I’m working my way through all the episodes of “The Muppet Show” on Disney+ and I noticed that when a Muppet picks up a musical instrument, they almost always play left-handed. Kermit plucks banjo strings with his left flipper in “The Muppet Movie.” In The Electric Mayhem, Janice and Floyd hold their guitars like lefties, although Floyd’s sax grip looks like a rightie. (It’s tough to tell with drums and impossible with keyboards.) Scooter plays guitar to the left. Marvin Suggs plays the Muppahone with the mallet in his left hand. Even The County Trio – Muppets that look like, and are puppeted by, Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and Jerry Nelson – all play like southpaws.
The simple reason for all these lefty Muppets is that most Muppeteers (like most people) are right-handed. The face is the most important part of bringing characters to life, so you use your dominant hand to make the mouth move, head tilt, and neck swivel. That leaves the left hand to hold the rod that’s on the left side of the Muppet body. The right hand usually doesn’t move at all, either static on the instrument or just hanging.
When a Muppet has two “live” hands, it can go two ways. In the cases of Bert and Ernie, the main puppeteer is running the head and the left hand with a secondary puppeteer running the right hand. One story goes that Richard Hunt, who eventually played Beaker and Scooter and Janice and Statler and Sweetums, got early Muppets work as the right hand of various characters on “Sesame Street.”
The other option is for one puppeteer to run just the head and have another performer handle both hands. Jim Henson played The Swedish Chef, Rowlf the Dog, and Dr. Teeth, but sometimes, the hands of each of them were played by someone else. In later years, Steve Whitmire would often mime piano for Jim, playing piano as Rowlf’s paws. Frank Oz would often play The Swedish Chef’s hands. Ever notice The Swedish Chef has human hands, not cloth gloves? Now, you’ll notice every time.