By Andrew Leal | Monday, May 31, 2010 at 10:11 pm
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.
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.
The films Henson made for IBM fell into two basic classes. The first were short comedic “meeting films,” which acted as icebreakers or to signal breaks in long corporate, sales, and training meetings. The second category consisted of longer industrial films which explained IBM’s products, service, and approach. Though the industrials look like commercials, their purpose seems to have been to motivate IBM’s sales team and/or to serve as a primer to potential corporate clients.
The meeting films were comedy bits which could have fit right in on The Muppet Show (and in fact some would be reworked and repeated on the series). Muppet trademarks, such as characters eating each other or spontaneous explosions, were already in force, as seen in a clip with two businessmen arguing.
Another features an early version of Kermit the Frog, one of only two star Muppets at the time, attempting to deliver a long speech on sales success while intimidated by a gruesome monster.
The third spot, “Coffee Break Machine,” is a quintessential Muppet comedy skit (it was remade twice, for The Ed Sullivan Show and The Muppet Show). It’s also the first explicit link between the meeting films and IBM’s products. The premise is simple, as an elaborate talking computer device (voiced by Jim Henson) recites a laundry list of features and components all to produce a single cup of coffee. A Muppet monster, instantly recognizable as a prototype of Cookie Monster (but scruffier and with prominent teeth), enters and devours the machine piece by piece. (The monster’s voraciousness would remain when Cookie showed up on Sesame Street, but a modified toothless puppet would be used instead.)
This entertaining short displays an ambivalent attitude towards technology, showing it as complicated, seemingly pointless, and likely to self-destruct. Not a message one would expect from IBM, but it shows that the company–despite its reputations as a pretty button-downed place–had a corporate ability to laugh at itself.
When it came to the actual selling of its technological products and services, IBM worked with Henson and crew to produce more sales-driven but still entertaining sales and industrial films. In an entertaining untitled ten-minute short, Rowlf the Dog (the other established star Muppet, thanks to his regular stint with Jimmy Dean) appears as a newly hired IBM salescanine, proudly writing a letter to his mother about his exploits. Rowlf displays an adeptness at the keyboard which would serve him well years later as The Muppet Show‘s resident pianist.
Over the course of the film (divided into parts, with typed out intertitles), Rowlf progresses from a standard typewriter to an electric IBM model to finally using a Selectric, complete with shots of the famous “golf ball” typing element, which he observes with keen interest. Comedic bits include Rowlf accidentally breaking a bottle of mimeograph ink , struggling with stairs, and a running gag where the typewriter carriage backs up and knocks over objects.