September 14, 2022

Hi Ho! Kermit The Frog’s a Mobster

By The Coffee Research Department
Hi Ho! Kermit The Frog’s a Mobster
If you had to guess how Kermit the Frog became an international superstar and beloved children’s character, you might take awhile before arriving at his origin story. Would you have pegged him as a highly caffeinated pusher? A “Coffee or Die” thug? Maybe not. But, it’s true. The amiable frog who sings about rainbow connections started out as a crude sock puppet slinging coffee. And he had quite a sadistic streak.

Let’s rewind the tape to 1957 when Jim Henson was contracted to produce a short television commercial for Wilkins Coffee Company, a regional brand from the Washington D.C./Baltimore area. Henson created and voiced the puppets, Wilkins and Wontkins, especially for the coffee maker. Wilkins, then a hand-in puppet made out of soft brown flannel, bears a striking resemblance to current-day Kermit, especially in mannerism and voice.
"...One of the first things I did was start a commercial series for Wilkins Coffee, and for that I did both character voices (Wilkins and Wontkins). That was almost the first voice stuff I did..."
Jim Henson

For most historians, this counts as Kermit’s first television appearance and speaking role. He is cheerful, buoyant even, but he is deadly serious about his coffee habit. Because the puppets had only 8 seconds to make an impression, the result was a curiously brutish appeal to drink Wilkins coffee, often under threat of physical violence.

Wilkins (remember, that’s proto-Kermit) boinks, bludgeons, shoots, stabs, ejects, electrocutes, and in many other ways heaps abuse on his non-coffee drinking companion, Wontkins. The rationale for muppet-on-muppet violence comes down to their contrary names, the will in Wilkins, and the won’t in Wontkins.

In this world, people who will drink Wilkins brand coffee are safe from embarrassment or bodily harm. Those who won’t are destined to be humiliated or blasted away by canon.

Wilkins: Boy! This hammer reminds me of Wilkins coffee.
Wontkins: Why?
Wilkins: Because it always hits the spot!
Wilkins takes his hammer and hits Wontkins over the head.

That about sums up the twisted logic and the advertisement’s appeal. The shock of cute-meets-brute was meant to make audiences laugh and remember the brand.

"We took a different approach. We tried to sell things by making people laugh."
Jim Henson
[excerpt from Christopher Finch’s Of Muppets and Men: The Making of the Muppet Show.]

Henson clearly had fun dreaming up variations on the theme. The pair go scuba diving and hot-air ballooning. They dress as Romeo and Juliet. They become desert island castaways, ranch cowboys, circus acts at the Big Top. The constant narrative thread is that Wilkins and Wontkins will clash.

Just to be clear, nearly 100% of the physical gags are at Wontkins expense. Glance over the death count (impressively) compiled by listofdeathswiki and a picture of a serial killer emerges.

In one particularly chilling scene, the two puppets face off in full fencing gear.

Wilkins: “En garde! Salute Wilkins coffee!”
Wontkins: “But I don’t drink Wilkins coffee.”
Cut to Wilkins wiping off his foil.
Wilkins: “Some learn. Some don’t.”

Shiver. If it wasn’t obvious already, Wilkins was a stone-cold killer.

In the few commercials where Wilkins doesn’t punish the coffee-denying Wontkins, the hand of fate will: a tree falls upon him, parachutes fail to open, whales swallow him whole, manholes are gaping pitfalls, even the George Washington monument collapses upon Wontkins moments after he refuses to drink a cup of Wilkins coffee. His gleeful pal justifies the mishaps, shrugging them off by saying, “Strange things happen to people who don’t drink Wilkins coffee.”

It’s puzzling to think our beloved muppet started life as a murderous, strong-arming, coffee boss. Stranger still is the idea that we would laugh at his mafioso tactics. No matter. The contemporary audiences loved the concept. By almost any measurement (scope and scale), the TV spots were a huge hit. What started as one commercial spot blossomed into 179 commercials, running from 1957-1961.
Henson’s approach was such a hit that the ad agency expanded the idea to other regional companies around the country.

"...the commercials were an immediate hit and they made a big impact. In terms of popularity of commercials in the Washington area, we were the number one, most popular commercial. [..] the advertising agency started syndicating them and they would sell them to a coffee company in Boston, another coffee company in New York."
Jim Henson

Wilkins’ filmography includes commercials for La Touraine Coffee, Nash’s Coffee, Community Coffee, Jomar Instant, and the Donovan Coffee Company. The enormous popularity of the puppets and their antics even led to promotional materials, sponsored by the Wilkins Coffee Company, such as a set of plastic children's toys.

It could be that this origin story is well-known to Jim Henson and Muppet Show fans. After all, the rebuilt versions of the OG puppets toured the country for the exhibit Jim Henson's Fantastic World, and now the original puppet for Wilkins sits in the Smithsonian.

However, if this was common knowledge, it was lost to this particular coffee devotee. It may all come down to which corner of the internet you inhabit most. Twitter did resurface the commercials in early 2021, and they went viral, but most references to early Kermit live on websites devoted to either muppets or the obscure.

A parting tidbit (a coffee cherry, if you will). When the Wilkins Coffee Co. initially approached Jim Henson, the puppeteer didn’t touch the stuff. According to youtuber NJGuy1973, Henson had trouble coming up with ways to market a product he didn’t like. When asked if he would ever drink coffee, he responded, “Maybe with a gun to my head.”

Art imitating life. 

Wilkins and Wontkins | Muppet Wiki

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