In the late 1960s, few people knew what a computer was – much less a Muppet. But in 1967, two years after the introduction of its Selectric typewriter, IBM hired filmmaker and commercial director Jim Henson (Esskay Meats, Marathon Gasoline) to make a series of short films designed to help its sales people.
When he launched into Sesame Street two years later, Henson would mine some of his IBM material. He even borrowed the idea of Cookie Monster – voiced by Frank Oz (Miss Piggy, Yoda, director of various films) – from one of those IBM films, “Coffee Break Machine.” Writes Technologizer
The third spot, "Coffee Break Machine," is a quintessential Muppet comedy skit (it was remade twice, for The Ed Sullivan Show and The Muppet Show). It's also the first explicit link between the meeting films and IBM's products. The premise is simple, as an elaborate talking computer device (voiced by Jim Henson) recites a laundry list of features and components all to produce a single cup of coffee. A Muppet monster, instantly recognizable as a prototype of Cookie Monster (but scruffier and with prominent teeth), enters and devours the machine piece by piece. (The monster's voraciousness would remain when Cookie showed up on Sesame Street, but a modified toothless puppet would be used instead.) This entertaining short displays an ambivalent attitude towards technology, showing it as complicated, seemingly pointless, and likely to self-destruct. Not a message one would expect from IBM, but it shows that the company–despite its reputations as a pretty button-downed place–had a corporate ability to laugh at itself.
“Ambivalent attitude” indeed. According to one commenter who worked for IBM in the ‘70s, one film introduced a new division for the company called the Hippie Products Division (HPD). Kermit The Frog introduced the new division’s first product, the IBM Electric Guitar, and explained that salesmen assigned to this division would be required to grow their hair long, a departure from the company’s typical style.
His bizarre take on the technology business aside, Henson couldn’t have known that due to advances like the ones made at IBM, someday many others of us would prove to be cookie monsters too.
Cookie Monster reprises “Coffee Break Machine” on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967.