Earlier this week, the Twitterverse re-discovered the capricious and unabashedly violent ten-second ad spots the late Muppets founder, Jim Henson, created for Wilkins Coffee in the late 1950s to early ‘60s. The newly viral, long-running campaign paired two puppets, Wilkins and Wontkins, discussing the coffee brand. In each ad, Wilkins homicidally punishes Wontkins in a variety of creatively gruesome ways for saying he won’t touch Wilkins Coffee.
Henson was nothing if not versatile, as he demonstrated in his incarnation of Kenner’s iconic Gooney Bird mascot in 1968.
It’s Kenner, It’s Fun!
The squat yellow bird with an orange beak and feet became tightly associated with the Kenner brand in 1962. Designed by Bob Grannan of the Cincinnati-based advertising firm, Leonard Sive and Associates, the Gooney Bird was deliberately gender-neutral and part of the company’s visual identity on most packaging. It was frequently paired with the company slogan, “It’s Kenner, It’s Fun”, and periodically in trade publications and ads with the tagline, “This bird means business!”
In 1968, the Gooney Bird was brought to life in the form of a Muppet designed by Henson and built by Don Sahlin and Kermit Love. The Muppet Gooney Bird starred in a now-famous commercial for the Easy-Bake Oven, in which it interacted with child-actress, Barbara Price, pulling stunts like snacking on the sweets she baked, popping out of her pies, and flying into a wall of Kenner products while squawking the company slogan.
Reaction to the Muppet Gooney Bird was so positive that Henson later refurbished him as Little Bird, a sidekick to Big Bird in early seasons of the ground-breaking Sesame Street television show.
The Muppet Gooney Bird dabbled as a character actor as well, appearing in animated TV commercials for Kenner in which it warbled the company slogan while performing various comedic stunts. It also had several cameos in Kenner’s Talking Show Projector and Give-a-Show Projector toy sets.
Kenner slowly phased out the Gooney Bird’s public appearances by 1974, although the icon remained in use internally. When Hasbro merged Cincinnati operations in 2000, employees were given caps and watches with the Gooney Bird logo as thank-you gifts.
- Check out the Wilkins Coffee Muppet commercial reel here.
- View Jim Henson’s Easy-Bake Oven commercial here.
Todd Coopee is Editor-in-Chief of Toy Tales, an online publication that covers toys and games past and present.