This Cult Classic Christmas Special Is Quintessential Jim Henson

Although it features few of the usual Muppets, ‘Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas’ brings the holiday spirit to the whole family

Emmett Otter's Jug Band Christmas
A still from Emmett Otter's Jug-Band Christmas Courtesy of Jim Henson Company

While it may not be as well-known as the North Pole, Whoville, or Bedford Falls, for Muppet aficionados, no holiday season is complete without a trip to Frogtown Hollow. It’s the rural home of “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas,” the television special created by Muppet visionary Jim Henson that celebrates its 40th anniversary this week.

In 1976, following the first season of “The Muppet Show,” Henson was riding high. He decided to fill the break between seasons with a quixotic adaptation of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, a 1971 book by prolific author Russell Hoban of Frances fame. Narrated by Kermit the Frog, the program tells the story of two dirt poor otters, Emmet and Ma, neither of whom has enough money to buy the gift they want to give. (A guitar for Emmet, a piano for Ma.) Known for their musical aptitude, the otters separately learn of a local talent show with a $50 prize. Both Emmet and Ma enter, and in a twist on twistmaster O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” each sells the other’s livelihood for their performance, so if they don’t win, they’ll have no way to earn their keep. Ma hocks Emmet’s tools for dress fabric; Emmet turns Ma’s washtub into a standup bass for the jug band.

This is an “Emmet Otter” spoiler-free zone, but the competition is fierce thanks to the anarchic Riverbottom Nightmare Band, a hard-rocking ensemble with a bug-eyed catfish in a tank singing backup. The band is pure mania—and Henson’s favorite part of the show—but overall, the production team stuck to Hoban’s book. The characters were faithfully designed to match Lillian Hoban’s illustrations and, tonally, the story stayed true to the source material.

“‘Emmet Otter’ is less zany and sweeter, but the Muppet DNA is there. Only Jim Henson pulls off a snake playing bass in the Riverbottom Nightmare Band,” says Brian Jay Jones, author of Jim Henson, a 2013 biography.

Henson was thrilled with how it turned out, but to his surprise and chagrin, no network picked it up. It was the first hint of what would become of the special: poor Emmet and his woodsy musician pals never became a standard in the holiday television rotation. It first aired in December 1977, but only on Canadian television. HBO showed it the following year, and in subsequent years, but the fledgling network was just a few years old and only broadcasting nine hours a day.

“’It’s a charming quiet holiday special, it isn’t big, flashy, and filled with pop culture references. It’s like Jim Henson was testing himself to see if he could make a Christmas classic without the typical ‘Muppet Show’ craziness and explosions,” says Joe Hennes, co-owner and editor-in-chief of ToughPigs, the go-to website for grown-up Muppet lifers.

Working on “Emmet Otter” allowed Henson to stretch his creative wings and develop technology used throughout his career. Unlike ”The Muppet Show,” he didn’t have to accommodate human guest stars, or stick to the parameters of a theater, so Henson built a gigantic stage complete with a 50-foot river and a sun, set to a timer, that rose and set to give the production team different looks. Animatronics were introduced, highlighted in Emmet’s rowing of the boat.  It was also the first time Henson used the “Waldo,” a remote manipulator resembling an oven mitt, which allowed performers like Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson a sophisticated way to sync up the Muppet mouth movements.

“Beyond the popularity and creativity of the Muppets, Jim Henson played an important role in American entertainment, creating puppets with a television screen in mind,” says Ryan Lintelman, curator of the entertainment collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. (Fun fact: At least one Muppet is always on display at the museum. Currently, it’s the Swedish Chef.) “Because Henson wasn’t bound by a traditional stage, he did things previous puppeteers weren’t able to do, and made the characters more reactive with bigger personalities. ‘Emmet Otter’ is a big evolution in puppet storytelling.”

The special also cemented the hugely important partnership between Henson and songwriter Paul Williams, a first season guest on ‘The Muppet Show.’ Williams wrote several original songs for “Emmet Otterin a range of styles, from the old-timey jug band “Bar-B-Que” to the hymnal “Brothers in Our World,” to the punk-infused Nightmare Band showstopper. It was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration that would lead to the instant classic “Rainbow Connection” two years later. 

Barbecue - Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas - The Jim Henson Company
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas - "Brothers In Our World"

“Jim grew up in a family that gathered around the piano every Saturday night for sing-a-longs, which is where his love of songs, heartfelt and silly came from,” says Jones, who is currently writing a Dr. Seuss biography. “Paul Williams has a similar Tin Pan Alley sensibility and together they were lightning in a bottle, a complete symbiotic relationship. Every song in Emmet Otter is catchy and ‘When the River Meets the Sea’ has become a standard, I recently heard it in a grocery store line.”

WHEN THE RIVER MEETS THE SEA ~ Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas

Letting younger viewers soak in the sounds of the Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jug Band—its official name—was also a means of introduction to an unsung American musical tradition. The jug,  as an instrument, has its roots in American slave culture, and the music was a mix of African rhythms and European melodies. In the early 1920s, Louisville became the center of jug-band music when the first recordings were made there for Gennett Records. There are still plenty of washboard, kazoo, and stovepipe musicians around today, often found playing local festivals, competitions, and the annual National Jug Band Jubilee in Louisville.

Skip Landt, a teacher at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music and leader of the award-winning band Strictly Jug Nuts, watched “Emmet Otter” for the first time this week to offer his insights. He likes the idea of young minds being exposed to the music through Wendell Porcupine blowing that jug:

“For young kids, early introduction to music is through simple melodies and rhythms, as their sensibilities are not yet developed enough to appreciate more complex forms. Here you have the lives and simple values of the destitute but happy Otter family, two generations living and singing in harmony are contrasted to the rowdy thug-led River Bottom band and their clashing music,” says Landt. “It resonates with me, a senior citizen, because Strictly Jug Nuts is a lot of fun and has a good following, but much like Emmet and Ma singing their duets, we are not of professional quality -- we do it for love of the music and the friendship.”

It’s a sentiment Jim Henson would’ve loved to hear way back when, because it would’ve meant Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas had found an audience.

In 1980, at last, ABC premiered “Emmet Otter” on broadcast television, but it still never had the impact of the classic Christmas specials like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “The Year Without A Santa Claus.” It didn’t even find a big audience in the golden age of VHS, and each new release had a different edit. Not one matched the definitive HBO version, which turned off the diehards. In 2004, the Walt Disney Company bought the Muppets, but Henson Associates still had the rights to “Emmet Otter”, so the World’s Most Famous Frog was cut right out of Frogtown Hollow. Kermit was excised from “Emmet Otterand wouldn’t return until a 2015 airing on ABC Family.

“‘Emmet Otter’ achieved cult status because it was largely unavailable, so there wasn’t that shared cultural experience, It was a forgotten one-off holiday special, but now with the accessibility of media, a new audience has emerged, which is great because the story is timeless,” says Lintelman.

The first DVD with Kermit’s scenes intact was released in October for the 40th anniversary. Now that it’s readily available in its original form, “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” is moving beyond its humble beginnings. Various performances abound including live concerts, musical adaptations, nostalgic appraisals, and a cover by the band My Morning Jacket. In middle age, the show’s time has finally come and newcomers have a chance to experience the overlooked Henson holiday magic.

“What puppets have over animation or CGI is that they exist, and especially as a kid, it feels like you could meet Emmet Otter and all the other woodland creature in the real world,” says Hennes. “The feeling of connection is innate in all of us, and you’ll never get it from Pixar.”

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.