Wontkins: I never tasted it.
(Wilkins, armed with a cannon, fires at Wontkins at point-blank range, then points the cannon at the camera)
Wilkins: Now what do you think of Wilkins?
In 1957, Jim Henson created a series of commercials for Wilkins Coffee, a local brand in the Washington, D.C. area (Henson was from DC's inner-ring Maryland suburbs and was studying at the nearby University of Maryland-College Park at the time). The ads featured two early Muppet characters—a lizard-like creature named Wilkins (who vaguely resembles Kermit the Frog without his iconic collar note ) and a blob-looking creature named Wontkins. These commercials were made for local television stations, which only had ten seconds for station identification. As such, the Muppet commercials had to be lightning-fast — essentially, eight seconds for the commercial pitch and a two-second shot of the product. From 1957 to 1961, Henson made around 180 commercials for Wilkins Coffee and other Wilkins products, including Community Coffee and Wilkins Tea.
The cheerful Wilkins loved Wilkins Coffee, while the grumpy Wontkins hated it. As punishment for refusing to drink the coffee, Wilkins would often do serious harm to Wontkins in the ads — blowing him up, stabbing him with a knife, and smashing him with a club, among many other acts of Family-Unfriendly Violence.
After the Wilkins Coffee advertisement campaign, Wilkins and Wontkins were used for other brands, such as Nashs Coffee, Kraml Dairy, Taystee Bread and Faygo. The last ads featuring Wilkins & Wontkins were produced in 1969 for Community Coffee, just around the time Henson started work on Sesame Street. Though the characters have not reappeared in over 50 years (as of 2021), they remain an important part of Muppet history, as they represent Jim Henson's early success in the advertising industry, and with the advent of video-sharing sites like YouTube, and the unearthing of previously lost content from channels on the site, the Wilkins and Wontkins commercials are perhaps more popular than ever.
Advertisements for Wilkins Coffee contain examples of:
- Abusive Advertising: Dire consequences are promised for those who hate coffee or, God forbid, prefer a different coffee brand.
- Ambiguously Human: Wilkins' very simplistic design make it hard to tell what exactly he's meant to be, if he even is meant to be any one particular creature. He kind of looks human, but not quite. Amusingly, the character's amphibious appearance makes him look a lot like Kermit the Frog, to the point where Wilkins is often mistaken for an early version of Kermit.
- Amusing Injuries: A recurring theme in the commercials.
- Armless Biped: Some ads provide a brief glimpse of the underside of Wontkins' puppet, revealing him to be a sort of pudgy triangle with nothing past those nubby limbs.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: The theme of one commercial:Wilkins: Boy, I'd give a million bucks for a cup of Wilkins coffee.
(a cup of coffee appears in his lap)
Wontkins: (appearing beside him) Okay, buster, pay up!
- Bloodless Carnage: Despite his countless mishaps, Wontkins never shows any actual visible injuries (barring one where he got Squashed Flat), even when stabbed and shot. The only commercial to feature blood exclusively shows the apparent aftermath of Wilkins cleaning blood off his rapier.
- Bond One-Liner: Present in many commercials:Wilkins: I just filled my whole swimming pool with Wilkins Coffee.
(Wontkins falls in)
Wontkins: Help, I'm drowning!
Wilkins: I told him he'd end up drinking Wilkins!
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: Some of the later shorts become quite meta, and feature the characters watching or discussing the commercials themselves.
- Cheaters Never Prosper: In one commercial when they are playing poker:Wontkins: I've got five aces! Can you beat that?
Wilkins: (puts a container of Wilkins Coffee on the table) I've got a can of Wilkins Coffee! (takes out a gun and shoots Wontkins at point-blank range) Nothing beats Wilkins!
- The Chew Toy: Wontkins almost never comes out ahead in these commercials.
- Comedic Sociopathy: Wontkins gets shot, stabbed and/or maimed. And it's all played for laughs!
- The Complainer Is Always Wrong: It's really closer to, the complainer must die! Wontkins has been squashed, shot, blown up, and erased from existence, just because he complains about Wilkins Coffee.
- Conveyor Belt o' Doom: Of the rotary saw blade kind in one commercial, which Wilkins places Wontkins on for not drinking Wilkins coffee in one ad.Wilkins: (as Wontkins moves toward the saw blade) He always was a cut-up.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Mr. Wilkins, the company owner.
- Dangerously Close Shave: Implied in one commercial: Wontkins asks Wilkins, who is a barber, to give him a close shave. Wilkins asks Wontkins if he drinks Wilkins Coffee, and when Wontkins says no, Wilkins replies, "This is going to be the closest shave you've ever had!"
- Disproportionate Retribution: One of the main themes of these ads. Poor Wontkins gets Squashed Flat, electrocuted, blown up, and forced to pay extra on his lunch bill just for disliking Wilkins Coffee.Wilkins: Lunch and Wilkins Coffee, seventy-five cents.Wontkins: I didn't drink the Wilkins!Wilkins: That's one dollar even! (charges Wontkins twenty-five cents more on his meal) It pays to drink Wilkins!
- The Dog Bites Back: One commercial sees Wilkins muse that he'd pay $1 million for a cup of Wilkins coffee. Cue the cup appearing in his lap, and Wontkins demanding payment.
- Doomed Supermarket Display: One commercial for Wilkins Tea has Wilkins as a vendor at a supermarket next to a pyramid with Wilkins Tea on top and the other leading brand on the bottom. Wontkins pulls out a can of the other leading tea, and the pyramid collapses on top of him.Wilkins: Another man who thinks for himself!
- Elevator Floor Announcement:Wilkins: Tenth floor: Pots, pans, home furnishings, and Wilkins Coffee!Wontkins: Wilkins Coffee?Wilkins: Sure, you can't keep house without Wilkins.
- Fake Brit: In-Universe; when Wilkins Tea is the advertised product, Wilkins usually becomes a British stereotype, complete with a tall hat and monocle.
- Family-Unfriendly Violence: Wilkins subjects Wontkins to this for not drinking the coffee.
- Fat and Skinny: Wontkins and Wilkins, respectively.
- Fortune Teller: In one commercial, Wilkins dresses as a swami named Snikliw:Wilkins: (to Wontkins, looking into a Crystal Ball) I see you don't drink Wilkins Coffee.
Wontkins: What about my future?
Wilkins: I hate to tell you, but... (discreetly vanishes Wontkins with an explosion) you don't have a future!
- The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You:Wilkins: (pointing cannon at Wontkins) OK buddy, what do you think of Wilkins Coffee?Wontkins: I never tasted it.Wilkins: (fires cannon at Wontkins then aims the cannon towards the audience) Now what do you think of Wilkins?
Wilkins: With this camera, I shoot pictures of people who don't drink Wilkins Coffee.Wontkins: I'm ready. Shoot!(Wilkins shoots Wontkins with the gun hidden in the camera)Wilkins: (swiveling the camera towards the viewer) Anybody else?
- Another one fitting this features Wilkins with a "camera":
- Game Show Appearance: The setting of one commercial:Wontkins: (to Wilkins) You win a new car or a case of Wilkins Instant Coffee.
Wilkins: I'll take the Wilkins Coffee!
Wontkins: (to the audience) We'll never get rid of that car.
- Giant Foot of Stomping: Well, normal-sized foot, courtesy of Mr. Wilkins, but still a stomping one, as seen in one commercial.Wilkins: Want a cup of Wilkins Coffee?
Wontkins: What will Mr. Wilkins do if I don't?
(Mr. Wilkins' foot comes down and stomps on Wontkins)
Wilkins: Oh, he'll probably put his foot down.
- Girl in the Tower: One commercial had Wontkins, dressed in a wig, playing a damsel in a tower.Wontkins: Help, I've been imprisoned!Wilkins: Why, fair damsel?Wontkins: I don't drink Wilkins Instant Coffee!Wilkins: Well, that's the way the old ball bounces.
- Gory Discretion Shot: One commercial has Wilkins and Wontkins fencing. As usual, Wontkins refuses a cup of Wilkins coffee. The next shot shows Wilkins wiping blood off his blade.Wilkins: Some learn and some don't.
Wilkins: Now he's not gonna drink any more coffee.
- In one commercial, Wontkins comes up to Wilkins (who is brandishing a cannon) and says he won't drink any more Wilkins while holding a picket saying "TV Anti-Violence League". A curtain comes down saying "ONE MOMENT PLEASE" and a cannon blast is heard. When the curtain comes back up, Wontkins is offscreen and Wilkins says this:
- Gleeful and Grumpy Pairing: Played with; the Gleeful character, Wilkins, is also a trigger-happy guy who's obsessed with the nominal product and will hurt anyone who says otherwise. On the other hand, the Grumpy one, Wontkins, can't stand the product, but he's mostly all bark and no bite.
- Glorious Mother Russia: The setting of one commercial:Wilkins: (to Wontkins) Give me some party line coffee.
Wontkins: How about some Wilkins, comrade?
Wilkins: That's capitalist coffee, you traitor! (whispering) Send two pounds through the back door.
- Grievous Bottley Harm:Wilkins: You want a can of Wilkins Coffee?Wontkins: No, give me a bottle of ginger ale.Wilkins: Okay! (WHAM) But he would have liked the Wilkins.
- Happiness Is Mandatory: Heavily implied in one commercial, where Wilkins is giving a speech while running for office.Wilkins: Elect me, and we'll all drink Wilkins coffee! (The crowd cheers and applauds)Wontkins: I don't like Wilkins!Wilkins: Elect me, and you'll learn to like Wilkins! (The crowd cheers and applauds again, while Wontkins slumps in his seat.)
- High-Voltage Death: Implied in one commercial, in which Wilkins has gotten Wontkins strapped to an electric chair and about to be executed:Wilkins: Any last requests, like for a cup of Wilkins coffee?
Wilkins: You don't drink Wilkins?
Wilkins: (flipping the switch to activate the electrocution) How shocking.
- Insult Backfire:Wilkins: This is Wilkins Coffee, the finest-Wontkins: Ah, go soak your head!Wilkins: In Wilkins Coffee? A pleasure. (literally soaks his head in a giant coffee cup)
- Jerkass: Wilkins just loves his namesake's coffee — and woe to Wontkins who doesn't.
- Lampshade Hanging: Wilkins occasionally pokes fun at Wontkins' inability to realize how their interactions usually end.Wilkins: Some people just never learn!
- Meaningful Name: The creature who loves Wilkins coffee is named Wilkins, while the red creature who hates Wilkins coffee and whom the other creature keeps torturing is named Wontkins.
- Money, Dear Boy: In-Universe, Wontkins immediately begins begging for people to buy Wilkins coffee in one commercial after being informed he and Wilkins won't be paid otherwise.
- Morton's Fork: On a few occasions, Wontkins claims to enjoy Wilkins Coffee, solely to avoid being punished. Wilkins sees through the deception and punishes him anyway—or punishes him for not liking Wilkins Coffee enough.(Wontkins appears next to Wilkins, who is brandishing a large club.)
Wontkins: (in a stilted, scripted manner) Wilkins makes good coffee.
(Wilkins smacks Wontkins with the club.)
Wontkins: Better coffee?
(Wilkins hits Wontkins again with the club.)
Wontkins: Wilkins makes the BEST coffee!!
Wilkins: (nodding in approval) Congratulations.
- Never Say "Die": Although it is very obvious in a lot of Wilkins commercials that death has occurred or has been threatened, it isn't outright said.
- Not His Sled: Even while they were on the air, the Wilkins commercials were best known for their gratuitous use of Family-Unfriendly Violence at Wontkins' expense. This makes the not insignificant number of commercials where Wontkins isn't punished in some form (or in some cases, doesn't appear at all) a bit of a shock.
- Oh, Crap!: Wilkins puts a lit bomb on Wontkins' windowsill and asks him if he has Wilkins. Wontkins says he doesn't, and Wilkins pushes the bomb inside. Wontkins understandably panics, while Wilkins marches off saying, "A house isn't a home without Wilkins." as the bomb detonates and destroys the house.
- Pie in the Face: Happens at least twice, once with a regular pie and once with a strawberry shortcake, which is thrown in Wontkins' face by Wilkins for refusing Wilkins coffee to go with the dessert in question.
- Pun: A regular feature of the commercials. Example:Wilkins: (to Wontkins) I have Wilkins Coffee and another kind of coffee.
Wontkins: I want the cheap stuff.
(baby birds pop out of the can labeled "CHEAP COFFEE")
Baby birds: CHEEP! CHEEP! CHEEP!
Wilkins: Sorry, but that other coffee's for the birds!
- Reaching Between the Lines: In one commercial, Wilkins is on the phone to a grocery store to ask for some Wilkins Instant Coffee — which is immediately sprayed out of the phone's mouthpiece and into his mouth.Wilkins: How instant can you get?
- Real Life Writes the Plot: Ironically, it was actually quite easy for Jim Henson to come up with the many ridiculous ways to punish Wontkins, because like Wontkins, Henson himself never liked Wilkins coffee, either — or coffee at all, for that matter. Thus, these commercials became a playful way for Henson to think of what it would take for him to drink coffee, and the answer was: a lot.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: The upbeat and manic Wilkins and the grouchy and depressive Wontkins.
- Reverse Psycho: Wilkins and Wontkins.
- Sadist Show: There is lethal harm done to one of the characters in almost every commercial.
- Schmuck Bait: Wilkins sets everything up in this way and Wontkins always seems to fall for it.
- Sdrawkcab Name: One commercial features Wilkins as "Snikliw the Swamee".
- Serious Business: One can get the impression that this is how Wilkins feels about trying to sell his namesake's coffee (see also: Take That!). In spite of all the abuse he takes, even Wontkins gets in on the deal in one commercial:Wontkins: When's Old Man Wilkins going to pay us for all this foolishness?
Wilkins: When we sell more Wilkins Coffee.
Wontkins: (to the camera) Buy Wilkins, will ya?
- Space Whale Aesop: These commercials were approaching this with obvious irony long before irony in advertising even existed.
- Squashed Flat:Wontkins: I'm gonna drink this coffee that's not Wilkins!(Wilkins runs over Wontkins with a steamroller, flattening him)Wilkins: Doesn't that coffee taste kinda flat?
- Stuff Blowing Up: Lots and lots of stuff. Even Wontkins himself.Wilkins: (manning a detonator) You know, people who don't drink Wilkins coffee just blow up sometimes.
Wontkins: Aw, that's a lot of—
(Wilkins presses down on the detonator, causing Wontkins to somehow explode)
Wilkins: See what I mean?
- Swallowed Whole: Happened to Wontkins in one episode when he and Wilkins are divers in an ocean:Wilkins: Let's go up to the surface for some Wilkins Coffee.
Wontkins: I never touch the stuff.
(A passing whale opens its mouth and catches Wontkins in it, swallowing him whole)
Wilkins: You should — it's a whale of a coffee!
- Take That!: Played with: up to now, commercials would just display the product and hope the people would buy it. Henson used these commercials to make fun of advertising itself in a mock-heavy-handed approach and essentially tell the people to buy the product being advertised — or else!
- A Taste of Defeat: A handful of commercials ended with Wilkins on the receiving end of abuse instead of, or at least alongside Wontkins. Apparently he's not the only one who's Serious Business about pitching the coffee.
- The Television Talks Back:(Wontkins is watching Wilkins on the TV)
Wontkins: These Wilkins coffee commercials—
(Wilkins leans forward)
Wilkins: You don't like them?
Wilkins: Then let me fix your set.
(Wilkins presses a button on the TV, the set explodes)
Wontkins: (Aside) You can't win.
- Tempting Fate: Poor Wontkins does this a lot when he refuses to believe anything bad will happen to him.
- They Killed Kenny Again: Wontkins is constantly being murdered.
- This Is Gonna Suck: Wontkins' default face just screams this, as he's usually, if not always, the victim of abuse courtesy of Wilkins, just for not liking coffee.
- Too Dumb to Live: As Wilkins points out in some of the commercials, no matter how many times he's been maimed, shot, set on fire etc. Wontkins just never learns to accept the coffee without complaining.
- Vocal Evolution: Wilkins and Wontkins sound markedly different in the early commercials; like most characters voiced by Jim Henson, they eventually settled into sounding similar to Kermit the Frog and Rowlf the Dog.
- What Were They Selling Again?: Funny how some commercials that feature characters threatening harm, bodily or otherwise, on someone who doesn't buy the advertised product can somehow overshadow the product itself and spawn merchandise of the characters doing the advertising.
- It's worth noting that this allowed the ads to be re-purposed for many, many products, most notably Kraml Milk. New versions of each commercial had to be made so that the puppets' voices and mouth movements matched, but the substance could remain the same.
- Wholesome Crossdresser: Wilkins and Wontkins both occasionally dress as the opposite sex in certain skits.
- William Telling: Evidently, Wilkins missed his target in the relevant ad.Wilkins: We can still use the apple again!
- With Friends Like These...: Wilkins and Wontkins are occasionally portrayed as being friends, but Wilkins is always happy to kill off Wontkins the second that he reveals his disdain for coffee. Subverted in many other commercials, where they're portrayed as being complete strangers.