Muppets Have Strange Careers: The Saga of Pancake Buffalo

Published: February 7, 2024
Categories: Commentary, Feature

NOTE: This article mentions Miley Cyrus, who just won a Grammy. Therefore, this article is extremely topical.

A while back, my wife and Tough Pigs contributor Staci watched all of Hannah Montana on Disney+. (“Why?” you might ask. The answer: She felt like it.) I would occasionally pass through the room as she was watching, and for the most part, what I saw was what I expected: Miley Stewart (played by Miley Cyrus) tries her best to maintain a normal teenage existence, even as she leads a double life as world-famous pop star Hannah Montana. There are some heavy themes of duality and the nature of identity, and sometimes people wear silly costumes and/or fall down and it’s funny.

But one episode made me do a double take. It’s called “Hannah in the Street with Diamonds,” and it’s episode 25 of season 2. In this episode, Miley is thrilled that her alter ego is going to be honored with a diamond on the “Hollywood Parade of Diamonds,” but less thrilled when it turns out that the chosen location is less than desirable. To add insult to injury, Miley/Hannah finds out that she almost got a better location, but that location was ultimately given to a sweet, beloved puppet character from TV: Pancake Buffalo.

To make a long story short, Miley tries to get Pancake Buffalo to swap back, only to find out that Pancake’s puppeteer, Cindy Merriweather (played by the great Edie McClurg) is a very difficult person to negotiate with.

I recognized Pancake Buffalo right away. Do you?

Pancake Buffalo, of course (of COURSE), is a Muppet! Sort of. Or at least, Pancake was a Muppet, and now Pancake is a Henson puppet. You know how complicated that stuff gets.

Pancake originated on the short-lived series Animal Jam, where she made a few appearances as the adopted sister of Waffle the monkey, one of the main characters. To quote the indispensable Muppet Wiki:

“[S]he first appeared in the episode ‘A Water Buffalo Named Pancake’ when Waffle gets jealous of all the attention his new sister is receiving. Pancake also appeared in the episode ‘Dance It Out!’; causing mayhem on the set and inadvertently tearing into the gift Edi prepared for the DJs for DJ Appreciation Day.”

On Animal Jam, Pancake was puppeteered by John Kennedy and voiced by Leslie Carrara-Rudolph. In “Hannah in the Street with Diamonds,” Pancake is presented as a male character, puppeteered by Victor Yerrid and voiced by Susie Geiser.

Now see if you can follow this: Animal Jam aired in 2003, so its characters lived (and danced) under the Muppet banner. At some point, Pancake apparently boogied over to the Henson side of the line separating puppet ownership rights, because she’s since become part of the ensemble of puppets regularly seen in the Puppet Up live improv shows. “Hannah in the Street with Diamonds” aired in 2008.

There are a few things that I find interesting about all of this. The first – and least interesting – is the fact that an episode of a Disney-owned show brought in a Henson-owned puppet, despite the fact that by 2008 Disney also owned the Muppets. They could have gone with any number of Disney-owned ensemble Muppets, but they didn’t. I’m sure there’s a very good reason for this, but I’ll be danged if I know what it is.

The second thing I find ever-so-slightly interesting is the fact that the Hannah Montana people decided to stick with the name “Pancake.” My gut (which frequently contains pancakes) tells me there’s no way the producers of Hannah Montana specifically asked Henson if they could borrow Pancake from Animal Jam. They just needed a puppet that looked cute, so it would be “funny” when the character turns out to be cranky.

I’m curious how the puppet TV star might have been referred to in the original script for the episode. Was it a generic placeholder like “SWEET, BELOVED PUPPET,” or did the Hannah Montana writers come up with a name, only to switch it when they went shopping in the Henson workshop and decided “Pancake” was good enough?

I’m not curious enough to take any action that might actually result in finding the answers to these questions. But I’m a little bit curious.

The other thing I find interesting – oh, how I hope it’s interesting – is how Pancake’s journey is a good example of the odd “careers” Muppets can have. Think about it. Here’s a simple water buffalo who started out on a show made for very young children, lived in storage for a few years, did a guest spot on a show for preteens, lived in storage for more years, and finally ended up doing improv comedy for adults in Puppet Up. The improv games Pancake plays now are often based on suggestions shouted out by tipsy audience members, and they often involve bad words. It’s a far cry from kids’ TV.

But it’s not so unusual for a Muppet. Many (most?) Muppets who were built for one production wind up getting “cast” in later productions where they play very different roles. Consider Mudwell the Mudbunny from the “Gone, But Not Forgotten” episode of Fraggle Rock. He had a featured part in one of the most moving episodes of that series… and a decade later, he was just another Londoner in Muppet Christmas Carol and just another pirate in Muppet Treasure Island.

If these characters were real live actors, it would be easy to imagine a guy like Mudwell being pretty envious of a guy like Fozzie Bear. Fozzie was built for The Muppet Show, he debuted as a major part of the cast, and he’s had a great career since then, while Mudwell can only hope to show up in the background occasionally. I can just picture Mudwell and Pancake grabbing a beer together and venting their frustrations.

That’s not to say that there’s no path for a small-time Muppet to hit the big time. Bobo started out as one of a cave full of bears in The Muppets Take Manhattan. Gonzo started out as one of a cave full of Frackles in The Great Santa Claus Switch. And let’s not forget Miss Piggy, who started out as one of a whole planet full of pigs on The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence!

Maybe someday the Jim Henson Company will make a new TV series, and they’ll decide to use some existing puppets in the cast. And maybe they’ll dust off Pancake the Water Buffalo, and she’ll become the breakout star of the next big thing, and her long, strange journey will have all been worth it.

I suppose that’s not likely. But she could always try calling up her old co-star from Hannah Montana. Surely Miley Cyrus could use a purple water buffalo in her next music video!

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by Ryan Roe –

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