In a first season episode of The Muppet Show, Fozzie asks Kermit a question: “What has a skull-like head, fiery green eyes, and a torn cape?” The answer is “I don’t know, but it’s standing right behind you!”
If one were to ask the same question today, the answer might very well be “America’s sweetheart, and everyone’s new favorite Muppet!”
I’m talking about Uncle Deadly, of course. A few years ago, the guy was sort of a curiosity, a Muppet also-ran. But in 2016? “Uncle Deadly” is the name on everyone’s scaly blue lips. He’s a star!
Television’s most beloved blue dragon-man was formally introduced in The Muppet Show episode 119, guest-starring Twiggy. Twiggy herself doesn’t meet Deadly until the curtain call because she’s busy reading bedtime stories to Gonzo and Muppy, who for some reason are sleeping on the stage. But backstage, all the major Muppets (like Hilda) are freaked out by repeated sightings of a scary-looking creature, who eventually reveals himself to be the Phantom of the Muppet Show. He was an actor who used to perform in the theater, until one night while playing Othello, he was killed… by the critics. And now he hangs around the theater, trying to discourage anyone else from performing there.
I’ve often wondered why his name is Uncle Deadly. “Uncle Deadly” sounds like a morbid twist on “Uncle Dudley,” but who is Dudley and whose uncle is he? After about eighteen seconds of intensive Google-driven research, I’ve decided that two possibilities are likely.
Possibility 1: The comic book character Captain Marvel had a supporting character named Uncle Dudley who joined him on some of his adventures. Jim Henson once declared that Captain Marvel was his favorite superhero as a kid, so he must have known Uncle Dudley. When the Muppet Show creators were developing the character, Jim might have said, “Hey, how about a riff on the name of Captain Marvel’s supporting character who joined him on some of his adventures?”
Possibility 2: There’s a movie from 1935 called Your Uncle Dudley starring Edward Everett Horton, which Jim would have been too young to see on its initial release, but maybe he saw it on TV at some point. Or maybe the name was suggested by one of the show’s writers who knew the film, or by Michael Frith, who drew the early design sketches of Deadly. I haven’t seen the film, so I can’t say whether Horton’s character is a blue monster, but anything is possible.
Either way, Frith’s design plus Jerry Nelson’s John Carradine-inspired voice made for an intriguing character. In that Twiggy episode, it seems like they’re setting him up to be a recurring presence on the show. He could be a trickster lurking in the theater and occasionally scheming to sabotage the show in wacky ways, like a scarier(?) Macauley Culkin in Home Alone. But that never happened. Deadly has a substantial role as Vincent Price’s beautiful assistant in the Vincent Price episode — which, oddly enough, came before his introductory episode — but he never quite made even the B-list of the Muppet ensemble.
I first became aware of Uncle Deadly from a book called Muppet Madness, which was released in the UK as the 1979 Muppet Show Annual. I got the book as a kid, sometime in the 80s. It’s a fun hodgepodge of comics, games, and jokes that was perfect for a young Muppet fan. Many was the time I played the restaurant game using the Swedish Chef’s menu with my parents as my customers. But that’s an adorable story for another time.
Uncle Deadly was all over that book, and thanks to the miracle that is Muppet Wiki, I can show you some of the images from it. On one of the first pages, he appears in a group shot of the main Muppet Show cast:
And he’s right there at the start of a “Haunted Theatre” board game:
Given his presence throughout the book, I figured he must be an important character I just hadn’t seen much of yet. So in later years, when I began to get more access to Muppet Show episodes, I was surprised to find that he wasn’t around as much as I expected. He showed up in group shots on posters and puzzles and such, perhaps because he looks cool. But other than a very brief cameo singing with Ethel Merman, a few “Muppet Melodrama” sketches, and a performance of “Sheik of Araby” with a strangely seductive female Whatnot, he didn’t get much to do on the show.
Still, the fans always carried a torch for the guy. He stood out in our minds more than other also-rans like Fleet Scribbler or Gladys, or even other minor monsters like Mean Mama. With his glimmer of personality and his great Jerry Nelson voice, we saw him as more than a one-joke Muppet, which is why we were excited to hear rumblings in 2000 of a Muppet project called “Uncle Deadly’s House of Badness,” though it never got off the ground. It’s why, in 2002, a visitor to the Tough Pigs forum named Clipity HandScissors started a thread called “Whatever happened to Uncle Deadly?” (Wait a minute… “Clipity HandScissors?!”) And it’s why Deadly got his own Palisades action figure, and even two variant figures. All this, despite only appearing silently in crowd shots in the first six movies that form the Muppet knowledge base of most casual fans.
Deadly had one fan who would turn out to be pretty important: James Bobin, the director of 2011’s The Muppets. When he came on board the movie, he requested the addition of Uncle Deadly, and while the movie was touted as the triumphant comeback of the Muppets as a franchise, I suspect Bobin secretly viewed the whole thing as an excuse to engineer the comeback of Uncle Deadly. So many people were like, “Oh, that part where Kermit and Piggy sang ‘Rainbow Connection’ made me cry!'” But for those who paid attention, the real emotional climax of the movie was when Deadly foils Tex Richman’s evil plan and proclaims, “Just because I have a terrifying name and an evil English accent does not preclude the fact that, in my heart, I am a Muppet, not a Moopet!”
And for 16 episodes now he’s been Miss Piggy’s wardrobe person on The Muppets TV show, and we’re seeing dimensions of him we never knew before. He’s better dressed now — no more torn cape — but that’s not the only difference. He’s still vaguely sinister at times, but he’s now something of a perfectionist, devoted to making the pig look good. And yet, there’s still that flair for the dramatic.
Like his costars Yolanda and Chip, Deadly has benefited from the fact that he was an existing character, but not firmly established in the viewers’ minds. People have rigid expectations of what Kermit should and shouldn’t say and do, but nobody’s going to complain if Deadly doesn’t act exactly like he did in 1976. The episode “Got Silk” cemented an inspired new relationship between Piggy and Deadly, and I saw more than one internet commenter note the effectiveness of the “Deadly as Piggy’s BFF” dynamic. And of course, Matt Vogel’s performance has been brilliant, ensuring that his lines are among the most quoted and repeated after each episode airs. When this here website did a midseason check-in and asked the question “Which character do you think has been written the best?”, every Tough Pigs contributor mentioned Deadly in their response.
It’s been such a pleasant surprise to see Uncle Deadly become an indispensable character. And I know we hardcore Muppet geeks aren’t the only ones who love him. ToughPigs.com’s Google Analytics reveal that lots of people are searching for Uncle Deadly and Uncle Deadly merchandise (which there should be more of!). Did I mention that he has his own Twitter account now? Who saw that coming? If you say you did, you’re a liar. Uncle Deadly is one of the best Muppets these days, and I hope he continues to haunt Muppet productions for a long time.
Click here to be Vincent Price’s beautiful assistant on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com