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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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.