Confirmed Villain Lorne Michaels Wanted to Fire the Muppets
A lot of famous performers have been booted off of Saturday Night Live over the years — from Norm Macdonald, to Jenny Slate, to Adam Sandler and Chris Farley. Which may seem pretty cold-hearted and foolish, but that’s nothing compared to the time Lorne Michaels very nearly 86ed the lovable puppet characters who made all of our childhoods magical. I’m, of course, talking about The Muppets.
While they didn’t involve Kermit, Fozzie or really any character most people would recognize today, Muppet segments were a big part of SNL’s first season. The legendary Jim Henson and his band of “muppeteers” performed a weekly sketch, set in the fantastical, smoke-filled “Land of Gorch.” Kind of like Labyrinth, but with more jokes and less of David Bowie’s junk.
Henson’s role at SNL was spearheaded by his agent, Bernie Brillstein, who also represented Michaels. Consequently, Henson was a key component in selling the show to NBC, who, according to Brillstein, were “so scared” of what Michaels and his team were cooking up that they insisted on Henson’s involvement to help “soften” the finished product. The network even made Henson’s Muppet segments one of their “non-negotiables” during contract talks, along with Albert Brooks’ short films.
But things didn’t go well. According to Writers Guild rules, the “Gorch” sketches had to be penned by SNL’s writing staff. Henson was understandably “frustrated” that he had no control over the scripts, and the SNL writers were positively miserable writing for Muppets. Writer Alan Zweibel recounted the time he visited Henson’s house with a sketch, only to have some of his work rejected because, as Henson told him at the time: “Scred wouldn’t say this.” (Scred being the monster character who once sang “I Got You Babe” with Lily Tomlin.)
Cast member John Belushi bitterly referred to the characters as “mucking fuppets” while SNL’s first head writer, Michael O’Donoghue, plainly stated, “I don’t write for felt.” At one point, O’Donoghue angrily tied the cord from his office’s Venetian blinds around the neck of a Big Bird stuffed toy. As Zweibel put it, “He was lynching Big Bird. And that’s how we all felt about the Muppets.”
While Brillstein contends that Michaels didn’t really want to terminate the Muppets from his show, associate producer Craig Kellem once described a “shit-or-get-off-the-pot moment” in which Michaels finally asked, “How do you fire the Muppets?”
Fortunately for Michaels, he never got the chance to become a full-on children’s movie villain. During the first season, Henson’s The Muppet Show was picked up, forcing him to back out of the SNL gig. But SNL writers were perfectly happy to foster a narrative that the Muppets had been fired, creating a multi-episode-spanning arc in which the Gorch set is destroyed, and the characters tragically forced into storage.
Some of the “canceled” Muppets even begged cast members like Chevy Chase to help out by asking Michaels to let them stay. Somehow things got sadder in a later sketch in which the characters lamented that “The Land of Gorch is gone forever,” before reaching a moment of disturbing existential clarity and declaring, “Puppets don’t have feelings” as they prepare to go into storage for the last time, essentially ending their lives. Somehow this still wasn't the last “Gorch” sketch; the characters returned just one more time in the Season Two premiere, appearing in a literal morgue.
This just might be the most upsetting SNL sketch ever made, not including “Canteen Boy.”
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