Animation History
October 24, 2015 posted by

Lost Saturday Mornings: “Little Muppet Monsters” (1985)

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Almost everyone my age remembers Muppet Babies – the Emmy-winning 1984 Saturday morning show featuring childhood versions of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and the gang. The inventive and whimsical program placed cartoon version of the young Muppets (originally seen in a musical number in The Muppets Take Manhattan) into imagined adventures that often utilized live action backgrounds as well as drawn or painted backdrops, a once-an-episode musical number, and lots of heart.

But next to no-one remembers Muppet Babies one-time sister program Little Muppet Monsters. The variety-format program featured a trio of Muppet monster siblings who broadcast their own TV show from the basement of a brownstone where the main Muppet Show characters lived. There were rotating animated segments featuring the Muppet Show cast in cartoon form, including recurring bits with Kermit and Fozzie as private eyes, and an animated update of the Pigs in Space skits. The program, which was the brainchild of Henson Associates Creative Director Michael K. Frith, first aired on September 14th, 1985, as the second half of the Muppets, Babies and Monsters one-hour block. Unfortunately, Little Muppet Monsters was cancelled after airing only three episodes out of a reported fifteen or so made. Its relative obscurity, and the fact that the bulk of the show was never completed or shown to the public, has made it a source of curiosity for armchair Hensonologists.

The three completed, aired episodes – “In The Beginning,” “Space Cowboys” and “The Great Boodini,” – along with the puppet wrap-around segments of three unaired episodes, “Foo-Foo Phooey,” “Gunko,” and “Gonzo’s Talent Hunt” – are all viewable on the “Henson Rarities” YouTube account. The series seems to be an attempt to meld the kids-at-play flavor of Muppet Babies with the playfully anarchic backstage antics of the original “Muppet Show.” However, the quality of the animated segments – produced by Marvel, also responsible for Muppet Babies – is all over the map, and is often at odds with the live action segments.

A treasure-trove of scripts, story notes, concept pitches and other documents from the estate of late staff writer Steve Morgenstern sheds a good deal of light on the development and making of Little Muppet Monsters. The writing team, which included ABC’s 2015 “The Muppets” future showrunner Bill Prady and Prady’s “Big Bang Theory” co-creator Chuck Lorre, came up with sketch ideas that ended up making it into the finished product, even while the idea for the wrap-around segment changed several times. In one Lorre-penned draft, “Muppet Monster Television” was to be a talk show spoof populated by adult Muppet Monsters and guest-hosted by the Electric Mayhem’s Floyd and Janice. There was also pitch featuring a Narnia-like portal to a Monster town.

These ideas were scrapped in favor of a variety show hosted by the basement-dwelling young monster siblings Tug, Molly and Boo, staffed by rats, and accompanied by a house band of penguins. Concepts for additional regular characters were illustrated by Frith but never constructed, perhaps due to budgetary constraints. The idea to have each episode guest-hosted by one of The Muppet Show characters proved improbable due to the unavailability of Henson, Frank Oz, and the other puppeteers. Scooter was cast as the Little Monsters’ caretaker since he and Tug were both performed by Richard Hunt. Kermit, Fozzie (who gave lessons on joke history with the aid of an uncooperative cartoon chicken) and Gonzo (who provided humorous commentary to public-domain clips) could only be communicated with through the Monsters’ ‘gizmo,’ a washing machine that, after being hit by lightning, allowed the Monsters to view segments that were shot separately.

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Unused concept sketch for a Muppet Baby Monster

Unused concept sketch for a Muppet Baby Monster

Eight minutes ended up being the total length of a wrap-around story when stripped of all the skits and animated segments. A note from Frith to the writing staff instructed them to jettison all but the most essential story development, and simply focus on one narrative thread to tie the episode through. Despite such a narrow scope and compressed time-frame per episode, the wrap-around segments are witty, fun, and often ‘meta,’ as with the Morgenstern-penned “Gunko” episode.

Marvel was producing the show, as with Muppet Babies. The workflow on Babies was described by former crew members as a free and creatively abundant working environment, with Jim Henson personally helping to guide the project and CBS largely staying out of things. (Showrunner Hank Saroyan related an anecdote in which Henson called George Lucas up in the middle of the night and arranged to use footage from Star Wars in Babies spoof episode.) In contrast, working on Monsters was leaden and burdensome. Henson’s obligation to the post-production work on Labyrinth and other projects in Europe claimed more of his attention, while his company struggled to create the puppet segments to their satisfaction. Unhappy with the scripts they were seeing, CBS exercised more control than before, creating tension and tasking Marvel with refereeing between the two parties in addition to producing the animation.

used-design-tugStory director Scott Shaw likened the experience of turning out Muppet Babies episodes at the same time as Little Muppet Monsters’ segments as “like working on five animated shows at once.” Hank Saroyan, who had to shuttle back and forth weekly between Henson Studios in New York and Marvel Productions in LA, called it “Pork Chop Hill in animation terms.” Animation supervising director Bob Richardson recalled seven or eight edit bays running, seven days a week, and would joke that if the Muppets, Babies and Monsters hour was successful, he and Saroyan’s best investments would be in nice plots at the local cemetery.

Aesthetically speaking, the animation suffered both from being produced so quickly, and from the characters being lost in translation from one medium to another. While Muppet Babies “captured the spirit of the characters with their distinctive personalities as babies, [representing] the adult characters before they were fully formed,” according to Richardson, the animated incarnations of the adult Muppets did not fare so well. The “Pigs In Space” segments, while fun, do little to expand the scope beyond that of the original Muppet Show skits. A bit with Animal performing sports-related gags is tepid at best. The “Kermit and Fozzie, Private Eyes” bit suffers the most in terms of being unfavorably compared to their felt counterparts. According to Scott Shaw, the puppet Kermit proved to be “the most radical example of a sublime range of emotions that you’re never going to get with limited animation.” Bob Richardson went further, saying that “design wise, we knew what these characters looked like, but no matter what we did, they had the effect of a bouquet of plastic flowers in what should have been a beautiful garden.”

used-design-mollySome of the early story notes from Steve Morgenstern’s estate suggested that the animated characters interact with the live-action puppets in a “Duck Amuck” fashion. For example, puppet Kermit would have aided animated Kermit’s adventures by rewriting his mystery stories, and Boo, who brings the “Pigs in Space” segments to life through sketchbook doodles, would have argued with Miss Piggy, Link Hogthrob and Dr. Strangepork over where to place a cliffhanger. This proved to be all but impossible, as Marvel struggled to produce enough animation to pad out their 8 to 12 minutes of running time, much less streamline the segments with the main story. A later note from script coordinator Suzie Elliott states that “eventually it may be possible to tie the animation to [the live-action segments] but not until Marvel accumulates a bank of pieces.”

The fate of Little Muppet Monsters was sealed when, after Marvel had trouble meeting the deadline to complete animation, two episodes of Muppet Babies were ran back-to-back. The ratings were remarkably higher without what CBS, Henson Associates, and Marvel all came to realize had been companion show that could have used a good deal more development time to iron out its flaws. Even so, it’s still a fascinating intersection of animation history and the history of the Henson Company.

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24 Comments

  • Ahhh, so that’s why!

  • What a fun post this morning!

    I remember being very excited to watch this show in my childhood… having the theme song stuck in my head for years after it aired… then wondering if it ever really existed at all! Thank goodness for YouTube and sites like this…

    It does feel a little strange seeing “adult” animated versions of the Muppets, doesn’t it? By the same token, the animated Fraggle Rock (1987) had the same effect on me. I think it has something to do with seeing their legs. Weird…

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to more posts like this each Saturday! A related topic I’d be interested in reading about: how DePatie-Freleng (DFE Films) shifted into Marvel Productions in the ’80s.

    • That would be an interesting subject to talk about. Many of the same DFE guys pretty much moved on over to Marvel in the process.

  • I sort of wish they did an animated “Pigs in Space” series instead. I think that might’ve worked and it would’ve been funny if they did a “Master of the Universe” parody (I can see First Mate Piggy saying “By the Power of Green Skull!”).

    I should also mention at this time, Marvel was also knee deep in work, not only with “Muppet Babies”, but also with several Hasbro shows, including another short lived series called “Super Sunday” where two of the segments ended up being spun-off into their own separate series. One only lasted a single season while another lasted three seasons (and 65 episodes) and has reached sort of a recent cult status.

    • I’m surprised I never heard of Super Sunday before, though it wouldn’t surprised me if none of the TV stations in my town picked it up at all back then, but that one how certainly needs no mention.

  • Nic – believe it or not, the writing team pitched a superhero parody segment called “Monsters of the Universe,” which might have made it if the show hadn’t been cancelled.

    • I just watched the second episode. The “Monsters of the Universe” name ended up being used in that episode, but in a different context.

    • The second episode actually has the monsters trying to make a “Monsters of the Universe” show. At least that’s what Tug calls it.

  • Love Michael Frith’s art here… I first noticed his illustrations in one of Bennett Cerf’s later humor books. Found out that Frith was on the Harvard Lampoon staff with Cerf’s son Christopher.

  • IIRC, the “Muppets, Babies and Monsters” end credits tune remained even after the “Little Muppet Monsters” segment was cancelled.

    • Yeah Marvel got a lot of mileage out of that end theme than they did having a separate Muppet Babies end theme from the first season.

  • i storyboarded the first pigs in space episode in episode 2….i know i boarded a kermit p.i. segment but i don’t think it ever aired….i had a lot of fun on that show and learned a lot from bob richardson and will be forever grateful to scott shaw! for getting me a story director job on muppet babies….but i was very young and was still crazy excited to be working in animation…..

    • I often wonder how much the series finale of Muppet Babies itself was made as a “thank you” to people like you for having worked on this short-lived venture. As anyone who’s seen it like I did, the animated footage from the second episode (namely Kermit, P.I. and Pigs In Space) where used as part of the episode surrounding the Muppet Babies making movies at a theme park.

      This YouTube video doesn’t do it justice but that seems to be the style some like to use to border these things than not play them to fill the screen entirely. They bothered crediting a few key names for those sequences but nobody in story.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=osunGSWcJDE

  • Great post here.

    It’s interesting about some of the people working on this…from people like Tom Ray, Gerry Chiniquy, Norm McCabe, Warren Batchelder, Ron Campbell, Corny Cole as far as direction, layout and storyboards. Then we see that this was produced in association with Toei Animation…yes, the same company in Japan that provided the animation for Rankin-Bass/Videocraft International’s 1966 “King Kong” cartoon series for ABC-TV.

    • Toei also provided the animation for Marvel/Sunbow’s G I Joe,Transfomers and the ill fated Dungeons and dragons.

    • By the 1980’s, that was standard for a studio like Toei to merely provide outsourced animation for any American studio necessary, and they did quite a bit.

  • There’s one more footnote to this story: the Little Muppet Monsters made their final appearance on the Muppets 30th Anniversary special which aired on CBS after their show was cancelled. Too late apparently to edit them out.

  • Ah, my very first animated series. I played Link Hogthrob on Pigs in Space, and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. To this day, no one at Marvel or CBS has ever told me the show was canceled. We were still recording episodes when the show debuted. I got a call that our next scheduled recording session was being rescheduled. It never was, and suddenly the show was no longer on the air. My agent called the production company and was told they will get back to him when the next session is scheduled. I’m still waiting for that next session. And again, no one ever told me or my agent the show was canceled. Hey, that’s show biz!

    • Those are the brake, at least you got a start someplace, and I guess they remembered you as they credited you voice role in that later Muppet Babies episode I brought up.

    • Bob – damn! That’s cold! Well for my money, the Pigs in Space segment was head and shoulders above all the other animated bits. It should have been its own series!

  • I think the “Muppet Labs” segment they produced was the worst in terms of adapting the characters. Bunsen had the proportions of a Monkey, and Beaker simply looked like they took the baby version and made him a little taller. And having Beaker able to smile just doesn’t work.

  • Jim Henson and Art Clokey are two people who create good stuff that leaves me scratching my head, and that is a compliment! I enjoy shows like this that go off in all directions! Sad that there was a budget, because I can only dream of where a show like this would go and who might guest, but thanks for sharing this.

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