The Muppet Show is now available on Disney+, so if you’ve ever wanted to see Elton John sing “Crocodile Rock” with a bunch of crocodiles, I would suggest signing up immediately. It’s five seasons of silly chaos, with slapstick humor, celebrity guests, and Statler and Waldorf absolutely roasting Fozzie. The Muppet Show making its way onto Disney’s streaming service has also, unfortunately, inspired ever-dreaded #discourse about cancel culture and the left wanting to “destroy” Kermit, or whatever. It’s exhausting and ought to be avoided at all costs — the Muppets should unite us, not tear us apart.
There’s only one acceptable Muppets debate and that’s: which Muppet is the best Muppet? Actually, it’s not even a debate, because with all due respect to Kermit, Miss Piggy, Lew Zealand, Rizzo (he might be #1 if he had a better restaurant), Uncle Deadly, and Scooter (lol no one respects Scooter), the answer is Rowlf. Let me explain why.
1. Kermit is the most well-known Muppet, but he wasn’t the first Muppet to “reach national stardom.” That honor belongs to Rowlf, who made his debut in a 1962 dog food commercial (Hugh Grant would be proud) before appearing weekly on The Jimmy Dean Show as the host’s “ol’ buddy.” Here he is meeting Lassie (“May I hold your paw?”), rehearsing his own spin-off show, and wearing a Santa beard and singing a sincere cover of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” If you can make it through that without crying, well, you can’t. It’s impossible. Rowlf was a sensation, receiving thousands of fan letters every week, and it’s easy to see why in the clips from the variety series that are online: he was witty, charismatic, and playful. He was (and is) a Very Good Boy.
2. But he could also be a wise-cracking son of a bitch. Literally.
The Muppets are a family-friendly Disney brand now, but don’t forget, Jim Henson, who performed Rowlf until his death in 1990, was a “naughty troublemaker” at heart, a subversive rascal who made things like The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence and The Land of Gorch, the bawdy recurring sketch during the first season of Saturday Night Live that the show’s writers famously hated. Not unlike Wu-Tang Clan, the Muppets are for the children, but they have also always been for the adults, too. Rowlf has thrived in both worlds, something most of his fellow Muppets aren’t able to. Can you imagine Kermit the Frog ever saying the word “bitch,” like Rowlf did on The Arsenio Hall Show? (Volume on to hear the dog pound lose their freaking minds.) I can’t, and frankly, I don’t want to.
Jim Henson was a genius! 😂
(The Arsenio Hall Show, 1989) pic.twitter.com/dHVDGaDXgR
— Muppet History (@HistoryMuppet) December 29, 2020
Rowlf is all things for all people — and dogs.
3. The only Muppet that comes close to Rowlf is Gonzo. Whether he’s playing the trumpet at the end of The Muppet Show‘s opening credits, narrating The Muppet Christmas Carol as Charles Dickens, or flirting with his lady friend chicken, I love that “whatever.” He’s proudly weird (and a LGBT+ icon). But he’s also the star of the worst Muppet movie, Muppets in Space, and Muppet Treasure Island isn’t much better (outside of the soundtrack — “Cabin Fever” is a quarantine anthem). The Muppets went Gonzo crazy in the 1990s and he suffered, however slightly, from overexposure; he’s to the Muppets as Taz is to the Looney Tunes, minus the baggy pants. But there’s no such thing as “too much” Rowlf, and therefore, no one ever got tired of him.
I will admit that Gonzo is the bigger style icon.
y’all are falling for boys who dress like this pic.twitter.com/TVkOq9MeeW
— ᶜᵒⁿˢᵗᵃⁿᵗⁱⁿᵉ (@greenIight) April 15, 2019
4. Musical numbers are as much a Muppets trademark as explosions (get you a Muppet who can do both). Rowlf has provided many of the most memorable song-and-dance numbers in Muppets history: “Tit Willow” from The Muppet Movie (there’s that Henson naughtiness), “I Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along” from The Muppet Movie (it’s a spoken line, but “it’s not often you see a guy that green that has the blues that bad” is one of the all-time great Muppet quotes), and a personal favorite, “I’m Gonna Always Love You” from The Muppets Take Manhattan. My man kills it on the piano in that one.
AND LOOK AT THE ADORABLE TUXEDO HE WEARS IN “SOMETHING SO RIGHT.”
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Ol’ Brown Ears Is Back, Rowlf’s solo album in which he covers “New York State of Mind” and sings “Eight Little Notes,” a song about Beethoven. Not the dog, but the composer. I understand the confusion, but it’s easy to remember: Rowlf the dog > Beethoven the human > Beethoven the dog.
5. But the main reason why Rowlf is the best Muppet is because he was closest to the Muppet god himself, Jim Henson (I genuinely can not think of a cooler title than “Muppet god”). Here’s author Brian Jay Jones, who wrote the definitive Jim Henson biography, on Henson’s close connection with Rowlf: “Rowlf is the one closest to Jim, more so than even Kermit. We like to think of Jim and Kermit as intertwined and interchangeable, but I think Rowlf is the one that’s closest to Jim.” Along the same lines, Jim’s son Brian called Kermit his “father’s best-known character, but a lot of people think he was more like Rowlf in real life… except he couldn’t play the piano as well.”
Following Henson’s death, Rowlf was unofficially retired until 1996, when Bill Barretta took over. He’s appeared sporadically in Muppet projects since, including Jason Segel’s Oscar-nominated The Muppets, Weezer’s “Keep Fishin'” music video, and ABC’s short-lived The Muppets series, where he owned his bar, Rowlf’s Tavern. But post-Henson, Muppets Studio hasn’t quite known what to do with him. I’m predicting a Rowlf renaissance, though, once more people watch (or re-watch) The Muppet Show. It might already be happening.
So much to get into with The Muppet Show, but how about the way Rowlf checks in with the sheet music.
— Dave Holmes (@DaveHolmes) February 22, 2021
Rowlf might not be the flashiest Muppet, but he’s a floppy-eared, piano-playing, joke-cracking, beer-drinking, sophisticated-but-silly dog who sounds like Tom Waits. What’s not to love? But if you’re somehow still not convinced:
Like I said, the best Muppet.