As we near Thanksgiving this year, we also near the release of the newest Muppets movie today. “The Muppets” is being brought to us by writers Jason Segel (of “How I Met Your Mother” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” fame) and Nicholas Stoller (“Get Him to the Greek,” “Yes Man”) and director James Bobin (“Flight of the Conchords”). This year’s franchise reboot is hoping to breathe life back into Jim Henson’s lovable family of puppets, who have been missing from the big screen for over a decade.

Blast put together a Muppet timeline that chronicles the ups and downs of the Muppet gang from its beginning in 1969 to the current day.

1955 – 1961: Five Minutes With “Sam and Friends” student from the University of Maryland named Jim Henson creates a five minute show, called “Sam and Friends,” that airs twice every day on Washington D.C.’s NBC affiliate WRC-TV. The show features a title human character named Sam who is accompanied by a silly group of puppets, which are created and voiced by Henson. Voices are also provided by (Henson’s future wife) Jane Nebel, Bob Payne, and Jerry Juhl. “Sam and Friends” introduced viewers to puppets Kermit (not considered a frog yet), Professor Madcliffe, Chicken Liver, Pierre the French Rat, Yorick, and many others. As “Sam and Friends” grew in popularity, the characters began making appearances on other popular shows, such as NBC’s “Today”, “The Ed Sullivan Show”, and “The Jimmy Dean Show”. Check out the video below for a glimpse of Kermit on “Sam and Friends” before he became a star:

Bert, Ernie, Betty Lou, Roosevelt Franklin, Gordon and Susan on the first season of "Sesame Street"

November 10, 1969: “Sesame Street” Makes its Television Debut After over a decade of development, Jim Henson’s refined cast of puppets breaks into the spotlight with the premiere of “Sesame Street.” The television show, created by TV documentary producer Joan Ganz Cooney, aims to give pre-schoolers an education through entertainment. Families are introduced to classic characters such as Kermit the Frog, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Grover, and Bert and Ernie. Jim Henson combines the words marionette and puppet and deems his creations “Muppets.”

Scred and Ploobis with Raquel Welch on "SNL", April 24th 1976

1975: Muppets Grow Up On First Season of “Saturday Night Live” With the debut of “Saturday Night Live,” Jim Henson sees an opportunity to cater the Muppets to adult audiences rather than kids. The first ten episodes of “SNL” contain a segment that features Muppet characters Ploobis and Scred. Ploobis and Scred’s sketches frequently include adult subject matter such as drunkenness, affairs, and sex toys. As the first season comes to a close and the second begins, SNL’s writers express displeasure in having to write Ploobis and Scred sketches. The characters cease to appear on the show by April of 1976.

January 29, 1976: “The Muppet Show” Debuts

After the mishap with “Saturday Night Live,” Jim Henson decides to take a new approach with the Muppets: appealing to kids and parents alike. As if to signal a fresh start, “The Muppet Show” stars an entirely new (with the exception of Kermit the Frog) ensemble cast of Muppets that includes Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Gonzo the Great, geezer duo Statler and Waldorf, and countless others. In it’s run from 1976 to 1981, the show lands 21 Primetime Emmy nominations, four Emmy wins, three BAFTA awards, and a Peabody Award in 1979.

June 22, 1979: “The Muppet Movie” Hits the Big Screen

With “The Muppet Show” hitting it’s stride, Henson recognizes the potential for a film. “The Muppet Movie” provides an origin story for the Muppet gang, explaining how each of the major characters (Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, etc) met one another and how they began their journey to Hollywood together. The film is a box office smash, making $65.2 million domestically, which equates to $202.7 million today. It also does well critically, garnering a Golden Globe nomination and two Academy Award nominations (all for music). Roger Ebert gives “The Muppet Movie” 3.5 out of 4 stars and Variety magazine calls the film “a well-crafted combo of musical comedy and fantasy adventure.”

1981: “The Great Muppet Caper” and the end of “The Muppet Show”

The spring of 1981 brings about the series conclusion of “The Muppet Show,” which airs its final episode with guest Shirley Bassey on March 15th. The show has aired a total of 120 episodes and run for a total of five seasons. The show is cancelled not due to lack of interest but rather Jim Henson wishing to devote more of his time to other projects, particularly his upcoming film “The Dark Crystal”, to be released in December of 1982.

Almost two years to the exact day after “The Muppet Movie” premiered, the Muppets return to the big screen with “The Great Muppet Caper.” In this film, Kermit and Fozzie play twin brothers who are newspaper reporters for The Daily Chronicle. When fashion designer Lady Holiday’s valuable diamond necklace is stolen, Kermit and Fozzie are put on the case. In their travels, they meet up with other Muppets like Rowlf, Scooter, and Miss Piggy, all of them playing characters other than themselves. “The Great Muppet Caper” is another box office success (though not as popular as the previous movie), making $31.2 million. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $77.7 million today. The film doesn’t do as well critically, with Roger Ebert calling it, “too nice, too routine, too predictable, and too safe.”

1983: “Fraggle Rock”

Two years after “The Muppet Show” saw its last episode, Jim Henson uses the popularity of the Muppets to bring a new puppet show into the spotlight – “Fraggle Rock”. The new show focuses on a race of human-like Muppets called Fraggles, who come in a variety of colors and live in caves. The idea of “Fraggle Rock” is to create an internationally relatable and translatable version of “Sesame Street”. Like he’s done before, Henson introduces an entirely new and separate bunch of Muppets with the Fraggles, and likewise no classic Muppet characters make guest appearances on the show. Following in the footsteps of “The Muppet Show”, “Fraggle Rock” is a hit, airing for five seasons with a total of 96 episodes.

1984: “The Muppets Take Manhattan”

In their third film appearance, the Muppets decide to give Broadway a try, attempting to get their own musical onto the stages of New York City. “The Muppets Take Manhattan” sees the gang playing themselves again, as opposed to playing separate characters like they did in the previous film. For the first time, the Muppet Babies are introduced in a flashback – these baby characters will resurface in a future Saturday morning cartoon. “The Muppets Take Manhattan” is also the first Muppet movie to be directed by Frank Oz, the voice of Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Animal, Cookie Monster and others. Though “Manhattan” does not fair as well at the box office as its predecessors, it still makes $25.5 million domestically.

“The Muppets Take Manhattan” is the last Muppet film that Henson will see released in theaters before his death in May of 1990.

Newspaper article about the London memorial for Jim Henson

May 16th, 1990: Jim Henson Dies from Bacterial Pneumonia

By the beginning of May, 1990, Jim Henson had begun experiencing flu-like symptoms. On May 12, while on a family trip to North Carolina to see his father and stepmother, he visits a local doctor who finds no signs of pneumonia. Henson takes an early flight home to New York and visits with his then separated wife Jane. In the early morning hours of May 15th, he finally gives into pressure from Jane to go to the hospital. Jim’s condition rapidly deteriorates, causing him to pass away the next morning.

After Henson’s death, two public memorial services are held – one in New York and one in London. Following a stipulation set forth by Jim himself, attendees are forbidden to wear black. Each service features performances from the Muppets as well as a solo by Big Bird. Printed on each program is a quote taken from a letter that Henson wrote to his children four years prior to his death: “Please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody. It’s a good life, enjoy it.”

1991 – 1994: “Dinosaurs”

Just prior to his death, Jim Henson had been working on a new idea for a sitcom called “Dinosaurs”. The half-hour comedy begins airing in April of 1991 on ABC. The show follows a family of dinosaurs who live a human-like life complete with living in houses, paying taxes, and working 9-5 jobs.

The project is a collaboration between Michael Jacobs Productions, The Jim Henson Company, and Disney’s Touchstone Entertainment. “Dinosaurs” is the first Henson production to rely heavily on animatronics, which were developed by Brian Henson’s (Jim’s son) company London Creature Shop.

1992: “The Muppets Christmas Carol”

“The Muppets Christmas Carol” is the first time the Muppets reappear after Jim Henson’s death. The film, directed by Jim’s son Brian Henson, provides a Muppet-reimagining of Charles Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol, replacing many of the characters with Muppets. Gonzo plays Dickens himself, narrating a tale that features Kermit as Bob Crachit, Miss Piggy as Emily Crachit, Fozzie Bear as Fozziewig, and Michael Caine as Scrooge. “The Muppets Christmas Carol” reestablishes the Muppets’ relevance after an eight year absence from the big screen. The movie takes in $27.2 million domestically.

1996: “Muppet Treasure Island”

Like “The Muppet Christmas Carol” before it, “Muppet Treasure Island” adapts a classic story by casting the Muppets in the story’s major roles. Tim Curry, Kevin Bishop and Billy Connolly make up the non-Muppet cast, playing Long John Silver, Jim Hawkins, and Billy Bones respectively. Roger Ebert gives the film 2.5 out of 4 stars, calling it “a near miss”. “Muppet Treasure Island” makes $34.3 million in domestic box offices.

1996 – 1998: “Muppets Tonight”

With hopes of resurrecting the magic of “The Muppet Show”, “Muppets Tonight” begins airing in March of 1996. However, the show fails to attract the audiences that the old show once did and “Tonight” is pulled after two seasons and 22 episodes. Despite being a failure, the series did introduce a handful of new Muppets, including Pepe the King Prawn and Bobo the Bear (both of which appear in the latest Muppet movie “The Muppets”).

1999: “Muppets from Space”

The sixth Muppet feature film spelled disaster for the franchise, suffering both financially and critically. With a reported budget of $24 million (BoxOfficeMojo), the movie grosses just $16.6 million domestically. Most critics pan “Muppets from Space”, describing serious franchise fatigue and remarking that the Muppets are quickly becoming irrelevant. Roger Ebert gives the film 2 out of 4 stars and writes in his review: “Maybe ‘Muppets from Space’ is just not very good, and they’ll make a comeback. I hope so. Because I just don’t seem to care much anymore.” Everybody seems to agree that “Muppets from Space” is the proverbial final nail in the coffin.

2002 & 2005: The Muppets Are Reduced to Made-for-TV Movies

In an attempt to prevent the Muppets from fading completely from public memory, two made-for-television films are broadcasted on TV: “It’s a Very Muppet Christmas Movie” in 2002 and “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz” in 2005. Star-power alone fails to save “Christmas,” which features the likes of David Arquette, Joan Cusack, William H. Macy, and Whoopi Goldberg. “The Muppet’s Wizard of Oz” is a similar story, starring Ashanti, Jeffrey Tambor, and Queen Latifah.

2011: Triumphant Return Predicted for the Muppets

“The Muppets” was released today, a day before Thanksgiving. The film is Disney’s attempt to reboot the aged franchise after a staggering twelve-year absence from theaters. New life is being breathed into the Muppets through a young new crew led by writer/star Jason Segel. Segel wrote the script with Nicholas Stoller (“Yes Man”) and James Bobin (writer/director for HBO’s hit “Flight of the Conchords”) directed the feature. A media blitz of a promotional campaign has created substantial buzz about “The Muppets”, particularly amongst nostalgic fans who grew up watching the Muppets as kids. As of the night before the premiere of “The Muppets”, the movie had a perfect 100% rating on based on 58 reviews.

About The Author

Bell Peloquin is a Blast staff writer. He writes the Film and Television Buzz blog.

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