The term Muppet was invented by Jim Henson at the beginning of his career to describe his puppet act. It is sometimes claimed, and refuted, that Henson created the term as a combination of the words marionette and puppet. Henson used the Muppet name to define the characters in his productions, and to distinguish his act from those of other puppeteers.
Following the development of various projects over the years, and ownership changes for some characters, the term has seen a shift in the way it has been used by official parties, and its perception in popular culture.
“Do you know what it takes to be a Muppet? ...Imagination!”
—Uncle Traveling Matt, The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years
The word Muppet appeared in print as early as the spring of 1955 in an advertisement for Afternoon with Inga. Henson's appearances on variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show were billed as "The Muppets" and, as on Saturday Night Live, "Jim Henson's Muppets."
When The Jim Henson Company sold the Muppets to The Walt Disney Company in 2004, Jane Henson sent a letter to The Walt Disney Company, stating that the copyright on the early Muppet characters went to Jane Henson as well as Jim Henson, though Jim Henson was the sole author and creator of the early characters.
During the development of Sesame Street, when it was decided that the show would add a fantasy element, Jim Henson's Muppets were singled out as the only puppet act that would be worth approaching. After Henson became involved, a cast of new Muppet characters were created for the show. They have become known as The Sesame Street Muppets or The Muppets of Sesame Street.
Sesame Workshop retains the Muppets name in its credits and products for Sesame Street, continuing to call its characters "Jim Henson's Sesame Street Muppets" and the puppeteers "Muppet Performers" or "Muppeteers." However Sesame Workshop does note that "Muppets™ is a trademark of The Muppets Studio." From 1990-1991, the credits for Sesame Street and related productions referred to its Muppets as "Sesame Street Puppet Characters."
The Muppet Show
When The Muppet Show became an international hit, the word Muppet became more closely associated with characters from that show. Productions and merchandise started to become branded from The Muppet Show’s cast of characters.
Although, the phrase, "Muppet Performers" appeared during The Muppet Show closing credits, early episodes of the first season referred to its Muppets as "The Muppet Puppeteers" or "The Muppet People."
Television specials and theatrical films created throughout the 1980s strengthened this branding, as the group of characters established in The Muppet Movie and The Muppet Show continued to receive significant focus. This family of characters continued on into the MuppeTelevision portions of The Jim Henson Hour and Muppets Tonight.
“Muppets tm \`mu-pets\ 1 : a trademark of The Jim Henson Company for a fanciful troupe of famous puppet characters created and performed exclusively by, and/or for goods and services coming exclusively from, the characters at The Jim Henson Company [var – Muppet; The Muppets]; 2 : none
—definition applied to merchandising in the late 1990s/early 2000s, prior to Disney's purchase”
The franchise was further solidified as being separate from other "Jim Henson's Muppets" projects when The Walt Disney Company purchased the Muppets characters from The Jim Henson Company in 2004. Disney went one step further to separate their property, by designating this group and their endeavors as The Muppets Studio.
|1970s and 80s logo||(variation)||1990s logo|
|The Muppets (Disney)||The Muppets (Disney)||Muppet Studios|
|The Muppets Studio||The Muppets||Disney The Muppets|
|Disney The Muppets||The Muppets film set chair logo||...and The Muppets|
|Pepe as member of The Muppet Show family of characters|
Even so, the word Muppet continued to be used to describe characters from productions featuring mostly original characters, such as in Fraggle Rock where the credits read "with Jim Henson's Muppets," even though none of The Muppet Show characters were used.
In the late-1980s/1990s, the word Muppet would start being associated with new productions less often than it had been (unless that production featured characters from The Muppet Show, such as Muppets Tonight and the Muppet movies). The phrases "Muppet Performers" or "Jim Henson's Muppets" still appeared in the credits to such shows as Dog City and Big Bag.
Since selling the Muppets to The Walt Disney Company in 2004, the Jim Henson Company has stopped using the Muppets name for characters in newer productions. They stopped including the Muppets name on new Fraggle Rock products (the first five Fraggle Rock DVDs, except for "Doin' Things That Doozers Do", actually cut the "With Jim Henson's Muppets" credit in the opening, though it's been included in the opening for later DVDs). This is to create a distinction between the Muppet Show -brand characters (Disney owned) and other Henson Company puppets.
The Jim Henson Company seldom described creations from the Creature Shop as Muppets. Rare examples of Muppets created from the Creature Shop include the casts of The Ghost of Faffner Hall and Mother Goose Stories, as well as the ghosts from The Muppet Christmas Carol. See Muppet vs Creature for more on this distinction.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following meanings:
- A proprietary name for: any of a number of humorously grotesque glove or rod puppets and marionettes, chiefly representing animals, first popularized by the children's television programme Sesame Street (1969-) and more recently in The Muppet Show (1976-80). Also: a toy made to resemble one of these.
- 1970 Globe & Mail (Toronto) 26 Sept. 24/3 The muppet puppets..are among the most engaging of Sesame Street's characters. 1977 Private Eye 13 May 11/4 As we open the door we can imagine Freud himself sitting behind the desk with a Muppet on his knee. 1978 Time 25 Dec. 71/1 Henson..says that ‘muppet’ was simply a word that sounded good to him. The sound combination of puppet and marionette is merely an explanation that happens to sound logical. 1990 Toronto Star (Nexis) 8 May E2 Miss Piggy is dumping Kermit. The loquacious Muppet has decided to end her 14-year romance with the friendly frog. 2000 USA Today 14 Nov. 8D, At www.sesamestreet.com, each Muppet now has a link to its own home page..and Big Bird has an e-mail account.
- Angling. A lure made to resemble a young squid, used in sea fishing.
- 1983 Sea Angler Oct. 33/3 There are a number of other manufacturers making mainly small 2in to 3in ‘muppets’ in every colour imaginable. 1990 Compl. Anglers Guide Spring 67/3 Baits will often take fish while the jigs and muppets remain fishless. 1997 Irish Times (Nexis) 20 June 13 Six massive muppets (each costing Pounds 50) were now skimming across the water as we cruised at a steady seven knots.
- Brit. Prison slang (derogatory). A prisoner with psychiatric problems; a vulnerable inmate liable to be bullied or harassed by others.
- 1988 in U. Padel & P. Stevenson Insiders (BNC) 82 If some of the girls knew you were from C1 [sc. the psychiatric unit] they'd call you muppet. 1998 Independent 18 May I. 10/1 Their favourite targets are the fraggles, the nonces and the muppets. But anyone showing tell-tale signs of fear is a target..for Britain's jail bullies. 2001 Independent (Nexis) 22 Feb. 3 Held in an anti-bullying unit, he holds little sympathy for the ‘muppets’ whom he forced to pay £4 per cigarette.
- slang. An incompetent or ineffectual person; an idiot. Also (with less derogatory force): someone enthusiastic but inept; a person prone to mishaps through naivety.
- 1989 Guardian 7 Dec. 38/4 I'm a muppet. In fact, I'm definitely a muppet. I couldn't find the entrance to the restaurant that night for a start. 1992 Baltimore Jewish Times (Nexis) 25 Dec. 42 Michael Johnson..condemned leaders of groups such as the NAACP and BLEWS as ‘muppets’. 1995 C. HIGSON Full Whack (1996) ii. 10 Last thing I need right now is for you two muppets to drag me back into the shit. 2001 Scotsman (Nexis) 2 Mar. 10 Samantha Mumba comes on. Having previously dismissed her as another Irish teen pop muppet..I gladly stand corrected.
The earliest known usage of definitions 2–4 all date from after the original run of The Muppet Show, and the etymology of definitions 3 and 4 appears to derive directly from the show; the implication being that a "muppet" is silly person or someone who cannot act without being animated or controlled by another.
Among puppeteers and puppet builders, the term "muppet-style" is used widely to describe puppets that are similar in appearance and/or construction to Muppets, especially foam-based mouth puppets.
Other definitions and uses
When asked "what's a Muppet?," Homer Simpson said: "Well, it's not quite a mop and it's not quite a puppet... but man [laughs]. So to answer your question, I don't know."
In a promotional video for The Muppets, Fozzie Bear attempted to tell a joke starting "a Muppet is what you get when you cross a mop and a... no, no that's not it. A Muppet is what you get when you cross a guppy..."
A December 2013 screening of The Great Muppet Caper at the Brooklyn Academy of Music featured an introduction by Cheryl Henson, Peter Linz, and Walter. Walter explains to the audience that in England, instead of "idiot" they say "muppet".
Gordon Ramsay, a Brit, says "Get out of here, you Muppets" to Walter and Kermit in the "Food Fight" Muppisode. Walter says he loves it when people call him that, but Kermit, picking up on the derogatory nature of Ramsay's put-down, shelters Walter away from any further conversation.
In 2014, Disney officially started using the term as a verb. The phrase "Muppet Your Devices" appeared on the official Muppets Most Wanted website as a link to a section for downloads to be used on mobile devices.