Jim Henson’s work on The Muppet Show (1976-1981) is renowned throughout American culture due to the wonderful family characters of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and Fozzie the Bear. The show not only appealed to children but translated well to adult audiences as it aired once a week at night.
When researching the background into the show, I was quite surprised to see that the show was co-produced between the United Kingdom and the United States. Jim Henson’s The Jim Henson Company was created by the puppeteer in 1958 and has produced a number of television shows, commercials, and films including the long running children’s program, Sesame Street. Although the Muppets are often associated within the context of American culture, it was surprising to learn that the show as actually shot at Clarendon Road Studios, in Borehamwood, England. The show as produced with Associated Television (ATV) which held licenses to broadcast on the Independent Television Network (ITV). ITV is a commercially held public television network which broadcast the show to ITV stations. ITC Entertainment, a distribution arm of ITV, sold show around the globe where it was shown in the US under CBS syndication. Henson was originally unhappy with the idea of syndication, but withdrew his concerns when Lew Grade, President of ATV, made a deal with Henson to produce the show in the UK.
The ability for a show to translate from the UK to the US speaks volumes to the notion of a lack of “cultural discount” whereas The Muppet Show can actually translate well between both countries without a loss of significant value. The show had onslaught of major guest stars from American film, television, and music. Although some may argue that there were too many obscure American stars for a British audience, there were more big name stars like Steve Martin which British audiences were familiar with. Furthermore, unlike Sesame Street, whose objectives are to teach young children, this show had more of an entertainment value for families as well as adults. Hence, there is less of a need to translate or redo jokes. Even if there are instance where jokes may not translate, character actions and slapstick can allow for “forgiveness” if certain jokes or terminology do not transfer directly between the two countries’ audiences. Michelle Ann Abate has highlighted the “nonsensical” aspects of the show as it tied the nonsensical with social, cultural, and political commentary. Often times changes had to be made to adjust to the country. For example, she argues that a song called “Something’s Missing” was cut from a U.S. airing of a show possibly because of the disability rights movement. In these cases, the show had to make adjustments to the culture of the country.
The show was distributed to many other countries such as France, Brazil, Poland, Sweden, and many of the titles translated directly as The Muppet Show. For example, in France it was called Le muppet Show and in Brazil it was O Show dos Muppets. With such a simple title, it is easy to understand why the titles in other countries were not altered. Furthermore, there was a delay in the premiere dates as the first episode in the U.S. aired on January 29, 1976, yet it did not premiere in the UK until September 5, 1976. Countries such as the Netherlands, West Germany, and Sweden did not air the show until a year later or longer. Since the US was the first country to premiere the show, well ahead of the others, the notion of The Muppet Show as an American show despite its English production is made clear.
Through the television show and its many projects in film, television, and toys, the Muppet brand has become recognizable all over the world. Although The Muppet Show was shot in England, the show was recognizable as American due to the American accents and locales. Even subsequent films such as provide the Muppets within an American context. In The Muppet Movie, the muppets take a road trip across America, and in Muppets Take Manhattan they try to make it in New York City. Although the show was produced in England, very little British culture is apparent within the narrative of the show and the characters on screen. Yet today the muppets continue to have ties to the UK with the announcement of a new “Muppets-style” show produced in England for British audiences.
Abate, Michelle A. “Taking Silliness Seriously: Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show, the Anglo-American Tradition of Nonsense, and Cultural Critique.” Journal of Popular Culture 42.4 (2009): 589-613. Web.