The IBM Muppet Show

Before Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, Jim Henson made short films for Big Blue. The tech may be archaic, but the entertainment is timeless.

By  |  Monday, May 31, 2010 at 10:11 pm

In an industry in-joke, Rowlf’s sales territory is expanded to include an office building, only the camera trucks in to reveal the name “Sperry-Rand,” the early IBM competitor behind the Univac. By 1967, however, the company had become embroiled in a lawsuit with Honeywell and was diminishing in importance. Still, based on his track record, sending Rowlf to sell IBM products to a competing company might be construed as an act of corporate sabotage! In addition, the acknowledgment that IBM wasn’t the only fish in the pond differed from the period in the 1940s and 1950s when corporations were afraid to acknowledge competing companies (and long before the Mac/PC ads).

Among the other highlights are a series of amusing commercial spoofs made by Rowlf. One parodies a then-current series of Timex durability ads featuring newsman John Cameron Swayze. Another, referencing Wrigley’s Doublemint Twins ads, has twin Rowlfs chanting “Double your output, double your speed! With IBM MTS MT/ST” and then typing on dual machines.The MT/ST (Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter) would feature far more prominently in the next film, The Paperwork Explosion.

That film –whose title was a common term in the 1960s and perceived as a side-effect of the information explosion–eschews Muppets for a more serious but still creative presentation. It’s not dissimilar in its rapid cuts and use of animation to Henson’s earlier, Oscar-nominated short Time Piece.

The Paperwork Explosion (made concurrently with a same-named print campaign) uses a talking heads approach, as various office workers and/or IBM employees discuss the problem and its solution. The cast consists of a mix of New York commercial and character actors, Henson Inc. employees (a young Frank Oz can be glimpsed smoking a cigarette and Henson’s voice is briefly heard), and actual IBM people (including David Lazer).

The short’s music was by Raymond Scott, who had worked with Henson before but is best known as the composer of that Looney Tunes staple “Powerhouse,” usually played during  assembly-line scenes. Scott’s synthesizer score is perfectly matched to the subject matter, presenting both an insistent feel to the initial problem (businesses overwhelmed by paperwork in every facet) and then to IBM’s mechanized solution.

The IBM Selectric Composer, in a photo from IBMComposer.org.

The soundtrack and pace  gradually slow to a more comfortable rhythm, as the previously shown office folks begin to investigate the ways IBM products can help, especially the MT/ST. IBM’s print “paperwork explosion” ads described it further, as “a rather remarkable typewriter that takes a secretary’s rough draft and types it back error-free at the rather remarkable rate of a page every two minutes.”Also shown in the film is the IBM Selectric Composer, an advanced typesetter used to prepare copy which would be photographed for print ads and which allowed for a choice of font. Dictation machines are presented as ways to record the office staff’s thoughts more efficiently than freehand transcription or the best secretary.

These products may look quaint and amusing today, but in the 1960s this was futuristic stuff. And the mantra, reiterated by the chorus of talking heads, is that IBM office equipment and other machines will help do the work, leaving people more time to think.

Forty odd years later, it’s not clear that technology and our increasingly digital world have freed up time to think (though unquestionably they’ve given us more to think about). Outside of deeper messages, the film is very effective salesmanship and a fascinating mixture of techniques and look at the 1960s business world (or one version of it). As with his personal films, it proves Jim Henson could do more than wiggle frogs and dogs.

And Now For the Rest of the Story….

Once work had been completed on these films, Henson and IBM ended their partnership. But the collaboration’s impact continued to be felt, and the relationship between the Muppets and technology continues to this day:

  • Once personal computers and related gadgetry entered American households, the Muppets were there. In the 1980s, for instance, there was a Muppet keyboard for IBM’s infamous PC Jr and a Muppet computer literacy program for the Commodore 64. In the 1990s, there were Muppet CD-ROMs. Today, the Muppets star in several apps for the iPhone.
  • Henson scribe Jerry Juhl with animatronic Muppet at the 1964 Worlds' Fair.

  • Writer Jerry Juhl remained with the Muppets, but he used his IBM experiences for his sole foray into adult literature, a 1968 science-fiction short story called “The Edward Salant Letters,” detailing the correspondence between the owner of an IBM-like dictating typewriter (called a Phonotyper) receiving automated computer responses from the manufacturer (and thus eerily foreshadowing customer service hassles of today).
  • IBM film honcho David Lazer joined Henson as a full-time executive, where, among other things, he was a producer for The Muppet Show and the movies The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth. He also worked with Jim to develop and expand the “meeting film” concept. While IBM owned the original shorts, Lazer proposed making similar films which could be marketed to any business, spoofing corporate doubletalk, workplace tedium, and hard sell exhortations. These Muppet Meeting Films began in the 1970s, were significantly promoted in 1980 when new shorts were added, and remain available.
  • Following Jim Henson’s death in 1990, the Muppets experienced many ups and downs and been sold and resold, but they’re currently enjoying a resurgence, due both to an upcoming Disney movie (The Greatest Muppet Movie Ever) and–benefiting from the computer era and the Internet–a series of clever and popular viral YouTube videos (notably an acclaimed cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody”).
  • IBM may no longer make typewriters or word processors–or office-automation machinery of any sort–but it remains a technological giant. In a touching nod to the past (or more likely, just using a popular internet phenomenon as an example), its developerWorks page on the Lex parser uses the Swedish Chef translator (turning text into mock Swedish and adding the Muppet’s trademark “Bork bork”) as an example.

And Jim Henson himself? He continued to toy with computers for as long as he lived, from making “Scanimation” films for Sesame Street to hiring engineers who created some of the earliest motion-capture CGI puppetry. And after his passing, one of the most memorable tributes he received came from a computer company. No, not IBM. It was Apple that prominently featured Henson (and Kermit) among the notable minds in its famous “Think Different” campaign. Jim Henson did indeed think differently, as these early films attest.

(Andrew Leal is a freelance writer in El Paso, Texas. A lifelong Muppet fan, he serves as administrator at Muppet Wiki and contributed to the book Kermit Culture. He’s also an animation historian, with selections in the books Animation Art and The Animated Movie Guide. He completed this article without the aid of an IBM Composer.)

More tech nostalgia from Technologizer:

Fanboy! The Strange True Story of the Tech World’s Favorite Insult

The Golden Age of InfoWorld Covers, 1984-1985

Apple Rumors: The Early Years

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46 Comments For This Post

  1. John Baxter Says:

    Wonderful piece. Thanks for the memories. I was well beyond Sesame Street age (and no kids, who would have been about right), but was acquainted with Henson's work before and after.

    And my first computer printer was a modified Selectric.

  2. Linas Says:

    My first i/o terminal was a Selectric — did IBM make these, or were these after-market modifications?

  3. Jim maurer Says:

    I remember seeing these when I was working at IBM when I was a senior in high school in 1974. They were great! There was also one introducing a new IBM division, the Hippie Products Division (HPD). It had Kermit The Frog introducing the new division and its first product, the IBM Electric Guitar. Salesmen assigned to this division would be required to grow their hair long. Even in 1974 the old Tom Watson grooming standards were followed by a lot of employees.

  4. Bill Says:

    If only IBM did consumer-orientated advertising these days ;-)

    —* Bill

  5. Clem Dickey Says:

    Linas: Your I/O terminal was probably an IBM 2741.

  6. Joe Says:

    Really nice article. Jim Henson is definitely an important person in recent history who positively affected millions of people.

  7. ted sheckler Says:

    these clips are kind of disturbing. my god, henson was a sociopath! ax wielding monsters, cannabalism, exploding bodies? really? you can get all kumbaya over this guy but in the end he was just another 60’s loon hopped up on goofballs and jazz cigarettes.

  8. Fairportfan Says:

    I knew about the TV spots because my mother tried to get the ad agency she was working at in Greenville SC to buy them; another local agency bought them for one of their clients.
    .
    I *didn't* know about these…

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    facinating, so the cookie monster started eating IBM hardware before eating cookies, maybe thats why he was so grouchy, maybe he had a digestive disorder, mystery solved!

  10. Steve Morgenstern Says:

    Thanks for the terrific article – brings back great memories. The Muppet Learning Keys were available for Commodore and Apple computers (I wrote the documentation for the product, and probably still have one hidden in the basement tech graveyard). And years later, I wrote a few meeting film scripts (in the post-IBM years).

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    What I want to know is, who is the guy in the last video who seems to be a dead ringer for, (and inspiration for??) the muppet Waldorf from the Muppet Show?

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  17. James Says:

    It's been more than twenty years since Jim Henson tragically passed away from a bacterial infection.. :(

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  29. John Says:

    Both the mupperts and sesame street are indeed timeless. They were my favorites and now when I introduced them to my children, they love them too. It was a smart move for IBM to team up with them.

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  31. merudh patel Says:

    This is fun to watch indeed. I really love the Muppets!

  32. Robert Says:

    ^ I doubt IBM made these, unsure though.
    @the videos. This is gold, it's been so so long since I had last seen these. Brings back sweet memories & the nostalgia :)
    Guess I'll make a motivational posters on this & post it on my site so as to help others enjoy these vintage vids.

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    John, I don't think anyone is ever beyond Henson's muppets. flight simulator cockpit. They were and still are quite special.

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