Henson himself appeared as a guest on many shows, including The Steve Allen Show, The Jack Paar Program and The Ed Sullivan Show (although on his appearance on the September 11, 1966, episode of the show — released to DVD on 2011 as part of a collection of episodes featuring the Rolling Stones—Sullivan mis-introduced Henson as "Jim Newsom and his Puppets").This first national television broadcast greatly increased exposure, which led to hundreds of commercial appearances by Henson characters throughout the sixties.Henson began working for WTOP-TV (now WUSA-TV) in 1954 while attending Northwestern High School, creating puppets for a Saturday morning children's show called The Junior Morning Show.

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A puppetry class offered in the applied arts department introduced him to the craft and textiles courses in the College of Home Economics, and he graduated in 1960 with a BS in home economics.

As a freshman, he had been asked to create Sam and Friends, a five-minute puppet show for WRC-TV.

The show was a financial success but, after graduating from college, he began to have doubts about going into a career performing with puppets. Despite the success of Sam and Friends, Henson spent much of the next two decades working in commercials, talk shows, and children's projects before being able to realize his dream of the Muppets as "entertainment for everybody".

He spent several months in Europe, where he was inspired by European puppet performers who looked on their work as an art form. The popularity of his work on Sam and Friends in the late 1950s led to a series of guest appearances on network talk and variety shows.

Henson began developing puppets while attending high school.

He created Sam and Friends while he was a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park, a five-minute sketch-comedy puppet show that appeared on television. Henson became famous in 1969 when he joined the children's educational television program Sesame Street where he helped to develop characters for the series.

He graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in home economics, after which he produced coffee advertisements and developed some experimental films. He also appeared on the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live.

He produced The Muppet Show in 1976, after scrapping plans for a Broadway show.

Among the most popular of Henson's commercials was a series for the local Wilkins Coffee company in Washington, D.

C., in which his Muppets were able to get away with a greater level of slapstick violence than might have been acceptable with human actors and would later find its way into many acts on The Muppet Show.

Wilkins asks, "What do you think of Wilkins Coffee? " Wilkins fires the cannon and blows Wontkins away, then turns the cannon directly toward the viewer and ends the ad with, "Now, what do you think of Wilkins?