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Critics Pick Their Favorite Puppet TV Characters of All Time

In honor of "The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance," critics share which puppets struck a chord with them over the years.

Best-TV-Show-Puppets-2

Deet from “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resitance,” Kermit the Frog, and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog

Netflix, ABC, Hulu

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: What’s your favorite puppet character on TV of all time? Why?

Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Paste Magazine

Given my lifelong love of Henson productions, most especially the Muppets (and all related movies), it’s no surprise that I’ve become fully obsessed with “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.” But to pick a favorite puppet? It’s nearly impossible. I have to pick two. OK, three. It’s important that they’re all represented!

For one: Deet, a Gelfling. The heart and soul of the series, so sweet, so cute. One of the series’ writers revealed recently that Deet is based off of the way his girlfriend talks about horses. It fits; Deet is pure goodness and joy, but she’s also strong and brave. Two: Hup, the spoon-wielding would-be Paladin who is the cutest lil Podling you’ve ever seen. He’s also fierce and loyal and very intelligent. Podling justista! (I’d also like to give a shoutout to all of the Podlings featured in the Episode 3 scene of the Deterg, which is one of the most joyous ever broadcast). Finally, the iconic Chamberlain (a connection from the “Dark Crystal” movie), masterfully voiced by Simon Pegg doing his best Frank Oz. An evil Skeksis, the Chamberlain is essentially the Littlefinger of the “Dark Crystal” universe (back with Littlefinger was actually moving the chess pieces around), and an unforgettable villain.

These exceptionally crafted characters are all truly wondrous to watch, and all are fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional beings. They have weight to them, not just in terms of the practical effects (which are fantastic) but because they convey humor, pathos, sorrow, joy. The artistry of puppetry works so well in telling an epic fantasy story and giving these characters life. I could name 10 other favorites as well, but ultimately the point is that what the Henson Company has done and continues to do remains one of TV’s most unique and astonishing art forms.

Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com

Lamp Chop. Did you ever watch a show with Lamp Chop? Then you know why.

Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine

Sean Hannity doesn’t count right?

Then I pick a puppet just as small but way more awesome: Pepe the King Prawn from The Muppets. With four arms and zero shame, the smooth-talking crustacean (do NOT call him a shrimp!) first charmed me during his introductory run on “Muppets Tonight” back in 1996. Since then, he has been used sparingly but smartly in “It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Special,” “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz” and ABC’s sadly short-lived 2015 reboot of “The Muppets.” As a long-time fan of Pepe’s (and all Muppets really except for Uncle Deadly), it was a mind-blowing honor to moderate the show’s Comic-Con panel in July of that year and I may still not entirely believe it actually happened all these years later. Not only was the entire lineup a dream come true—the puppeteer/performers on stage included Bill Barretta, Dave Goelz, Eric Jacobson, and Steve Whitmire — they also each brought out their best-loved characters to promote “The Muppets” and suddenly, the ballroom was being treated to one of the funniest freestyle conversations between the likes of Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Rizzo the Rat, Gonzo, Rowlf and my guy, Pepe. To look down the dais and see these all-stars of felt, these icons of googly-eyes? It was beyond. But more amazing was the audience’s immediate connection with the characters, the way they were instantly able to see them as real beings, despite the puppeteers sitting right there operating them! The show didn’t last more than a season (which sucks because it really found its footing after a few behind-the-scenes tweaks) but I am sure the folks in that room will never forget it. God knows I won’t. Especially since I got to chill with the King afterward.

Damian Holbrook and Pepe

Erik Adams (@ErikMAdams), A.V. Club

In an answer that pits me between my two greatest television loves, the Muppets and “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” I have to give the advantage to Jim Henson, and his ability to forge entertainment out of anything — even a pitch for grocery-store American Chinese cuisine. In the middle of the 1960s, when what was then known as Muppets, Inc. split its attentions between variety-show appearances, Academy Award-nominated experimental filmmaking, and the occasional busted pilot, such creative ambitions were bankrolled by lucrative advertising campaigns for the likes of Frito-Lay, Purina, and La Choy. It was for the last of those brands that Henson bellowed, Frank Oz stomped, and Don Sahlin lit genuine flames in the guise of Delbert The La Choy Dragon, a serpent who happily spread the gospel of his sponsor’s canned wares. I recognize too much of myself in the dragon: His excitability, his inability to properly modulate the volume of his voice, the guileless way he knocks over cans and sends utensils flying across kitchens. He’s 100 percent chaos Muppet, a precursor to Cookie Monster, Grover, Animal, and other characters Oz played because he only had to control them with his arms. (When “Sesame Street” came a-calling, Oz’s negative experiences in the full-body Delbert puppet later led him to pass on the role of Big Bird.) For a character who only ever appeared 60 seconds at a time, Delbert had a tremendous amount of life breathed into him — for a more sustained dose, I recommend the frenetic editing and pyrotechnic tomfoolery of this nominally dry sales presentation aimed at future Muppets, Inc. clients.

Marisa Roffman (@marisaroffman), Give Me My Remote

My favorite puppet is one that is probably pretty unknown at this point: Bob from “Soap.”

Chuck (the human) and Bob were pretty interchangeable on the series, and were polar opposites: Chuck was kind, Bob was obnoxious and often got into fights. And, well, Chuck insisted Bob was real. It was ridiculous, hilarious, and the phrase “Knock on Bob” (instead of “Knock on wood”) is something I still regularly use.

(But I do love Elmo, my first one true love, despite the SURE TO BE BLASPHEMOUS STATEMENTS someone is going to make about him.)

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

This is a tough one. I’m not sure there’s a “right” answer, but I’m 100 percent certain there’s a wrong answer and a plague upon the house of anybody who dares to answer Elmo. Fortunately, I respect the critics in this poll and I don’t think anybody is likely to select Elmo the Usurper. Elmo is a pandering, love-starved garbage muppet, a tickle-hungry whore of insufferable cuteness and banalities. Elmo is the worst. We all know this. Nobody is going to answer “Elmo,” because to answer Elmo is to say, “I am incapable of processing complicated emotions and require my nuance-free platitudes delivered by a helium-voiced embodiment of an Everybody Gets a Trophy generation.” Death to Elmo!

ANYWAY!

If we’re sticking with puppets-for-children, my primary answer would be Grover, or Archibaldo as he’s known in many Spanish-speaking countries. Voiced and performed by Frank Oz in my childhood, Grover a lovable, furry celebration of imagination and aspiration. Unlike Elmo, Grover is determined to win your affection. Unlike Elmo, he’s determined to be worthy of your hugs. Grover takes nothing for granted. Grover is my Aspirational Puppet, the one I wish to be like. Oscar is, of course, the puppet I recognize that I’m probably most like. Oscar is the patron saint of critics — along with Statler and Waldorf, who would be a perfectly fine answer to this question — and one of the few characters aimed at children who teach the lesson that it’s acceptable to view the world through a dyspeptic prism and that a life lived among garbage and in a perpetual state of grouchiness can still be a life well-lived.

So Grover in one category. But what of puppets for adults? Well, I want to close by celebrating the ENTIRE cast of “Greg the Bunny,” including the eternal contentment of Tardy the Turtle, Greg the Bunny’s sense of innocent wonderment, Count Aight’s discontentment with the modern world and, of course, Warren the Ape’s aloofness and superiority. It will surprise nobody that my answer in this category would be Warren the Ape.

And Beebo’s not a puppet.

Grover and Elmo

Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR

When I was 13 or so and first building a connection to the drumset that would last through nearly 40 years of playing, I actually got a little jealous of how good Animal was on “The Muppet Show.” He had boundless energy and awesome chops – I didn’t know then that all that great playing came courtesy of British jazz drummer Ronnie Verrell – while powering the house band, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. Every time I go a little crazy in the final moments of a song with a big finish, I feel like I’m channeling Animal’s spirit.

But outside of my personal music connection, my favorite TV puppets would be the characters in Jim Henson’s “The Land of Gorch” skits that aired on “Saturday Night Live” in 1975 and 1976. Henson, trying to create a more mature venue for his puppet creations, got “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels to agree to air bits starring monster-like characters who lived on a swamp-like planet. Imagine the evil overlord characters from “Dark Crystal,” but with a few less warts and mucus. Watching “SNL” as a kid, these characters were the perfect bridge for me to transition from the youth-oriented comedy I had been watching to the more adult world of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. I only found out much later that TV critics back then hated the segments and the “SNL” writers would draw straws to see who would be forced to write the “Gorch” sketch in a given week. Still, the royal family of Gorch maintains a fond place in my heart, especially patriarch King Ploobis, voiced by Henson himself, and the living statue The Mighty Favog, voiced by the great Frank Oz.

Rob Owen (@RobOwenTV), Pittsbugh Post-Gazette/ McClatchy Tribune

The more I think about this question, the tougher the category becomes to narrow. While my initial thoughts go to children’s show puppets, including “Sesame Street” greats Bert and Ernie and “The Muppet Show’s” Kermit the Frog among dozens of others I could choose from on either program, there are also a few prime-time characters to consider including the title character of “Greg the Bunny” (2002-04, Fox) and maybe even some of the characters on Showtime’s “Kidding.”

But ultimately, I’m back to children’s television and Daniel Striped Tiger on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” who was both a stand-in representative of the show’s human host and a relateable character for any child watching at home who might have anxiety about something – anything – in their young lives.

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Rolling Stone

One year when I was a little boy, my parents got me a stuffed Yogi Bear for my birthday. I liked Yogi Bear cartoons just fine, but whenever they weren’t around, I referred to him by the name of a different TV bear who was known for wearing a hat and a necktie: Fozzie Bear. Fozzie’s not the most important or well-rounded Muppet, and he’s certainly not the funniest one. For him to be funny would defeat the entire purpose of Fozzie as a character. But as a boy who was so desperate to be liked, and so anxious that he wasn’t, Fozzie spoke to me in a way that Kermit, Miss Piggy, Animal, and the rest never quite did. Every time there’s a new Muppets show or movie, all I want is for Fozzie to get a brief moment to shine, even if he’s too nervous to realize that he did.

Eric Goldman (@TheEricGoldman), Fandom

As much as it might be fun to pay tribute to Puppet Angel or Ashy Slashy or other great “normal human main character humorously reimagined as a puppet” examples, if we’re talking all time, my favorite TV puppet character has to be Kermit the Frog. Because Kermit isn’t just the best puppet character ever seen on TV, he’s simply one of the best fictional characters ever. He’s so damn lovable and relatable with his worries and flaws and emotional nuance (that classic Kermit grumpy expression!). He’s one half of a classic will they or won’t they scenario. He’s a loving and thoughtful uncle. Plus, think about how talented this guy is… He can run a variety show, he can host it, and he’s an excellent on-the-scene reporter as well! Truly, a frog who can do it all.

Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and Kermit the Frog, "The Muppets"

Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and Kermit the Frog, “The Muppets”

Disney/Kobal/Shutterstock

Whitney Friedlander (@loislane79), CNN

This is a hard one. I loved the animated parts of “Sesame Street” more than the puppetry when I was a kid, “Alf” was never a favorite and I still can’t think of “Dinosaurs” without hearing the annoying “not the mama!” catchphrase. I think I will give it to Miss Piggy because she shares my love of fashion and attention. And we’re both suckers for men who can sing.

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

Grover from “Sesame Street” is the top of a short list. Even with his F-bomb rumored scandal, that blue furball made me laugh out loud watching him as a kid. The O’Brien’s Fast Food Restaurant scene where the guy orders “O’Fish, O’Salad…” and Grover salutes his choices with the “healthy O’Meal” lines and Charlie’s Restaurant “Waiter Grover” bits still level me, and I think they have aged well.

Of yore, Topo Gigio was my earliest puppet memory, and it was Sunday nights on the “Ed Sullivan show.” There was always bit of a depressed air for those Sunday nights because school was the next day and the weekend was officially dead. Topo Gigio the mouse was my touchstone to set the beginning of a trying week in Kindergarten on the right note.

Clint Worthington (@clintworthing), Consequence of Sound, The Spool

It’s been 20 years since “Farscape” aired, and I’m still in love with Pilot, hands down one of The Jim Henson Company’s finest, most dynamic creations. Voiced by Lani Tupu (who also played the villain of the first two seasons, Bialar Crais) and performed by at least a dozen puppeteers to handle every emotive facial expression and gesture of his four crab-like arms, Pilot was the calm, innocent center of Moya’s crew of escaped prisoners, reformed Peacekeepers, and fish-out-of-water humans. Unlike the cynical crew he had to feed, shelter and protect, Pilot can’t just choose to leave Moya; he’s bonded to the Leviathan they all call home, and he makes no bones about the ridiculous creatures he’s forced to interact with.

And yet, in classic “Farscape” fashion, Pilot becomes an integral part of the Moya family, and is taken just as seriously as a character as the show’s non-puppet leads. Many episodes (like season two’s “The Way We Weren’t”) are full-on showcases for Pilot as a character, and it’s incredible to see him carry emotionally resonant scenes with characters like Aeryn Sun and Zhaan with all the weight they require. “Farscape” had more than its share of Muppet characters – see also the deliciously scheming Rygel – but Pilot always felt like the heart of the show’s motley crew, and not just because they’d all literally die without him.

"Farscape"

“Farscape”

Brian Mckenzie/Sci-Fi Channel/Kobal/Shutterstock

Emily VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

Look, I could answer any number of Muppets here, from any number of programs (including the gorgeous, currently airing “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance”) or the gang from “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Or what of puppet Angel from the TV show “Angel”? So many opportunities!

But the clear answer is Clarence from “Wonder Showzen,” because a) he’s cute, and b) he’s annoying, and as a cute, annoying person, I can absolutely relate. Just look at this YouTube video, which dubs him the “world’s funniest puppet.” Would YouTube lie?!

Diane Gordon (@thesurfreport), Freelance

The kid in me immediately thinks of Jim Henson’s Muppets but adult me has to admit: I love Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. I can’t help laughing every time Triumph finds something new “to poop on.” At first, it was the sight of a dog smoking a cigar, along with the vaudevillian material Robert Smigel wrote and performed as Triumph, then my affection for the puppet mutt evolved as Triumph did things like mock “Star Wars” superfans who were in line before one of the new “Star Wars” movies opened. The mockery was always sharp, and equal opportunity. Triumph didn’t punch down, he just jabbed and everyone was in on the joke, including the subject. Triumph also keeps up with the times, as he went to 45’s inauguration and shared his reactions. Triumph is timeless – he’s an old school stand-up comedian who finds funny wherever he goes.

Alec Bojalad (@alecbojalad), Den of Geek

I’m not really a puppet guy. Empty, lifeless vessels waiting for an evil force to animate them? No thanks! Having said that, there is one puppet who is big enough, bold enough, and yellow enough to receive my appreciation. I’m speaking, of course, of the avian legend, himself: Big Bird.

I don’t remember watching “Sesame Street” as a kid. But I do remember watching Big Bird. As far as I was concerned, “Sesame Street” was the Big Bird Show. I don’t really know what the appeal of the big guy is. Longtime Big Birder Caroll Spinney certainly did a remarkable job of bringing BB to life. But beyond that, I think I just appreciate Big Bird because he’s big … and a bird. And in the world of vile puppets, that’s enough for me.

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

Having gone down the Wiki hole when first considering this choice, I now feel professionally obligated to mention Franklin Delano Bluth, G.O.B.’s African-American puppet from “Arrested Development.” Honestly, it was G.O.B. and Franklin’s song, “It Ain’t Easy Being White,” that always stood out to me; it’s catchy, in a nauseating kind of way, but the name alone says a lot about G.O.B.’s “hip” addition to the magic act, which was so offensive it could only be created by the most oblivious of privileged white men. And yet there are more layers to Franklin than I ever realized: Did you know series narrator and executive producer Ron Howard’s 1982 film “Night Shift” features a deceased pimp named Franklin Delano? Or that “Sesame Street” introduced an insensitively stereotypical African-American puppet in the ’70s named Roosevelt Franklin? I always loved how Mitch Hurwitz instilled a full-blown personality within the widely derided (and briefly appearing) puppet — especially in how the Bluth family’s hatred of Franklin was trumped by their own ignorance, given that Franklin’s racist personality remained no matter whose hand was “controlling” him. Puppets can be beautiful, inspiring, magical creatures, but they can also be ugly, dumb, and hilarious extensions of the people pulling the strings.

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Succession” (four votes)

Other contenders: “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” “GLOW,” “Lodge 49” (two votes each), “Bachelor in Paradise,” “David Makes Man,” “Good Eats,” “On Becoming a God in Central Florida,” “The Righteous Gemstones” (one vote each, two abstentions)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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