'Fraggle Rock': Jim Henson's peacenik puppets turn 30

The television show taught international understanding to children of the Reagan era and the Cold War

Fraggle puppets at the Jim Henson Co. workshop, from left: Gobo, Wembley, Traveling Matt and Boober.
E. Tammy Kim for Al Jazeera America

SEATTLE — At the third annual Geek Girl Convention in October, a standing-room-only crowd of self-proclaimed nerds poured in to see a diminutive television star — but one long since off the air and, it so happens, inanimate. Red Fraggle, a 3-foot-tall puppet with yellow felted fur and red pigtails, took the stage with her companion from the “world of the silly creatures,” puppeteer Karen Prell. They led a raucous sing-along of the "Fraggle Rock" theme, a tumbling C-major tune with a funk-inspired baseline and two claps at the end of each line.

Although three decades have passed since "Fraggle Rock" — the exquisitely crafted puppet series created by Jim Henson, of "Sesame Street" and "Muppet Show" fame — debuted in the U.S. (on HBO) and Canada (on CBC), it still commands a devoted following. This year has seen 30th anniversary rereleases of merchandise and DVDs, renewed promises of a feature film and a Ben Folds Five music video filled with dancing Fraggles.

Less remarked upon amid the fanfare is the show’s ethical ambition. Henson and his co-creators often described “Fraggle Rock” as a way to promote “world peace” and “international understanding.” Over the course of four seasons — broadcast at a time of overt and covert wars, secret arms transfers, hostage crises, banking scandals and a widening socioeconomic divide — the show covered such unpuppetlike topics as war, prejudice, environmental catastrophe and crises of belonging. But it did so through song and silliness.

“By seeing how the various groups in the world of 'Fraggle Rock' learn to deal with their differences,” Henson said in the 1987 documentary “Down at Fraggle Rock,” “perhaps we can learn a little bit about how to deal with ours.”

Fragglish cosmology

A drawing of the Fraggle universe by show co-creator Michael Frith.
©The Jim Henson Company

In order to convey a more positive reality to children, Henson said, “we needed to create a whole new world.” That world was Fraggle Rock, the eponymous universe of subterranean caves and tunnels inhabited by the furry, carefree, radish-eating Fraggle race. They live alongside the Doozers, tiny green creatures who build intricate, crystalline structures for fun. Aboveground, but still disconnected from humans, is the Fraggles’ oracle, Marjory the Trash Heap, a lumpy compost pile with cat-eye glasses, as well as the Gorgs, a family of three hapless giants who fancy themselves masters of the universe.

All this exists just a hole in the wall away from the human world, otherwise known as “outer space” or “the land of the silly creatures.” In the American and Canadian version, the hole is a portal to the laboratory of Doc, a grandfatherly scientist, and his dog, Sprocket, a large, shaggy puppet known to Fraggles as “the beast.”

Whereas "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show" were distinctly American, “the whole Fraggle culture would be outside the whole human-specific culture,” said one of the show’s writers, Jocelyn Stevenson, in a phone interview. “In the Fraggle world, we were trying to keep it culturally neutral, or ‘fairy tale neutral.’” Only the Doc-Sprocket set pieces bookending each episode required customization to foreign locales: In the French version, Doc is a chef; in England, he’s a lighthouse keeper.

The theme of mutual understanding is central to the show, whose various creature communities — at odds in size and worldview — are forced to interact and overcome conflict again and again. In one episode, a Doozer bored with the construction work that defines her culture defects to the Fraggles before finding herself and returning home. In another episode, Doc, the Fraggles and the Gorgs come to appreciate their shared environment when the local water supply is contaminated.

“It was a kind of ecology,” Stevenson said. “These groups of characters were actually dependent on each other but didn’t know it.”

Henson, she said, told her and the rest of their creative team, “We want to create a show that will stop war.”

Respite from Reaganism?

Performing the Fraggle Five: from left, Dave Goelz with Boober, Steve Whitmire with Wembley (hidden), Karen Prell with Red, Kathy Mullen with Mokey, Jerry Nelson with Gobo.
©The Jim Henson Company

Henson came of age at the height of 20th-century upheaval: wars in Korea and Vietnam, violence in the Middle East and the bloodshed of civil rights protests closer to home. In the 1960s he made surrealist films and TV expressing existential angst, like “Time Piece” and "The Cube," as well as a visual collage of that pivotal year in American counterculture, “Youth 68.” He also proposed a short film in the mid-1960s “designed to have multicultural appeal … imbued with themes of tolerance, environmental responsibility, and awareness of the interconnectivity of all things” — a Fragglish precursor.

When it came to “Fraggle Rock,” the Henson workshop professed no politics beyond peace. “We weren’t in any way political,” Stevenson said of the show’s creative team. “We were advocates for joy and people getting on.” 

Artist Michael Frith, who designed all the characters, says he saw the series as “open(ing) kids’ eyes to the … unassailable fact that their own actions would have consequences.” (The target audience, he said, was older than that of “Sesame Street” but not yet “reading Playboy.”)

But some TV watchers look back on "Fraggle Rock" as a welcome prime-time reprieve from the hawkish nationalism of the 1980s. In contrast to heroic kids’ shows of the time, like "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe," "G.I. Joe" and "The Transformers" — and “supply-side heroes” like Rambo, Indiana Jones and Conan, as described by film scholar Douglas Kellner — "Fraggle Rock" promoted song and laughter as the currency of conflict resolution.

A pop-up paper model of the Fraggle universe from the original 1983 press kit.
E. Tammy Kim for Al Jazeera America

And yet the Fraggle universe was complex, not all fun and games. “I used to be scared by 'Fraggle Rock' because it’s such a large, fully realized world,” said Rob Bricken, senior editor at the entertainment site “There’s ugliness, they’re afraid of being outside; it’s its own weird thing. It’s almost like if 'Care Bears' was thrown into 'Lord of the Rings.' It kind of captured the paranoia of the ’80s, when we were still hiding under the desk from earthquakes, the Cold War and Reagan.”

In the landscape of 1980s television, "Fraggle Rock" can also be seen as a departure from programs like “Dallas” and “The Cosby Show,” which indulged in a “celebration of affluence in keeping with the Reaganite shift,” said Allison Perlman, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine. Those series, she explained, tried to “incentivize people to make more money, under the assumption that escalating wealth would trickle down.” 

No such hierarchy played out in the Fraggles’ egalitarian world. “For children of the ’80s and beyond, 'Fraggle Rock' emphasized notions of community, environmentalism (and) spirituality,” Lisa Henson, Jim’s daughter, said earlier this year.

Henson believed the show had run its course by 1987, after a successful fourth season, but he remained invested in the idea of international, cross-cultural understanding. At the tail end of "Fraggle Rock," he proposed a science fiction series, "Muppet Voyager," about an intergalactic documentary film crew that would uncover different ways of life around the world. It was never realized.

Jim Henson with the Fraggle Five and four Doozers, circa 1985.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While "Fraggle Rock" did not, of course, bring about world peace, Henson did succeed in creating one of television’s first international coproductions — conceived in New York and London, taped in Toronto, reaching 90 countries in 13 languages. And in January 1989, it became the first North American TV show to be broadcast in the Soviet Union — to the delight of Henson, who had traveled there several times and admired master puppeteer Sergey Obraztsov.

What happened next, of course, is world history. “We always joke that 'Fraggle Rock' led to the end of the Cold War,” said Karen Falk, Henson Co. archivist. “By the end of the year, as the show’s lessons of tolerance and understanding wafted through the airwaves, the Berlin Wall came down.”

Lessons for today

On a recent morning in the Henson workshop’s vast industrial space, several original Fraggle puppets — Mokey, Boober, Uncle Traveling Matt, Gobo and Wembley — were propped up on a long table. Their wide-open expressions and supple, ostrich-feather hair made them seem alive, just waiting for conversation.

HBO's Quentin Schaffer holds the teachers' guide and record from the original "Fraggle Rock" press kit.
E. Tammy Kim for Al Jazeera America

Nearby, Rollie Krewson, who sewed the original Red and Wembley Fraggles three decades ago, was busy at her workstation, wearing a blue laboratory smock and stitching felt eyes onto Ernie (as in Bert and Ernie), dressed as Hansel (as in "Hansel and Gretel"). She was getting the character ready for a taping of "Sesame Street."

Although the Fraggle characters rarely appear in public, "Fraggle Rock" and its animated spinoff maintain a cult fan base through Netflix, DVDs, merchandise and blogs. The show’s emphasis on play and pleasure, empathy and humility is just as relevant today, said Quentin Schaffer, executive vice president of corporate communications at HBO, who was on the original press team in 1983. ("Fraggle Rock," he said, was HBO’s first original series and critical to the network’s development. The rights to all things Fragglish now belong to the Jim Henson Co.)

Fans of "Fraggle Rock" say it remains unrivaled in terms of craftsmanship and character development. “TV for kids has gone in two directions,” said Joe Hennes, who runs the Henson fan site Tough Pigs (after the Muppet Miss Piggy). “One is the uber-educational, following the 'Sesame Street' model of learning the ABCs, 1-2-3s. The flip side is just wanting kids to be entertained so parents will buy the DVDs, the toys and the T-shirts.”

"Fraggle Rock" was after something much deeper. Its fans say it taught children and adults about their unavoidable interdependence. “We may not understand each other — we may not even know each other exists — but we all rely on each other and we can coexist in harmony,” Hennes said. It may be a far cry from Reaganomics, but it’s a lesson that “‘trickles down’ to everything in life.”

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