A term derived from the combination of "marionette" and "puppet," a Muppet is a puppet creature that is manipulated by a puppeteer with at least one hand inside the puppet, used to operate an opening and closing mouth. The term is used by puppeteers to describe this particular open-mouth design. However, it is far more commonly used as an informal name and as a legal trademark to refer to a large group of puppets and characters created by Jim Henson and the Jim Henson Company, though the term was employed as a trademark less frequently in his later works.
Muppets are distinguished from ventriloquist "dummies", which are typically animated only in the head and face, in that their arms or other features are also mobile and expressive. Muppets are typically made of softer materials. They are also presented as being independent of the puppeteer, who is usually not visible, hidden behind a set or outside of the camera frame.
The most common design for a Muppet is a character with a very wide mouth and large protruding eyes. The puppets are typically molded out of polyfoam, and then covered with felt or artificial fur. Yarn, nylon string, or, most commonly, artificial feathers are used to create hair. Muppets may represent humans, anthropomorphic animals, realistic animals, robots or anthropomorphic objects, extra-terrestrial creatures, mythical beings, or other unidentifed or newly imagined creatures.
The puppeteer typically holds the puppet above his head or in front of his body, and operates the hands and arms with a Y-shaped control rod. One consequence of this design is that most muppets are left handed as the puppeteer uses his right hand to control the face and the control rod is operated by the left hand. There are many other common designs and means of operation. In advanced Muppets, several puppeteers may control a single character; the performer who controls the mouth usually provides the voice for the character. As technology has evolved, the Jim Henson team and other puppeteers have developed an enormous variety of means to operate puppets for film, including the use of suspended rigs, internal motors, remote radio control, and computer enhanced and superimposed images. This has allowed for scenes in which a muppet appears to be riding a bicycle.
Famous Jim Henson Muppets include Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and Oscar the Grouch. Some of the most widely known television shows featuring Muppets include Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and The Muppet Show. For a history of Jim Henson's Muppets see Jim Henson.
In the UK the word muppet has come to be used as a mild term of abuse, meaning a stupid, incompetent, or possibly geeky person.