Igor, in pop-culture, is the hunchbacked assistant to Dr. Frankenstein (or other mad scientists). The character does not appear in the original 1818 Mary Shelley novel. There isn't even an Igor in the original 1931 Frankenstein movie. Rather, the concept arose through later conflations of multiple figures in Universal horror movies, fan magazine articles, and parodies and pastiches of those movies. By now, the name has become as synonymous with any creepy henchman in a Gothic horror as the name Jeeves has with butlers.
Inevitably, a handful of Igors, or clear Igor parallels, have cropped up in the Muppet universe over the years, both in and out of Frankenstein parodies. The CTW series The Electric Company also had its own Igor (played by Luis Avalos) in regular segments with the Mad Scientist (Morgan Freeman).
- The design of Mulch is an amalgam of the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Frankenstein monster. In The Muppets Go to the Movies, Mulch takes on the role of the Frankenstein monster, while on Muppets Tonight, he assumes aspects of the hunchbacked assistant "Igor."
- Many Sesame Street animated inserts over the years have involved Igor figures. The most notable involves Igor listening in as the doctor announces different body parts, at the end revealing that he has made another Igor to keep him company. (First: Episode 1637)
- An Igor appeared in the fourth season Dinosaurs episode "Monster Under the Bed." Appearing in the standard late-night horror movie (as part of "50-Foot Vegetable Theater,"), he possesses a Peter Lorre voice, and may or may not be hunchbacked (as portrayed by a stegosaurus Unisaur, it's hard to tell). He assists stereotypical mad scientist Dr. Fiend in creating giant produce.
- In September 2010, The Muppets Kitchen with Cat Cora premiered on the Internet, with the episode Movie Night spoofing Frankenstein as Frankfurterstein, "coming to a kitchen near you." With Dr. Bunsen Honeydew as the scientist who creates a frankfurter gone bad, Beaker inevitably ends up in the Igor role.
Origins of Igor
The earliest basis for Igor lies in characterizations by Dwight Frye in two 1931 Universal movies. The most obvious is Frankenstein, in which Frye played Dr. Frankenstein's assistant Fritz. As played by Frye, with hardly any dialogue beyond vocal grunts and giggles, Fritz is a wide-eyed, dwarfish, figure, usually in tattered clothing. His hunched back is largely a result of Frye crouching, and weighted down, to appear shorter and more diminutive. Fritz takes voyeuristic pleasure in watching funerals and hangings, as he seeks out a brain for his employer (but, inevitably, steals a criminal brain instead of the intended normal brain). Once Frankenstein’s monster has arisen, Fritz shows a sadistic streak, taunting and tormenting the monster with fire (and bringing about his own demise).
Frye’s performance as Fritz capitalized on his portrayal earlier that year in Dracula as Renfield, the crazed thrall of the Count, who eats insects and tries to do the bidding of his “Master.” Elements of Frye’s hammy Renfield performance, especially the use of “Master,” also became typical of the pop-culture Igor (although the voice was often patterned on Peter Lorre, who despite an association with horror movies, was never in a Frankenstein film). The Renfield connection may also explain the occasions in spoofs when Igor is somehow allied with Dracula or vampires (including the Count Duckula cartoon).
The next major step in Igor’s development came in 1939, in the sequel Son of Frankenstein. Here, Bela Lugosi plays “Ygor,” who is not a hunchback. Rather, he’s a duplicitous graverobber with a deformed, broken neck (the result of a failed hanging) who the latest Dr. (Wolf) Frankenstein enlists to revive the Monster (only for the Monster to see Ygor as his only friend). Ygor returns in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1941), and by film’s end, Ygor’s brain has been transferred to the monster. In Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), dialogue by the Monster, reaffirming his mental status as Ygor, was deleted. Later Universal “monster rally” movies would include hunchbacked assistants (advertised in Universal’s posters as “Hunchback!” right above “Mad Doctor!”), such as House of Frankenstein (1944), but with different names.
After the Universal series ended, the character type would resurface, now officially christened "Igor" in print, through two major pop culture phenomena: the touring horror vaudeville revues known as “spook shows” and the rise of horror fandom. Although the spook shows predated the Universal movies, by the 1950s they were reshaped by the movies, and Dr. Silkini’s Asylum of Horrors in particular, which purportedly licensed the Frankenstein monster image from Universal, had “Igor the Wild Man” as a supporting character, usually grappling with the monster. In 1958, publisher Forrest J. Ackerman’s influential magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland debuted, and as early as the second issue Ackerman wrote a “Special Message from Igor” editorial (and Igor would surface throughout the run). In New York City, Shock Theater host John Zacherle would refer to an off-camera assistant Igor and, in 1958, recorded a novelty record “Igor”/”My Dinner with Drac.” The initial release was banned by radio stations in several markets (and re-issued without the "Igor" side and with slightly tamer lyrics), but Billboard noted this as the start of a “weird wax trend” as the combination of late-night horror shows, magazines, and new B monster movies gave rise to the monster craze of the 1960s (through records, toys, comics, sitcom spoofs, and more).
Igor continued in records, through “Igor’s Party” (B side "Igor’s Lament") by “Tony and the Monstrosities” from 1960 (telling of the “funny little man” who lives with Frankenstein, but is still a grave robber, “going out tonight to dig a rock and roll band.”) The most famous monster record, Bobby Pickett’s "Monster Mash" (1962), included a passing reference to Igor. Even Archie Comics launched Tales Calculated to Drive You Bats in 1961, hosted by the bald Igor, who told comedic monster tales while occasionally recalling his own career as a mad scientist’s assistant, and doing some freelance monster making of his own. By the end of the decade, Igor had been solidified as a clichéd mad doctor’s helper, continuing into the 1970s in the 1971 Canadian kids TV series Hilarious House of Frightenstein (co-starring Vincent Price) and Marty Feldman’s portrayal (insisting on the pronunciation “Eye-gor”) in Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein (1973). Outside of direct Frankenstein spoofs and derivatives, one of the more notable modern examples occurs in author Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (with an clan of lisping, “Master”-uttering Igors).
- St. Petersburg Times. "Curtains." September 5, 1952.
- Billboard. "Cameo's 'Dinner with Drac' Starts Weird Wax Trend." Feb. 24, 1958