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Think “The Muppets” are selling out? Think again.

Think “The Muppets” are selling out?  Think again. (photo)

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The Muppets sure are busy these days. Their new movie — their first in twelve years — opens in theaters on Thanksgiving and Jim Henson’s famous creations have been popping up everywhere to promote it. They’ve made a billion parody trailers, a cover album of their old hits, and cranked out tons on TV cameos including, most strangely, an appearance on WWE’s Monday Night Raw. In the wake of this marketing, I’ve started to see articles online and hear rumblings from friends and other critics that this behavior represents conduct unbecoming of The Muppets. That somehow the Muppets should be better than pimping their movie on pro wrestling.

That’s ridiculous. It is impossible for The Muppets to sell out. Why? Because the Muppets have been appearing in advertisements a lot longer than they’ve been appearing in movies.

From the earliest days of his company, Jim Henson boosted the income he made working in television by producing commercials. Although the word “commercial” doesn’t appear once in the Muppets’ Wikipedia page, their work in television ads throughout the 1950s and 60s were important both to the growth of Henson’s company and the growth of his characters.

Before he was the Muppets’ resident piano player, for example, Rowlf the Dog was a pitchman for Purina dog food. He was specifically created for the company’s ads starting in 1962.

Rowlf wasn’t the only Muppet to get his start in commercials and transition into a featured character on television. See if you recognize this iconic Muppet in one of his first appearances, hawking potato chips before he developed a taste for sweets.

Many of Henson’s vintage commercials are shameless, and it definitely feels a little strange to watch a beloved childhood icon extolling the virtues of Esskay thick-cut bacon. But Henson’s ads were also very mature for their time, both in form and content, and they sported a cutting edge sense of humor. For example, watch this inspired ad for La Choy canned chow mein, featuring the adorably clumsy La Choy Dragon. The background gag with the store clerk and the fire extinguisher looks like something that would feel right at home in a 2011 commercial — and this spot is almost 50 years old.

While we often think of vintage marketing as quaint and dated, Henson’s commercials remain fresh and sometimes shockingly subversive. Check out this one for Ideal Toys’ Muppet puppets for kids. Listen particularly to the incredibly dark lyrics of the song the puppets sing. If this commercial aired today, it — and maybe the entire Muppet brand — would be banned instantly.

Bear these ads in mind the next time you kvetch that the Muppets have gotten away from their core values. In fact, every time Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the rest of the gang cleverly shill for Alamo Rent-a-Car or MasterCard they’re just getting a little bit closer to their roots.

Do you think The Muppets have sold out? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter. And for more on Jim Henson’s commercial work, check out the fabulous Jim Henson’s Fantastic World exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image through January 16.

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Home Run

Hank Azaria Gets Thrown A Curve Ball

Brockmire Premieres April 5 at 10P

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

Unless you’ve somehow missed every episode of the Simpsons since 1989, then surely you know that Hank Azaria is one of the most important character actors of our time. He’s so prolific and his voice is so dynamic that he’s responsible for more iconic personalities than most folks realize. Basically, he’s the great and powerful Oz — except that when you pull back the curtain the truth is actually more impressive. And now Hank is coming to IFC to bring yet another character to the TV pop culture hive mind in the new series Brockmire. Check out the trailer below.

Based on the following Funny or Die short and co-starring Amanda Peet, Brockmire follows the story of imploded major league sportscaster Jim Brockmire as he tries to resurrect his career by calling plays for a floundering minor league team in a podunk town.

The series is written by Joel Church-Cooper (Undateable) and produced by Funny or Die’s Mike Farah and Joe Farrell, meaning that there’s funny in front of the camera, funny behind the camera–funny all around. Sounds like a ball to us.

Brockmire premieres April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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Car Notes

Portlandia On People Who Can’t Park

Portlandia returns tonight at 10P on IFC.

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If flagrant bad parking takes nerve, then retaliatory note writing takes neuroses. Watch Fred and Carrie take passive aggression to next level in Car Notes, the new Portlandia web series presented by Subaru. The first episode is yours right here and now, and you can see every installment of Car Notes anytime online, on the IFC app and on demand.

Portlandia returns tonight at 10P on IFC.

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Nick Kroll and John Mulaney To Host Spirit Awards

The Spirit Awards Air February 25 LIVE on IFC.

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The 2017 Spirit Awards have finally found their frontmen: Nick Kroll and John Mulaney. And it’s no wonder. Just marvel in their splendid chemistry back when they appeared on Comedy Bang! Bang!:

The pair are prolific within the performing arts community: television (Kroll in The League and The Kroll Show, Mulaney as a writer of IFC’s own Documentary Now!), theater (including Broadway’s current Oh Hello Show), and stand-up comedy. In fact, it’s entirely possible that emceeing an awards show is one of the few remaining line items on their professional bucket lists.

It’s important to caveat this announcement, however. Unlike the bigger and more ubiquitously known awards shows, the Spirit Awards are not, well…boring. (We’re talking to you, Oscar.)

They’re funny. They’re honest. They have quality to match the red-carpet fanfare. And that’s alarmingly special. Last year’s show included some legitimately historic moments, like when transgender actress Mya Taylor won best supporting female, or Kate McKinnon’s hilarious and timely parody of Carol. See more highlights here to get the flavor of the Spirit Awards and read all about Film Independent to dig deeper.

The 2017 Spirit Awards air live February 25 at 5P ET exclusively on IFC.

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