Heigh-ho! It’s Kermit the Frog! Everybody’s favourite Muppet, who’s kind and humble and polite and not at all the sort of character who would gun down somebody over a coffee argument!
As much as I hate to break it to you, one of Jim Henson’s earliest Muppet characters — a sort of Proto-Kermit — got into gun-slinging coffee arguments all the damn time. Don’t believe me? Just type “Wilkins coffee” into YouTube (or scroll to the bottom of this page), and get ready for a wave of bizarre black-and-white TV commercials in which a very Kermit-like coffee spokesman pitches his wares with the threat of physical violence.
These ads are amazing. Some of them run a mere seven seconds, and make their point by shocking the audience so that the ad (and the product) cannot be forgotten. In the very first Wilkins Coffee ad, Wilkins (the Proto-Kermit character) levels a cannon at Wontkins (a sad-eyed lump with the voice of Rowlf the Dog) and asks “Okay buddy, what do you think of Wilkins coffee?” “I never tasted it,” grumbles Wontkins. KABOOM! Having obliterated this coffee naysayer, the mischievous artilleryman turns the barrel towards us and asks “Now what do you think of Wilkins?”
GAAHH! WHA... HOW... GUH... did that guy just get straight-up murdered because of his coffee inexperience? Oh God... and we’re next! Quick, give me some Wilkins coffee! What do you mean they don’t make it any more?! Aaaaaaaah!
All of the Wilkins coffee ads are like this. There’s no mention of the coffee’s good qualities, just blatant bullying against Wilkins coffee virgins. Wontkins gets shot a lot in these ads. He also gets dropped from a hot-air balloon, hurled from the treetops, crushed under a bandwagon, and in one particularly disturbing ad, executed in an electric chair. “Any last requests, like for a cup of Wilkins coffee?” asks Wilkins, as Wontkins trembles in the execution chamber with electrodes attached to his head. “No.” “You don’t drink Wilkins?” “No.” “How shocking” shrugs Wilkins, as he throws the switch with an indifferent tilt of his head.
Even the physical laws of the universe seem to be against Wontkins and his anti-coffee attitude. In one ad, he gets erased from existence entirely, and vanishes from the mortal realm before he even finishes saying his only line. Eep! Just drink the damn coffee! These dudes mean business!
I’ll say this for them; the Wilkins coffee ads are funny and terrifying in equal measure. Few TV ads of this vintage offer this much entertainment value today — not even the sight of Fred Flintstone extolling the smooth tobacco taste of Winston cigarettes. (Yes, that is also a real thing. Go back to YouTube.) In interviews, Henson used to point out that his ads took an original approach to selling the product. This is true. Very few advertisers went with the “Buy our product or we’ll kill you” strategy.
Henson’s character design continued to evolve, eventually resulting in the fun-loving frog we all know and love today. But first, he went through a few other intermediate phases you might not know about. He was a lizard for a while; that’s why he’s got that strange spiky frill around his neck. Oh, and he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1966 as a remorseless predator who cheerfully eats a couple of adorable little inchworms before getting devoured by a monster who tricks Kermit with a worm-like appendage on the end of his nose. The following year, Kermit came back on the Sullivan show, this time sporting a blond wig, a red dress and a feminine voice. He/she sang “I’ve grown accustomed to your face” and actually managed to finish the song before getting dragged off to his/her doom by yet another grotesque monster.
Therein lies the secret to the Muppets appeal, at least in the early days; they were adorable, but they wouldn’t hesitate to murder and/or eat one another. Put that in the next movie, Disney!