There have been few entertainers as visionary as Jim Henson. Before his death in May 1990, Henson carved a felt-covered path through popular culture that remains to this day. His legacy includes The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and the Jim Henson Foundation.
Jim Henson's Creature Shop, the engine of his legacy, is responsible for cinema classics including The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth as well as creature effects for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, TMNT II: The Secret of the Ooze, Harry Potter, Where the Wild Things Are, and many more.
Through his work, Henson succeeded in making puppets cool in the eyes of kids and adults alike by bringing a unique kind of life to a centuries-old art form. Puppetry is believed to be at least 4,000 years old, dating back at least to Egyptian culture. The practice crosses borders and oceans, with a long history in Greece, Africa, and Asia. And while puppetry is often thought to be primarily a form of entertainment intended for children, there have been efforts in recent years to create adult-oriented content using puppets.
The latest attempt to bring puppets into a gritty, unpleasant real world hits theaters this week. The Happytime Murders, starring Melissa McCarthy and directed by Brian Henson, son of the famed puppeteer, puts puppets in the middle of the seedy underbelly of L.A., and while the characters are stuffed and fluffed, their lives are very much at risk.
In the spirit of bringing puppets into unfamiliar territory, we're going to put some of Henson's most famous characters under a microscope to determine just how plausible they really are. Which puppets could exist in the real world?
Despite being categorized together under a collective banner, there is significant variation within the muppet population. If we were to look at muppets through a biological lens, then we'd see that all muppets share some common characteristics, namely a skeletal structure of reticulated polyfoam and Antron fleece in place of skin. This suggests a common evolutionary path amongst muppets and as much natural variation as within other biological life.
In terms of the most likely real-life muppets, there's no debate that the humanoid characters such as Bert and Ernie, Statler and Waldorf, Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Scooter, and the Swedish Chef take the gold. They are analogous, in many ways, to actual humans, with similar body structures (and even, sometimes, actual human body parts).
In nature, we see two major schools when it comes to skeletal structures. There are vertebrates with their internal skeletons made of collagen and calcium and invertebrates with their exoskeletons composed of chitin.
Polyfoam seems a poor substitute when compared to the stony skeletons of most living organisms, but it isn't entirely implausible. Polymers do occur in nature. They are organic and often water-based. Examples of natural polymers include proteins, DNA, and silk which is known for its versatility and strength. While not observed in nature, it is conceivable that an organism could evolve a skeleton made of polymers and, given the light-weight nature of muppets (owing to their hollow structure), such a skeleton might suit their needs. After all, there are animals in nature with no skeletons at all, to speak of; so called soft-bodied organisms like worms, jellyfish, and some cephalopods have no hard parts.
When speaking of a muppet's outer covering, we find ourselves squarely in the realm of reality. Fleece is derived from wool, and if you've ever seen a sheep or goat, you know there are biologically viable organisms walking around right now with the very same skin. Though, admittedly, without many of the interesting hues common to muppets.
What's more troubling for the muppet genus is the apparent total lack of internal organs and muscle groups. They are, in effect, an incomplete organism dependent on the cooperation of another independent organism to fulfill certain aspects of their livelihood and survival.
This, too, is not unheard of in the animal kingdom. If we were to place the muppet in a biological category, we might place them among the colonial organisms.
Perhaps the most interesting example of a colonial organism is the Portuguese Man o' War. Commonly considered a jellyfish, the Man o' War is actually a collection of four distinct, specialized organisms working together. None of these individuals can survive on their own. Instead, they depend on one another to complete specific functions for the collective. Muppet may be similar in this way; they depend on the human participant, the muppeteer, for movement and thought while the muppeteer gains a sense of purpose and a specific joy not found elsewhere in life. Symbiosis at its best.
Now that we've developed a basis for the muppet biology and set the humanoid members of the genus aside, let's take a look at other members of the population to determine where they stand among known biological life.
The most logical place to go, having dispatched with the humanoid muppets, is the animals. And one cannot discuss the animals within the muppet genus without touching on Animal, himself.
Animal is, however, a bit of a wild card. His species is unclassifiable. He shares some characteristics with the humanoid muppets while also being clearly something altogether different.
His major characteristics are those of chaos and primal desire.
If forced to categorize him, Animal might be a holdover of the neanderthal, with his distinct brow ridge and decreased intelligence.
At best guess, Animal is Encino Man shrunken down and with a penchant for drums.
Equally difficult to categorize is Gonzo. Originally categorized as a Frackle (not to be confused with a Fraggle), Gonzo is also mostly humanoid but with a large, almost trunk-like nose. There are no known human mutations that cause a long, drawn-out nose as seen in Gonzo but there are animals with similar characteristics.
When considering a long nose and Gonzo's general body shape, the most similar animal is the Proboscis Monkey.
Endemic to the jungles of Borneo, the male Proboscis Monkey grows up to roughly 50 pounds and uses its enlarged nose to increase its mating call. Given Gonzo's penchant for wild, attention-seeking stunts, this seems like a reasonable explanation for his structure and behavior.
Secondary characters set in Henson's Fraggle Rock, Doozers are a group of communal construction workers bent on building 'til they can't build any more. With their simple faces and construction hats, Doozers are reminiscent of colonial workers such as ants or bees in behavior.
At six inches tall, they resemble moles ready for digging. Lacking eyes (or at least covered by their helmets) and some with large mustaches, Doozers can be most commonly associated with star-nosed moles. Star-nosed moles are not known to live in communal groups, making the Doozers uncharacteristic. So we'll stick with "a mix of ants and moles" for the time being.
PEPE THE KING PRAWN
We've reached a point within the muppet catalog that becomes a bit clearer. Pepe is based on an actual animal, from which he takes his name. As such, we have a base from which to make a comparison. The prawn is a marine crustacean with 10 legs. Already we know that Pepe has diverged from the model, with only six appendages (four arms and two legs).
Given the structure of the prawn, it's highly unlikely that Pepe could survive on land for an extended amount of time. Also, there's absolutely no reason why he should have hair.
The terms "prawn" and "shrimp" are interchangeable (though don't tell Pepe). Given their respiratory system of gills, it's unlikely Pepe would be able to breathe on land for a significant amount of time. Given this inability to breathe on land, it's unlikely he'd survive at all, let alone become indignant.
KERMIT THE FROG
Undoubtedly the most famous of the muppets, Kermit holds a special place in the hearts of millions. But where does he stand in the rankings of reality? At roughly two-and-a-half feet tall, Kermit outranks the largest frogs in the world, the Goliath Frog, which tops out at 12.5 inches in length, significantly.
In the past few years, a new frog has been discovered, the Hyalinobatrachum dianae of Costa Rica, which bears a striking resemblance to Kermit. Though, coming in at only one inch in length, it's closer in appearance to Kermit's nephew, Robin the Frog. Despite the differences in body structure, the Hyalinobatrachium dianae is notable for it's unique mating call, which consists of a long metallic whistle. As it turns out, Kermit's penchant for singing is right in tune with his amphibious brethren.
ROWLF THE DOG
Rowlf is one of the most well-known muppets due to his tenure on The Muppet Show and Muppet Babies. Of indeterminate breed, it's difficult to determine Rowlf's characteristics. Though, we're all likely familiar with dogs and their intelligence. His penchant for walking on two legs is peculiar but not unheard of for a dog. Rowlf's fascination with music, being a regular piano player, is perhaps his most defining feature. Musical ability is well-documented among dogs with some researchers believing that dogs are tonally aware and have the ability to create music. There have even been musicals with canine participants.
Fozzie might seem like a ringer for most likely to be real, but his orange coloring gives him away. There are no known bear species with the same coloration as Fozzie. His diminutive size is another check against him.
Of known bear species, the smallest is the sun bear, coming in at 60 to 110 pounds. They've become something of an internet phenomenon owing to their awkward facial expressions. For that reason, they might be a good contender for Fozzie's compatriots, though they don't wear hats.
The primary villains of Henson's The Dark Crystal, the Skeksis tripped all of our primal predatory switches. They sit somewhere between reptiles and birds, harboring the most terrifying features of both.
Knowing what we know about dinosaurs and their eventual evolution into modern birds, it doesn't seem entirely unlikely that something like Skeksis, given proper natural pressures, might have emerged. Considering the characteristics of reptiles and predatory birds, the malicious nature of the Skeksis seems entirely in line with what we might expect.
Long considered to be the imaginary friend of Big Bird, it was eventually revealed that Snuffleupagus did, in fact, exist. At first glance, Snuffleupagus bears a striking resemblance to a wooly mammoth, but there are a few factors that suggest he's in a league of his own.
First, and foremost, Snuffleupagus has no tusks. Additionally, he has no visible ears. He also has a tail that drags along the floor. If Snuffleupagus is indeed a mammoth, he is one with some significant mutations that would have serious repercussions for his survival if he didn't reside on Sesame Street...
Despite those variations, he's strikingly similar to an animal we know existed and thrived upon the face of the earth. For that reason, he earns the number two spot for most likely muppets.
Here we are. We've reached the end. Are you surprised? When it comes to realistic muppets, Miss Piggy is the ultimate winner. Based on a real-life animal, Miss Piggy shares most of the features of her biological counterparts. Similar in size and composition, she differs only in her bipedalism and penchant for fancy dress.
In terms of intelligence, pigs rank up there with the smartest non-human animals. They are capable of problem solving and have an impressive emotional range.
Research also suggests pigs have a sense of self; they pass the mirror test, recognizing themselves as an independent entity and able to predict how others in their group might behave.
When it comes to animal intelligence, the pig ranks right up there with the high scorers of our animal compatriots. So, when Miss Piggy aims some of her ire in your direction, know that it's well thought out and well placed. Should muppets ever make the transition from fiction to reality, Miss Piggy is the one you need fear the most.