Many of our favorite Muppets are well-developed, fleshed-out characters, especially when you consider that they’re funny talking animals. Kermit the Frog, for example, is a complex figure with hopes and dreams, as well as insecurities and a serious aversion to commitment.
But not all Muppets are as deep as the frog. Many characters were designed with no more than a single gimmick to define their personality and justify their existence. Call them “one-joke wonders,” if you will. (If you won’t, that’s fine too.) I’d like to take a gander at these one-trick ponies and determine which ones worked and which ones didn’t.
Before I begin, I’d like to point out that although I’m considering any number of characters who only do one thing, I have two criteria: 1) They have to be regulars or recurring on a TV series, and 2) They have to be Muppets. So Jim Henson Hour guest star Louie Anderson doesn’t qualify. Also, although I’ve opted not to link everything, you can find more information about all these characters on Muppet Wiki, the one-stop spot for all your Muppet research needs.
The character: Forgetful Jones, performed by Richard Hunt on Sesame Street
The joke: Have you ever walked into a room and forgotten why? This well-meaning but absent-minded cowboy does that all the time, but he’s just as apt to forget how to get out of the room once he’s there. It’s never explained why a cowboy is hanging out on an inner-city street, though it makes about as much sense as a W.C. Fields-voiced magician or an opera-singing flamingo.
Characteristic appearance: When Forgetful called his cousin to wish her a happy birthday, he forgot who he calling, and why he was calling, and his name.
Career highlight: Forgetful starred in a film version of the musical Oklahoma, in which he was to sing the song “Oklahoma.” He did fine, except for the part where he forgot how to pronounce the word “Oklahoma.”
Funny? Yes. Richard Hunt took a simple character (previously performed by Michael Earl Davis) and made his chronic short-term memory loss not only entertaining, but endearing. His mustache is pretty funny too.
Did he get to stick around? According to Muppet Wiki, Forgetful appeared on Sesame Street for about 14 years, which is a pretty good run. Sadly, he hasn’t been seen since Hunt’s death in 1992. Still, there’s one more important thing I’d like to say about Forgetful Jones, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it is.
The character: Bill the Bubble Guy, performed by Dave Goelz on Muppets Tonight
The joke: Bubbles come out of his head. And he tap dances! No, I’m sorry, that’s a lie. Bubbles come out of his head. That’s it.
Characteristic appearance: In the Sandra Bullock episode, Bill blew bubbles to the accompaniment of “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
Career highlight: Bill was a cast member of the MTV reality spoof sketch The Real World Muppets. I don’t remember much about what happened in that bit, but I seem to recall that some bubbles came out of his head.
Funny? Eh, sorta. But Bill had no personality beyond his gimmick, so he wasn’t very lovable. The puppet wasn’t very distinctive either — take away the bubbles and he’s just a plain old Whatnot. Even if the series had been a hit, we probably wouldn’t have seen a Bill the Bubble Guy Action Bubble Blaster toy.
Did he stick around? He made frequent appearances on Muppets Tonight, but he hasn’t been seen since. Still, as long as we have our old tapes of the show, Bill is forever blowing bubbles.
The character: Lew Zealand, performed by Jerry Nelson on The Muppet Show
The joke: Boomerang fish! As the man says, he throws the fish away, and they come back to him! America’s Got Talent would kill for an act like this.
Characteristic appearance: On the Leslie Uggams episode, Lew threw boomerang fish while Uggams sang”Here You Come Again.”
Career highlight: In The Muppets Take Manhattan, Lew unleashed his fish on an entire unsuspecting audience at a 3-D monster movie.
Funny? Heck yeah! This is the right way to do a one-joke character. With his clownish yet appealing appearance and his silly, upbeat personality, Lew Zealand rises above his pun name to fishy greatness. Lew would occasionally perform other seafood-related acts in later Muppet Show episodes, but the boomerang bit has always been his primary fish shtick.
Did he stick around? You bet. Lew’s shown up in all the major Muppet movies, right up to 2005′ Muppets’ Wizard of Oz. He even got his own action figure, which means he can have swordfish-to-lightsaber duels with Darth Vader, which is approximately the raddest thing I can think of.
The character: Professor Hastings, performed by Frank Oz on Sesame Street
The joke: Professor Hastings, the famous scholar and lecturer, can never make it through a speech without falling asleep. This character provided a way for kids to learn about the alphabet and narcolepsy at the same time!
Characteristic appearance: The prof gives a talk about the letter Y. And falls asleep. Maybe he should have talked about the letter Zzzzz…
Career highlight: On the Sesame Street record Sing the Alphabet, Professor Hastings gets to sing a song about the letter U, but Ernie has to wake him up every time he dozes off. (This is also notable for being perhaps the only Sesame Street to include the word “undulate.”
Funny? Hmm… It was a fun idea for a sketch or two, but the joke would have gone really stale really quickly had Professor Hastings been on the show much longer. Which brings me to…
Did he stick around? I hope Professor Hastings had tenure at his university job, because he was phased out of Sesame Street after season one. However, I hear he’s hugely popular in Europe.
The character: Henchy Fraggle, performed by John Pattison on Fraggle Rock
The joke: Henchy is a personal assistant to the World’s Oldest Fraggle. He exists mainly to correct the old geezer when he says something wrong, then get bonked on the head by him.
Characteristic appearance: The episode “Capture the Moon” was his first, and it set the standard for things to come.
Career highlight: Henchy plays a larger role than usual in the episode”Inspector Red,” but to say more about it would constitute a spoiler, and I abhor spoilers. I’ll give you a hint: The episode does not involve Henchy getting locked in a walk-in freezer.
Funny? Funny enough. Henchy is minor enough in prominence and appears infrequently enough that watching him get bopped on the noggin always brings a chuckle. Or perhaps I just enjoy seeing people get hit in the head when those people are not me.
Did he stick around? Henchy showed up here and there throughout the run of Fraggle Rock. Most, if not all, of his appearances were in the company of his elderly boss.
The characters: The Talking Houses, performed by various puppeteers on The Muppet Show
The joke: The houses appeared in sketches which always followed the same formula: House A makes a statement about a relative, House B asks for more information, and House A delivers a building-related punchline. You can write a Talking Houses sketch yourself, if you ever have ten seconds to spare.
Characteristic appearance: From the Paul Williams episode: One house mentions that his mother is very religious. Is she a fanatic? No, she’s a church.
Career highlight: Um… well, there was that one time when the third and fourth houses talked instead of the first and second ones. That was exciting.
Funny? The first time or two, it’s mildly amusing. After that, you can see the punchlines coming, and even predict them if you have a finely-honed sense of comedy like my own. However, I do like their brief but zippy little musical theme.
Did they stick around? After season one, the Talking Houses moved out of the Muppet Show neighborhood.
The character: Count von Count, performed by Jerry Nelson on Sesame Street
The joke: He looks kinda like Dracula, and he’s obsessed with counting everything he sees. What kind of crazy idea is that for a character?
Characteristic appearance: When Big Bird showed the Count his new pet turtle, the Count immediately counted the turtle (one), then counted the spots on its shell (twelve).
Career highlight: I’m going to go with the song “Lambaba,” partially because the Count has so much fun counting the sheep that dance around his room, but mostly because it’s a really catchy song.
Funny? The Count’s number fixation is always good for a smile, if not a belly laugh. Even though you know he’s going to count everything he sees, it’s supremely satisfying to watch him do it, especially when it’s accompanied by the traditional trademark thunder.
Did he stick around? The Count first popped up in season four of Sesame Street, and he’s still counting things as the show prepares for season 38. His enduring popularity is a testament to the skill of his performer, as well as to the writers who keep coming up with new things for him to count after all these years. He’s such a part of the pop culture consciousness that if you count something in a Transylvanian accent at work or school tomorrow, I guarantee somebody will respond with an “AH-ah-ah-ah!” If it doesn’t work, I’ll cheerfully refund your money.
There are many more one-joke wonders, some who made the cut and became favorites, and some who faded into obscurity (Are there any Leo the Party Monster fans in the house?). Maybe I’ll write about them someday.
How does a limited character find staying power? A good performance is crucial (being puppeteered by Jerry Nelson seems to be particularly useful), and it helps to have a gimmick that allows some room for variation. I always thought Bill the Bubble Guy would have been funnier if other things would come out of his head — Ping-Pong balls, feathers, strawberry NesQuik. Sometimes a one-joke Muppet can evolve into something far greater. I think a case could be made for Fozzie (an unfunny comedian) and Gonzo (a performer of bizarre stunts) as initial one-jokers, but they ended up rising above their early defining traits to become well-developed Muppet superstars.
Which brings me to my next point in this essay: One of the most indispensible elements of any episodic teleplay is the comedic interaction between… between… be…twee… ZZZZZZZZZZZZ
Who’s your favorite one-joke Muppet? Click here to discuss this article at the Tough Pigs forum!
by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com