One of the largest information technology companies in the world, International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) was founded in 1888 and continues producing computer technology.
In 1965, IBM commissioned a series of industrial films from Jim Henson, who worked alongside IBM's film and television head, David Lazer. The films were a mixture of motivators and sales reels (spotlighting IBM's typewriters, early word processors, and other products) and comedic break shorts, intended as icebreakers during long meetings. A notable example of the latter is "Coffee Break Machine," in which a prototyped Cookie Monster consumes an exaggerated talking computer. These shorts in effect were the first Muppet Meeting Films, which would be made available to any corporate client; some of these later entries were direct remakes of the IBM shorts.
Rowlf the Dog films
Between 1966 and 1970, Rowlf the Dog featured in several industrial films made for internal use by the company, ranging from short skits to more elaborate pieces running several minutes.
His debut film, divided into three parts with a conclusion, has Rowlf joining IBM as a salescanine, to the surprise of the Office Products Division sales head ("What do you mean we hired a dog?") Rowlf recounts his business adventures in a letter to his mother, as typed on a succession of IBM typewriters. Rowlf struggles to make a sale (his ethics causing him to actively flee a customer who admitted to looking at another typewriter in a store window) but he remains optimistic and dogged. A series of commercial spoofs to sell IBM follow, directed by Rowlf himself, spoofing the campaigns of Doublemint, Timex, and Avon. Finally, Rowlf succeeds in meeting 407 percent quota (thanks to his mom opening a secretarial school in his territory and purchasing 316 typewriters) and enjoys a trip to the 100 Percent Club gathering. The film opens with some brief behind-the-scenes footage of the taping of The Jimmy Dean Show, followed by scenes of Rowlf outside the studio theater greeting fans, smoking cigars lit with money, and riding in a limousine. The film was produced in March 1966 and was written by Jerry Juhl.
In another film, Rowlf writes to the head of his department, having devised a way to pep up their annual summer review of the company rules (which he had fallen asleep during). He envisions himself starring in an IBM revue, where he plays the joke-telling emcee, a soft-shoe duo (The Brothers Rowlf) and a singer who performs the big closing number (backed up by four of the Ideal Rowlf puppets). At the end, it is shown Rowlf is writing the letter as a way of passing the time while locked in the meeting room because he had fallen asleep.
A shorter film featured Rowlf introducing IBM's new Hippie Products Division (HPD), including a complicated IBM electric guitar (that even dispenses coffee). A 23-minute film produced in February 1969 film had Rowlf hosting a send-up of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In.
Several more films were produced starting in January 1970. One such film, titled "Country Western," paired Rowlf and Baskerville the Hound once again as they performed country music numbers about IBM products at "The Grand Old OP." This film also featured scenes of Rowlf hawking the products as an energetic TV pitchman between musical numbers. Additional films produced in this time featured Rowlf as an astrologer named Zodar, Rowlf and his mother addressing members of the company's "Golden Circle," and Rowlf dealing with a large, bumbling device known as MIKE.
A reflective film had Rowlf singing "My Way," as an early example of Rowlf playing the piano. He sings over clips from his previous shorts, including a selection from his first film dropping a typewriter down an extended staircase. As the song comes to the end, the typewriter finally returns and smashes through the piano.
In addition to the films, Rowlf made a special live appearance at an IBM Golden Circle event in May 1966 in Nasaw. Rowlf's mother joined him in a presentation to the audience, showing off a new decorative IBM typewriter that Rowlf promptly breaks.
1967 film called The Paperwork Explosion directed by Jim Henson and featured no Muppets.
Kermit's Stepping Stones to Success
The film is notably one of the earliest instances in which Kermit is acknowledged as a frog.
The Snow Job
Leo gives a motivation speech about helping his fellow employees, claiming he's not "snowing" anybody. The conference thinks otherwise and soon, he finds himself deep in a blizzard.
According to The Jim Henson Company Archives, Henson started production on four additional films for IBM in the late 1960s. These films were entitled Excluded Mean, The File Clerk, The Crowd and Unpredictable; it is unknown if any of these films were ever completed.
According to a curated entry of the Jim Henson's Red Book blog:
In 2016, IBM and Sesame Workshop announced a partnership to develop personalized educational platforms for preschoolers employing IBM's Watson computer. In September, IBM released a commercial featuring Watson on Sesame Street conversing with Elmo, Cookie Monster, Abby Cadabby, Grover, Big Bird and several kids.
In January 2018, Big Bird and Oscar (voiced by Caroll Spinney), and the numbers 9 and 5 (puppeteered by Ryan Dillon), appeared in an IBM commercial set to the Dolly Parton song "9 to 5." Their cameo was filmed on July 1, 2017.
- Jim Henson's Red Book: 5/10-12/1966 – ‘In Nassau with Jerry and Jerry to do appearance with Rowlf and his mother for IBM Golden Circle – (won $75 gambling).’
- Shown as part of "Henson in High Definition: The Early Years" at Museum of the Moving Image on May 22, 2015
- Jim Henson's Red Book: – ‘Shoot IBM, Rowlf-IN’
- Jim Henson's Red Book:1/16/1970 – ‘Shoot IBM coffee breaks.’
- Footage screened in "Jim Henson: Commercials & Experiments (Revised and Remastered in HD)" at Museum of the Moving Image, March 2022
- Tough Pigs: BAM! Nov 20-21, 2004 : NYC (archive link)
- Jim Henson's Red Book: 1/27-29/1968 – ‘Filming in San Francisco with Fritz – for “Unpredictable” for IBM-IMF.’
- "Sesame Workshop and IBM Watson Team Up to Advance Early Childhood Education," IBM News Room, April 27, 2016
- Ryan Dillon on Instagram