Those Marvelous Muppets

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Stop giggling and pay attention, because we are going to discuss what may be the only adult show on television. Children may stay in the room if they do not squeal excessively. Now then: What is small and green and surrounded by confusion, and is applauded each week by more people than there are in the entire U.S.?

No, not the wobbling dollar, but a more cheerful and indeed more bankable asset: Kermit the Frog. He is the gallant and slightly desperate master of ceremonies of a weekly eruption called The Muppet Show, which in its third season on the air has become what is almost certainly the most popular television entertainment now being produced on earth. The Muppet series is seen by at least 235 million people in 106 countries. Those who have not met Kermit will ask, in thank-you-not-today tones, "A frog?" And they will ask, "Adult?" The answer to the first question is a confident yes, and the answer to the second is a ringing yes, but...

A phenomenon has been observed: children trap their parents in front of the terrible tube and force them to watch the Muppets. The parents become habituated, and thenceforth on Muppet night somewhat sheepishly remind the children to close their calculus textbooks and turn on the set. In the last stage of addiction, the parents are sheepless and do not require the presence of child stooges.

The air is full of Muppet stories. One is told by Lew Grade, the English entertainment mogul, who says that some months ago, he flew to Paris to persuade Sophia Loren to appear in one of his films. He had exactly an hour for the conference, so he launched directly into his serenade, enumerating the reasons why Sophia alone could make his project take wing. Soon he noticed that she was paying only the faintest attention. Eventually the great actress explained: It was the Muppet hour, and she absolutely must see them. A blow to his ego, admitted Lord Grade with a shrug of his cigar, though not an unendurable blow, since Grade's ACC organization finances The Muppet Show. (Grade, who is short, bald and whimsical, by no coincidence strongly resembles Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, the mad scientist of the Muppets.)

For those who have been out of touch with this aspect of reality, what, exactly, is a Muppet? The word was coined from "marionette" and "puppet," says Jim Henson, 42, the skinny, bearded Zeus from whose brow the creatures began to spring 20-odd years ago, when he was a teen-ager hooked on television. He is the rarest of creatures in the imitative and adaptive world of entertainment, an originator. His brilliant central perception was that puppets could throw away the Punch and Judy box that had confined them for centuries and let the television set be their stage. The camera demanded the use of closeups, and abruptly the old single-expression puppet was obsolete. The Muppets were new, and they were pure television creatures. Today they are the stars of Sesame Street, as well as of Henson's global hit The Muppet Show.

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