With The Happytime Murders upon us, foul-mouthed and violent puppets engaging in some absurdly over-the-top, hard-R-rated shenanigans are back, reminding us of better films like Team America: World Police and Meet the Feebles. In the case of this Melissa McCarthy/horny puppet cop detective buddy-cop farce, there are some elements even more unique than a straight membership in this very specific sub-genre: First, as opposed to Meet The Feebles’ Muppets parody that didn’t have any creative connections with the Jim Henson Company, the puppets in The Happytime Murders were actually conceived and created by them. They might not officially be Muppets, since it’s hard to justify Elmo and Rotten Cotton Girl (an actual character from the cast list) existing within the same lore, but they’re as close as we’ll get within an R-rated property.
Second, the film was directed by Brian Henson, son of legendary Muppets creator Jim Henson. It might seem like a strict departure for son Henson to take on such obviously adult material, but daddy Henson also dabbled in stuff geared towards an older and more sophisticated audience, especially before making it big with Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. One could even argue that The Muppet Show, a primetime variety program in its heyday, was for adults, though it also kept to a fairly G-rated tone as it presented family-friendly vaudeville format to a then-contemporary audience. Let’s examine some of Henson’s lesser-known, adult-oriented material.
While directing his Muppets in commercials during the early-to-mid ’60s, Jim Henson used his spare time to create experimental short films. The most famous of them is Timepiece, a rapid-paced, slightly absurdist examination of the passage of time, and the suffocating anxiety that humans feel every waking moment at the thought of their inability to control or stop it. The short is only eight minutes long, yet it manages to infuse the audience with a sense of dread and panic via its meticulously fast-paced editing that lines up our mundane day-to-day routines until they pile up to showcase just how much of our precious time on this planet we’re wasting on trivial and nonsensical matters. Henson himself plays the representation of “Man,” who can only whimper “Help” as the pressures of modern life smothers him, giving us an inside look at his mental state at the time. The short was nominated for a Best Short Film Oscar and boosted Henson’s career one step closer to his Sesame Street success. You can watch the whole thing here.
The Cube (1969)
An unnamed, common-looking man (Richard Schall) wakes up in a small bedroom-sized cube lined top to bottom with white tiles. He has no idea how he got there, why he’s there or if he can even get out of there at all. As people walk in and out of the cube, giving him more questions than answers, as furniture keeps appearing and disappearing out of the blue, as absurd items like chocolate bunnies and wall replacement parts shaped exactly like the hole he smashed through one of the tiles are thrown at him without any sense of context or purpose, the man becomes increasingly troubled by a disturbing notion: Is this some sort of a sick experiment? Is he dead? Is this hell, or limbo? The fact such subversive material was once shown on network television as part of a program titled NBC Experiment in Television is kind of a miracle. The fact that it was co-written and directed by Jim Henson makes it an especially rare treat. The existential anxiety on display matches Henson’s artistic output at the time, and The Cube is one of the most unexpectedly grim pieces of work you’ll find by him. That is, if you can get your hands on it. Filmstruck used to offer it as a streaming option, but they since removed it. All we can offer for now are a couple of clips, like this one. Henson also produced another episode of NBC Experiment in Television, titled Youth 68, a psychedelic documentary about the youth hippie culture at the time. You can watch a clip of that here.
Dog City (1989)
Dog City was a stand-alone short that was shown as an episode of the single-season late-’80s show called the Jim Henson Hour, mainly a device for Henson to deliver material that wouldn’t fit Sesame Street. As much as Dog City adhered to the family-friendly confines of the overall show, it was also a fairly sophisticated parody of old-school gumshoe detective film noir classics. Taking place in a legit noir world inhabited mostly by canines, Dog City follows the adventures of hardboiled detective Ace Yu (Kevin Clash), who inherits a saloon from his late uncle and finds himself having to fight off the violent gangsters who use it as their turf. The movies it lampoons had to stay loyal to the Hays Code when they were released anyway, so Dog City’s lack of graphic violence and use of clever sexual innuendo perfectly matches the tone of old detective films while managing to stay within the lines of daytime TV rules. A lot of the references to classic noir would surely go over the kids’ little heads, so Henson’s target audience is fairly obvious here. The short was so popular, it inspired a short-lived animated TV series, one that was far more catered to a younger audience of course. You can watch a clip of the original short here.
Sex and Violence (1975)
Before The Muppet Show graced our screens, there were two pilots that were produced to sell the network on the idea of a prime-time variety program consisting almost entirely by puppets. First came 1974’s The Muppets Valentine Show, which followed pretty much the format we’re familiar with now. The second pilot was a bizarre half hour entitled Sex and Violence that aired in 1975 and took the established Muppets from the show and gave them a violent, sexually subversive, and downright fatalistic slant. The theme of the half-hour is the “eradication” of sex and violence from TV screens, a debate that was raging at the time. (By the ’80s, sex and violence had pretty much won.) Of course, these being the irreverent and incompetent Muppets, the show ends up further glorifying sex and violence instead. Any show that begins with the presidents on Mount Rushmore telling each other sexually charged knock-knock jokes and ends with a beauty pageant where the Muppets judge the seven deadly sins is begging to be rediscovered by Muppets fans. Unfortunately, apart from some clips here and there, the only way to watch the whole thing is if you own the Season 1 DVD set of The Muppet Show, where the pilot can be seen as an extra feature.
The Land of Gorch (1975)
After making a name for himself as the father of Sesame Street, Jim Henson began to worry during the mid-’70s that he would forever be associated with children’s programming. As evident from his ’60s experimental work and the occasional appearance of his adult humor puppets in late night talk shows, Henson was still interested in creating material for an adult audience, and a then-brand-new sketch show called Saturday Night Live provided the perfect opportunity. To that end, Henson created a series of skits under the title The Land of Gorch, a fantasy kingdom with a foggy, swampy backdrop and grotesque “royal” characters who sought advice from a vapid-minded oracle named Mighty Favoc, who appears to have inspired Olec from Legends of the Hidden Temple. Full of sexual innuendo and drug humor, The Land of Gorch at least thematically seemed to have fit SNL’s inaugural season, but Henson and the writers frequently clashed about the content. Henson wanted to follow an ongoing narrative, while the SNL writers wanted him to apply their approach of stand-alone sketches. Henson eventually moved on to do The Muppet Show, much to everyone’s delight. You can watch one of the skits here.
The Muppet Show’s Adult Jokes (1976-1981)
Even though The Muppet Show was fairly innocent when it came to adult material, it did contain more than a handful of references to sex, drugs and various other heavier subjects. Thankfully, YouTube user Sam P. edited together 23 minutes of jokes, musical numbers, and segments that swayed a bit more on the adult side. You can watch it here.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.