Today’s article was written by guest contributor Zach Woliner. Thanks, Zach!
Greetings, fellow Muppet fans! If you travel in the same circles of the fandom as I do (and, considering that you’re reading this here, I am guessing there is a good chance of some crossover), you’ve probably seen a quote making the rounds on social media, these days. Honestly, at the moment, it’s hotter than a Muppet cupcake, fresh out of the oven. (But have you seen those Labyrinth ones? WOW!)
It comes from Brett Goldstein of Ted Lasso and short-musical-recap-of-Muppet Christmas Carol fame. I won’t type it out here, since it contains a word I don’t make a habit of saying online, but you can click here to see it if you like. Basically, it boils down to “Yeah, the Muppets all suck at what they do, but they still love each other through it all and that’s what makes them great”. While it’s a nice, sweet sentiment, I found myself disagreeing with the assessment of Kermit. He is a TERRIFIC host. Sure, there is chaos all around, but he does his best to keep it all together and make it work, having brought us maybe the best 60 hours of television ever.
This got me to thinking further about which Muppets are overall good or bad at their given functions within the context of the original show. Yeah, I can give you Fozzie and Gonzo as less than successful in their fields of comedy and performance art/daredevil stunts. But as far as Piggy goes, is she really a BAD singer?
I may not have the clout of a public figure in the pop-culture zeitgeist like Mr. Goldstein (at least not yet, but maybe one day my KermDubs video series will blow up, and we’ll circle back to this, later), but I still feel secure in my knowledge and appreciation of the Muppets and all of their works that I can tackle this topic.
There’s a link at the bottom of this post to discuss it on the Tough Pigs forum, but honestly, why bother? You should consider this assessment to be the ultimate argument-settler.
Kermit the Frog
Role: Host/MC/Manager of Chaos
Kermit is the glue that holds the Muppets together. It’s not an easy job, but he makes it happen, and the guests he hosts almost always (outside of a John Cleese here and a Harvey Korman there) let him know, in the end, what a wonderful time they had. The audiences generally enjoy themselves as well (Statler & Waldorf notwithstanding).
Miss Piggy, the quintessential diva of the Muppets, always aims to be the center of attention and she often is. As a singer, she may not have the best singing voice, being most often performed by men doing a falsetto, but they sure made the best of it, with some wonderful performances over the years. Just check out those held notes on “Never Before, Never Again” or “Something So Right,” for example. She may be a bigger star in her head than in reality, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t make the most of what she’s got.
Role: Stand-Up Comedian
Ah, Fozzie! He really does try hard, huh? Always aiming to please and greatly embarrassed when he inevitably does not, he’s still a lovable bear. Sure, his groaner jokes are probably even older than his two harshest critics, but all the same, his will and determination to carry on never waiver, as a key aspect to his persona as originally established by Frank Oz, and that’s why we love him. Still, it doesn’t make his material any funnier.
The Great Gonzo (or Gonzo the Great, if you prefer)
Role: Performance Artist/Daredevil
The show’s resident weirdo, Gonzo fancies himself a performance artist and daredevil like the world has never seen before. While he certainly is right in his own way, his acts leave a lot to be desired by audiences (or rubes, as he might call them) who do not share his views regarding the artistic merit of the acts he does (or attempts) on the Muppet Theater stage. Just because you call yourself great does not make it true, at least in this context. Still a great character.
Role: Piano-Playing Dog
As hardcore Muppet fans know, Rowlf was the first Muppet to gain nationwide fame, from his years as a partner to Jimmy Dean on the latter’s TV show. He was loved then and remains so, as he has brought so much wonderful music to life, whether classical pieces or more modern ever-popular classics, such as “You & I & George.” Rowlf remains adept at tickling the ivories, even having put out an album of his favorite songs, including covers of tunes performed by other Muppets.
Role: Gofer (not to be confused with Gopher)
Scooter has an important job at the Muppet Theater (thanks to his uncle who owns it, as he is quick to remind everyone), that of stage manager. He does what he can to aid Kermit in putting on the show as smoothly as possible, but it rarely works out that way, and he often winds up running afoul of the frog (no offense to the Muppet chickens). Sure he’s young, but there’s plenty of room for improvement. Like giving the guests more than 15 seconds of notice before it’s time to go on!
Animal is a man/beast unto himself. Driven by his base desires of sex, sleep, food, drums, and pain, he’s a prime example of the rock star lifestyle. As the Electric Mayhem’s drummer, he keeps the beat and can really go wild. He’s held his own against percussive luminaries such as Buddy Rich and Harry Belafonte, not to mention a more contemporary banger of the skins, Dave Grohl. I don’t know for sure, but I bet Animal was even an influence on Dave. Ah, who am I even kiddin’? Grohl would likely never have gone into rock if not for Animal!
Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem
Role: House Band
Moving on from Animal, we have the band he is a member of. Rather than taking on each of his bandmates, we’ll evaluate them as a group, even though Animal stands on his own as a major Muppet player. During the run of The Muppet Show and beyond, the EM have been responsible for some amazing and memorable rock songs that have stood the test of time: “Can You Picture That?,” “Night Life,” “You Can’t Take No for an Answer,” not to mention countless awesome covers. They are truly the greatest band to never have a dedicated album of their own (yet).
Dr. Bunsen Honeydew & Beaker
Bunsen and Beaker here are basically a package deal. You can’t have one without the other, so they are evaluated as a duo, accordingly. They are the resident scientists of the Muppets, but their inventions from the “Muppet Labs” segments typically do not work as intended or otherwise have severe adverse effects, mostly at the expense of poor Beaker, who has endured much at the hands of the almost sadistic Honeydew. If the future is being made today by them, it’s not looking to be a bright one.
Role: Chef (who, it just so happens, is Swedish)
The Swedish Chef has brought great amusement over the years through his, shall we say, unique methods of food preparation. The meals typically don’t end up as what you might expect, with names often being taken more literally than they should be. Additionally, he’s hard to understand, often ends up fighting his ingredients (such as the infamous lobster banditos shown here), and I don’t know that anything he has ended up finishing the recipe for has ever even ended up as remotely edible.
Role: Patriotic Symbol & Advocate Of High Culture
Poor Sam attempts to bring his beloved culture to the proceedings of a given Muppet Show episode, and he most often fails to do so, much to his dismay. Additionally, he finds himself surrounded by those he considers “weirdos”, and more often than not, it is they, rather than he, who win this particular culture war. Even when doing one of his speeches at his lectern (yeah, it’s NOT a podium), he is often hoist by his own petard, such as when he realizes he’s naked during a talk on the topic of nudity.
Statler & Waldorf
Another inseparable duo (except that one time Waldorf’s wife, Astoria, stepped in for Statler), these two are the ultimate hecklers. They are the definitive hecklers. Literally, if you look up “heckler” in the dictionary, when you hit the plural section, there is a picture of these two old curmudgeons. Long before the internet gave license to anyone and everyone to say how much they hate one thing or the other, these geezers were as sharp in their wit as they were in their harshness that hit like a dagger (most often aimed at Fozzie and his comedy acts).
Rizzo The Rat
Role: Rat (/Glutton?)
Rizzo was not so well defined back in the Muppet Show days, only first appearing in the show’s fourth season. For most of it, he’s one of the rats, a group and background player, much like any given penguin or chicken not named Camilla. All the same, he soon broke out, having more personality than the rest, often on a quest for food, like when he and the others take advantage of poor Beauregard. Eventually, after an expanded role in The Muppets Take Manhattan, he took off, got paired with Gonzo, and they became a much-loved team.
Role: Kermit’s Cute, Sweet, Innocent Nephew
Robin is Kermit’s young nephew, but that doesn’t mean that the writers just lazily made him an aged-down carbon copy, as some shows might. Additionally, it’s not like he was introduced to help the show’s sagging ratings (not a concern for the most viewed show in the world, at the time) a la Cousin Oliver, etc. He was just there, as a part of the group like any other character. During his time, he was often an adorable and calming pause amidst the craziness, like with “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” on the Alice Cooper show or the heart-melting “Halfway Down The Stairs.”
Role: Chicken/Gonzo’s Girlfriend
Camilla is often thought of mainly as Gonzo’s better half, and for good reason. I was actually hard-pressed to find a solo picture of her, outside of this one from Muppet Wiki. In that department, she has been a loving and caring partner to the weirdo, through thick and thin. She has otherwise performed well with any number of the other chickens that populate the Muppet Show cast, for various musical numbers (”Baby Face” still slaps — That’s what the kids say, right?) and background appearances. Sure, we’d like her to have more agency, but she’s done well with what she’s got.
Role: Pyrotechnics Expert/Mad Bomber
Crazy Harry lives up to his name (whether it’s Harry or Donald), and then some. Just look at those wild eyes! At any given moment, he is ready and waiting to blow something or someone up. Be careful not to say any word remotely relating to explosions (onomatopoeias or otherwise) in his presence, or you’ll soon be faced with the madman and his beloved plunger. Is he good at causing the destruction he is known for? Would poor old Ben Vereen be making that expression if he WASN’T?
Role: Boomerang Fish Thrower
Lew here is mostly known for one thing: He throws the fish away, and they come back to him. Simple as that. He has done it on several occasions, across screens small and big. From taking in those demonstrations of this special ability of his, I think I can safely say that he is the best darned boomerang fish thrower I have ever seen. He is also not too shabby at using them as musical instruments, should the occasion arise.
Role: Phantom Of The Muppet Theater/Master Thespian
Uncle Deadly’s image has gone through quite the overhaul in recent years, but he was originally known for haunting the Muppet Theater, scaring his fellow Muppets, and occasionally giving commanding performances in Muppet melodramas. With his super-eerie appearance, all tendrils, scales, beady eyes and nose hairs, he surely was nightmare fuel for some younger viewers in the late 70’s/early 80’s. With a voice like no other and a spooky demeanor, no Muppet monster sent shivers up one’s spine quite like Deadly here.
Beau is certainly a lovable guy, but he’s also a bit slow and dopey. He’s often the target of Kermit’s ire when, though meaning well, he misunderstands a given direction. This certainly didn’t go over when he just heard the “…push me hard!” part that followed “don’t” while Kermit was doing a trapeze act, which landed Kermit in a hospital bed. Even when given a helping hand from Beaker, he still manages to mess things up more than he ends up cleaning them.
Role: Muppaphone “Player”
Marvin Suggs believes he is beloved. That might be so, but certainly not from the point of view of the furry little members of his instrument of choice, the Muppaphone. He elicits musical notes from them by bashing them on the head with his mallet, taking sadistic pleasure in doing so during a given performance. All the same, he gets results. His and the Muppaphone/s’ renditions of classics like “Lady of Spain” and “Witch Doctor” have been embedded in the brains of viewers, as well as the cute little guys. In the end, he’s a bad person but a good performer.
Role: Captain Of the USS Swinetrek
Link Hogthrob is represented as a sort of male counterpart to Miss Piggy, vain in a similar fashion, but also not as bright. He presents himself as a macho, macho man, but he is prone to call for his mommy when in a sticky situation. He is best-known for his role as captain in the classic “Pigs in Space” sketches. Things typically go wrong in every way possible between all three core members of the Swinetrek crew, but especially from the failings of their dimwitted leader.
Role: The Newsman
The Muppet Newsman just can’t seem to win, can he? While a dedicated anchor, bringing audiences the very latest in Muppet newsflashes, far too often he’s not just reporting the news, but also on the receiving end of it. Everything from ping pong balls to a piano to the Venus De Milo has fallen on him during reports, but still, he has steadfastly persisted in his position, through it all. If that’s not journalistic integrity, I don’t know what is.
Role: Stage Doorman
First appearing in the fifth and final season of The Muppet Show, Pops took on the role of first meeting with an episode’s guest star during the cold open, previously filled by Scooter. On the far opposite end of the age spectrum from his predecessor, he’s often confused when meeting a guest, frequently having to ask a given superstar of the era who they are. He can also be a bit brash and insulting in how he addresses them, really not having a filter in his advanced age and not exactly giving guests the warmest of welcomes.
Monsters are supposed to be scary, right? Well, aside from his first appearance, in the Muppet special The Frog Prince, Sweetums rarely falls into that category. As with many Muppets, there is a subversive quality where the appearance and the persona don’t exactly match. All the same, is he failing in his monsterly duties by being all warm and lovable? He is a MUPPET monster, after all. You’ve seen Elmo, right? You don’t need to be fearsome to be a good monster, especially where the Muppets are concerned.
Role: Singer/Occasional Triangle Player
Mahna Mahna is a man of few words. Mostly just one, repeated, being his own name. He does an excellent job at singing his own name in all possible variations, rhythms, and volumes, not to mention the additional scatting that comes with it. He is a pretty good triangle player when that is needed, as well. Additionally, his frequent companions, the Snowths, are pretty good at what they do-DOO-do-do-do.
Wayne & Wanda
Role: Singing Duo
Wayne and Wanda are the favorite singers of exactly one person, Sam Eagle. They are often off-key, never make it through an entire song, with one calamity or another typically preventing them from doing so. Even as a couple, they don’t seem so great, with Wayne’s wandering eye. Kermit fires them after the first season, only for them to reappear in the fourth one, where he immediately fires them again, and with good reason.
This quintet of furry, blue fellas in some sweet shoes are mainly known for their part as backup dancers for Valerie Harper’s rendition of “Nobody Does It Like Me.” Though meant to work as a team, they clearly lack coordination between themselves, and end up stepping on each other’s toes quite a bit. Literally! Things are made worse as they end up not only in the way of each other, but poor Valerie, as well.
Role: Gossip Columnist
Fleet Scribbler is not a likable character in the slightest (unless you ask the press from when he was first introduced to the public). As a gossip columnist, he would do all he could to dig up some dirt during his brief time visiting the Muppet Theater. Again, though, being a bad person doesn’t necessarily make one bad at their job. He was easily able to spin anything Kermit said into a potentially scandalous headline. Not to mention that it seems he has a fairly good handle on his mock-Swedish, as well.
So, there you have it: 16 good, 11 bad, and 3 okay. I could certainly go over more of the wealth of characters in the wider Muppet world, but for now, let’s consider this definitive proof that they are typically better than SOME would give them credit for.
Click here to agree with this assessment on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Zach Woliner