The Early Violent Work of Jim Henson Is Far From Felt Friendly
Mar 31, 2023
Before Kermit wondered about rainbows and before Big Bird was sent to live out his life with a family of dodos, Jim Henson was put to work in the field that all artists seem to end up in for a time: advertising. Following the success of his first show, Sam and Friends, and subsequent appearances with early versions of the Muppets on late night shows, Henson was employed by countless brands to create ads for their products.
But one campaign stands above the rest in popular memory: Wilkins and Wontkins. These early Henson creations appeared in hundreds of ads that include Wilkins harming, maiming, and even killing his costar. Especially in the context of Henson’s later, more explicitly kid-friendly Sesame Street, Wilkins and Wontkins’ antics are hilarious to this day.
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Who Are Wilkins and Wontkins?
Red Diamond, Inc.
“Now what do you think about Wilkins coffee?” asks the uncanny, Kermit-esque puppet on the TV as he turns a cannon toward the screen. This is Wilkins, one of the two mascots Henson created for the Wilkins Coffee Company; his partner, Wontkins, has just been shot by said canon for daring to say he’s never tasted the brand.
This was the setup that would go on to be used in commercials for Wilkins from 1957 to 1961, and into the future with other brands such as Faygo and Taystee Bread. Over the years, Wontkins would be shot, beaten, run over, electrocuted, and blown up, just to name a few. These seconds-long ads were a breath of fresh air for consumers accustomed to far less entertaining commercial fare.
Wilkins and Wontkins were a huge success; Henson and Wilkins had a hit on their hands. Sales of Wilkins Coffee jumped 25% after the introduction of their felt mascots. The characters proved so popular, in fact, that Wilkins produced and sold thousands of Wilkins and Wontkins vinyl hand puppets. You, too, could have your own Wilkins and Wontkins for the low price of one dollar and an empty Wilkins can.
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Meanwhile, Henson set about patenting Wilkins and Wontkins so that he could take his characters to other brands across the country (even an oil company). Sometimes, they would have different names to match the products they were advertising. For instance, when the duo was in a commercial for Frank’s Beverages, they appeared as Frank and Fink. Everywhere they went and no matter their names, Wilkins and Wontkins were a success.
Wilkins and Wontkins Go to Court
The Jim Henson Company
Wilkins and Wontkins retired from Wilkins Coffee in 1961. 30 years later, though, the company would attempt to use the puppets again, much to the chagrin of the Henson estate. John T. Brady, a marketing executive for Wilkins in the 1990s, suggested to the company that they license out the characters for additional advertising and products like T-shirts and lunchboxes.
Henson Productions discovered Brady trying to sell Wilkins and Wontkins at a 1992 licensing show in Manhattan. The problem wasn’t the characters themselves; instead, it was because Brady was using Henson’s name to sell them. His booth was plastered with ads describing the duo as “Original Muppets created by Jim Henson.”
Employees of Henson Productions approached the booth during the show’s first day to object to the use of the artist’s brand and name, and on the third day Henson’s widow Jane stepped in. She reportedly tore up the booth and physically assaulted one of Brady’s employees.
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About a month later, Jim Henson Productions sued both Brady and the Wilkins brand, claiming that Brady’s plan constituted copy write infringement and unfair competition. The case played out in court with the Judge siding with Henson Productions, and Wilkins and Wontkins would fade into obscurity.
The Future of Wilkins and Wontkins
Associated Film Distribution
Wilkins and Wontkins were just one beat in the story of Henson’s life. The creator would go on to make several spokes-puppet duos, such as Scoop and Skip and Mack and Kermit. But the character that would catapult Henson from adman to artist would be Rowlf the Dog, who first appeared in commercials for Purina in 1962.
Rowlf graduated from commercials to become a series regular on The Jimmy Dean Show.; the lovable hound gained national popularity with his role on the show, making him the first Muppet to do so. Henson’s star would continue to rise after Rowlf’s success, The Muppets Show premiered September 5, 1976, and the rest is history.
Wilkins and Wontkins faded into obscurity until 2021 when clips of the sadistic puppet and his tortured costar went viral on Twitter. Wilkins and Wontkins were resurrected by the internet, and since then, several of their commercials previously considered lost media have been unearthed.
There’s no knowing what we’ll see, if anything, of Wilkins and Wontkins in the future, but their popularity across decades proves that sometimes, violence can be funny, and it can even bring us together for a good laugh.
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