I watched an old Sesame Street clip on YouTube recently. (Boy, there’s a sentence that could be spoken by any one of us on any day of the week, eh?) It was a very early sketch in which Ernie makes the mistake of letting Cookie Monster use his telephone to make a short call. Cookie Monster then proceeds to make a very long call, spending hours, spread across multiple installments of the sketch, telling his mommy about his day at school. I guess his mommy had to work late that day? Here, watch it for yourself if you’re so inclined:
A few things struck me about this sketch. One, of course, was that Cookie Monster, who sounds more like Grover here and freely uses the pronoun “I,” also identifies himself as “Tiny.” Can you imagine how different Sesame Street would be if they had stuck with “Tiny” as that monster’s name? Can you imagine how different the entire world would be? Yes, the entire world. It’s hard to imagine Tiny Monster becoming the international superstar that Cookie Monster is today.
The second thing that struck me was that Frank Oz and Jim Henson are hilarious, especially together. But that’s not news to anybody.
There was one other thing that struck me: Around 3:10 in the clip above, Tiny Cookie asks about his brother, and the brother’s name is Fred. Fred! The Muppets sure liked the name Fred in the classic era, didn’t they? That seems to have been their go-to funny name for quite a while there. And I can’t blame them. Just as certain words are funny, certain names are funny, and Fred is one of them. If you’re reading this and your name is Fred, I hope you’re not offended, but… well, it’s true, Fred. Like “Bob” and “Kenny” and “Chauncey,” your name is always good for a chuckle.
I got to wondering if there have really been as many Muppet Freds as I thought, so I checked Muppet Wiki to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. I searched for “Fred,” and as soon as I hit the Enter key, I knew I was right. Searching for “Fred” on the wiki takes you to a disambiguation page with NINE different characters named Fred who have their own wiki articles, with the majority of them dating from the 1960s and ’70s.
(I love that word “disambiguation,” don’t you? Say it out loud. Right now. Go ahead, try it. See? Wasn’t that pleasant?)
The Freds include:
- Fred, an elf from The Great Santa Claus Switch, who is friendly and reliable, and a little bit goofy.
- Fred, the no-nonsense pitchman who starred in a series of commercials for Munchos potato crisps, alongside a primitive version of Cookie Monster (or should I say TINY MONSTER?).
- Fred, a hapless fellow from a series of Kerns Bakery commercials who was victimized, Wilkins-style, by another character named Tommy, who really really wanted Fred to eat Kerns bread.
- Fred, a scary green monster who appeared in sketch on The Ed Sullivan Show and on the first season of Sesame Street. He’s a pretty generic Muppet monster, but he looks cool.
- Fred the Wonder Horse, the faithful steed of Marshall Grover. He’s smarter than Grover, which is not saying much.
- Fred, not a Muppet but a creature — the shape-shifting villain from the Jim Henson Hour segment Lighthouse Island. He’s creepy, but not as dangerous as he’d like to think he is.
That’s a lot of Freds! But the characters don’t have much in common. It’s not like they’re all great dancers so they were all named after Fred Astaire, or they all sing in nu-metal bands so they were all named after Fred Durst. Given the era in which most of these projects were produced, I suspect that either Jim Henson or Jerry Juhl was fond of the name and used it whenever they needed a character name and didn’t want to spend more than two seconds thinking one up.
I didn’t end my immersion in the world of Muppet Freds there, though. Like a detective – a Sherlock Holmes, say, or a Nancy Drew or an Inch-High Private Eye – I scoured the results of the wiki search. And I found a few more Freds!
- Fred, a Whatnot from the Loretta Lynn episode of The Muppet Show who is “looking for the cattle car at the train depot” so he can “get some sleep.” Sounds reasonable.
- Fred, another Whatnot from The Muppet Show, who is “found eating Elke Sommer’s dressing table in episode 319.” Also reasonable.
- Fred the Lizard, the drummer from the Riverbottom Nightmare band in Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas. Watch out for that guy.
- King Fred, “the king of a town called Frel,” as seen in The Muppets on Puppets, the public television special in which Jim Henson and friends teach you everything you ever wanted to know about puppetry. Hey, “Frel” is just one letter off from “Fred!”
- Fred, Ernie’s cousin, who’s mentioned in two Sesame Street storybooks. He’s an artist. A regular Fred da Vinci, you might say.
So many Freds! Myriad Freds! A plethora of Freds! If you’re still not convinced that Fred is the Muppets’ favorite name, consider this:
- In an early draft of The Muppet Movie screenplay, before Kermit sets off on his trip to Hollywood, he says goodbye to a swamp creature named Fred.
- When Nurse Janice tells Dr. Bob in a “Veterinarian’s Hospital” sketch that he’s given the hospital a bad name, he agrees that Fred is a terrible name for a hospital.
- The premise of the Phyllis George episode of The Muppet Show is the Muppets hosting an awards show for themselves, and the prize is called the Fred Award!
The Muppet and Henson folks have kept the Fred fire burning in the post-Jim era… In the mid-90s, one of two original Muppet characters designed for some puppet-and-book sets was named Fred, and his book was called Go to Bed, Fred! (The other character was Lizzy Lou, a name that pops up nowhere else in Muppet history.) The Sesame Street TV special CinderElmo featured another King Fred, presumably no relation to the one from a town called Frel.
Also, a Western-themed “Elmo the Musical” segment featured a cowboy named Fastest-Drawing Fred. And there’s an episode of Muppets Tonight with a brief appearance by Fred Willard, no doubt cast purely because of his first name. And I’m sure there are others I’ve missed.
So the next time you’re writing a sketch, a TV episode, a commercial or a TV special, and you need a funny name for a character, consider following the Muppets’ lead and going with Fred. And if in fact your name is Fred, I hope you appreciate how lucky you are to share a name with Grover’s horse.
Click here to Fred the Fred about all the Freds on the Tough Freds forum!
by Fred Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com