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MuppetFest Part II
In which the performers pick up their puppets to explain the origins of the characters.
© Jason Myers
June 27, 2002

In December 2001, to mark the 25th anniversary of the original Muppet Show, a veritable cornucopia of Muppet performers, writers, and creature creators gathered in Santa Monica, California, for the first ever MuppetFest. Now, months, later, since Film/DVD editor Jason Myers has finally gotten around to dusting off his mini tape recorder, you can finally get a listen to all the Muppety goodness.


MARTIN BAKER: Producer of The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, Muppets From Space, and The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland.

BILL BARRETTA: Voice of Johnny Fiama, Pepe the Prawn, Bobo the Bear, and David Hoggselhoff

KEVIN CLASH: Voice of Elmo and Clifford; voice of Baby Sinclair and Howard Handupme on Dinosaurs; and voice of Splinter in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I and II.

DAVE GOELZ: Voice of The Great Gonzo, Beauregard, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Zoot, and Sir Didymus from Labyrinth.

BRIAN HENSON: Jim Henson's son. Director of Muppet Treasure Island and The Muppet Christmas Carol. Executive producer of Muppets Tonight and Farscape. Voice of Sal Minella, Dr. Phil Van Neuter, Seymore, and Hoggle.

JERRY NELSON: Voice of Count von Count, Herry Monster, The Amazing Mumford, Sherlock Hemlock, Camilla, Sergeant Floyd Pepper, Robin the Frog, Crazy Harry, Dr. Julius Strangepork, Pops, J.P. Grosse, Lew Zealand, and the High Priest and Dying Emperor in The Dark Crystal. Random sci-fi appearance: as Darren Thomas in Robocop 2.

AMY VAN GILDER: Muppet designer for The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, Muppets Tonight, and The Muppet Movie.

PAUL WILLIAMS: Composer for The Muppet Movie and The Muppet Christmas Carol. Random sci-fi appearances: as Virgil in Battle for the Planet of the Apes and as the voice of The Penguin in Batman: The Animated Series.

STEVE WHITMIRE: Voice of Rizzo the Rat, Bean Bunny, and, since 1990, Kermit.

On perfectionism and The Muppet Show:

JERRY NELSON: All the cast and crew, we'd get together, and we'd have beer and wine, and it was the end of a hard day. We'd sit and relax, and have a couple of beers, a couple glasses of wine, and we'd basically talk about the show. And we'd talk about how we could make it better. And that was what went on.
And eventually something happened where we had to stop meeting in the studio, so I proposed that we take it around to everybody's favorite neighborhood watering hole, and continue to talk about it. It was not as good there, because, in the studio, we'd just come off the work, and we were all psyched about what we had done, and we talked about that, and maybe we should have done it better, or little things that we thought we could improve upon maybe the next time. But that was Jim's legacy that was living in us, because he was a perfectionist person. He was often dissatisfied. We'd all discuss what had happened, and it was a great bonding time.

DAVE GOELZ: Jim led by example. He was so gentle and kind. And he sought everybody out, to the degree that pretty soon the whole studio was a big team.

JERRY NELSON: In production, everybody wants to hit the same target

On Fraggle Rock:

STEVE WHITMIRE: There were a group of people who created [Fraggle Rock]. And these people got together, and they looked at all the performers who were going to work on the show, and they picked out our flaws, and made characters out of them. And they sort of wrote characters for us. And for years they denied it.

On The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth:

MARTIN BAKER: We went into pre-production in two movies back to back. We actually shot The Great Muppet Caper and the The Dark Crystal literally back to back. We pre-produced and then shot The Great Muppet Caper, and then within two months or so of wrapping that movie, we were actually in the studio with Dark Crystal, and were post-producing Muppet Caper while we were shooting Dark Crystal. It was absolutely crazy. And we all loved every minute of it.

Let's talk about Dark Crystal first. It was huge… a huge production.

KEVIN CLASH: It was wonderful, because you would go into the shop. And you would go downstairs, and all down the stairs and in the shop were all these creatures. All these different creatures that all the builders were building. It was unbelievable.

BRIAN HENSON: It was so wild. Originally, in the movie, only the Gelflings spoke English. And then everybody else spoke other languages. And it just so happens that Gelflings speak a language that we can understand. My father was very protective and controlling of this movie. Particularly because he had a good track record. So the studio said, "Sure, we'll let you make this movie, whatever it is, as long as you make a Muppet movie at the same time". But he showed it to the studio. They showed the movie. And the movie finished. And the board executives stood up and walked out of the theater. And that was when Frank and Jim thought that maybe more characters should speak English. It was a very experimental. It was ahead of its time.

MARTIN BAKER: Next we have Labyrinth, which is another epic.

KEVIN CLASH: I was asked to come over to help with the auditioning and the rehearsals. And I just wanted to be a performer. And that was my first film. And I actually worked closely with Brian on rehearsals and stuff like that, and I was very excited, because I had wanted to do Dark Crystal, but at the time I was doing Captain Kangaroo and The Great Space Coaster.

BRIAN HENSON: It was crazy with the goblins. There were sixty puppeteers, all with their little bit of schtick that they had worked out. And we started putting puppets all around, and when we took them away, the set looked like Swiss cheese. We filled these sets. The scene with David Bowie dancing around, that was the scene. We put so many puppets in that sequence. We put puppets as a sort of backdrop. And Frank or my father would get behind the camera, and say, "Okay, go." All these things were going on and everybody is going into their characters. And then they'd stop, and say, "okay." And there'd be more and more. Flying goblins and chickens.

How do you come up with the voices for characters?

JERRY NELSON: I'm a smash-and-grab sort of technique. I find that you have to see the puppet. And often what will happen… has happened… is they will give us a character and all we'll have is the script, and you have to go record something. That's very dangerous. You have nothing to indicate what you should do other than what the character is singing about or talking about. So that often turns out bad, and you might have to redraft something. But, generally, I look at the puppet, put it on, see what it looks like, and decide who it is.

Brian, how did you come up with Sal?

BRIAN HENSON: Sal was build by Jane Gootnick. And he was built for Muppet Treasure Island. We had a production meeting where we decided that the way the movie would start is that there would be a two-minute opening shot where we'd come all the way down from the sky and down through the mountains and then to the beach, and you'd travel around and see the animal puppets on this island singing about the evil first pirate… what was his name?… who had buried the original treasure. And we had to just come up with a bunch of animals.

This is one instance where the puppet was definitely first. It was a puppet way before there was a consideration of the character. We really fell in love with the stupid monkey. And there really wasn't any place for him in Treasure Island other than that very beginning. So we were in the workshop, trying to come up with characters for Muppets Tonight.


BRIAN HENSON: Yeah! It was a good show.

[Wild Applause]

BRIAN HENSON: So it was the first step, where we basically all get together and just pull puppets off the rack and try to come up with personalities. And we'd just all be pulling characters, and we'd do little things. And we'd go, "ah, that doesn't work!" And then Bill Barretta picked up a puppet that looked like Johnny Fiama but not Johnny Fiama yet. Bill picked up this puppet, and he had this idea for a character. Nobody was really paying attention to that. So I picked up Sal, and I just went in and he just basically did this:

SAL: Listen to Johnny Fiama!

BRIAN HENSON: And he started saying "This is Johnny Fiama." And that was his whole thing. He just wanted to be Johnny Fiama's monkey who basically was very loud-mouthed. And the other thing was… I think the reason why I liked the character so much was because generally I'm pretty quiet, and yet this character gets kind of crazy. So, for me he became a really good alter-ego as well. And when I was really stressed out at work, it would be great for me at the end of the day…. I think Sal's favorite line is "Come 'ere, you!"

On the Swedish Chef:

BRIAN HENSON: The Swedish Chef was always Frank Oz and my father. For those types of characters, there is a little bit deliberately of the hands leading. And… the Swedish Chef was just trying to keep up with the hands. Frank led the Swedish Chef. And that is really why it was funny, you know, because it was dangerous.

On Pepe the Prawn:

BILL BARRETTA: Pepe the Prawn is based on a person. My wife, who was born in Spain, had a relative. Her name was Maria Teresa. She was from Spain. She had this specific way of speaking, and I'd never heard anything like that before. And I think one of the first things she said to me was "You are wearing a nice jacket, okay." And I responded, "Okay." And she said something, "It's really funny, okay." And I'd say, "Uh…okay."

And she was a very funny lady. Mischevious. And she had a great laugh. And what was funny was, I couldn't understand most of what she said. She would start out saying things in English and then go into Spanish, and just start laughing. Anyway, that's kind of who gave me that voice.

After Muppet Treasure Island, we did started doing some workshops. And so there was this little character that was on this rack of puppets. And it wasn't really finished. [For Muppets Tonight], we wanted to do the big guy/little guy combo with Seymore [the Elephant] and Pepe. But originally Pepe was going to be a mouse. Then one of the puppet builders built this goofy little shrimp, and we all saw him and loved him. And so it was just based on a similar design from that. I'm not sure how… where did we come up with using a shrimp?

BRIAN HENSON: I think that we decided that the Elephant and the mouse was too easy. Plus, Pepe was just so funny.

On Gonzo:

DAVE GOELZ: At the time of the beginning of The Muppet Show, there were four sources for characters. One was Jim, another was the writers, another was the performers, and another was the workshop. Six or eight years before The Muppet Show, there was a sketch called The Santa Claus Switch with a bunch of Muppet characters, and it really sucked. For that show, there were a bunch of characters, and Jim came into the workshop late one night and he grabbed the scissors and some industrial foam, and created this guy. And he became the body of Gonzo.

When The Muppet Show was being written, Jerry Juhl had the idea of a character who comes on and does awful kinds of things. Yeah, we'll call him Gonzo. And Jim came along and said, "Dave, why don't you try it?" So that's how I ended up doing Gonzo. And I sort of invented the voice the day before I shot the first scene. So I thought of a voice. And I thought [doing voice that's vaguely Gonzo], I'll make a little nasal voice, but he's so grungy looking that [full Gonzo voice] I'll make him a little gravelly too.

And then, over the years, he started to evolve a little. First, he had no confidence at all. No self-confidence. I was working with Harvey Korman one week, and these special guest stars, and I felt pretty out of place. In the first season, the crew loved watching Jim and Frank and Jerry perform. They'd been around a long time. They were very funny, and played to the crew, and the crew paid attention, and then, when I came up, I'd hear these newspapers go up. And it felt so awful, to hear all those newspapers go up.

Finally, one time I got a laugh out of the crew. Somebody had to say something and Gonzo says, "No." And Jim said, "Make it bigger." I said [in Gonzo voice] "Nooo!" He said, "Make it bigger." So I just went over the top. "Nooo!" and the crew laughed. It wasn't funny, but they were laughing. It was better than the newspapers. I was just lucky that it was a slow newsday, but I got really excited.

So I said, "Jim, I need a way for Gonzo to get excited." So we put in this eye mechanism. And that alone let me go back the second season, and build on the laugh that I got the first season. And I got another laugh the second season.

Time went on, and I got older and had children, and then Jerry Juhl, wrote Gonzo as Charles Dickens in The Muppet Christmas Carol, and it was completely unlike anything that this character had done before. And Rizzo came with him, and Rizzo became the silly one, and Gonzo was the soulful one. From the very beginning, when we did The Muppet Movie, Paul Williams thought that Gonzo was soulful, and wrote that beautiful song for him ["I'm Going to Go Back There Someday"].

On Floyd Pepper:

JERRY NELSON: Well, my wife would say that I'm the laziest man on earth. I do everything I can to keep that working. I may be lazy, but I'm loud. We had the band. Floyd was a member of the band. I know Amy worked on Floyd. They were musicians, and I'm sort of a pretend-to-be musician. So I thought, "the voice has to be cool." [in floyd voice] "Now, Zoot doesn't say too much, but he's more funny than I am."

Steve, what's it like to be Kermit?

STEVE WHITMIRE: It's great to be Kermit, because of the reaction of people. And he has such a longtime history. So many people love him. Especially the kids. But probably my favorite is Rizzo. He's so much more fun, you know. I mean Kermit's so much fun too. Don't get me wrong.

BRIAN HENSON: Rizzo is funny. Rizzo is the dark Steve.

Have you ever switched characters?

KEVIN CLASH: On Sesame Street, [some guy whose name I couldn't decipher], who actually originated Telly Monster… he actually did Elmo also. He did a couple of shows with Elmo, and went off to pursue his writing and acting career, and then Richard Hunt took over Elmo. Richard loved loud, very crazy kind of characters. He didn't like doing Elmo, because Elmo was this little young monster. [He came to me]. He had Elmo, and he said, "Come up with a voice," and I said [In Elmo voice] "Hello." He took me into the producer of Sesame Street at the time, and said, "Listen… I don't need the character. I don't want to do the character. So, listen, Kevin picked up the voice." And I did it for her, and she said, "Okay, I don't care." So, here I am.

ELMO: Any questions for Elmo?

Elmo, when is your next movie?

ELMO: Elmo's next movie? Elmo doesn't know.

FLOYD PEPPER: Heyyyy, man! Nice to see your faces in this places. Yeah.

Floyd, you got any gigs coming up?

FLOYD: Yeah, I'm doing something tomorrow night. Come on down.

Are you still tight with Janice?

FLOYD: Well, Janice ain't so tight anymore.

[Shocked Laughter]

ELMO: Elmo doesn't understand.

RIZZO: You guys doing all right? If you feel anything run across your feet, it's just my friends checking you out. Hey, Floyd.

FLOYD: Hey, Ratzo.

SAL: Johnny Fiama, everybody!

JOHNNY FIAMA [singing]: You make me feel so young. You make me feel like Spring is sprung.

Clifford, how did you like working on Muppets Tonight?

CLIFFORD: I had a great time. Especially with the frog. Aw, he's cool. He's a frog, but he's cool.

Can anyone do impressions?

ELMO: Elmo has one. [Laughs like Ernie]

GONZO: I heard Floyd do an impersonation of Robin the Frog

FLOYD: Okay. [sings in Robin's voice] Halfway down the stairs is a place where I sit.

PEPE THE PRAWN: 'ello, 'ello, 'ello, 'ello, 'ello, 'ello, 'ello, 'ello, 'ello, 'ello, 'ello.

GONZO: You don't have to say hello to every single person.

PEPE: 'ello, 'ello, 'ello, 'ello, 'ello, 'ello, 'ello, 'ello, 'ello, 'ello, 'ello….

Gonzo, you seem to have a very special relationship with Camilla.Why do you have such a thing for chickens?

GONZO: That is such a rude question. How'd you like it if I asked you a question about your personal life. I'm just an alien dating poultry, do you mind?

PEPE [looking down at Bill Baretta]: Be very careful with your hand.

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