Jim Henson’s work with puppets is legendary, and on Saturday people online celebrated some decidedly different Muppet brilliance from Henson’s career. Much like Michelle Pfeiffer’s Batman Returns whip stunt that went viral decades after it was filmed, Henson’s work for a now-defunct Washington coffee brand circulated on social media more than half a century after they aired on TV.
The Wilkins Coffee spots, more than 150 of them in all according to a Muppet Fandom site, were all over Twitter on Saturday. Which would be a nice bit of viral marketing if Wilkins Coffee still existed. The commercials starred two puppets and aired in the late 1950s an early 60s, and they’re extremely short. They all have the same basic plot: Wilkins asks Wontkins something about coffee, Wontkins refuses or says he doesn’t like coffee. And then Wilkins does something brutally violent to his puppet companion as a result.
Sometimes he throws a bomb in his home, or is seen cleaning blood off a sword, presumably after stabbing Wontkins with it. He’s hit by a train. Thrown from a tree. Often, he’s abruptly shot dead. There is often a one-liner that matches the way Wontkins meets his maker. It’s all brutally violent, especially for puppet fare, but its unexpected punch lines are extremely funny. And there are a lot of these commercials. The video above, for example, has 15 minutes of Wilkins terrorizing Wontkins. And as the clips went viral on Twitter, people shared some of their favorites.
can't stop laughing at these early jim henson commercials where one guy just kills another for not liking wilkins coffee pic.twitter.com/ZtfE06p0pR
— will (@twothickscoops) February 20, 2021
YOU CANT SHOW A COMPILATION WITHOUT SHOWING THE BEST ONE pic.twitter.com/tmAVJNOaIP
— GamelinkReviews (@GamelinkReviews) February 20, 2021
A Washington Post story from 2019 sheds a bit more light on the spots that resurfaced and trended on Twitter on Saturday. They were something of a TV revolution, and Wilkins and Wontkins actually became stars in their own right.
As Brian Jay Jones put it in his 2013 biography of Henson: “In Wilkins and Wontkins, Jim had created the kind of silly and endearing characters that were already becoming his trademark — the kind of characters that could even let him get away with being a little dangerous.”
The ads were a hit. Wrote one newspaper critic: “The TV public, weary of looking at such things as gurgling stomach acids at work, took the Wilkins Muppets to heart. No TV commercial ever has known such popularity.”
Wilkins credited the spots with a 300 percent increase in the home sales of its coffee. In 1958, 25,000 pairs of vinyl Wilkins and Wontkins puppets were sold.
It’s a lesson in enduring comedy for sure: ads built for a completely different era of TV where station identification spots were just 10 seconds long. It’s basically Muppet Vine, though extremely quick, and violent. And about six decades later, extremely funny. But it’s also a nice lesson that comedy involving violence and cruel behavior doesn’t necessarily need to be bloody to be brutal. As long as puppets are involved, of course.