Kermit on his arm despite not using the frog’s normal voice until after the panel take off their masks, instead of simply just doing voices. Also, although the Muppets had become a household name by this point and Kermit eminently recognizable, Jim’s face still wasn’t as known, as far as I know, or at least not without Kermit there to help the audience identify him, which was probably another reason. Still, though, what’s interesting is that Jim definitely seems to be getting more at ease with the situation than when he was on Dick Cavett, for example. Once the game is over and the panel gets the chance to ask him questions, he isn’t quite as uncomfortable with the process as he used to be, so he’s becoming gradually more accustomed at this point to being in front of an audience as himself.


Still, the most magical moments here are, naturally, when he’s performing Kermit, who provides most of the humor, allowing him to crack jokes with more ease and abandon than he would as Jim. For example, when Arlene Francis asks if he’s performing with a thing, Kermit says, in cowboy voice, “I wouldn’t say thing. I’d find that rather insulting.” And when she asks if he’s with a puppet, Kermit concedes, “Partly, yes…” Then there’s a great bit where she asks if she hears wheels going around somewhere, and Kermit gives a wide-eyed look of surprise which is just a great example of how much expression Jim could get out of Kermit with just the subtlest of movements, because really, Kermit is just very simple fabric, and yet when animated by Jim, you can absolutely see the frog’s face change and a look of surprise come across it.


Soon afterwards, Soupy Sales is actually the one who realizes who the guest is, and in a lovely preamble before making his guess, he’s so certain he’s right that he declares that “If it’s who I think it is, I’d like to go on record and say that I’m their biggest fan, and without them, the show [Sesame Street] would be nothing”. And then funnily enough for a big fan, Sales stumbles on the name, saying, “Jim Henson and the Puppets–the Muppets!” And of course he’s right, then going on to point out how they’d worked together before, both on The Jimmy Dean Show and Ed Sullivan.


Cowboy Kermit

Cowboy Kermit

But returning to Kermit, he continues to bring the funny throughout the rest of the segment, with Jim playing the straight man. When host Larry Blyden realizes he’s been rude in only addressing his questions to Jim and ignoring Kermit, Kermit replies, “Pay no attention to the frog, folks!” in a mock-huffy tone. Eventually, Blyden decides to flip it around and after previously asking how Jim comes up with his characters, asks Kermit how he came up with Jim! Without skipping a beat, Kermit replies, “The beard was the hardest part.”


Another nifty thing about this segment is how we get to hear Jim discussing other projects going on at the time. Blyden raises the point that, in other countries, puppets were considered an adult entertainment whereas America seems to have a stigma about them only being for children, and Jim responds that he’s currently working on a Muppet show for adults. We’ve, of course, already seen the first Muppet Show pilot, and indeed the second one, Sex and Violence, will be the subject of our very next post! And then Joyce Brothers asks Jim about something she’d recently heard about Jim using Cookie Monster to teach children about nutrition, and he responds that they’d recently shot a PSA for the Nutrition Council with him “mostly to offset all those cookies we forced down his throat!” And learning about that PSA here inspired me to check YouTube and, sure enough, I was able to find it, and we’ll be looking at that next!


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