It’s July 1st again, and while most people in the United States are greeting this day by cleaning out their supermarkets of anything grill-able, in our neighbor to the north, it’s Canada Day, a celebration of Canadian history and culture. As Canada Day approached, I began to think about the great nation of Canada’s role in Muppet history. And after a bit of research (by which I mean looking on the Muppet Wiki), I found that while it may not be as high-profile a location as the United Kingdom (where The Muppet Show was taped, as well as serving as a filming home to three Muppet films, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth), or the good ol’ USA (birthplace of Jim Henson, the Muppets, and ToughPigs) Canada has played a surprisingly large role in Muppet history.
The first project Jim Henson worked on in Canada was a set of eleven ten-second commercials for McGarry’s Sausage in 1964, filmed in Toronto. The commercials featured Mack and not-yet-a-superstar Kermit. The commercials were very much like the more-famous Wilkins Coffee ads, with our favorite frog playing the role of the schlemazel, as seen below:
From 1968 to 1972, Henson would return to produce several more television specials: Hey Cinderella!, The Cube, The Great Santa Claus Switch, The Frog Prince, and The Muppet Musicians of Bremen. Hey Cinderella! is probably most notable for being the first collaboration between Henson, Jon Stone, and Joe Raposo, who would later be integral parts in the creation of Sesame Street. Also, Hey Cinderella! was the first time that Kermit would be officially recognized as a frog, and served as the debut of his now-iconic pointed collar (therefore, the collar is technically a Canadian citizen). The special first aired on Canada’s CBC on March 16, 1969, more than a year before its debut on American television. While 1969’s The Cube does not feature any Muppet characters, it was highly regarded for its avant-garde style and helped to guide Jim Henson’s path as a director later in life, so if it weren’t for Canada, who knows where Jim’s directorial talents would’ve landed? The Great Santa Claus Switch first aired in 1970, which featured the Canadian debuts of Thog and a Frackle named Snarl, also known as Cigar Box Frackle, who would be redesigned several years later for The Muppet Show, which would prove to be a great success. Who knew a Canadian cigar box could go on to such great heights? (And then, probably, jump from them.)
Canada would also be one of the first foreign countries to air Sesame Street, which began is edited interstitials on the CBC in 1972, before becoming an hour-long program called Sesame Street Canada the following year. These episodes featured exclusive Canadian content celebrating caribous on quarters and learning French (because a country as awesome as Canada can’t be contained by just one language), as well as introducing Canadian Muppets like Katie, Basil, Dodi, and Louis. As Henson’s career took off with the rise of Sesame Street, The Muppet Show and subsequent movies, he would return to Canada to film specials like Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas and The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show. But Canada’s biggest contribution to Muppet lore was on the horizon.
When Jim Henson decided to produce a new show with a new set of characters, it might’ve made sense to film it in New York, the home of Sesame Street, or London, where he had done The Muppet Show, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Dark Crystal, but given how much Henson used Canada for filming in the past, it was a natural fit to be the home of Fraggle Rock. From 1983 to 1987, Toronto’s CBC Studios was home to Fraggles, Gorgs, Doozers, the occasional Trash Heap, and Doc and Sprocket. For most of the world (with the exceptions of the United Kingdom, France, and Germany), Canada was also where Uncle Traveling Matt ventured into outer space. In tribute to the host country, Jerry Nelson gave Gobo his trademark Canadian accent, throwing plenty of “ehs” into his vernacular. (And in the show’s infamous wrap party video, Fraggles Look for Jobs, Red decided to stay local, signing a contract to play hockey for the Toronto Maple Leafs.) Before taping began, Henson spoke with the CBC about why Canada would be the home for Fraggle Rock, which you can watch below! (And stay tuned for a weird Miss Piggy impersonator!)
Because of the demands of working on a show like Fraggle Rock, it would also prove practical to Henson to film some of the projects done between tapings in Toronto and the surrounding areas as well, so Sesame Street would make a temporary relocation to the Great White North for the filming of Follow That Bird, and would be the home to The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years. After Fraggle Rock, Canada would be used for smaller projects, like the “Lighthouse Island” segment of The Jim Henson Hour, and the strangely-titled special Basil Hears a Noise, which introduced Elmo to the cast of Canadian Sesame Street characters.
Following Jim Henson’s death, fewer productions took place in Canada, but perhaps one of the most important Canadian projects was created: Sesame Park, Canada’s own Sesame Street production. The characters that had been developed for Sesame Street Canada were given their own world in the form of a neighborhood park (no word yet on whether or not it was donated by their American counterparts trying to forget the “Around the Corner” era). Sesame Park would run for five seasons between 1996 and 2002, and some of the characters can still be seen on display at the CBC Museum in Toronto. But as the value of the Canadian dollar rose and American production companies found it cheaper to film in Canada, the Muppets would return once more to film both It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (the last major Muppet project for the Jim Henson Company) and The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (the first major project for Disney) in Vancouver.
Of course, the Muppet world’s love of Canada didn’t stop at the international border. In his travels around the world, Grover visited Saskatchewan with Fred the Wonder Horse to learn about herding. He certainly loves that province, because in a completely different sketch, he mentions Saskatchewan in a list of “s” words. Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch went Camping in Canada, presumably in a failed attempt to meet Michael J. Fox. In 2008, Oscar returned to Canada to teach the youngsters all about waste reduction. But perhaps the most famous mention of that province between Manitoba and Alberta comes from The Muppet Movie in the song “Movin’ Right Along,” when Fozzie Bear pleads “send someone to fetch us, we’re in Saskatchewan” as Kermit tries to figure out where Los Angeles went. They should’ve asked that nice Mountie for directions. Or at least where the nearest Tim Horton’s was. And plenty of Canadian entertainers have worked with the Muppets, including Martin Short, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Jim Carrey, and Caroline Rhea.
And finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Muppets’ All-Star Comedy Gala at last year’s Just for Laughs festival in Montreal, which featured some of the world’s best stand-up comedians and plenty of sketches paying tribute to their host country. Sadly, despite their friendly, generous reputation, the special has not been made widely available in the United States. But a couple of sketches have managed to make their way across the border via the YouTube highway. Here’s the Swedish Chef attempting to make poutine, a Canadian dish made with French fries, cheese curds, and brown gravy.
But perhaps the most emblematic tribute to Canada can be seen in this performance of the Michael Mitchell song “Canada Is,” which features a lot of affection for the country they’ve had so much history with, as well as some trademark Muppety humor. So to all our Canadian readers, Happy Canada Day! Because starting tomorrow, your red and white flag is going to have to make room for some American blue.
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by Matthew Soberman