By Andrew Leal
IBM. The Muppets. Two venerable institutions-but not ones we tend to associate with each other. Yet in the late 1960s, before most people had ever seen a computer in person or could identify a Muppet on sight, the two teamed up when IBM contracted with Jim Henson for a series of short films designed to help its sales staff. Little known today, these remain fresh, funny, and surprisingly irreverent. Henson would return to their gags and situations in his famous later works–and he plucked the Cookie Monster from one of them when assembling the Muppet cast for Sesame Street in 1969.
Whose idea was this unique collaboration? Well, Henson had already established himself in the advertising field. He was best known at the time for the Muppets’ guest skits on variety shows and Rowlf the Dog’s appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show. But he was busier making a wide array of commercials and longer sales films for regional and national products from Esskay Meats to Marathon Gasoline.
For its own part, IBM was keenly aware that its products–including computers, electric typewriters, and very early word processors–had to be explained to both the public and IBM’s own employees. So it formed its own advertising group, including a film and television division. An executive named David Lazer headed this division, overseeing the production of training and sales films.
Jim Henson and friends in the 1960s.
According to Henson archivist Karen Falk, the IBM films were produced between 1966 and 1976, but most of the only confirmed examples date to the 1960s, primarily 1967. Jim Henson was the primary puppeteer and director in these projects. Assisting were the Muppets Inc./Henson Inc. staffers: Frank Oz (later to play Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster, and others), writer Jerry Juhl (who co-wrote The Muppet Movie, worked on Fraggle Rock, and scripted classic Ernie and Bert sketches), and puppet builder Don Sahlin (whose credits included George Pal’s Time Machine), among others.
1967 was an interesting time for the team-up: two years before the Muppets’ national prominence would rise thanks to Sesame Street, and two years after the introduction of IBM’s Selectric typewriter, an electric device which was crucial in the transition from old Remington typewriters to the modern word processors which would soon make the Selectric look old-fashioned.
[This post is excerpted with Harry McCracken's permission from his Technologizer blog.]