Last night our old friends across the country at EOTAW posted a video of proto-Muppets, including an early version of Kermit, playing banjo and selling bacon (do you think Piggie knows about that dark past?). Just the other day, by coincidence, Flaming Pablum posted another proto-Muppet ad campaign, this one a rather violent enticement for consumers to purchase Wilkins Coffee.
After falling down a Muppet rabbit hole on YouTube and the Muppet Wiki, I came to learn that these early versions of familiar Muppet faces developed during the era of Sam and Friends, Jim Henson’s first TV show — a five-minute spot, really — which ran on a DC-area local TV affiliate in the late 50s and early 60s. One of his early characters, I was pleased to discover, was a fellow named Harry the Hipster. To me he seems like an early version of both Rowlf the Dog and Zoot (the sax player from Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem). Here’s Harry with proto-Kermit in a 1959 sketch called “Visual Thinking”:
Here’s version #2, from a 1966 short on the Ed Sullivan Show. (Did you know Muppets had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show? I didn’t.) This time Kermit’s the hipster:
Finally, here’s the sketch as it appeared on Sesame Street in 1971. Kermit’s gone; the Muppets here are voiced by Frank Oz (doing his Sam the Eagle voice) and Northern Calloway, who played David on the show:
I’ll leave it to readers to decide what to make of the hipster’s reappropriation, here, by a decidedly urban Black voice. David was one of the coolest dudes on Sesame Street. How is it that John Leland left this magnificent material out of his history of hip?