ToughPigs Turns 15: Fifteen Years of People Freaking Out About Muppets

Published: September 1, 2016
Categories: Commentary, Feature

Launched in August, 2001, ToughPigs is celebrating its 15th year of existence!  That’s a decade-and-a-half of interviews, newsbits, silly commentaries, complaints, observations, and witticisms all about the Muppets. Thanks to all of you for a great 15 years, and here’s to 15 more!

Here’s the thing: We, the writers and readers of this website, think about Muppet stuff every single day. But most adults don’t. They’re too preoccupied by dumb things like football and beer and Game of Thrones. But they have fond feelings about the Muppets and Sesame Street and the name Jim Henson, feelings that have been deeply ingrained since they were knee-high to a hamster.

So when a Muppet-related story hits the news, and there’s even the slightest hint that something is awry, people’s reactions are much stronger than they would be if the story were about something less important, like nuclear proliferation. Today, we’re looking back at some of the most memorable controversial Muppety news stories in the 15 years of

Cookie-Sometimes-Food2005: Cookie Monster Is Veggie Monster?! – by Louie Pearlman

Ah, mainstream media. I am shaking my head at you. You’d think that there are always enough real stories to report on that you wouldn’t have to go on and make stuff up in order to generate internet clicks/sell physical copies of dead trees. However, the Veggie Monster scandal of 2005, henceforth referred to as Veggiegate, is the exact instance of that happening.

All Sesame Street did was release a press release about their upcoming season stating that Cookie Monster was going to sing a song with Hoots the Owl about making healthier eating choices most of the time. Our wonderful pals in the media decided to jump on this and claim that Cookie Monster was being replaced by Veggie Monster. Veggiegate was in full swing, which lead to poorly photo-shopped memes like this:

Photo from

Photo from

EW. Gross. Who needs a green Cookie Monster? Not this guy, thanks.

You also might remember that Veggiegate also lead to hours and hours of water-cooler discussions with your Sesame-ignorant co-workers about how their childhoods had been ruined from this change on the show that never actually took place. And it was up to you to calmly explain over and over that Cookie was just singing a song about making healthier choices sometimes, even though Cookie Monster had been rapping about veggies since the late Eighties and had done PSA’s for the Nutrition Council, even during your actual childhood!

So thank you, Mainstream Media, for Veggiegate, a great excuse to have the same inane conversation over and over again about something that was a non-issue!

2007: Sesame Street Old School DVDs come with a disclaimer – by Matt Wilkie

Remember growing up with Sesame Street? If you’ve been reading ToughPigs for 15 years or 15 minutes, I’m going to safely assume that you did, and that you have fond memories of learning your ABCs and 123s from the resident of our favorite street, both furred and unfurred. But if you grew up in the 1970s, did you turn out … bad?!

That’s what one rambling blogger tried to claim, or disclaim, or something, in 2007, when we were met with the controversy of the Sesame Street: Old School DVD disclaimer. Y’see, over the years, Sesame Street has tried its very best to keep up with the curriculum taught in schools and preschools all across the country. And in its endless adaptability, it’s become important to shift the goals and focus of what it’s teaching kids. So when these DVDs were released, the core lessons it gave were what was taught when Sesame Street first began in 1969, and that’s pretty different from the things – and the ways – kids learn today. Thus, they came with a disclaimer explaining as much. Because the episodes came from the late sixties/early seventies, and that’s what many people grew up on, these people did what any rational adult would do when presented with the knowledge that the way they learned varied ever so slightly from the way kids learn today … THEY FREAKED THE EFF OUT!

Naysayers said nayingly that the world was doomed, all because Sesame Workshop was concerned enough that kids might have a problem seeing Cookie Monster smoking (and eating, mostly the eating) a pipe, or be tempted to jump around abandoned work sites with lead on – well, on everything – that they put a very mild caution to watch with your children and see if anything presented upsets them or has a negative impact on their behavior. Which, y’know, parents should try to do anyway.

So that was a fun time, dealing with parents freaking out about the idea that education evolves over time and just because they turned out fine watching Oscar be crabby, that their kids could get no educational value because their version of Oscar is … slightly less crabby? Maybe? I think Oscar’s still pretty darn crabby. And we still had to deal with people screamingly asking us why he’s now the Vegetable Monster for another round of a few months.

katyperryagain2010: Katy Perry’s costume is too hot for Sesame Street – by Joe Hennes


Did I get your attention? Because that’s what Sesame Street did when they accidentally let a couple knockers onto their show. And despite the fact that almost every woman owns a pair, or that we all fed from them when we were infants, or that they’re just skin and fat, people lost their minds.

Okay, so Sesame Street doesn’t often show a lot of skin. There was that time Buffy St. Marie breastfed her son in front of Big Bird, and I remember seeing far too much of Mr. Hooper that time he went surfing. But seeing Katy Perry’s entire neck and the six inches below? Is America ready for that? What would Elmo think if he wasn’t a respectful gentleman and only maintained eye contact with Perry?

Playskoo1976lErnieBertFriends13pieces2011: Should Bert and Ernie get married? – by Ryan Roe

Rumors and jokes about America’s favorite bachelor roommates have persisted for years. The logic seems to go like this: They’re both dudes, and they share an apartment… therefore, they must be gay??? Yeah, it doesn’t really add up. In a now-famous and/or infamous statement, former Sesame Workshop CEO Gary Knell discounted the possibility by saying “They are not gay, they are not straight, they are puppets. They don’t exist below the waist.”

Which, of course, doesn’t work as an explanation, both because sometimes they do exist below the waist, and because Sesame Street has featured a number of heterosexual puppet couples (see: Ingrid and Humphrey, Papa Bear and Mama Bear, Oscar and Grundgetta, etc.)

But if the question is “Are Bert and Ernie gay?” and Sesame Workshop says they’re not, then the answer is, “No, they’re not.” That didn’t stop 10,943 well-meaning folks from signing a petition called “Let Bert & Ernie Get Married on Sesame Street” in 2011, which the mainstream media quickly caught wind of, which led to a whole new slew of rumors and jokes… with a little bit of reasonable conversation here and there. Sesame Workshop politely confirmed that the Sesame Street residents in question are just pals. Which is probably all for the best. I’m not sure Bert and Ernie are even old enough to get married.

Will we see a gay couple on Sesame Street in our lifetimes? (I phrase it that way because I assume Sesame Street will outlive us all.) That would be great, and it doesn’t seem that farfetched at this point. Maybe it’ll be a pair of new characters that moves into the neighborhood. They could be humans. They could be Muppets. We just know they won’t be a paperclip aficionado and his rubber duckie-loving bro.

romney12012: Mitt Romney likes Big Bird but wants to shut down PBS – by Joe Hennes

Remember those halcyon days when a politician only had to do one stupid thing to ruin their chances at the presidency? Michael Dukakis had an unfortunate photo in a tank, Howard Dean made a weird noise, and Mitt Romney threatened Big Bird.

Not to get too political, but I wasn’t a Mitt Romney fan, and I was worried that this devil-horned frat boy might actually have a chance at beating our sitting President Barack Obama in the 2012 election. But then? Then Romney picked a fight with the wrong Muppet. He said he wanted to cut funding to PBS, essentially firing Big Bird. Listen, you can fight against my political party, you can try to overturn all the good our President had accomplished, and you can attempt to strengthen the uneven power structure in favor of rich white males, but you can not threaten the Bird. That right there is the action of a supervillain.

Obama, who has been touted as our first Sesame Street alumnus President, swept the election, thanks to the droves of Muppet fans who came out of the woodwork to defend Big Bird, keep Sesame Street funded and on the air, and maintain a semblance of decency in the world. Was Romney’s misguided Big Bird comment solely responsible for his loss? Probably not, but if you look at it another way: Absolutely!

Dinosaur Train conductor Chick-fil-A2012: Chick-fil-A vs. The Jim Henson Company – by Ryan Roe

I’m sure it seemed like a great idea at the time: The Jim Henson Company partnered with a major fast food chain to give away Henson Creature Shop kids’ meal toys. It was good publicity, it could help kids develop an early interest in puppetry, and it would give the little ones something to do after they finished their waffle fries.

Too bad the Henson Company chose the worst possible time to make it happen. The Chick-fil-A toys came out right around the time the restaurant’s president — I believe his name is Charles-fil-A — made some strongly-worded public comments about his opposition to gay marriage, and his foundation’s contributions to organizations dedicated to preventing it from becoming legal across the country. As people told me when I stopped eating at Chick-fil-A, that didn’t mean every $3.99 I spent on a chicken sandwich went directly toward removing the option of marriage from a good number of my friends and family. But it was enough to make me feel uneasy.

It was enough to make the Henson people feel uneasy, too. A common theme in Muppet and Henson productions is tolerance and acceptance of all people, which didn’t jibe with Mr. Fil-A’s views. So the Hensons released a public statement announcing their intention to never darken Chick-fil-A’s deep-fried doorstep again… and, in an amazing coincidence, Chick-fil-A just happened to realize within two days that the toys might be hazardous to children’s health and should immediately be recalled. It was a strange saga, resulting in a lot of headlines and ill-informed internet memes about how Miss Piggy and Big Bird were feuding with Chick-fil-A. For the record, I still haven’t eaten at a Chick-fil-A since then.

Sesame Street HBO2015: Sesame Street moves to HBO – by Evan G

I remember the controversy about Sesame Street airing on HBO like it was just last year. You see, when this story broke, or at least reached its fever pitch, I was studying to be a literacy teacher, so obviously people told me about it every single day. You see, in 2015, Sesame Workshop made a five-year deal with HBO for Sesame Street to air new episodes first on HBO, then re-run them on PBS nine months later.

The problem here is that this actually is a difficult issue. Being free and non-profit was such a big part of Sesame Street‘s identity that any shift could be viewed as selling out. Still, careful examination should make anyone realize the issue at play involved Internet-era capitalism, not unabashed greed. In other words, Sesame Street was running in a deficit in a post-VHS sales, heavy-competition world. Contrary to what my colleagues implied, Count von Count did not want an even bigger castle to store his miltiplujillion gold coins.

Still, the parts of the Internet that weren’t Think Progress didn’t bother to examine anything and instead assumed the worst. Cookie Monster went from everyone’s best friend to everyone’s most feared corporate shill, we were convinced that Ernie had lied to us about sharing for the past 45 years, and worst of all, we were all plagued with terrible, terrible jokes about Elmo and Red Weddings or whatever. A year later, I can tell you (and my colleagues) that Sesame Street seems fine, but I cannot explain the strangeness of new recurring segment “Smart Cookies.” I definitely can’t blame HBO for that, but I’m sure going to try.

Kermit Piggy Jimmy Kimmel Live2015: Kermit and Piggy break up – by Matthew Soberman

Last year, we were graced with something we hadn’t had in years: the Muppets in a new primetime series. Naturally, people were excited. Then word trickled out that this would not be The Muppet Show all over again, but rather a new, more mature take on the characters we know and love. People were concerned. Then, in an either brilliant or terrible move of viral marketing depending on who you ask, just weeks before the show was set to premiere, Kermit and Miss Piggy, the ultimate Muppet power couple, announced that after nearly four decades of their will-they-won’t-they chase, the answer was a resounding “they won’t.”

In a jointly-released statement, Kermit and Piggy stated that they were no longer romantically involved, but would continue to work together professionally on Up Late with Miss Piggy. For days, the internet was abuzz with reactions ranging from “Nobody stays together anymore!” to “My childhood is ruined!” to “Hey, do you think I finally have a chance with Kermit/Piggy?” to “A more adult Muppet series is bad. Think of the children! THINK OF THE F% CHILDREN!!!”

For better or for worse, the statement did its job. The pilot episode had high ratings, and eventually the show earned a full-season pick-up. And if you’ve been reading ToughPigs long enough, you know that’s where the happy story ends. After that highly-watched premiere, ratings gradually declined, and ultimately the show was cancelled after only one season.

Now I won’t get into my feelings about the show getting cancelled (okay, maybe just a little: AAARRRGGGHHH!), but I can’t help but think that this freakout was maybe an indicator of the show’s ultimate fate. The Muppets was an experiment; taking the characters in a direction that we haven’t seen much of before. The audience ultimately wasn’t happy with this direction, and the show changed course, but it was too late. Perhaps the ultimate irony in all this was that had the people who had stopped after Kermit and Piggy’s breakup never saw their beloved characters eventually rediscover their feelings for each other in a more emotionally mature way.

So yeah, the ruined-childhood-whiners, and the people looking out for their own narrow view of the Muppets the children, who responding by going nuts when the frog and the pig parted romantic ways seemingly won this battle. The worst part of this is that we don’t exactly know where Kermit and Piggy stand right now. Sure, the final scene of the show suggested the pair decided to see if they can make it work as a couple, but several months ago at Vulture Fest, Kermit mentioned that he and Piggy were still separated, leaving their romance in a nebulous state, with little example of their reunion or their not being together. I hope we find out the state of their relationship soon, whether it’s a TV project, a movie, or another internet-breaking public statement.

BONUS: For a fun Muppety news controversy that predates the website, check out the “Is Ernie dead?” article on Muppet Wiki.

And then click here to have your childhood ruined, destroyed, folded, spindled, and mutilated on the Tough Pigs forum!


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