This week, "Muppets Most Wanted" barges into theaters, and with it a whole host of crazy characters both familiar (Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Animal) and relatively new (the indistinct Walter, '80s Robot). The Muppets have always been unforgettable characters, but just how well you remember some of the more obscure characters depends largely on your dedication to Muppet lore and how much time you enjoy spending outdoors.
Still, we thought it would be a fun time to take a look back of the Muppets that you might not remember (or even know were Muppets). It's hard not to get choked up at the scope and depth of creation that Jim Henson and his talented confederates were able to conjure with bits of felt and halved ping pong balls. Henson died tragically more than 25 years ago, and his legacy remains as fresh and inventive as ever. These are creations that people will be picking apart for decades to come. In other words: pure imagination.
Now, let's take a look back at the little-seen, underappreciated, or just plain weird Muppets.
Gallery | The 10 Most Forgotten Muppets in Movie & TV History
The planet Koozebane was commonly referenced in the "Pigs in Space" sections of "The Muppet Show," and the characters have memorably been featured across a number of Muppet properties. The very best appearance might have been when Kermit, in his guise as an investigative reporter, visits Koozebane to comment on Koozebanian mating rituals. There's no part of the Muppet Galaxy that hasn't been infected by Koozebanian life forms -- The Extremes, an intergalactic pop band that performed "Neutron Dance" on "The Jim Henson Hour," are thought to be Koozebanians, while Koozebanians have made appearances on "Muppet Babies," "Little Muppet Monsters" (there it is again!) and into videogames like 2003's "Muppet Party Cruise." The best, most obscure appearance by the Koozebanians was probably in "City Kids," a short-lived ABC series that combined MTV-style comedy and editorial styles, with educational and health segments and really bizarre puppets that no one ever, ever saw again. How Koozebanians fit into a pseudo-realistic show set in the actual New York inner city kind of boggles the mind. In a good way.
Waldo was one of the more cutting edge creations that Henson brought to life, and one of the most easily forgotten. Waldo (full name: Waldo C. Graphic), was a computer-generated creation and a precursor what we know today as performance or motion capture (think Gollum in "LOTR"). Using a retrofitted glove-type device (similar to how the puppeteers would control things like the Doozers on "Fraggle Rock"), longtime Henson puppeteer Steve Whitmire would control the floating, blobby character known as Waldo, who would appear on screen in real time. (Later render passes would make the character more full and dimensional.) He was an impish, impulsive figure who was able to transform into a number of objects and was introduced, along with a whole host of other new characters, on the short-lived but deeply brilliant "The Jim Henson Hour" television show. His only additional appearance was in the equally brilliant "Muppet*Vision 3D" movie that plays at Walt Disney World's Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disney California Adventure in Anaheim. Interestingly, he was created with the help of Pacific Data Images, a company that would go on to become the computer animation house for DreamWorks SKG, creating movies like "Shrek" and "Madagascar."
Some of the most underrated Muppets are the "full-bodied Muppets," like Sweetums and Big Bird, and Doglion (left) is probably the most marginalized of that already esoteric bunch. He looks sort of like Sweetums or the Lucheon Counter Monster (or one of the monsters from "Where the Wild Things Are"), with a big, open mouth, giant eyes, thick fur and sharp horns and he's been around for a while. Doglion has made appearances on everything from the original "Muppet Show" (where he danced with Lesley Ann Warren and romanced Madeline Kahn) to the "Muppet Movie" to the ill-fated "Muppets Tonight" television show (more on that in a minute). What's even more notable about Doglion is who has puppeteered him over the years -- Muppet all-stars including Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, Jim Henson, Dave Goelz, and Kevin Clash.
- Camilla the Chicken
Gonzo obviously loves chickens. And the chicken love of his life is Camilla. Not that you would know that this chicken has a name, or is different from any of the other interchangeable chicken Muppets that have littered the airwaves and movie screens since this whole thing began. (This theory actually has some bearing, as Jim Henson and Dave Goelz figured that Gonzo could never tell which chicken was which and so he just assumed whatever chicken he was with was Camilla.) But Muppet purists know that Camilla can be identified by her blue eye shadow and uppity personality. She has appeared in everything from "The Muppet Movie" to the "Muppets Most Wanted" predecessor "The Muppets," and can even be seen in the "Muppet Babies" TV series as a ragdoll that a young Gonzo imagines comes to life. Bizarre, but true.
So now we're getting into Deep Muppet Canon™ -- in 1974 and 1975, two separate pilots were aired for what would eventually become "The Muppet Show." One was called "The Muppet Valentine Show," that aired in 1974 and is barely discernible as "The Muppet Show" we would all know and love. The other pilot, "The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence," aired a year later, and more closely resembles the eventual "Muppet Show." Except for one key difference: it was hosted by Nigel, one of the more boring Muppets of all time (until, of course, Walter). Nigel looks sort of like a paler version of Kermit, with a weird hairline and a suit, and when "The Muppet Show" eventually aired he was downgraded from dour host to equally dour conductor of the Muppet Orchestra. Supposedly, the creatives thought that he was "too wimpy" to host the show, and rightfully gave the assignment to Kermit (Henson puppeteered both creatures). He's been around since, even appearing in "Muppets Tonight," but now he's just a footnote. Hopefully Walter will follow in his footsteps.
- Tug, Boo, and Molly
The success of the animated "Muppet Babies" series begat another Henson show aimed at little kids, broadcasting on Saturday morning in a one-hour programming block. "Little Muppet Monsters," a pseudo-spin-off, only aired three episodes on CBS before being shit-canned (18 episodes were produced), which is a shame because, at least from a format perspective, it was equally ambitious (if not more so) as "Muppet Babies." The series combined new Muppet segments, headlined by three new Muppet monster siblings (Tug, Boo, and Molly), animated segments, resurrected segments like "Pigs in Space," and cameos from notable Muppet characters including Kermit and members of the Electric Mayhem, who featured prominently. Also, it has one of the catchiest theme songs from that period in Muppetdom. Just good luck finding anyone to sing along with.
- Bruno the Trashman
Everyone knows Oscar the Grouch, the cranky monster on "Sesame Street" who lives in a garbage can and has a genuinely awful disposition. But how many people remember Bruno the Trashman, the guy who carries Oscar around? The character was originally devised for live performances as a way to move Oscar around (Bruno was, like Oscar, performed by Caroll Spinney), but later became part of the show's canon, even appearing, in a weirdly poignant moment, at the end of feature-length "Sesame Street" movie "Follow That Bird" (a favorite of Spinney's). Bruno is an orange humanoid character who wears a denim jumpsuit and has a surly expression befitting someone who spends all of his time carrying around Oscar.
- Johnny Fiama
There are obscure Muppets and then there's Johnny Fiama, a Muppet that had a fair amount of play, for a little while at least, but whose appearances in less-than-stellar Muppet productions has left him an outlier worthy of a Malcolm Gladwell book. Fiama is a Frank Sinatra-style lounge singer who, it's implied, is mobbed up in some capacity (his features and general look imply that he is an Italian American). He first appeared on "Muppets Tonight," ABC's ill-fated attempt to bring back the spirit and energy of "The Muppet Show" a half decade after Henson's untimely death, and was subsequently seen in the TV movie "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz," a web series centered around curmudgeonly balcony-dwellers Statler and Waldorf and the ingenious "Bohemian Rhapsody" viral video that predated "The Muppets" movie. For a character that has had a fair amount of play since the late-'90s, does anyone even know who he is? Could you recall his name? Didn't think so.
- The Ghost of Faffner Hall
I distinctly remember having very, er, heated conversations with my parents about what we were going to watch -- since "The Cosby Show" (which had a weird "The Jim Henson Hour" tie-in episode) and the utterly bizarre "Ghost of Faffner Hall" aired at the same time, on some little pay cable channel called HBO. This could be my imagination, but I'm pretty sure this is correct. The actual Ghost of Faffner Hall was a founder of a music conservatory who dies, leaving her great-great-grandnephew, who hates music, in charge. So, of course, the ghost has to pick up the slack and teach kids about music and whatnot. It was really bizarre, even for this period of Muppet-dom, but all of the design work was flawless, including the spectral matriarch Fughetta Faffner, the product of the Henson team's increasingly experimental puppet production methods, which would combine plastics and silicone along with more traditional felt materials. Also the series featured really amazing cameos by Thomas Dolby and James Taylor. ***Flawless
- Cantus the Minstrel
Perhaps one of the more ambitious things Jim Henson ever embarked on, from a thematic and storytelling standpoint, was "Fraggle Rock." This was a bold, experimental work about the interconnectivity of nature and the symbiotic relationships that are formed all around us. It also featured some truly amazing characters, existing over four narrative "plains" -- the human world, the underground world of the cute monsters the Fraggles, the Doozers, a small, workmanlike race within the Fraggle world, and the aboveground world of the Gorgs, a bunch of monstrous, pig-headed "rulers of the universe." One of the more endearing characters to ever appear on "Fraggle Rock," though, was Cantus, voiced (and sung) by Jim Henson himself, a kind of spiritual wise man who has one of the more unforgettable songs in the history of the series. This character, who only appeared in a handful of episodes, spoke to the genuine, nearly mystical spirituality of the series and its profound humanity, even though one character was actually human. Cantus is also such an important character because he's clearly a stand-in for Henson, who resembles the character in more than a few ways.