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Coffee History: How Coffee Made the Muppets

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One can imagine that Kermit might have to drink a lot of coffee to put him in the right frame of mind to deal with his hyperactive co-stars! The truth is The Muppets owe a lot of their success to coffee. Coffee advertisement gave Jim Henson the opportunity to prove that his characters could appeal to both children and adults.

The year was 1957. A 21-year-old Jim Henson was living in Washington D.C. while attending the University of Maryland and producing a series of TV sketches called Sam and Friends. Henson was asked by the Wilkins Coffee Company to create a series of 8 second television ads. Henson created Wilkins and Wontkins as spokesmen…er…spokespuppets. Wilkins was a softly rounded proto-Kermit with a high, cheerful voice like what Henson would later use for Ernie on Sesame Street. Wontkins was a grumpy triangle-shaped character with a gruff voice like what Henson would use for Rowlf. The formula for the ads was thus: Wilkins would offer Wontkins some coffee, Wontkins would refuse, something bad would happen to Wontkins; Wilkins would finish with a wisecrack. The consequences of refusing Wilkins coffee ranged from pie in the face or club to the head to being shot, electrocuted, the Washington Monument falling on him or eaten by a whale, usually mixed with some wordplay. ("You know, people who don't drink Wilkins coffee just blow up sometimes." Wilkins once said before setting off a detonator.)

By using the soft sell of making the consumer laugh, Henson increased the sales of Wilkins coffee and made hundreds of popular ads. Other coffee manufacturers such as Red Diamond, Community and La Touraine purchased the concept to advertise their products as well. The popularity of these many coffee ads spring-boarded Henson's notoriety and led to appearances on talk shows, a series of experimental films and eventually The Muppet Show and Sesame Street. Not only were Wilkins and Wontkins stepping-stones to making entertainment history but they reflected the viability of the soft sell and the relevancy of humor.


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