Twenty years ago, on March 12th, 2003, Danny Horn and Scott Hanson posted an article on Tough Pigs called GroversMom.com, which started as a scavenger hunt contest and ended up as a 41,000-page encyclopedia. To mark this momentous anniversary, Danny and Scott got together to tell their story.
Danny Horn: So I guess this is the story of what happens when you carry a joke too far.
Scott Hanson: That’s what fans do, right? The boundaries can always be pushed.
Danny: You know, a couple years ago, I wrote an article explaining the origin of how I started making Tough Pigs, and it occurs to me that this is the opposite. This is the story of how I gradually stopped making Tough Pigs, and went off with you, and made something else.
Danny: I don’t remember how we met.
Scott: We were both on the Muppet Central forum. When you started your own party for grown-ups, that was appealing for me as a new dad, looking for an outlet to nurture this rediscovery of Muppet fandom I was going through.
Danny: And we left Muppet Central in hopes of a better life.
Scott: My first post on the Tough Pigs forum was in response to a thread you started asking permission to trash bad Muppet fan site design.
Danny: Oh god, really?
Scott: I told you to go ahead and do it. I was enabling grouchiness from the get-go.
Danny: I guess that tracks with my attitude at the time. I would like to say that I was being rebellious and punk rock, but the truth is that I was a jerk and I wanted to make fun of children.
Scott: For good or ill, it was my “in” to start sending you stuff. I worked in the IT world, so my immediate reaction to a Muppet fan site I liked was to encourage you to use all the nerdy tools that were available to you. I remember pressuring you to use more pictures because you just had the two silhouettes from Smig to complement the McSweeney’s thing you had going on.
Danny: Yeah, my pretentious black-and-white design, where I was trying to look like a magazine that was trying to look like it was a newspaper from the 1910s. You know, McSweeney’s still looks like that. They never got over it.
Scott: Honestly, I love the old design. But I don’t regret becoming your Muppet photo supplier.
The Scavenger Hunt Scheme
Danny: Part of the problem for me and web design — there were a lot of problems, but this was one of them — was that it was harder back then to find Muppet pictures on the internet. Google Images search launched in July 2001, which must have been about a month before I started Tough Pigs.
So I started coming up with schemes to trick people into sending me pictures of Muppets. In April 2002, I did the first Ugly Toy Contest, and in October 2002 there was the first Halloween Parade, which I’m really happy is still a Tough Pigs tradition!
And then in January 2003, I started a little run of monthly Scavenger Hunt contests, where I would send people Sesame Street PVCs for sending me Muppet pictures. I guess I had a lot of loose PVCs cluttering up the house.
Scott: That’s right, the Scavenger Hunts. Was I sending you stuff then?
Danny: Not yet! I just looked. You didn’t send anything for the first Ugly Toy Contest or the Halloween Parade, and you didn’t participate in the first Scavenger Hunt. You were either really busy in 2002 or you were too cool for my dumb contests.
Scott: I guess I just didn’t need any Sesame PVCs. That, and I was busy changing diapers.
Danny: The pictures from the Scavenger Hunts have not survived the modern Tough Pigs design refresh — I get it, you can’t save everything — but the Wayback Machine has them. [Editor’s note: We’re working on it!]
In the first contest, I asked for pictures of five things: a birthday cake with a Muppet on it, Miss Piggy backstage at the Muppet Theater, a Fraggle playing a musical instrument, Grover and Elmo in the same picture, and a child’s drawing of a Muppet Show character. Ryan Roe actually won the first contest, using a picture of his own Ernie cake from his tenth birthday.
Scott: Ryan was ten? Wow, we were young.
Danny: But I finally lured you in with the second Scavenger Hunt, which was Valentine’s Day themed. I asked for people to send pictures of Muppets with Hearts and Flowers, in five categories: Miss Piggy, Elmo, other Muppet Show characters, other Sesame Street characters, and Miscellaneous. People were really creative, it worked great. Here’s the first page of results, and the second page… with Scott Hanson tied for first place! You were the fish that I was hoping to catch.
Scott: Back in those days, if you wanted pictures of Muppets on your computer, you needed a scanner. You could only get so much from rec.arts.henson+muppets. Not only did I have a scanner, but I had a growing collection of newly re-acquired Sesame Street books to share with my daughter, and Joe Mathieu was calling to me from my childhood.
Danny: And the history-making moment is that your “hearts and flowers” Sesame Street pic was this picture of Grover and his Mommy. Where did you find this?
Scott: That’s from The Sesame Street ABC Book of Words, a 1988 book illustrated by Harry McNaught. The book is oversized and each page is a full-page illustration, so they look big and beautiful.
Danny: I thought that picture was endlessly funny, so for the third and final Scavenger Hunt, I asked people to send pictures of Muppet relatives. Then I totally ignored everyone else, and went down a rabbit hole with you.
Scott: I started scanning and couldn’t be stopped… pushing the boundaries of what imagery the internet could support, with dimensions sometimes as wide as 400 pixels.
Danny: We ended up putting an article together called GroversMom.com, which basically says thanks to everyone who entered, but I’m not interested in scavenger hunts anymore, I’m going over here and playing with Scott now.
“Some of these pictures got sent in by other contest entrants — especially Sarah, Jess and John — but most of them were scanned from Scott’s apparently bottomless library of Sesame Street books. I was talking to Scott on instant-messenger as I was looking through the scavenger hunt entries, and we started wondering — as Muppet fans do — about Grover’s Mom and her hairstyles. We both started looking through our Sesame books. And, I guess, once you start looking for Sesame relatives, it’s just really hard to stop.”
Danny: Which is true, it’s twenty years later, and we still haven’t stopped.
Scott: Yeah, it was clear from the beginning that the history of Muppet families was so complicated and messy, and we couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t more deliberate. Grover’s parentage was the top mystery, but there were also bits and pieces for Herry, Cookie, Betty Lou, and even Farley! It’s cool to say you know an obscure character like him now, but the only vestiges of evidence for his existence back in 2003 were storybooks from the 1980s (and maybe a 5th generation VHS taped from a TV broadcast that you traded with someone sent in the mail).
Danny: We weren’t sure at that point if Grover’s mom had ever actually appeared on the show. We would have known if we’d looked it up on Muppet Wiki, but for some reason it never occurred to us.
Scott: Looking at that second page with the different varieties of Grover’s Moms feels like a paradox. I remember them all — and I even remember scanning them (and in some cases, doing light touch-ups to make sure they’d look good on our 640×480 computer screens) — but I’d be hard pressed to point out where each one comes from. I guess we weren’t citing sources then.
Danny: Oh, not yet! That’s coming up.
Back Stage Left
Danny: Now, the other thing that was happening at that time was that you started your own site, Back Stage Left, in February 2003.
Scott: Oh, right! Back Stage Left. The part of The Muppet Theatre we never got to see, so that’s where all their treasures must be hiding.
Danny: It was kind of your junk drawer. This was another step toward Muppet Wiki.
Scott: Absolutely. In those days — I guess I’m going to use that phrase a lot — there was no YouTube, no Imgur, no social media, no Dropbox or cloud storage. So, if you wanted to share pictures and video clips, you had to have your own website. (Newsgroups were on their way out.) Everyone had a Geocities, but I had to have my own domain. That’s where I shared all my Muppet Magazine scans and video clips rendered to play with RealPlayer. I was so nervous about getting a cease and desist letter that I ended all of my 180×135 video clips with an advertisement encouraging viewers to buy the books and DVDs. Compare that today with people slapping their own logo over a clip and throwing it up on YouTube for monetization and/or clout.
Danny: Well, that’s a beautiful thing that you and I kind of instantly understood: the purpose of collecting things is to share them. You didn’t collect videos or scan pictures in order to be the only one who has them; they’re for everyone. You and I were just waiting for people to invent new technologies, so that we could go and put Muppet pictures on them.
Scott: Obviously Jimmy Wales was watching from a distance. But yeah, for me, it’s always been about sharing this stuff out to as many people as possible. At the time, I posted on the forum, “what good is a piece of Muppety fun that’s collecting dust?” I guess I was going for the “millions of people happy” angle.
My Week with Grover’s Mom
Danny: At this point we got completely obsessed with The Mysteries of Grover’s Mom, so we did some more archaeology in our Sesame book collections. We found 28 different sources for pictures of Grover’s Mom: 19 storybooks, 5 stories in the Sesame Street Treasury series, a story in Sesame Street Magazine, pictures in The Sesame Street Dictionary and The Whole Wide World: A Question and Answer Book, and a picture in Sesame Street Unpaved. The crazy thing is that we only scratched the surface: the Grover’s Mommy page on the wiki lists more than 60 book appearances before 2003.
Scott: 60 that we currently know of! It’s funny how many things wiki editors are still finding in all that old material we’re still going through. Collaborating with other people more than doubled Grover’s Mom’s bibliography; I love that.
Danny: I remember how delighted we were when we found When Grover Moved to Sesame Street.
Scott: Is that when they decided to make her “hot divorced Mom”?
Danny: Yes! In that book, Mom and Grover suddenly move from a big house in the suburbs to a walk-up in the city because she “got a new job”, otherwise known as dumping Grover’s dad and getting her groove on. That’s when we knew that this was a story that needed to be told.
Scott: I remember we couldn’t make sense of the Old Mom with white hair and granny glasses.
Danny: Yeah, we had multiple discussions about Grover’s Mom continuity. There were a few examples of a woman with white hair and glasses who Grover called “mommy”, despite the obvious fact that she was born in the nineteenth century. We finally landed on “Grover’s grandmother is a dangerous lunatic,” which was bold, but there was no other explanation for it.
This finally turned into My Week with Grover’s Mom, a five-day deep dive telling the story that we’d come up with to explain all the different examples that we found. It’s one of my all-time favorite articles that I wrote for Tough Pigs. Twenty years later, I think it still holds up.
Scott: The foundation for Muppet Wiki was firmly in place.
Danny: But it took a year and a half, because we didn’t know about fan wikis yet.
Scott: In the meantime, I kind of became your IT support. Maybe the first ToughPigs staff member after Smig? I scanned pictures, took VHS screenshots, and provided mp3s for sound samples to accompany whatever you were working on. At one point I started managing the FTP server.
Danny: And I still don’t know what that means! But thank you for doing it.
Scott: Around the same time as Grover’s Mom, we started the Muppet Book Club, where I would scan an old storybook for everyone to read. Then we’d all meet up at the virtual book store in our pajamas, sipping hot chocolate, and investigate other Muppet moms or whathaveyou.
Danny: And you were doing wiki-type stuff on Back Stage Left, like the Muppet Show Episode Guide Cheat Sheet.
Scott: Right! There were so few reviews of Muppet Show episodes online that it was easy to track them all in a table. I really liked the idea of making sure everything was accessible from one hub. I guess you could say that was sort of like a proto-wiki mentality to have.
Danny: And finally in November 2005, I discovered Dark Shadows Wiki on WikiCities, and I told you that our new project was going to be Muppet Wiki!
Scott: I remember this phone call well. I had been editing Wikipedia for a year by then and you called me up all excited about spin-off wikis that covered a focused topic. We toyed with the idea of concentrating our efforts in a Muppet Hub on Wikipedia, but you convinced me to do our own thing and it was obviously the right choice. Muppet Wiki wouldn’t have anywhere near the amount of coverage we have now if we hadn’t branched out.
Danny: And it took us six days before we created the Grover’s Mommy article. We should have done that right away, out of respect. Like: Fozzie, Kermit, Jim Henson, The Muppet Show, Grover’s Mommy. Top priority.
Scott: Hindsight is 20/20, but I think we’ve all done Grover’s Mom justice since then.
Danny: So this started with the Scavenger Hunts asking people to share Muppet pictures, and it turned into a project where people come and share beautiful things every day, to add to our crazy collection. And we finally found Grover’s Grandma, who turns out to be perfectly nice — at least, one of them is. I’ve still got my suspicions about the other one.
Thanks to Danny and Scott for sharing their story, for bringing Grover’s Mommy to the limelight, and for all your work creating the Muppet Wiki!
Click here to get a new job, new hairstyle, and new apartment on the ToughPigs forum!
by Danny Horn and Scott Hanson