All the Muppet performers play a million different characters. That’s just part of the job. There are only a handful of puppeteers working on any given production, but there’s an endless need for supporting and one-shot Muppets. As Muppet fans both casual and devoted continue to pay tribute to Jerry Nelson this week, one of the most frequently mentioned aspects of Jerry’s Muppet oeuvre is the fact that while he didn’t have as many “lead” characters as some of the other guys, he probably played more of those minor Muppets than anyone else on The Muppet Show and Sesame Street.* Today, I’d like to spotlight some of Jerry’s most memorable minor Muppets.
I won’t claim Miss Mousey was Jerry’s most brilliantly-performed character, but I have a weird soft spot for her, so here she is. After appearing in The Muppets’ Valentine Show, Miss Mousey got a solo number in the first season of The Muppet Show (“Don’t Sugar Me,” as seen in yesterday’s post about Jerry’s music), and it kinda sorta seems like she was maybe considered for regular character status. In season two’s Bernadette Peters episode, a duet with Kermit even seemed to set her up as a potential rival for Miss Piggy. But for whatever reason, nothing came of it, and she never became very famouse.
This artiodactyl (look it up — I did!) is a perfect example of how Jerry Nelson could take a tiny character and make it his own. The Petula Clark episode of The Muppet Show has a running gag where there’s a moose backstage, and for whatever reason, he talks like John Wayne. It’s likely this aspect of the character was in the script (There is that True Grit reference), but I would’t be surprised to find out it was Jerry’s own addition.
“I’m So Happy” singer
This has to be one of the funniest things ever on The Muppet Show. And it’s a UK spot, which means it wasn’t even seen in every country that got the show! Jerry’s vocal performance is crucial to selling the joke, and the whole thing is enhanced by the presence of Jerry’s frequent performing partner Richard Hunt.
Loud “At the Dance” Lady
The “At the Dance” sketches were featured frequently in the first season of The Muppet Show, to the point that they even had recurring characters. My favorite of these is Jerry’s female Whatnot who just can’t seem to figure out why people don’t find her more pleasant. Here’s a compilation of all her appearances.
In the book Treasure Island, Blind Pew is a fairly terrifying pirate. In the movie Muppet Treasure Island, Blind Pew is played by Jerry Nelson, and while he’s scary enough to give younger viewers nightmares, he’s also very funny, once again proving Jerry’s expertise at making the most of limited screen time.
Have you ever noticed how often Jerry played female characters? It seems like this was especially true in the fairy tale-based Sesame Street newsflashes. If Kermit was reporting on a story with a princess in it, odds are it was Jerry. Maybe this was because a Frank Oz princess voice would sound too much like Miss Piggy, and a Richard Hunt princess voice would end up sounding like Gladys, or heaven forbid, Gladys. Anyway, one of the all-time classic newsflashes is the one with Rapunzel, in which Jerry plays the long-haired damsel of the story’s title. I really can’t imagine the sketch being half as funny if it had been anyone else.
H. Ross Parrot
Remember H. Ross Perot, the eccentric billionaire who ran for president in 1992? That guy was so wacky he occasionally seemed like a Muppet himself, but that didn’t stop Sesame Street from spoofing him with H. Ross Parrot, a bird with a big plan to say the alphabet. Like Mickey Moose, the parrot let Jerry show off his skills as an impressionist — and if you ask me, his take on Perot in the clip below is so accurate he could give Dana Carvey a run for his money.
Poor Droop. Poor, sad Droop. Here’s another character whose early appearances in The Muppets’ Valentine Show and on the first season of The Muppet Show seemed to hold promise of greater things… but then, nothing. Which is too bad, because when they’re written and performed just right, depressed characters can make for fantastic comedy — and if anyone could have made Droop funny without making him too sad, Jerry could have. Amazingly, YouTube user Theboxofme has made a wonderful Droop highlight reel, so we can all watch and wonder what could have been.
Jerry already had the lead role in Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas, but that didn’t stop him from stealing the show with Yancy Woodchuck’s brief moment in the spotlight. He doesn’t do much, but his voice makes me laugh every time. Here’s a clip of his big moment with the audio tweaked to highlight Yancy’s solo. (UPDATE: Be forewarned that, depending on what country you’re in, you may not be able to see this video. I know, it stinks.)
The Koozebanian Phoob
Another one-shot Muppet Show character. The Phoob was one of the various denizens of the planet Koozebane seen on the show, and the voice Jerry gave him had a brashness that was perfect for the sketch.
Kermit the Gorf, Kermit the Forg, and Kermit the Grof
We’ve talked about this Sesame Street sketch here before. Kermit wants a t-shirt with his name on it, the shopkeeper only has t-shirts for Kermits with the surnames Gorf, Forg, and Grof, and much to Kermit’s disbelief, all three of those customers drop by to pick up their shirts. Jerry Nelson played all three of the monsters who come for their t-shirts, and while I don’t have any actual evidence to back this up, I’d bet $10 and my Dr. Strangepork Vinylmation figure that the sketch was shot all in one go, which would mean Jerry was running off-camera to switch puppets even as the scene was playing out.
The Big Bad Wolf
When you think of Jerry’s recurring Sesame Street characters, you wouldn’t necessarily think of the Big Bad Wolf, but he played versions of the lupine fairy tale villain many times, in both insert sketches and street scenes. With a consistent Herry-Monster-but-more-menacing voice, Jerry was the perfect wolfman for the job.
I don’t have much to say about this one. Just watch the clip.
Mr. Harry Stapleton
This is a great one, and yet not a Muppet. In the Bobby McFerrin episode of The Jim Henson Hour, Vicki explains to Kermit the show’s ratings-monitoring system, which breaks the audience down into specific demographics. The most specific of these is Mr. Harry Stapleton, played by Jerry Nelson himself. He likes Bean Bunny, and he thinks the final number should be warm. Mr. Stapleton first shows up around the 10-minute mark of the episode.
Whew, that’s a lot of Muppets! And all of them very different from each other. Jerry Nelson was really one of the great character actors of our time… His characters just happened to occasionally be non-human.
Thanks to all the YouTube users who uploaded these clips! Click here to marvel at Jerry Nelson’s range on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com
*It’s worth noting that when it came time for Fraggle Rock, Jerry ended up performing the lead Fraggle, so Richard Hunt became the go-to guy for one-shot character parts on that series. And he was great at it, too!