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.
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.
Story 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.”
Some 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.