Wednesday, December 17, 2014

W Is for Wilkins and Wontkins

Wilkins and Wontkins are Jim Henson's earliest TV commercial characters. In 1957, he was approached by a Washington, DC, company to produce local ads for Wilkins Coffee. At the time, Jim was doing Sam and Friends, which broadcast live for five minutes each weekday. That show was mainly his characters lipsynching to records, but it was also the place where Jim learned about pacing. With only five minutes--some of that time eaten up by sponsor messages also featuring Muppet characters--Jim learned to maximize the humor potential of the medium in a minimal amount of time, while still managing to experiment.

I've talked before about how Jim used commercials as a way to experiment with design, character, humor, and even the medium itself. His first commercials, the Wilkins Coffee ads, were a real test of his ingenuity, because the ads were only eight seconds long. How could he be funny and deliver a product message in just eight seconds? The answer turned out to be just letting his anarchic spirit loose.

The ads star the cheerful Wilkins, who loves Wilkins Coffee, and the grumpy Wontkins, who won't try it. Generally, Wilkins inflicts some manner of cartoon violence on Wontkins for being such a grump.

Here's just a sampling of Wilkins Coffee ads, and they're generally wonderful. Some of my favorite Muppet stuff in existence.



If you want to see more of them, they're all over YouTube. Jim Henson made 179 commercials for Wilkins Coffee and other Wilkins products from 1957 to 1961.

The characters and the ads were so popular that other companies approached Jim about using the characters, and the ads were remade and used in other markets. Since the ads were all regional, there wasn't any crossover. They were most popular--and lauded--in their home area, though, and Wilkins Coffee even offered vinyl puppets of Wilkins and Wontkins through the mail for one dollar and a coffee can label.

They're apparently very hard to find today, but these are the first ever Muppet toys.

Here are some commercials for other products starring Wilkins and Wontkins.



Even though the Wilkins ads ended in 1961, Jim kept using the characters until 1967. Here are some color ads for Red Diamond Coffee from 1966.



Jim Henson helped to change the course of advertising in the US. Where most television commercials were often tedious and irritating, Jim Henson is often cited as someone who proved that you could sell products with humor.

What these ads also did was help Jim establish the dynamic that would define characters like Bert and Ernie: one sour straight man, and one wild, wacky force of nature butting up against one another. Of course, Jim didn't invent that dynamic--that's straight out of vaudeville and came over to film and television in the earliest days of both media--but Jim's anarchic approach never failed.

I'm nearing the end of my alphabetic Muppet journey, and I'm glad I got to praise these two.

ABC Wednesday

1 comment:

Roger Owen Green said...

no one knows this stuff like you do!

ROG, ABCW