I'm a puppet maker with a degree in theatre. A former lighting techie, stage manager and producer. And I like to think that with puppetry, the only limit is your imagination. More...
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Absolutely nothing. This is like asking "what’s the difference between a poodle and a dog?" Think about it - a poodle is a dog, but not all dogs are poodles. So a muppet is simple to figure out: it’s a type of puppet (usually placed under the category of ‘mouth puppets’). Not all puppets are muppets though, and not all mouth puppets are muppets. And because there’s some confusion, I’ve now added a section on the difference between marionettes and muppets.
|A simplified family tree. As noted in the image, this is not a complete tree, and many types of puppets can overlap categories. Also note that the muppet-type puppet is just one of many forms of puppetry.|
But there is something tricky about the term ‘muppet’. Technically, the only people who can use that name is The Muppets Studio (a part of the Walt Disney Company) as it’s a registered trademark. If we’re talking about any muppet made by the Studio, we’re talking about it in the official capacity: in this case, a muppet is a certain type of puppet made only by the Studio, and is different to all other puppets for that reason.
Interestingly, there is some controversy over the reason behind the name ‘muppet’. Most people believe it’s because Henson combined ‘marionette’ with ‘puppet’ to come up with ‘muppet’. However, Muppet Wikia and the Straight Dope, suggest otherwise. They state that Henson just liked the sound of the word ‘muppet’.1
But here on this site, and elsewhere, you’ll find people talking about muppet-type puppets or muppet-style puppets… even rod arm puppets or glove arm puppets (the first uses rods for operating the hands, the second uses gloves and human hands in place of the puppet’s hands). What’s the difference? Nothing. It’s the same methodology of puppet building, similar character styles, similar materials. It’s just we prefer not to get sued for infringement of copyright, so we use a different term when referring to our muppet puppets. In this case, any muppet not made by the Muppets Studio is a muppet-type puppet, and we’re talking about them in an unofficial capacity; a muppet-type puppet is a certain type of puppet made by anyone, and is simply a term used to refer to a particular building method or design of a mouth puppet.
Does that make sense? Again, the simplest way to remember it is with the dog analogy. A muppet or a muppet-type puppet is a type of puppet, just as a poodle is a type of dog.
Additionally, there is no such thing as a ‘muppet finger’ puppet or a ‘muppet shadow’ puppet, etc. It’s most likely that those who are using those terms are confusing the word ‘muppet’ with the word ‘puppet’, because they don’t know much about puppets and have only been exposed to Henson’s work. See the complete list of puppet types for more info.
… After thinking about it, I thought I would also add a few words about Henson’s Creatures. Jim Henson and his company often made - and still do - ‘creatures’. These are separate designs from muppets, and are animatronic puppets. Most familiar to people are Henson’s Creatures presented in films like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. So it should also be clear to members of the public that not all Henson puppets are muppets either; in fact, these days the Henson company also does digital animation too!
I discussed briefly above about Henson and the origin of the word ‘muppet’, but a commenter brought up a good point that I hadn’t previously covered - and here I rectify that. As Henson contradicted himself in the reason behind the word, and it’s not clear which version is the correct one, it’s probably better to not treat it as gospel and just assume the reason is unknown. (Before we get to far into this, maybe find out what the difference is between a marionette and a puppet [link to be added])
More importantly, most puppeteers would not consider muppets to be marionettes. It’s a little more complicated than this but for the purposes of keeping this short: a marionette is usually a puppet with strings. A Muppet or muppet-type puppet does not use strings (except in rare cases for keeping arms from dangling or for a cable-control system. Even in these cases, what defines a marionette is probably usually the method of operation - the strings - whereas for muppet-type puppets strings are not the method of operation). As such, yes, we can and do differentiate muppets from marionettes. They’re *not* the same thing, particularly when talking about building methodology.
And for the benefit of good and easy communication, communities who take part in the same activity often have their own definitions. For instance, in the theatrical world, we call a false wall on a set a ‘flat’. This term is understood to all theatre people, but it won’t make any sense to a lay person. However, in a theatrical environment having specialised terminology aids easy and clear communication. The same goes for puppeteers, and as a community, we seem to have defined ‘muppet’ to be of a different style and build as a ‘marionette’. In this case, it doesn’t matter so much about the origin of the word, but the way in which people use it once it’s invented. Kind of like how ‘google’ is now a verb - even though it was never intended as such. Puppets can cross-categorise. All of the above is entirely dependent on how ‘muppet-y’ a muppet is and how ‘marionette-y’ a marionette is. However, this is why it’s important to use the same definition as everyone else: if everything cross-categorises, then we have no way to easily and clearly discuss how something is built or used. While puppetry itself is more flexible than its definitions, our ability to communicate isn’t and it’s why we like strong definitions and categories. We are hard wired to pigeon hole things purely because it makes it easier for our brains to filter information this way: but we all know that life has its grey areas.
1Originally I had written: "Henson invented the term to refer to his foam puppets, combining the word "marionette" with the word "puppet"." This has been corrected on 16 Nov 2010.
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Australians may want to buy locally. Where? I explain here.