I’ve been thinking lately about yet another way that people are often wrong about Muppets. This one has a lot to do with coffee. And maybe I should switch to decaf, but it’s really been bugging me.
Here’s the thing: You and me, we’re Muppet nerds. We know all about the Muppets, including the fact that Jim Henson’s puppets didn’t magically materialize out of nowhere to star on Sesame Street. They did all kinds of stuff for years before 1969. But most people don’t know that. It’s fun to see folks encounter old, rare Muppet clips for the first time. They’re often delighted to find out that the Muppets’ history extends outside of what they thought they knew. That includes the short but effective commercials Jim Henson made for Wilkins Coffee, which are a truly fascinating cultural artifact.
A person who primarily knows the Muppets from vague memories Sesame Street and The Muppet Show is likely to be astonished to see a Muppet character (Wilkins) repeatedly and violently inflicting great physical harm on another (Wontkins), all because they have different preferences in caffeinated beverages. These are people who like the Muppets, but don’t necessarily care that much about the Muppets, if that makes sense. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that some of these folks see Wilkins and assume he’s Kermit the Frog. They’re both Muppets, and they were both designed and performed by Jim Henson. But really, are the two that hard to tell apart? I wouldn’t even say they look like twins. They’re cousins, at most.
The Wilkins commercials are constantly being discovered by viewers who are seeing them for the first time, and passed around on Twitter, or Reddit, or various websites. It’s really too bad Wilkins Coffee no longer exists, because the continued popularity of the commercials would be great for their sales. But some of those viewers aren’t quite clear on who they’re looking at.
Here’s a comment on a YouTube video of Wilkins ads:
Here’s a recent post on the Obscure Media Subreddit:
Here’s a header from an entry in a Cracked article from 2013, called “Bizarre Early Versions of Famous Cartoon Characters”:
Putting aside the fact that Kermit isn’t technically a cartoon character (YES, I KNOW HE’S BEEN ANIMATED ON OCCASION AND THAT BABY KERMIT EXISTS), this is just plain wrong. First of all, Wilkins didn’t kill multiple dudes. He killed the same dude over and over and over again. But more importantly – and not to beat a dead coffee bean, but – Wilkins is not Kermit.
Look at this guy:
That’s Kermit the Frog! It’s an old incarnation of him, dating back to approximately the Eisenhower administration, but it’s unmistakably Kermit, everyone’s favorite Muppet.
Now look at this guy:
Could that be Kermit? Well, he’s definitely a Muppet. And he has a simple design like Kermit’s. But his legs and torso are shorter. Kermit could almost certainly dunk on Wilkins in a Muppet basketball game. (Wontkins would probably be the ball.) Also, look at the shape of their heads. Kermit’s head sort of comes to a point at the end of his nose, if in fact Kermit can be said to have a nose. This guy’s head is rounder… sort of reminiscent of a jellybean.
And look at their eyes. Wilkins’s eyes are flat ovals with black dot pupils with irises, stuck to the front of his face. Kermit’s eyes are halved ping-pong balls, and higher up on his head. And more crucially: Kermit’s pupils are completely different. They have that funny line through them. I guess he’s supposed to be squinting a little? I’ve never been sure about that.
So far I’ve focused on physical appearance, which is pretty shallow of me. Instead, let’s judge Kermit and Wilkins based on how old they are. Everyone who’s cool knows that Kermit debuted on Jim Henson’s show Sam and Friends, which premiered in 1955. More specifically, this entry from the Jim Henson’s Red Book blog includes an old newspaper article that lists Kermit’s own date of origin as March 1955.
A lot of TV viewers in the Washington, DC area watched Sam and Friends. As documented in Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones, that audience included Helen Ver Standig, whose advertising agency worked for Wilkins Coffee. Ver Standig was a fan of Sam and Friends, which inspired her to approach Jim to see if he’d be interested in creating Muppet coffee commercials. He was, and those commercials started airing in 1957. If I have my math right, 1957 is later than 1955. Therefore, ipso facto, e pluribus unum, not only is Wilkins not Kermit, he couldn’t even have been the “inspiration for Kermit.” I don’t know what the inspiration for Kermit was, other than a coat.
I think you get the idea. As always, I live only to help my fellow human beings, so I came up with a little song everyone can sing to help them remember the difference between these two. It’s to the tune of the alphabet song:
Kermit is a nice green gent
Atop his head are eyes that squint
Wilkins’s eyes are on the front of his head
If you don’t drink his coffee, you’ll soon be dead
Kermit’s also two years older
And far less likely to crush you with a boulder
Muppet fans, do me a favor. The next time you see or hear anyone refer to Wilkins as “Kermit” or “the early Kermit” or “the precursor to Kermit,” teach them this song. And if that doesn’t work, throw them out of an airplane.
Click here to tell me what YOU think of Wilkins on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com