Gorgon Heap: Purple Muppet Eater

GorgonHeap1

I have loved Jim Henson‘s Muppets since I was a kid. I grew up watching Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, grooving to their catchy musical numbers and the humorous sensibilities that played wonderfully to both their young fans and adults who were often stuck watching the shows with them. Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Bunsen and Beaker, Scooter, Rowlf, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, and the rest remain close to my heart even as I continue on through the vast and unforgiving wilderness of adulthood.

Over a week ago I picked up the new Blu-ray of The Muppet Movie. Later that night I watched the movie in shimmering high-definition for the first time in many years. Not shockingly I found myself still enjoying its enduring silliness and sense of wonder and joy. The ending reprise of “The Rainbow Connection” when the camera pulls back to reveal an epic assembly of Jim Henson‘s creations, including a few characters from Sesame Street and others who didn’t appear in the movie until then, as the song reaches its soaring conclusion will always bring a few tears to my eyes. For this final shot there were so many Muppets and not enough puppeteers to perform them so a few ringers were drafted – one of them was filmmaker John Landis.

One of the neglected Muppets in this final shot was a furry purple creature I had only become reacquainted with in recent years. Gorgon Heap is one of the most underrated of all the characters in the Muppet universe. He only made a handful of appearances on The Muppet Show and in various Muppet-related books and comics, but he was never granted the status of recurring character. Gorgon was barely a character at all. It was all part of his weird mystique. To be honest, Gorgon was the Cookie Monster of The Muppet Show, except that he didn’t have to serve an educational purpose. If he wasn’t scaring the other Muppets he was usually eating them….and anything else he could get his paws on.

He looked like a hunk of purple shag carpeting with bulging yellow eyes and Mr. Potato Head ears. If the eternally jovial McDonald’s mascot Grimace had a crazy hippie cousin who enjoyed hitching rides with strangers in isolated areas of the American Southwest and then sucking the meat and marrow off of their bloated corpses while taking multiple hits of L.S.D., it would look exactly like Gorgon Heap.

Shit, it would probably be Gorgon Heap.

Gorgon was the raging anarchic id lurking beneath the family-friendly burlesque veneer of The Muppet Show. That Kermit and the gang let a monster whose personality and soul had been replaced long ago with a larger appetite for anything and everything just roam free backstage and in front of the cameras while the show was on the air spoke volumes about what the Muppets once meant to their audience: a brutal redefining of popular children’s entertainment. Anything could possibly happen on The Muppet Show, and more often than not anything did happen. Much like Gorgon Heap himself (or itself – I’m not quite positive about that) the show cared, yet it didn’t care. The Muppets just wanted to do what they loved best and hope that in the end they were accepted even if they didn’t always succeed.

Obviously, once the Muppets went mainstream it appeared that there would be no place for a character like Gorgon Heap. In order to reach a wider audience Henson and his gifted cast and crew couldn’t have a frightening ogre who thought nothing of eating his fellow Muppets if it would temporarily satisfy his insatiable cravings among the others. Even Animal was more lovable than Gorgon, and he used to terrify the hell out of me as a young’un.

After being featured as a background Muppet in the Sex & Violence pilot that aired on ABC in March 1975 Gorgon made his first speaking appearance on The Muppet Show in the third episode of the first season, hosted by Joel Grey (Cabaret). He was performed by Frank Oz – as “Fielding the Butler” – in the “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Disappearing Clues” sketch:

In his second appearance Gorgon showed up to devour Wayne of the singing duo Wayne and Wanda as he was singing “Some Enchanted Evening”. Clearly the esteemed Mr. Heap misunderstood the lyrics. Meet, not eat. Richard Hunt performed the character (given a slightly more menacing appearance here – must be the demonic horns) in this episode which was hosted by the late comic actor and voice-over artist Avery Schreiber:

For his third appearance on the show Gorgon was finally referred to by name (and as “one of the world’s great eaters”) in the culinary panel discussion sketch featuring host Vincent Price. Here he was performed by Dave Goelz – best known for performing Gonzo and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. Price totally sells out Kermit at the end. A devil indeed, and a legend of the screen:

Jerry Nelson was the man behind this particular – and particularly strange – Muppet in the second season premiere episode hosted by the late Don Knotts. He appeared in the cold open when Scooter came into the host’s dressing room to find the erstwhile Barney Fife cowering in fear of an unexpected roommate. “What’s the matter, sweetie? You don’t like chorus girls?”:

Oz would return to the character in a second season episode hosted by Rich Little. Gorgon made a surprise appearance at the end of the “Inchworm” skit to eat Lenny the Lizard. This time around he was given an elongated snout. The bit was essentially a remake of a famed Muppet sketch featuring Kermit the Frog and an earlier incarnation of Gorgon named the Big V that was a television variety show fixture during the 1960’s:

Here’s an earlier version of the “Inchworm” skit featuring Kermit and the Big V that was performed on The Tonight Show in September 1969 (starts at 2:02):

Gorgon Heap would go on to make sporadic, often silent appearances throughout the show’s first three seasonswas also featured as a drummer in a third season episode hosted by actress and singer Leslie Uggams.

Given how the character is such an important part of Muppet history it saddens me to see Gorgon soullessly discarded by those tasked with maintaining the integrity of Henson’s creations, like he was a lousy first draft idea consigned to the waste basket of cultural history. I would hope that with the Muppets experiencing a resurgence of popularity on the big screen Gorgon Heap might get a shot at a modern day comeback, but with the Walt Disney Company holding the purse strings for Kermit and company until the literal end of time that doesn’t seem likely.

That’s a shame, because even though Gorgon didn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense as a character he was always hilarious to watch devouring everything in his path. He was offbeat and unpredictable, and if the Muppets want to continue to stay fresh and relevant as the times change they could sure use some of those special qualities.

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