The name J. Fred Muggs will forever be linked with NBCs long-running Today show which almost didn’t get past its first year due to low ratings.
At the time the Today show was a mix of serious current affairs and weather reports, with comedy sketches, toy demonstrations, and presenters reading children’s books. That seems odd today, but in those days a lot of broadcasting was aimed at children.
Because of the low ratings, in 1953, a chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs joined host Dave Garroway, and not only boosted ratings but earned NBC an estimated $100 million in the process.
Muggs (born March 14, 1952) was born in the African colony of French Cameroon that forms part of modern day Cameroon.
Muggs first became popular in a pet store in New York where a name that chimp contest led to his being named Mr. Muggs, to which the Today Show later added "J. Fred".
Carmine "Bud" Mennella and Leroy "Roy" Waldron, former NBC pages, bought him for $600 when he was 10 months old, and Mennella trained him.
Muggs appeared on the Perry Como Show and Pat Weaver of the Today Show saw potential in him. Mennella had an appointment with NBC executives for Muggs to audition for the Today Show, but missed it; however, Muggs' antics in a coffee shop led the president of the network to offer him a contract anyway.
He first appeared on the show on February 3, 1953, dressed in diapers like a baby. After getting hired for the Today show, Muggs served as mascot from 1953 to 1957.
The chimp's hiring wasn’t without controversy...Jim Fleming, the show’s newsreader, quit and was replaced by Frank Blair. However, the addition of Muggs boosted ratings and helped win advertisers.
Muggs sat in Garroway's lap, mastered more than 500 words, and had a wardrobe of 450 outfits. He read the day's newspapers, imitated Popeye and played the piano with Steve Allen. Merchandise featuring him included books, comics, and games.
As a side hustle, Muggs showed up to open supermarkets and commission US Navy ships.
At one time Muggs went on a world tour to promote Today. In Japan, where his popularity was second only to that of Marilyn Monroe, 15 geishas waited on him.
In Russia Izvestia described him as a symbol of the American way of life and said he was necessary in order that the average American should not look into reports on rising taxes, and decreasing pay, but rather laugh at the funny mug of a chimpanzee.
Legend has it that the show’s host Dave Garroway was jealous of being upstaged by a chimp and began spiking Muggs' orange juice with benzedrine to make him misbehave. It was also rumored that Muggs didn’t have a good disposition anyway. One person described him as "a nasty little monkey" that threw "legendary tantrums".
He is said to have learned that if he misbehaved when the red light was on, indicating that the program was broadcasting live, he could not be disciplined.
Some of his antics included at the press conference announcing his addition to the show, he pulled Garroway's glasses off. Even though he was restrained in a harness and leash, he sometimes escaped: during one remote broadcast he climbed a tree and had to be lured down with bananas, and in Beirut an associate producer had to chase him in her underwear down a hotel hallway.
During a 1955 episode of the game show Make the Connection, Muggs appeared with a woman who served as his babysitter and the panel was supposed to guess her relationship to Muggs who misbehaved by running all over the set, The show’s host, Gene Rayburn, put an end to the segment and awarded the contestant the show's maximum $150 payoff.
In 1957, Muggs was accused of biting comic actress and singer Martha Raye and got fired. He was replaced by another chimp called Kokomo Jr. NBC's press release stated that Muggs left "to extend his personal horizons.”
At on e point Garroway claimed Muggs had bitten him on the face on live TV. The result was Muggs's handlers sued Garroway in the chimp's name for allegedly ruining the Muggs's career by making the claim.
After leaving the Today show he briefly starred in The J. Fred Muggs Show, then worked at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida, and appeared on Good Morning America (on the ABC) to celebrate his 23rd birthday, before retiring at the age of 23.
As of March 2018, Muggs was still alive. Chimpanzees have been known to live up to 70 years, though 50 is more commonly the animal's lifespan.