We established some ground rules, of course. Which made our daily PCHH Zoom call a place where the thorniest philosophical questions of our time were pondered: Should Statler and Waldorf be considered separately, or as a pair? What about Bert and Ernie? Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker?
Here's where we landed:
- Any Muppet from any property or era was eligible, including The Muppet Show, Muppet Babies, Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street, Labyrinth, etc.
- We counted all variations of a Muppet character in a group. Thus, Gonzo the Great and Gonzo from Muppet Babies both count as Gonzo.
- Some Muppets were counted as a set, like Statler and Waldorf.
- Others were counted individually, most notably Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, as well as Bert and Ernie. The Fraggles of Fraggle Rock were also counted individually.
- We disqualified other puppets that are NOT Muppets, including Yoda (he's really, really not a Muppet, guys, look it up) and the cast of Avenue Q.
- We also disqualified human actors in Muppet movies, like Jason Segel, Tim Curry, Michael Caine, and Charles Grodin.
So here they are, the Top 25 Best Muppets, according to the discerning, and impassioned, Pop Culture Happy Hour audience.
25. Count von Count
The ultimate Order Muppet. Nice to see the Count showing up here, repping Sesame Street (he's one of only 10 Sesame Street Muppets to make the top 25, surprisingly enough). (Justice for Prairie Dawn, by the way.) He always scared the hell out of me — I didn't care for those bats forever flitting around his widow's peak, or for his ability to call forth thunder and lightning—but if you were a kid prone to obsessive behavior, you likely saw, in his compulsion to apportion the chaotic world around him into neat, quantitative chunks, a kindred spirit. — Glen
24. Dr. Teeth
It pleases me that this talented musician, he of the brightly decorated tour bus and the funkiest and furriest band, made it onto the list. Honestly, it took a while for me, as a young person, to truly appreciate the groovy greatness of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (one of the great band names). There's a way in which the group calls gently to hippies, cool cats, and maybe even (gasp) stoners, that doesn't matter to little kids but is a little bit funny when you're older. Plus, particularly in The Muppet Movie, Dr. Teeth is a key part of the winking, knowing, audience-acknowledging part of Muppet lore. He leads the band. He provides the hot tunes. The doctor is always in. — Linda
His saddle shoes. His paperclip collection. His love of pigeons, and of the letter W. His bold, if defiantly out-of-step sartorial sensibility (a turtleneck under a v-neck? Why not?) His embrace of rules and order. His simultaneous fondness for, and exasperation with, his less uptight other half. Let's face it—Bert was the very first nerd millions of us ever encountered. With a thunderbolt of recognition, we saw ourselves in his pained glares, heard ourselves in his monotone staccato laughter. He showed millions the path to fully embrace—nay, to positively exalt in—our dorkiest, most basic selves. Other nerds in mass media would come later, of course. But he was our first. — Glen
Elmo gets a bad rap for the same reasons Barney the Dinosaur did at the height of his fame: Parents find him overly cloying and oversaturated. Ground Zero for this animosity has to be Tickle Me Elmo, of course. By the mid-'90s, I had graduated from the streets of sesame to the green slime of Nickelodeon, so I was a bit too old to get wrapped up in the craze, but I have vivid memories of the parodies and news reports of grown adults fighting each other to get their hands on the toy. And for a time, I had to live with one of those bad boys, courtesy of my little sister. (It was just as annoying and creepy as a toy can get.) Then came The Takeover a.k.a. the recurring segment "Elmo's World," and this furry monster—who refers to himself in the third Muppet—became inescapable.
And yet... here he is, sliding into the Top 25 on this list, presumably voted on by adults rather than 5-year-olds who wouldn't know any better. There are two reasons for this, I think. For one, if you were a millennial like myself, you probably have fewer negative memories of him than those who were exasperated parents or childcare workers at the time of Peak Elmo. But also, in this era of social media, Elmo remains one of the most memeable of all Muppets. In fact, he's transcended Sesame Street to become arguably at his best in meme form. That's gotta count for something, I guess! — Aisha
A late-'70s shortstop whose batting average generally hovered around .200, Mario Mendoza provides the origin point for the term "The Mendoza Line," which refers to that hazy boundary separating "just good enough to stay employed" from "not good enough." From this moment forward, let that line be renamed "The Scooter Line," which separates the great Muppets—your Ernies, your Sams the Eagle, your Snuffleupagii—from, well, Elmo. (Note: This analogy falls apart when you scroll further up, because Bert, Dr. Teeth, and the Count are all awesome.)
Seriously, how did Scooter come in at No. 21? Scooter?! The guy who only got his job at The Muppet Theatre because his uncle J.P. Grosse owned the venue? The guy whose signature catchphrase involved the number of seconds before actual entertainment was to take place? Is it because Scooter's glasses double as his actual eyeballs? Is that how we're measuring quality these days? —Stephen
Painfully shy. Soulful and sweet. With an eyelash game that Bianca Del Rio would envy. Snuffy began life as Big Bird's best friend, whom the adults of Sesame Street considered imaginary. This frustrated Big Bird, but in their defense, Snuffy did tend to ditch Big Bird, suddenly, repeatedly, like Big Bird was Commissioner Gordon and Snuffy some kind of fuzzy pachydermic Batman. Eventually, the folks at Children's Television Workshop realized that having adults roll their eyes at Big Bird's stories of Snuffy maybe wasn't sending kids, you know, the best message? On YouTube you can watch the moment, in 1985, when the adults finally see Snuffy, and it? Is weird. And not a little sinister: Big Bird and Elmo conspire to trap Snuffy, forcing him to stick around (trigger warning: Elmo abuse), and when the adults finally apologize to Big Bird for doubting him all these years, he's ... kind of a jerk about it. — Glen
People sometimes forget about Sweetums, which is consistent with the way he's left behind in The Muppet Movie and has to chase the group all the way to Hollywood. All he wants is to be included! All he wants is to be in the movie! He's fundamentally a big lug with a heart of gold, and he could also protect you in the event of a bar fight. It seems only right that he and Snuffy are next to each other on this list, because they're both big and furry, but Sweetums, for all his might of body and mildness of soul, plays a unique role in Muppet World. He represents the idea of the benevolent super-monster: the scary thing that's less scary once you look at it up close. — Linda
Quite simply, Ernie should be much higher than this. "Rubber Duckie"! "I Don't Want to Live on the Moon"! The innocent chaos he wields upon the uptight Bert! He's a wild one, but he's also incredibly endearing; why else would Bert put up with this madness for so many years? Surely he's earned enough Sesame Street royalties at this point to be able to afford a studio apartment for himself, yet he knows—and we all know—that Ernie is a lovable sweetheart who just wants to enjoy life. #JusticeforErnie. — Aisha
17. Sam the Eagle
I'd have liked to see Sam roosting in a higher perch on this list, but apparently not all of us so deeply empathize with the big, dour lug. It's not his politics we identify with, necessarily, nor his default moral outrage. No, some of us just respond to his whole vibe, which I will herewith attempt to distill to its essence: I never know what's going on, and I never understand what anyone's talking about, but if I did? I wouldn't like it. — Glen
16. Pepe the King Prawn
Some might scoff at the presence of Pepe on any list of Greatest Muppets. Not me, though I'm admittedly surprised this Spanish lothario was able to find his way into the Top 25, and above the likes of Bert and Ernie to boot. Maybe it's all those years serving as the "spokes-shrimp" for the fast-food chain Long John Silver's? Or perhaps it's because he was the best thing about that ill-advised primetime sitcom The Muppets? — Aisha
Fer sure, yes, this ranking makes sense. I'm convinced we all wish we could be just a little bit like Janice: kind of aloof to everything going on around her, and thus eternally chill. — Aisha
14. Big Bird
For a lot of us—especially if we were pre-Elmo kids—Big Bird was one of the founding Muppets of our minds, even though unlike most of the group, he walked around on two legs. There's something about his name, Big Bird, that speaks profoundly to how sweet and simple the connection is between little kids and this naive, sometimes confused soul. He's just this... really Big Bird. He walked a lot of kids through their first experience with death when Mr. Hooper died, and he eventually demonstrated that he had been right all along about his very real, very mammoth friend Snuffy. Trust in Big Bird. — Linda
13. Oscar the Grouch
Most of what happened on Sesame Street was upbeat and colorful. So there's something so delightfully rebellious and brilliant about the inclusion of a grungy, curmudgeonly green monster who literally lives in a garbage can and sings "I Love Trash." It's great to show the power of hugs, but it might be just as important to underscore that not everyone is a hugger, and you can make a guy part of your community even though he doesn't give you a lot to work with. — Linda
12. Rizzo the Rat
I suspect that Rizzo landed this high—above Big Bird!—thanks to millennials whose Muppet references are more about the later films like Muppet Treasure Island and The Muppet Christmas Carol than they are about The Muppet Show, where Rizzo showed up fairly late in the series run as the leader of a gang of rats running wild in the theater. Rizzo started out small but went on to pop up in several of the films, always retaining his identity as a somewhat sketchy but basically decent pal, especially to Gonzo. I'm not so much a Rizzo girl myself, but to all of you who are: I respect your dedication to this little rat. — Linda
11. Cookie Monster
The amazing thing about Cookie Monster is that he never ate a cookie. All Cookie Monster does is mouth the cookie until it flies into pieces. What Cookie Monster is about is the desire for the cookie. The passion for the cookie. The thrill of the cookie. In this way, Cookie Monster is a perfect encapsulation of the preschool id: hungry, needy, hyper, and eternally hopeful that this time, there will be a snack. He should really be in the top ten, you guys. Even if only for "C Is For Cookie." — Linda
10. Statler and Waldorf
It was inevitable so many would vote for this curmudgeonly duo because they represent the viewer's id so explicitly. Why do they always come here? I guess we'll never know. But we are all Statler & Waldorf—sitting in that balcony while cracking wise at all those corny puns—and Statler & Waldorf are us. — Aisha
9. Swedish Chef
Many Muppets contain multitudes; Swedish Chef does not. He's your classic Chaos Muppet—all hurr-guh-durr and knives sticking into walls and fish flying to and fro, with human hands, no less, and without your romantic subplots or hazy origin stories or bittersweet pining for adventure and meaning. He's the hilarious, Muppety, "Bork! Bork! Bork!" embodiment of what every little kid wants to be doing in the kitchen at all times. — Stephen
8. Miss Piggy
Who among the Muppets can say that they've been presented with an award for being a feminist trailblazer while being interviewed by Gloria Steinem? Heck, who among us humans can say they've been so honored? Well, Miss Piggy can. Because she is the epitome of chutzpah, glamour, and narciss—er, self-confidence. I truly hope this most fabulous swine doesn't get wind of our list, because the last thing we'd want is an angry email (or karate chop) from her publicist for not having ranked her higher. Piggy should at least crack the top five of Greatest Muppets, "moi" who has given us one of culture's most storied on-again/off-again romances; this amazingly awkward Larry King interview; and "Snackersize." — Aisha
7. Fozzie Bear
Fozzie Bear's dreams of comedic greatness are unattainable, his optimism smacks of desperation and delusion, his jokes (such as they are) exist mostly to provide opportunities for Statler and Waldorf to perform windmill dunks at his expense, and his signature catchphrase ("wocka wocka wocka!") is a tragic cry for validation. He's all sweaty effort, all the time, in that way that so many of us get when we're pursuing the acceptance of others. So how do you make Fozzie lovable without also making him... deeply sad?
The secret lies, at least in part, in the aforementioned optimism: Fozzie is a dreamer, and a sweetly soulful one at that. If you can't be great, being liked is a hell of a consolation prize. — Stephen
I'd have thought everyone's lovable furry pal would have made the Top 5 easy, but this is still a perfectly respectable showing. What's not to love? He's cute and he knows it, but there's so much more to him than that. He's put in time in the food-service industry (relatable!), he's gotten his cardio in teaching us the difference between near and far (selfless!), and he's also, not for nothing, a superhero. And if all that weren't enough, his masterwork, The Monster at the End of This Book, introduced successive generations to poststructuralist metanarrative; he's a li'l fuzzy blue Michel Foucault, is what he is. — Glen
The people have spoken; the people are wrong. Both of these things can be true. Come on, Rowlf in fifth place? Below the jamoke at No. 4? The one-note placeholder at No. 3? Pshaw. Rowlf belongs atop this chart, bestriding it like a fuzzy brown floppy-eared Colossus, for several(!) manifold(!) reasons I enumerated on our "Favorite Muppets" episode, but essentially: He rejects and transcends the reductive Chaos Muppet/Order Muppet binary. He can often seem like the only adult in the room (and when Kermit is in said room, that's saying something), but his vibe is different from that of the frog.
Where Kermit is always a real Dr. Buzzkill, a square, a narc, Rowlf is part of the game. He's preternaturally chill; he can hang. Add that to the fact that with numbers like "You and I and George," in which he mixes humorous stories with song, he's bringing cabaret to the children. That's iconic, that's queer energy; Rowlf is the best Muppet, hands down, paws up. — Glen
The Yiddish words schlemiel and schlimazel aren't just colorful language we remember from Laverne & Shirley reruns; they're also deeply useful phrases used to signify oafish incompetence and a tendency to encounter misfortune, respectively. The general device folks use to tell the words apart is that a schlemiel is the waiter spilling the soup in your lap (Grover, perhaps?) and a schlimazel is the unfortunate soul onto whom that soup is spilled.
Poor, pitiful, shrieking Beaker is The Muppet Show's great schlimazel—and thus a vessel through which we could compartmentalize the most put-upon moments of our youth. We'd come home from a school day in which our lunch tray got knocked out of our hands, or maybe we racked ourselves sliding down that awful rope in gym class, and there was Beaker, embodying our awkwardness, our victimhood and our pain alongside Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, himself an avatar for an unfeeling God. —Stephen
No Muppet captures pure Muppet-ness quite like Animal. The drummer for the Electric Mayhem is really just a skinny body topped with a head like a pink firework, the long hair (fur?) blossoming from his head above a single heavy, dark, fluttering eyebrow. All he has to work with is his giant mouth and that line of eyebrows, and yet you can tell when he's happy or excited (which is usually) or disappointed (sometimes) or exhausted (he's the Muppet most likely to pant). Given to phrases like "That's my kind of woman" and "eat drums," Animal can't really be called a sophisticate. But perhaps his function is to remind us that there is a place for a pure, growling... well, animal. And if you've never seen him accompany Rita Moreno's rendition of "Fever," I have to tell you that you're really missing out. — Linda
Anyone who's ever felt like a weirdo or an "other"—or, to quote The Great Muppet Caper, a "whatever"—knows where Gonzo is coming from, even if his own origin story has been circuitous and slow to unfold. A dapper Chaos Muppet capable of bearing serious emotional weight, Gonzo is an entertainer and an artiste: an avant-garde daredevil whose act might cite poetry or shoot him out of a cannon, or somehow combine the two. He's also, like our listeners' No. 1 Muppet, a serious romantic leading man—just ask the chickens. —Stephen
Look, it's hard—and uncouth—to rank our friends. But if one of your friends ran a hit TV show, starred in a string of successful movies, stormed the pop charts with a song so indelible it just got named to the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry, and launched memes that came to signify everything from unbridled enthusiasm to staying above the fray, you'd be pretty psyched about that friend, no?