Review by C.J. Bunce
The beginning of a new film references the scope of the success of the Muppets: In 1978 the Muppets were seen weekly by more than 235 million people in more than 102 countries, and Time Magazine called them “the most popular entertainment on Earth.” Created by Jim Henson in 1955 and starring in Sesame Street, in feature films, and in animated films, the Muppets endure to this day. Regularly returning on television and in movies, they continue to entertain and educate young and old alike. Frank Oz, the creator and actor behind Sesame Street and The Muppet Show’s Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Cookie Monster, Grover, Animal, and Sam the Eagle, Aughra and Chamberlain in The Dark Crystal, and the performer and voice of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (and director of countless other films), has produced and directed a new film with four other original Muppet performers to recount the development–and fun–of working in their timeless fantasy world.
Feeling like an informal dinner party among old friends, but even more like the first hour of a 12-part series, Muppet Guys Talking–Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched, is a wonderful, cheery glimpse at life working with Jim Henson, who Emmy-winning performer Frank Oz says “wanted to make a better world.” Originally premiering at last year’s South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, the film will be available for fans everywhere for the first time next week at MuppetGuysTalking.com. Frank Oz brings together Emmy-winner Jerry Nelson, creator and performer of Count von Count, Snuffleupagus, Lew Zealand, Statler, Floyd, and Gobo Fraggle; Emmy-winner Dave Goelz, creator and performer of The Great Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Zoot, and Fizzgig from The Dark Crystal; Emmy-winner Fran Brill, creator and performer of Prairie Dawn, Zoe, Little Bird, Betty Lou, and The Land of Gorch’s Vazh; and Bill Barretta, BTVA Award-winning creator and performer of Pepe the King Prawn, Johnny Fiama, Bobo the Bear, and Big Mean Carl. Along with providing insight into Muppet mastermind Jim Henson, the “Muppet Guys” provide some advice on creating characters that will be worthwhile to creators in many media, as well as offering a great peek into the job of performing with puppetry. The most difficult part? Yep, holding your arms over your head inside the Muppets for a very long time.
Oz and Goelz recount major difficulties in the craft, like building a hole in the ground around a bonfire with a propane tank near their heads, so they could stand and perform their characters sitting around a real campfire above, as filmed for the famous John Denver Rocky Mountain Holiday TV special and album. They also discuss Henson performing the risky opening scene of The Muppet Movie, stuffed inside a tube submerged in a backlot, underwater stage swamp with a small TV monitor and his arms above his head to perform Kermit singing and playing banjo on “The Rainbow Connection.” The discussions among these friends are fun to watch, and the viewers will feel like they are a part of the room. And viewers can’t help but listen for the performers slipping in and out of various voices–like the sound of Grover and Cookie Monster from Oz a few times when he gets animated or is laughing. The most valuable bits center around what seems to be a shared tool among the performers–Oz developed a thorough backstory for each of his characters that never makes it beyond his own mind, to assist with his performance (like method acting).
Other highlights include Dave Goelz recounting how he got into the business when he was a young aspiring puppeteer working an office job at Hewlett-Packard, Bill Barretta discussing his inspiration for the King Prawn character Pepe, Fran Brill discussing her fix for performing while not being as tall as the others, and Jerry Nelson coming up with the voice of Snuffleupagus and discussing the late performer Richie Hunt (who performed characters including Scooter, Beaker, Statler, Janice and Sweetums). Sadly documentary contributor Jerry Nelson passed away before the premiere of the documentary at South by Southwest, and the show is dedicated to him.
The film includes a discussion with all five performers chatting, interspersed with snippets of individual one-on-one interviews, plus behind-the-scenes video footage and photo stills that illustrate that there must be volumes of unseen footage sitting on reels and on shelves someplace waiting to be opened and shared. The documentary is simply begging to be expanded into a Netflix series. And these Muppet Guys–and possibly even more of their friends–likely have more they could share that fans would love to hear.
As we discussed previously at borg.com in our reviews of books on The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and Jim Henson, and a documentary on Big Bird actor Carol Spinney, by all accounts Jim Henson was the most collaborative creator and co-worker. All the contributors in the new film echo that sentiment. Oz mentions that when not performing Henson was always watching and getting pleasure out of seeing everyone else performing. Goelz says Henson created a work environment where they all truly ended up loving each other. He said of Henson, “He was so generous with everyone and so kind. And it created a culture in which his generosity was always returned, and that culture has been perpetuated.” They all noted how Henson was responsible for the gentle, sweetness of the characters and stories. “A lot of people who feel disenfranchised in life feel accepted in that Muppet world,” added Jerry Nelson. “Bears and frogs and chickens and pigs hanging out together–kids related to that–being different and then accepted.” But Oz adds that they never wrote the characters and stories for the kids. At least half of the 235 million fans in the 1970s were adults.
A must for the legions of fans of the Muppets, Henson, Oz and these award-winning performers, Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, and the other series and films featuring a half-century of these beloved characters, Muppet Guys Talking: Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched will be released March 16, 2018.
For a taste of some of the fun to be had in Muppet Guys Talking, check out the website for the show, including Fran Brill discussing her worst day working with the Muppets, at MuppetGuysTalking.com. Here is a new trailer for the film, and some quick previews:
Sign up for updates and learn about purchasing the documentary at MuppetGuysTalking.com.