We talk to Frank Oz and the other original Muppeteers about creating characters, watching them evolve, and giving them sentience.
After a few moving documentaries about individual puppeteers, this year’s SXSW debuted a new documentary directed by Frank Oz called Muppet Guys Talking: Secrets of the Show the Whole World Watched. The film is an hour-long free form discussion with Jerry Nelson (The Count, Mr. Snuffleupagus), Dave Goelz (Gonzo, Bunsen Honeydew), Fran Brill (Zoe, Prairie Dawn), and Bill Barretta (Pepe, Tree-Face-Guy) loosely moderated by Oz. Because it features so many of the key personalities that have been only briefly touched upon in spotlight docs on Big Bird or Elmo, it’s a must-watch for any Muppet Show obsessive who wants to hear about what it’s like being buried in a room under a fire pit so they could perform a song with John Denver.
You wouldn’t know it from the way they talk, but these cohorts hadn’t seen each other for five years before they filmed the movie. We got to sit down with Frank, Fran, Dave, and Bill to talk about the creative process of making a muppet out of anything (even a candy bowl!), how teamwork and communication is important, the secrets behind the Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem live show, and ‐ finally ‐ a question they’ve never been asked before.
Dave Goelz: So, I gotta ask you before we start-
Dave: About Film School Rejects.
Dave: Who started it? How many of you are there? What is it?
[Da7e explains what Film School Rejects is in a rambling way that you don’t need to know, because you’re here] … and I grew up watching the Muppet Show reruns, so when this opportunity came up, I was like: “I want this interview.”
Dave: So are you all based in one place or -?
We’re from all around, I’m from Denver, Neil [Miller] is based here in Austin, which makes SXSW and Fantastic Fest stuff easier, we just did a live podcast about Game of Thrones down at the J.W. Marriot too.
Dave: That’s cool, did you go to film school too?
I did go to film school.
Dave: What school?
I went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for Screenwriting.
Dave: No kidding. My son just graduated from there last May! His focus was cinematography.
Nice! Yeah, I was one of the few people who didn’t get to do an internship at Sesame Street, I did my internship with (producer) Ed Pressman. Because he had just done Thank You For Smoking at the time.
[Frank Oz enters]
Bill Barretta: Did Pressman do the Ninja Turtles?
No…he did Street Fighter? And The Crow movies, and, like American Psycho, but I don’t think the Turtles are his property.
Bill: I thought he did the second one or something.
The second one did have a Pressman, but not Ed Pressman.
Frank Oz: So this is ‐ what? ‐ industry talk?
Bill: Maybe we were discussing you. Just give us a minute, Frank.
[Everyone laughs. Frank sits down]
We can actually get straight into puppeteering talk if we’re ready.
You talk about creating characters in the film in different ways. Frank talks about the button in Fozzie’s head that makes the ear wiggle becoming like a crutch eventually, but then you have a character like Kermit where his expressions are about the shape of the actual hand of the puppeteers. So what do you look for in a puppet that you feel makes it easier to create a character? What draws you to a new Muppet.
Bill: Well ‐ hmm.
Dave: Character comes from the body and vice-versa, so if you pick up a puppet that exists, it might suggest a character to me and I might do it one way. It might suggest a different character to Bill. Frank would just refuse to do it at all because he’s “too good.” You know.
Bill: I like the idea of finding something that looks like no one would want to touch, or hasn’t been played with for a long time, and see what I can do with it.
So are you all the type of people that find faces in knotty tree trunks? While you’re walking around?
[Fran Brill laughs]
Bill: I actually do see faces in things.
Fran Brill: Yeah.
You know what, this can is looking especially sad today —
[Rotates soda can so it is “frowning”]
Frank: I’ve seen some faces, but not really.
Bill: Sometimes it’s just a fur ball with no [inherent] expression and you just pick it up and see what you can do with that. The harder, the more fun it is, then if you get these people laughing with it, you think, “well, maybe I’m on to something.”
Sure! So —
[Dave grabs a candy bowl and shoves it over to Bill]
Dave: Can you make a character out of that?
[Bill dumps all the candy out on the table, raises the bowl to his face, immediately]
Bill (in light voice): Uh, excuse me.
Frank Oz: You’re tree-face guy from now on.
[Dave picks up two candies and balances them on his knuckles like eyes to make a puppet]
Dave (in a voice that sounds like Beauregard): “Someone tipped over this bowl.”
Frank Oz: You guys are so clever. So Clever.
Dave: I’m available for birthday parties.
In the film, Fran, you were talking about how important improv is to developing a character, but has there ever been a situation where some solo mirror time was needed before the improv? Or work with yourself?
Fran: For me there was, this particular character Zoe came out of nowhere, which had never happened before. Usually it was a puppet that already existed and you’d do something with it, but there was nothing to base her on at all. I was just told “come up with a 3-year old character who could be a buddy of Elmo’s. Period. And of course they wanted her to be a good female model, meaning spunky and, you know, not a little shy ‐ not that Prairie was shy ‐ but sure of herself and spunky and that sort of stuff. So, I just had this outline. I ended up going to pre-schools and was watching children, just to feed me, I’d never really studied a three-year old, really, and what they did. I had a friend whose kid would say “don’t joke me” and I just ripped that off, so I had her going [Zoe voice] “Don’t joke me!” until everybody on the set was like “that’s it, alright, enough of ‘don’t joke me.’” So that was probably more difficult. What’s easier, or what is for me is just to look at a drawing and pick up the puppet itself. And, I dunno, I think we all [the muppeteers] have the ability to do that, to see something inanimate and just put it on ‐ then something comes out of you. It’s just the creative process and you don’t really puzzle about it too long.
Is over-thinking it your enemy in that case?
Fran: Maybe? But I think it’s more the tools we have, which is why we’re pretty good at what we do, just a quality or a skill you have of picking up a cup, or a glass, or a bowl and making a character out of it.
Dave: Not a lot of people do this candy eye thing. [references his hand]
Bill: We do several things at once when we’re performing. We’re watching a monitor, we’re helping compose the shot ‐ obviously the director is actually composing the shot ‐ but we’re helping the composition based on where our characters are, their size and scale, and then we’re also…I thought that memorizing lines was an important part of being an actor.
Bill: But, we put our lines ‐ because we’re doing so many other things at the same time ‐ we’ll tape our lines up on the monitor. So we’re bouncing around to three or four different things, as well as reacting in the moment off of each other, working with other people who are under there assisting us, trying to do all these things, and I think-
Fran: And not letting your head in the shot.
Bill: Yeah. Keeping your head out of the shot.
Dave: It’s multi-tasking. Like somewhere between eight and 23 different things at once. And I think that’s actually part of that process of finding your character too, because they…you figure out how they live in that space. Like I could stand in front of a mirror and talk with a puppet, but it’s not the same for me as if I just see that character isolated by himself on screen or talking to another character.
That sounds like a trial by fire you can’t train people for.
Dave: That’s a good point. You mention working the mirror, or that it’s mirrored, which is something we might teach at an early phase, but the whole thing is so unnatural, so unnatural.
Right, like trying to do this while I talk (makes hand mimic mouth movements).
Dave: And that’s only the beginning of it! You’re working with your hand up in the air, on a set with two or three cameras, or maybe just one. There’s lights, obstacles all over the place, and the whole thing is just completely unnatural. We don’t even rehearse much, we just got to the studio and we block and tape. We figure out what the shots are going to be, director may come up with a plan and we refine it, and then we eventually rehearse it a few times and then we start shooting. If we met in a room the day before and tried to start rehearsing just that scene, it would be so hard to actually do.
And would it come off stiff?
Dave: I mean, no, there’s just so many elements to be dealt with when we’re shooting that if you idealize some rendition of a scene, then went in the next day to shoot it, you’d have to make a bunch of changes anyway, you know ‐ the door hinges this way and not that way, that would change the blocking, so we might as well just go in and block and shoot.
Bill: Sometimes we block with just our hands, without the character, because it’s somewhere being prepped.
Fran: And also the monitor is flipped, and that’s another skill you have to learn, so your hand is going this way, but it looks like it’s that way.
Frank in the movie says that no one wants to be in the full-body suits. I was briefly Bugs Bunny at a Six Flags, so I have an idea of that, Frank.
[Fran laughs, Frank smiles]
But then later in the movie, you’re describing shooting the Muppet Show John Denver episode where you had to be buried under a campfire all day and had to pee in cups, which sounds so uncomfortable…so…what’s so bad about the suits?
Frank: You know the worst thing about a suit, for me? When Master Jim told me to do it?
Bill: What suits were you in?
[Frank cocks an eyebrow]
Bill: Well, he may not know.
Frank: The worst thing is communication, because you’re in this thing and nobody hears you. They’re like, having lunch or something and you’re like: “What about me, guys? Guys?!” There’s no communication. If we’re in a a pit, we can at least talk to each other, we know we’re alive. It was the lack of communication that drove me insane.
When the Muppet Show was just starting, were the celebrity guests immediately tuned in to what you guys were doing? Or was there an initial resistance to it?
Frank: No resistance.
Everyone was ready to be silly?
Fran (quietly): There was one person.
[Frank looks over at Fran and they start whispering to each other as Dave picks up the question]
Dave: The puppets are really compelling. First of all, they’re big enough that they look the same general size as a person, and they command your attention. They’re so brightly colored, you can’t look at anything else. Their eyes are slightly cross-eyed so the pupils converge about four or five feet away, like where the camera is. So if a character is right here, right, his pupils will be converging on one spot, between your eyes. It’s just compelling.
It instantly becomes interacting with the character.
Dave: Yes, the actors come in and rarely had any trouble.
[Dave and Fran and Frank exchange looks]
Bill: I can’t think of anybody that has ‐ did not have a good time. They wanted to engage in them and forget us for sure.
Dave: There was one.
Sure. Given the period of time in entertainment you were active, I’m sure there was at least one, but we don’t need to —
Bill: Mostly they want to engage and play. Like on the Muppet show, you had Peter Sellers, who wasn’t a muppet fan, but he came on and did it. To have someone like Peter Sellers who hadn’t really experienced the muppet “thing,” came on as a guest to play.
Frank: Well, with Peter it was okay, because Peter couldn’t be himself. Peter could only be characters, so for him it was a perfect situation. And remember, The Muppet Show, another reason the people all do it is they’re the only human being in the entire show.
Frank: And they have the spotlight.
Dave: And it’s a trip to London!
And maybe Piggy busts in on your dressing room because you took hers! In terms developing modern American puppeteering…what’s something that you guys developed that you think it’s important to pass on to the new puppeteering generation? Just all of it?
Bill: Listening. I think that’s really important.
Bill: It’s important to listen to your collaborator and respond, but in terms of technically? I dunno, I think it’s just a matter of doing it and doing it and doing it, either in front of a camera or at home.
Frank: You can spend years and years and years developing a craft, and THEN you can play.
Where do you guys see the future of the Muppets? I always thought the internet shorts were good and that’s where the characters need to go.
Dave: We kind of pursue all things at once. Film, television, internet, life.
Frank: We got MuppetGuysTalking.com, we’re going to have stories there for people who had never heard the stories, so MuppetGuysTalking.com is one way we’re moving on the internet, but for this thing. For the other ‐ I’m not really involved in the Muppets anymore ‐ but for this thing.
For me, growing up with the Muppet Show re-reruns and the first films, I feel like the Muppets are the embodiment of the same joy we get from cat videos and memes, so I’d just love to see that translated.
Dave: We’re lucky that Disney is supportive of us pushing forward in all media. This summer, we performed like at the Outsidelands Festival, and we were really uncertain if we can pull that off, because they wanted us to do a half hour and, you know, we can’t hold our arms up like that for half an hour. How do you design a show that facilitates that? We didn’t know a) if we could do it or b) if people would like it. We got there and there was 60,000 people that went nuts. We did get through it fine, because our workshop built these waistband harnesses that held our arms up.
Nice! Like an arm Steadicam.
Dave: Afterward, Rolling Stone listed the top five acts [of the festival] and we were in that group, and what was the other one? Variety had the top ten and we were number 1.
Bill: That is crazy.
Dave: And we didn’t even know if we could do that.
Bill: Right, because it’s 60,000 people listening to basically recorded music, the band isn’t actually playing anything.
Dave: But it was done really well! And the vocals.
I know Dr. Teeth is hard to operate, did you modify the puppet to make it easier to operate live?
Bill: Well we had the arm rig, and some video pieces between every two songs, so it gave us about a minute break in between. But it was pretty amazing, it was so well received.
Dave: And Disney put huge resources behind that, I have to give them credit, they did an extraordinary job. And afterwards we thought, gee, 25 minutes was easy, we could do an hour this way if it was designed right!
Fran: It was great.
In the development of the whole Muppet process, it seems like from The Muppet Show to Dinosaurs, Jim was honing in on messaging. Muppet Show is variety and goofy, and you can go all the way down to Fraggle Rock which has some more thematic messaging. Is that a result of writing rooms or all of you guys maturing as you made characters?
Frank: Number one has to be the writing.
Fran: You have different writers for all these projects.
Right, so the Sesame Street writers have to make an educational curriculum entertaining.
…and Dinosaurs gets to be crazy.
Dave: Yeah, Jim and Jerry Juhl (head writer, The Muppet Show and many other Muppet projects) weren’t big on talking about the creative formula or talking about what they wanted to do, they just wanted to be having fun and doing something that was worthwhile. But underneath the Muppet show, some of the agenda is about the celebration of diversity, all these crazy characters who have come together, supporting each other like a family. And there were all these things that were evidenced in the way they behaved around each other that we never talked about at all, but it was obviously part of the agenda.
Do you guys feel like your character grows or you grow?
Both at the same time?
Dave: Sometimes the character grows with us, sometimes it stays static. A good example is Animal who is played by Frank stays absolutely static, knows five words, et cetera. In Gonzo’s case, he grew. I think it was because of my friendship with Jerry Juhl, he would see me changing as I grew and he would accommodate that into Gonzo. We never talked about it, it’s just one minute Gonzo is blowing himself out of a canon, the next minute he’s Charles Dickens!
Dave: It gave us three levels of that character that we could, after that, draw upon. You can use the pathetic loser, you can use the energetic crazy man, and you can use the soulful guy. And those are all aspects of his personality, but they weren’t all there in the beginning.
And it seems very specific, because you couldn’t have, say, Animal grow into the Gonzo spot over the years.
Bill: What would happen if Animal grew?
Frank: He wouldn’t be Animal. If he says too much, he’s not Animal.
Bill: That’s my problem with Pepe [the King Prawn] is they started to give him too much dialogue.
Frank: You can’t.
Bill: I’d pull them aside and say “You guys are giving him too much to say.” Part of what’s fun about him is the simplicity of him.
He’s always got the loose Jell-O again.
Bill: Yeah! And if they like him, they say, this character, let’s put that in more, but how do you put it in more, that’s…
The trick. Is there a time when that happens when it has just been easier to create a new character than warp an existing one?
Bill: I think there are times where you just have to say “that’s not the character”
“This is not a Piggy story”
Bill: Yeah, we try and maintain the integrity of the characters as much as we can.
If you were to gift a Muppet with self-actualization, which one of your characters would you gift to know about being a Muppet, about being co-dependent with you?
Dave: A gift? How do you mean that?
Like, if Pepe got sentience and knew the story that you [to Bill] created him…
[Everyone bursts out laughing]
…would you give that to Pepe, or do you give that to another one of your characters? Is there a character that is especially suited to the existential dread that he’s a muppet?
Fran: Oh my God!
Dave: I like you, you’re sick enough to stay around.
Bill: I don’t know.
Dave: Like if a character could find out what he was…
Fran: …who would you…
Frank: …I’m trying to go through my characters here.
Bill: I have something for that, and it may not answer your question, but Bobo (the bear) in my mind, he’s just so glad that he is out of the zoo. Like if somebody were to catch on that he’s pretending to be a guard, you know, that’d ruin his day. He’s like, “Thank god, nobody told them and I’m allowed out, let’s keep it that way.”
He wouldn’t want to throw away his wardrobe, that’d be a shame.
Bill: Yeah. But I don’t know about identifying as a muppet.
Frank: The only character who I can think of that could actually handle any kind of existential exploration would be Bert.
Fran: Oh man! [Fran belly laughs]
He’d just be like [knits eyebrows] “Of course.”
Frank: He’d be looking into it, thinking about it.
Thank you guys so much. Just in general.
Fran: You did great.
I’m taking Dave’s eye candy as a souvenir.
Frank: I don’t think anyone has ever asked that before.
No one asked about sentience?
Frank: I think that’s a completely original question.
Dave: We’ll have to let you know if we come up with better answers.
Please do! I think I’d just pick Scooter, because, you know, he’d be like: “Well, okay, but I still have responsibilities.”
[Everyone laughs, Da7e’s inner child dies of happiness]
Related Topics: SXSW