Kermit the Frog Learns to Love Jazz Through “Visual Thinking” (1959)

Jim Hen­son launched his first tele­vised pup­pet pro­gram, Sam and Friends, when he was a fresh­man at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land. The show ran for six years on NBC affil­i­ate WRC-TV in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Dur­ing the pro­duc­tion of Sam and Friends, Hen­son devel­oped the design of his flex­i­ble, foam-rub­ber pup­pets, which moved much more nat­u­ral­ly than wood­en mar­i­onettes. And they became the pro­to­types of the beloved Mup­pets that would make him famous. In the short film above from Sam and Friends, “Visu­al Think­ing,” an ear­ly ver­sion of Ker­mit the Frog has an exchange with a ston­er char­ac­ter called Har­ry the Hip­ster, who intro­duces him to an advanced form of visu­al think­ing that moves from sin­gle notes, to chords, to clas­si­cal pas­sages to jazz.

The sketch rep­re­sents a unique com­bi­na­tion of pup­petry and ani­ma­tion that would come to char­ac­ter­ize some of Henson’s most rec­og­niz­able work, such as Sesame Street. Although it’s in black and white and obvi­ous­ly not pro­duced for chil­dren, it’s very much in the style of the lat­er Hen­son, who main­tained a kind of beat sen­si­bil­i­ty through­out his career, whether work­ing in fan­ta­sy with The Dark Crys­tal or mad­cap pup­pet ensem­bles like The Mup­pet Movie. In the above sketch, Ker­mit and Har­ry work out the intri­ca­cies of jazz phras­ing by visu­al­iz­ing the notes in white squig­gles on the screen, which Har­ry eras­es by scat­ting them back­wards. Even­tu­al­ly, they’re over­whelmed and erased by jazz, in a kind of trib­ute to the form’s com­plex inde­ter­mi­na­cy. The sketch is one of the few ear­ly films to fea­ture Ker­mit, since the character’s rights are owned by Dis­ney. Pro­duced in 1959, the sketch was remade for The Ed Sul­li­van Show in 1966 and again for The Dick Cavett Show in 1971.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jim Hen­son Pilots The Mup­pet Show with Adult Episode, “Sex and Vio­lence” (1975)

Pup­pet Mak­ing with Jim Hen­son: A Primer

Jim Henson’s Zany 1963 Robot Film Uncov­ered by AT&T: Watch Online

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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Comments (2)
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  • high­ly inter­est­ing. salut

  • Tim says:

    Genius. One of the most bril­liant­ly sim­ple ways of explain­ing visu­al­iza­tion and abstract thought that I always refer to in class­es. Cre­ativ­i­ty isn’t just a dif­fer­ent syn­tax or approach. It’s not even a dif­fer­ent lan­guage. It’s an entire­ly dif­fer­ent way of think­ing and see­ing, and that’s why try­ing to make sense of it through lin­ear means is guar­an­teed to fail. Ker­mit and Har­ry though? They nailed it.

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